Horses and Dehydration in Cold Weather

by Caitlyn Andrews February 12, 2016

Dehydration and Horses in Winter Cold Weather

Imagine a horse that's at risk for dehydration. If you pictured a horse drenched in sweat after a hard, summer workout then you wouldn't be alone. This is what comes to mind to a lot of people when they think of dehydrated horses. And, you're right. Excessive sweating can cause dehydration. However, both idle and active horses also risk dehydration during the cold, winter months.

Why is dehydration a concern in the winter? When the temperature of water drops, so does a horse's desire to drink. This means if you're breaking the ice in water buckets and tanks for your horses, then they may not be drinking enough. Though horses have been known to consume snow and cut back on drinking water, it should never be relied on as your horse's water source. 

Two common complications that arise from horses not getting enough water during cold weather:

  1. Decreased feed intake. Even if you are giving your horse plenty of quality feed and nutrients a horse will eat less if it isn't drinking enough water. Horses use saliva to soften their food as it's chewed and swallowed. A dehydrated horse won't produce enough saliva to eat the proper amount of feed. A horse that has decreased his feed intake may not have enough energy to keep warm.
  2. Impaction colic. A more serious result of dehydration is impaction colic. When a horse becomes dehydrated they cannot move matter along their intestinal tract properly and this can cause an intestinal blockage or impaction. A horse won't become impacted from one day of insufficient water, but usually over several days or weeks.

These are just two of the complications that can occur from dehydration. Weight loss, lethargy, and decreased manure production are some of the other issues that could arise.

Test Your Horse for Dehydration

Here are some basic tests you can perform if you suspect your horse is dehydrated:

  1. Simple visual check. Look at your horse's eyes and gums. If the gums are dry or excessively red, this could indicate dehydration. Sunken in or dull eyes are another indicator.
  2. Skin elasticity test. Fold a section of skin on your horse's lower chest or neck. When you let it go it should spring back into place in no longer than 2 seconds. If the horse is dehydrated the skin will stay up in a ridge or go back slowly.
  3. Capillary refill test. Press your thumb on the gum of your horse's upper jaw. The gum will turn white under your thumb. When you release the color should return within 2 seconds. If it takes longer, your horse is likely dehydrated.

Tips for Keeping Horses Hydrated in Winter

  1.  Provide heated water buckets and tanks. Not only will this allow the horse access to the water at all times, not just when you are able to break the ice, but the warmer water will encourage your horse to drink more.
  2. Provide free choice salt. Providing free choice salt either by mixing in feed or giving salt blocks will stimulate the horse to drink more.

Water consumption is just as important for horses in the winter as it is in the hotter summer months. If your horse appears to be severely dehydrated or is showing signs of complications such as colic you should always consult your vet.

Caitlyn Andrews
Caitlyn Andrews


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