Did you know there are only three key factors to keeping your horse not only surviving winter, but possibly thriving as well? Although these three are quite simple by nature, there is nothing simple about taking care of our beloved equines when the weather becomes extreme. Consistency is key and even that is sometimes hard to do in the arctic-like climate of our mitten state.
Water. Forage. Salt. For most horses, providing the proper amounts of water, forage and salt will keep them hydrated, fed and warm. Of course if your equine is a hard-keeper, athlete, or metabolically challenged, there are additional steps to your winter husbandry routine. For this discussion we will keep things in general situations, and as always, seek the guidance of your veterinarian whenever a question regarding your horse’s health arises.
The Importance of Water
Water is essential for body fluid balance, digestion, and gastrointestinal health. The average water requirement for an adult horse (1,100 pounds) fed alfalfa-timothy or alfalfa hay is 10-12 gallons. Water intake depends on environmental conditions, as well as, duration and intensity of the work. Of course, fitness and acclimation of the horse to the current weather also affects intake. Light activity causes a minimal increase in water intake.
Managing water is probably the toughest winter job and rightly so! Hitting the sweet spot of 10-12 gallons when water troughs/lines may be frozen and the water source is much colder than ideal, is a daunting task. Let’s examine the facts first.
According to research, horses prefer water between 45-60 degrees. Maintaining their H2O requirements in the winter becomes increasingly more difficult the lower the temps drop. Due to the diet being primarily dry forage (average hay moisture is 10-15%), actual water intake is higher in the winter than a horse being out on pasture where moisture is usually much higher.
The type of water bowl and watering method can influence duration of drinking and volume of water consumed. Research shows that when horses were offered water from buckets and auto-drinkers, horses received 98 percent of their daily intake from buckets and only 2 percent from a pressure-valve bowl or a float-valve bowl. This is perhaps surprising news for a lot of horse owners. Another thing to note is that horses usually drink when they eat if water is readily available. There are definitely pro/cons with each system though. While buckets are preferred by horses, the water temp may not be as enticing as the warmed water from an automatic waterer.
When the water source is frozen, offering water in voluntary amounts provides horses with their maintenance needs as long as sufficient water is provided. Not only are buckets preferred by horses but, along with bulk water tanks and automatic waterers, research has also documented they are associated with significantly lower risks of colic.
Tips to Get Horses to Drink More Water
So how do we entice our horses to drink enough in the winter? While many experts can agree on a variety of options, be careful eliciting the help from AI Chat. I did for the sake of curiosity and was alarmed at some of the misleading information it provided.
Below are some proven ways to benefit your horse when trying to increase water intake:
1). Provide a 5 gallon bucket of lukewarm water once or twice a day and monitor their intake.
2). Soak chopped forage, forage pellets, and/or feed in lukewarm water. Start with a small amount of water to get your horse used to the wet feed and gradually add more each day. You will soon discover the consistency your horse prefers.
3). Offer loose salt in their feed to increase their thirst. Never add salt to their water source though, as this may turn off a finicky horse from drinking at all. The average horse needs 1-2 tablespoons of salt per day.
A common question I get is, “What salt is best for my horse?” The answer is, “Whatever kind they like.” Whether you like the ease of offering a Plain Salt Brick or hanging the Himalayan rock salt on a rope, it’s important to always have salt readily available and out of the elements. For larger herds, I recommend loose salt from Redmond Rock Salt that comes in a 25 pound bag. It’s economical and easy to feed.
The good news is a warm-up is on the horizon and the first day of Spring is only 2 months away! Of course, Mother Nature may still have a few tricks still up her sleeve but hopefully we have seen the worst if it.
Jennifer McClelland is a certified equine nutrition advisor. As a life-long horse lover and experienced breeder, her passion is developing feed programs to maximize each horse’s genetic potential with proper nutrition. Visit her website farmhousefeed.com to learn more.