Keep your horse hydrated in the winter


Most of us are awesomely aware of TPR – your temperature, pulse, and respiration. It’s vital for us to know what the normal, everyday baseline is for our horses. As we monitor these vitals daily, we can be alerted to problems before we see any other signs of them.  Its also imperative to keep your horse hydrated in the winter – and to know how to check hydration levels.  I bring this up because, in the summer, we can have dehydrated horses in hot conditions due to temperatures and sweating. In the winter decreased water intake can also lead to dehydration, and if your horse sweats in his blankets or winter coat, this adds to the mix.


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Check the baseline hydration for your horse


  • The pinch test (or skin-tent test) is a common way to check for hydration.  Simply pinch a bit of skin high on the neck or the point of shoulder area. A well-hydrated horse will snap his skin back quickly. A dehydrated horse takes a few seconds for the skin to be flat again.


  • You also need to look at your horse’s gums. Tacky or dry gums indicate dehydration.  Gums should also be pink, and feeling them is a bit more accurate than the skin-tent test.  Aging makes skin lose elasticity, and things don’t always snap back as they once did. 


  • A capillary refill test (press your thumb into the gums and notice how long it takes for the pink color to return) is also a way to check.  As you press your thumb into the gums, you will leave a white thumbprint. Count the seconds for the pink color to return – it should be about two seconds. 


  • If you think your horse is becoming dehydrated, please call your veterinarian for help. It may be very simple to rectify, or an IV may be necessary.



horse drinking from heated bucket in winter

Clean water helps, too! This portable tub has a heating element.


Severe dehydration can lead to other problems.


  • Lethargy, increased heart rates, depression, and colic can result from dehydration.  Impaction colics are related to dehydration, and often quite painful for horses. 


  • In the winter, horses typically drink less than in the summer, for a few reasons. Often, their buckets or troughs are just plain frozen over and they can’t drink. You may be interested to know this about horses – they prefer to drink the coldest water available, but they do so in the smallest volumes.


  • Warm water is consumed in much greater volumes, but won’t be touched if cold water is available. Because horses like to give us even more things to think about during horrid weather.


Get your winter water as warm as you can, without giving your horse an option for cold water.


  • You have a few ways to do this, there are lots and lots of contraptions out there to help keep your buckets and tanks ice-free and even warm. A word of warning – there are lots of models of plug-in water heaters that look like a few heater coils at the end of a long wand that you drop into a bucket. These are dangerous to use unattended, and really are more for heating water for bathing and cleaning, not drinking. Because they also stick out of the bucket, your horse could play/eat/yank on the cord. Never let your horse even be around one of these. Similar designs that rest on the bottom of troughs, buckets, and automatic waterers are more appropriate.


horse drinking from automatic waterer in a stall

Many automatic waterers are super at keeping water warm.


  • For buckets, you can try bucket insulating “cozy” type warmers. These work by trapping heat in the bucket, so start with warm water. They don’t require electricity (safe) and can be easily washed in the laundry.


  • For your water troughs and tanks, there are lots of de-icing products out there, be sure to get one that has a “thermostatically controlled” off switch. Most are designed to be at the bottom of the tank, away from nosy horses. Auto-off features are essential.


  • You can also find muck tub-style buckets that have heating elements. These are fantastic if you can run the cord outside of a fence or out a window so no teeth start to play with them.


  • Electrolytes are another way to encourage drinking, as is adding a flavor to your horse’s water.  It could be apple juice, or a handful or his feed.  Always offer fresh water alongside flavored water, just in case your cooking skills are not appreciated. 


frozen horse water trough



You can also read this peach of an article about tempting your horse to drink water!


What do you do in the winter for bucket warming and keeping your horse hydrated?



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