You can lead a horse to water, and here's how to encourage it to drink.
Drinking enough water is important for everyone, regardless of species. It is good to be aware of how much water your horse should be drinking, and how much they are actually drinking. For the average horse at rest, they require 5 to 10 gallons of water each day as a minimum. Remember that as the temperature increases, exercise level increases, and feeds become drier, the amount of water your horse needs each day will increase. If you are aware of your horse’s normal baseline water consumption, you can know when he isn’t drinking as much as normal. If your horse isn’t drinking enough, there are some things that you can do to encourage drinking more water.
The first step is to make sure the buckets or water tank are clean! This is a simple step that we sometimes forget to do. Scrubbing out the bucket so the water stays fresh and clean is a great way to make sure they are drinking the water they need. Whenever you are adding fresh water, check the bucket or water tank to ensure it is clean with no settled dirt, feed, manure, or algae growth. If the bucket is obviously dirty scrub it out; otherwise scrubbing the tank once a week is an important step to keeping the water source clean for your horse.
In the wintertime, it is important to check that your horses still have access to water and that it has not iced over. Research has found that horses prefer water with a temperature from 45 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. You can use stock tank heaters or heated buckets if safe electricity is available to keep the water warm. Make sure the device is grounded to prevent stray current from electrifying the water. If the heater is not using a grounded plug-in, the horse could get shocked when they touch the water which would prevent them from drinking. If a heater is not an option, make sure that the ice is broken out and the ice chunks removed from the water every time you feed. Another option is to add heated water to the buckets to keep them thawed longer.
If your horse has free access to fresh water and is still not drinking enough, there are a few other steps to try. Make a trace mineral salt block available for free choice salt consumption. Eating salt will increase the drive to drink. Sprinkling 1 to 2 ounces of table salt on the hay can make them thirstier. Gradually build up to the full amount of salt, so the horse has time to adjust to the taste.
Another thing to try for increasing water consumption is to add flavoring to the water. This is also a great thing to do when traveling with your horse as the water can taste differently, such as chlorinated municipal water, and your horse may not want to drink it. Different options for flavoring include apple juice, Gatorade, or Kool-Aid. Start with a small amount of flavoring and gradually increase the amount so your horse has time to adjust to the flavor. If your horse is picky about their water and doesn’t like those flavors, you can put one or two handfuls of the grain they are currently eating in the bottom of the water bucket instead.
A different variation of water additives is to add one to two cups of table salt to a 5 gallon bucket of water. There must be a bucket of fresh water available to the horse at the same time. The salted water will make the horse thirsty and the fresh water is needed to rehydrate.
Finally feeding electrolytes can stimulate drinking. These are generally used for restoring any electrolyte imbalances or deficiencies that may be present, such as replenishing electrolytes lost through sweating. Electrolytes can be used as a top dressing on the feed, and make sure there is a fresh water available wherever they are eating.
These are some easy ways to encourage your horse to drink more and stay hydrated!
-Megan Seamans, veterinary student extern