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Wintertime presents challenges and changes to your horse’s nutrition, exercise, workload and water intake. One of the biggest challenges is managing your horse’s water consumption to ensure optimal health. The risk of impaction colic can be decreased dramatically by increasing winter water intake. A horse who is not drinking enough water can begin to experience dehydration and impaction colic in as few as 48 hours.

How Much Water?

Water consumption can be easy to overlook. During the warm seasons, horses may have access to pastures with forage that contain 60 percent to 80 percent moisture which goes toward their daily water requirements. Winter feedstuffs, such as grain and hay, contain less than 15 percent moisture. A typical 1,100-pound horse will need to consume four to nine gallons daily. If fed only dry hay, water intake will double. Lactating mares and horses who are exercised will need to increase their water consumption by 50 percent to 200 percent.

So what is the best way to tell if a horse is getting the proper amount of water? In general, there are two simple tests you can do to assess how well your horse is hydrated—the skin pinch and the capillary refill.

horse drinking from waterer

As a horse becomes dehydrated, the skin elasticity decreases. The skin pinch involves taking a fold of skin from the neck, just above the shoulder, and lifting it up. If your horse is hydrated, it should snap back in place quickly. If your horse’s skin tents up or doesn’t snap back, then this is a symptom of dehydration.

The second test is the capillary refill. You should lift the upper lip of your horse and do a visual inspection of the gums about the teeth. The gums should be pink, shiny, moist and slippery. Then, you should press your thumb against their gums, release your thumb and count how long it takes for the gums to go from a pale, white color to their normal pink color. Normal capillary refill time is under two seconds.

How to Get Your Horse to Drink More Water

During the winter, horses have a natural tendency to drink less water in colder temperatures, so you need to be diligent with providing fresh, clean water at the right temperature.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine found that during cold weather horses drank almost 40 percent more water per day if they were given warm (45 F to 65 F) water instead of ice cold water. Keep your water warm and your horse will drink more, it’s that simple.

Easy Solutions for Every Horse Owner This Winter

The easiest and hassle-free option to consider is an automatic waterer. Top of the line waterers feature rugged, insulated polyethylene or stainless-steel units with designs that seal cold air away from the high capacity valves. Options such as thermostatically controlled heat, self-regulated heaters, immersion heaters and digital water meters are typically available.

The best-selling automatic waterers are made by Ritchie Industries, Inc., the company that invented automatic waterers in 1921. The Classic Equine by Ritchie waterers are specifically engineered to meet the rigorous standards that horse owners demand.

“There’s nothing worse than breaking ice or doing maintenance on a waterer when it is freezing outside,” said Tyler Yantis, sales manager at Ritchie Industries, Inc. “The Classic Equine by Ritchie products offer a durable, quality fount that is energy efficient and eliminates the hassle of most common maintenance chores. Digital water meter options are available on every model because we understand how important water is to overall horse health.”

For more information on Ritchie waterers, visit classicequinebyritchie.com.

The other route to go is to clean and fill buckets several times a day. This can be labor intensive and still requires bucket heaters in cold climates. Larger stock tanks made from structural foam with optional heaters are also an option. Many horse owners avoid floating heaters without guards because playful horses have a knack for tossing the floating heaters out of the tank, leaving you with a large ice block.

Before using any de-icer/heater, make sure to inspect it carefully for worn wires or other damage, and be sure it is working properly. Safety is paramount—the last thing you want is for the horse to experience a mild shock that will scare them away from the water.

Conclusion

Good wintertime horse management means providing your horse with an ample supply of fresh, clean water at all times. Remember, horses will not break ice to drink. It is best practice to provide water at a temperature between 45 F and 65 F to encourage adequate water consumption. Monitor water consumption to reduce the risk of impaction colic and if any problems arise, consult your veterinarian.

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