Summer is here, and much of the continental U.S. has been under excessive heat warnings due to early season heat waves. When the temperatures soar, and the humidity rises, it is essential that your horse has access to as much clean, fresh water that they can consume to ensure they remain hydrated and healthy.
On average, an adult horse that weighs close to 1000 pounds (454 kg) will consume 3.6-7.1 gallons (13.5-27 liters) daily under normal conditions of weather and health. Equine athletes, mares that are lactating, and horses that are living in areas with high temperatures require even higher intakes of water. Ensuring that your horse can drink as much as needed is an essential part of helping them maintain their health. A variety of strategies can be used to help increase water intake in horses that need to drink more water.
Horses are offered water in a variety of ways. Automatic waters, buckets and troughs are among the most common used in stall and pasture settings. It is ideal to provide at least two sources of water for your horse, ensuring that water will still be available even if there is some problem with one of the sources of water (bucket being tipped and emptied, problems with water delivery in the automatic waterer system). Some horses may drink more water from an open trough type of waterer compared to an automatic waterer that has a small bowl. Owners have reported that some horses drink more from certain types of buckets than others. If you have a picky drinker, try offering them water from a variety of sources, but always make sure that the type of bucket is safe for your horse to prevent injuries from metal bucket handles and other metal hardware that may be in your horse’s stall or pasture.
Some horses may be enticed to drink more water if it is flavored. If you choose this strategy for your horse ALWAYS make sure you also provide at least one source of unflavored water in case your horse decides that they do not like the flavor of the water.
Water can be flavored with a variety of different additives including electrolytes, a small handful of sweet feed (“sweet tea” for those of you in the South), and small volumes (1 cup to 2-3 gallons of water) of apple or cranberry juice or Gatorade. If your horse has some complication from insulin dysregulation and cannot tolerate additional sugar in their ration, be cautious with the type of flavoring that you use. Always check with your veterinarian if you are unsure if a type of flavoring is appropriate for your horse before you add the sweet feed, juice or Gatorade to the water.
Supplementing with Salt
Often, horses will respond by increasing their water intake when they are supplemented with a small volume of salt in their ration. Diseases that require sodium restriction are rare in horses but you should always check with your veterinarian before using any additional salt in your horse’s ration.
To start, add 1-2 teaspoons of salt (sodium chloride, NaCl) as a top dressing to pellets, a commercial feed, or grain, 1-2 times daily then monitor your horse to see if the additional salt has resulted in an increase in water intake. If it has, and if your horse is better hydrated, you can increase the volume of salt gradually over 7-10 days up to a total of 1-2 tablespoons of salt daily. This is the maximum volume of salt that should be used daily. If you find that your horse is not responding to the salt supplementation by drinking more water, you should stop supplementing with the additional salt and try another strategy to increase water intake instead of salt.
There are certain times when salt supplementation should not be used. If your horse will be trailered for a long distance without access to water, do not use salt supplementation because your horse will not be able to drink water and this strategy could result in complications with sodium regulation in the body. If your horse has any disease that alters their ability to regulate electrolytes, like renal disease, the safety of salt supplementation must be discussed with your veterinarian before any sodium is added to the ration.
With good care, and plenty of water, your horse should be able to manage the summer heat without complications from dehydration. Remember your veterinarian is always your best resource for optimal feeding and fluid management for your horse.