Keep your horse hydrated during the winter with these tried and true watering techniques.
To some, winter horse care means layering blankets and setting the 16-hour schedule for stall lights. For others, it’s about prep work and supplementing before the mercury drops so horses are ready for falling snow and whipping wind.
Winter management varies from place to place, and depends heavily on environment and location. Sometimes land isn’t available to keep horses outside, or a competitive show schedule requires athletes to stay indoors. However, to help ensure a horse makes it to spring healthy, one thing is universal: horses need access to clean, unfrozen water. Without it, dehydration can set in and cause impaction colic, among many other health issues.
“Water is key. I think we underestimate the effect water plays on the metabolic systems of the horse,” says Britt Stubblefield, DVM, of Rocky Top Veterinary Service in Guffey, Colorado.
He explains that access to water is especially important for horses when there are extreme changes in the environment, such as fluctuating temperatures as fall fades out and winter creeps in.
“In Colorado, I see more colics during the time periods when we have drastic temperature changes and drastic environmental changes,” he says.
To stay healthy, a horse requires about 12 gallons of water a day. However, as temperatures drop, consumption of water goes down, as well. Stubblefield explains that because horses aren’t sweating and burning as many calories from the heat of the sun, they tend to drink less water in the winter. As a result, the dehydrated tissues in the body absorb water from the bowel and lower the amount of mucous and fluid that secrete into it. This combination is a recipe for impaction colic, a blockage in the intestine that causes severe pain and discomfort.
And, while fiber is required for the large intestine to properly function, too much stemmy, poor-quality hay without sufficient water to wash it down can cause a digestive “backup” that requires immediate attention from a veterinarian.
Dehydration also plays an important role in appetite, and without adequate water consumption, saliva production is slowed. If a horse isn’t able to produce enough saliva to soften food, it makes digestion that much more difficult.
The good news is horses are naturally well equipped for winter and usually require only minimal assistance to stay healthy and hydrated.
“Horses are very resourceful animals, much more than cattle,” says Stan Weaver, who owns and operates Weaver Quarter Horses in Big Sandy, Montana.
His 15,000-acre cattle ranch is home to 118 horses. The American Quarter Horse Association Ranching Heritage Breeder’s family has been raising horses for more than 120 years and is familiar with Montana’s harsh winters.
“The wind will whip those ridges bare [of snow] and that’s where the horses will be,” Weaver says. “They’ll be wherever the open ground is.”
He says that his horses are hardly ever affected by colic in the winter, a fact he attributes to his stock’s outdoor lifestyle.
Weaver explains that because his land provides plenty of access to natural water sources, there isn’t a whole lot he needs to do to encourage consumption.
“We have real good water springs that run all the time. They’re developed springs and tanks. I do keep mineral out all the time and I do keep salt out there all the time,” he says.
Salt provides important vitamins and minerals for the horses, and also triggers thirst.
Jennifer King, DVM, of Central Washington Equine Clinic in Yakima, Washington, agrees that salt is necessary. King, who grew up outside Coulee City, Washington, on a beef cattle and Quarter Horse ranch, says salt is the most important thing to help prevent dehydration.
“If you’re worried your horse isn’t drinking enough, add a couple of tablespoons of loose table salt to his grain,” King says. “Having a mineral salt and supplement available is a good idea, too. Just be sure to look at ingredients in supplements you’re already giving.”
Longhorn Cattle Company and Quarter Horse Ranch owner Dan Akehurst winters his horses the same as Weaver. The Ellensburg, Washington, rancher, who is also an AQHA Ranching Heritage Breeder, keeps his mares out with his cattle, and he’s seen hardly any health problems.
“We see way less colic [in the winter] if they’re eating outside,” he says. “To me, it seems like there’s more moisture in the feed. If you’re feeding dry feed in the stall, you’ll have a lot more colic than if they were out. They’ll eat a certain amount of snow with the grass, too. So they get moisture and the grass is basically damp or wet because they dig it out of the snow.
“We have a creek running through most of the place where they can water. And if it’s froze up and we have to move them, then we furnish a tank.”
King notes that snow is not a sufficient source of water in the winter, as it takes an unwarranted amount of energy to warm the snow—energy that ought to be used for generating body warmth. What’s more, a horse would have to consume six times as much snow to provide an equal amount of water.
Still, sometimes it’s not feasible to keep horses out on pasture all winter with access to lakes, ponds and free-flowing creeks. Horses shown year-round usually must be kept inside. Plus, a combination of blankets and stall lights keeps coats short and slick for upcoming competitions.
No stranger to the cold is Amy Marx of Marx Performance Horses. She and her husband, Cody, train reiners, rope horses and working cow horses at their 24-stall barn in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, where they’ve been for the past six years.
“There’s usually a stretch in January where we’re below zero with 20-below wind chills,” says Amy. “The show barn is heated and warm, so we don’t have to worry a whole lot about [freezing water]. Any livestock tanks for cattle or horses outside, we have to run stock tank heaters on those in the winter. We lease the facility we’re at; otherwise, we would have automatic waterers with heaters built in.”
For horses kept in a barn during the winter, keeping tabs on how much water they drink is important because the hay being consumed is typically coarse and dry, and can easily cause colic. In fact, roughages commonly fed in the winter contain less than 20 percent moisture, compared to the 75 percent or more water content in spring and summer grass.
“Horses need to drink more in the winter because what they’re eating is dried,” King says. “So if they’re out on pasture, they get a lot of moisture from the grass. And in the winter they don’t have that option.”
Amy explains that inside the barn they use standard water buckets, and refill them every morning and evening. This allows her to keep track of how much water the horses are drinking. For the couple of horses kept outside in nearby pastures, they use stock tank heaters.
“I find that a good temperature range [for the heater] is between 45 and 65 degrees. That’s a broad range, but it’s well above freezing,” advises King.
She explains that you may have to experiment with temperature because some horses have a preference on water temperature. For example, as a horse ages, teeth can become more sensitive, and bitter cold water can discourage drinking. Other times, horses simply prefer sipping warmer water in cold weather. Water heaters should be tested periodically to ensure they are properly working. A stray voltage problem could zap a horse’s muzzle while it’s sipping and scare it from drinking.
Horses are naturally built to withstand the cold, so they don’t need to be overly pampered in the winter. And while providing quality roughage and a salt source is a necessity to their wintertime regime, access to palatable, clean water is of utmost importance to weathering winter.
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This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Western Horseman.