Preventing Dehydration in Horses

by Matt

Well, the official kick-off to summer has come and gone, and although some spots in the country might still have snow on the ground, there’s no question that most of us will be seeing hot weather very soon — if not already!

It’s nice to put away the blankets and jackets, of course, but hot weather comes with its own set of challenges for equine health.

One problem that often crops up in the summertime is dehydration. Keeping horses hydrated can be quite the challenge. (You can lead a horse to water, but if the horse doesn’t feel like drinking it… yeah.) Careful monitoring and prudent intervention of your horse’s hydration level is just as important as any other aspect of healthcare.

Checking hydration levels can range from the simple skin-pinch to an all-around vitals checklist, observing capillary refill time, the color mucous membranes, and gut sounds.

Severe dehydration will depress all of your horse’s vitals, resulting in slow replenishment of blood to the gums after a finger has been pressed agains them, red to reddish-purple inner eyelids or gums, and reduced gut sounds.

But foryour every day needs, coming out to find your horse sweating in the pasture or after a tough ride, the skin-pinch is usually sufficient. Just grab an inch or so of skin on the horse’s neck between your thumb and forefinger, pull it out to create a little ridge, and let go. A healthy, hydrated horse will have elastic skin that pops right back into place. A horse who could use some fluids will keep that little ridge in his skin. The longer it stays out, the more dehydrated your horse.

Salt, salt, salt. Although electrolytes are supposed to keep your horse drinking, most horses on a commercially prepared concentrate feed and good hay are already receiving the levels of minerals and electrolytes that they need. What they really need is salt. Free-choice salt is a good start, but make sure they’re actually consuming it. In hot weather, a horse’s need for salt jumps from one ounce per day to three or four ounces. If the salt lick isn’t getting regular love, consider just adding it to their feed.

Add electrolytes for hard work and hot weather. Let’s say you’re at a horse show on a hot weekend. Horses who are bouncing from class to class and under saddle most of the day are missing out on their usual hay ration. They’re in danger of losing minerals much faster than they can replenish them in such a situation. That’s when electrolyte supplements come in handy. Added to feed, they’ll replace the lost minerals and speed up recovery time from a hard, hot day.

Trick your horse into hydrating, especially when trailering. If you’re going to be traveling in the heat, your horse is at an increased risk of dehydration. The stress of traveling, combined with the heat of the metal trailer, is already hard on your horse. The lack of water, plus strange-tasting new water at your destination, make it more difficult to keep them hydrated.

Get some water into your horse beforehand with a delicious, sloppy, over-wet porridge. Beet pulp, alfalfa pellets, chopped roughage, whatever your horse is used to eating, mixed up extra-wet, will get fluids into your horse. This is a great option mid-journey as well, if you’re going on a particularly long trip.

Teaching your horse to drink while you’re riding is possible. Especially for those long trail rides or endurance rides, convincing your horse that he can drink from something instead of just his favorite monogrammed bucket in his stall is a great tool. How do you do it? It’s just like anything else: present the horse with the opportunity to do the right thing, and then out-wait your horse. If you hang out long enough at the water trough or a stream, most horses will just dip their head and get a drink after a while. Eventually, some horses grow so fond of getting a drink that they stop every time they see a puddle and insist on taking a sip. You’ve created a monster, sure, but at least he’s well hydrated!

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3 responses on “Preventing Dehydration in Horses

  1. Kimberly says:

    Other riders suggest the you can let the horse feed while riding. It will make them stay hydrated and full.

  2. Tehya says:

    I need help. My friend is having problems with her horse that has been loyal to her forever and all of the sudden she started scratching her stomach and we don’t know what to think please help!

    -A friend

    • Matt Johnson says:

      I’m sorry to hear that your horse’s mare is suddenly scratching her stomach. A sudden issue like that can be brought on by many things, from an allergy to hives to a bug bite. I would suggest closely inspecting the area to see if you can find the cause, and if not, do schedule an appointment with your vet to get to the root of the issue.

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