Author: Susan Garey, Extension Agent with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension

Horse owners and caretakers pay careful attention to the quantity and quality of water that horses consume during the hot summer months. However, water consumption during the winter months is just as critical to our horses’ health.

The body of an adult horse is approximately 62-68% water (about 70% water in foals). Proper hydration is essential to the horse’s fluid balance. Among the most important considerations for adequate water consumption is water’s role in keeping the horse’s digestive tract moving and functioning properly. Adequate winter-water intake can reduce the risk of impaction colic. The occurrence of colic increases between December and March, mainly because horses don’t drink enough water in winter months (Swinker, 2012).

We can help our horses maintain adequate hydration in the winter by providing them with plenty of clean, fresh water that is the proper temperature. Research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania during cold weather in the mid 1990’s demonstrated the effects of water temperature on water consumption in horses. This research showed that during cold weather, horses offered warm water consume significantly more water (as much as a 40% increase) than if they were offered only ambient, near freezing water.

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Heated buckets and stock tank heaters are good options to help keep your water temperature warm in the winter and encourage horses to drink. For owners who have 3- 5 horses, providing a heated bucket or tank heater is certainly less expensive than the cost of one vet call to treat an impaction colic. Remember that stock tank heaters should be plugged into a GFCI protected outlet to prevent your horse from potentially getting shocked. Generally speaking the plug type stock tank heaters are safer than the floating style, especially in a plastic tank. If you have a horse that likes to paw in its water tank even in the dead of winter, you may need to install a plywood lid to limit access or a metal grate that sits over the plug heating element to protect it from being damaged or broken.

If tank heaters and water bucket heaters aren’t an option for your management system, then consider another interesting observation that resulted from the University of Pennsylvania drinking water temperature study. Researchers observed that stalled horses in the study that were fed hay and grain tended to do most of their drinking within 3 hours after feeding. Knowing this implies the necessity to coordinate your watering to coincide with this period of time when horses tend to consume the most water. This will also allow you to keep the water temperature warmer than if it is left sitting in the bucket or tank all day long.

During the winter months, as recommended during other times of the year, water should always be available to ensure the horse’s daily maintenance water requirement of 8-10 gallons is met. This means horses housed in stalls should have access to two, 5 gallon buckets. Additionally, a stock tank needs to be large enough to comfortably provide each horse it serves with a minimum of 10 gallons of water per horse.

An easy way to warm up stall water buckets is to carry gallon jugs full of very hot water from your house and add it to the bucket [or tank] water, remembering to always warm both buckets. Warming stall water has an especially profound positive effect for our older horses.

Further recommendations to help keep your horses properly hydrated in winter months include providing free choice salt, and feeding a diet that is largely forage based. Free-choice access to a trace mineral or salt block will increase water consumption. High forage diets contain more water than a diet that is mainly grain based. However, harvested forages such as hay are drier than pasture grasses, and therefore adequate water consumption is extremely important during this time of year when horses are being transitioned from a diet consisting primarily of pasture to a hay-based diet. The transition between forage in the diet provided by pasture and forage provided by hay should occur gradually. Changes in the variety or type of hay being fed also need to be made gradually to reduce the risk of digestive disturbances.

Additional Winter Management Tips:

  • Make sure your horses are in adequate body condition going into the winter. It is much harder to put weight on a horse during the winter months.
  • Keep a close watch on your horse’s body condition. With heavy winter coats, a visual inspection is not enough. Make sure you run your hands over your horse to feel for ribs.
  • Provide plenty of good quality forage to your horse. Digesting forage takes longer and actually produces more body heat for a horse than digesting grain. The average 1,000 lb. horse that receives the majority of their ration as hay should be fed about 20 lbs. of hay per day.
  • Provide free choice plain white salt.
  • Don’t lock the barn up tight. Make sure that there is adequate ventilation so you aren’t trapping ammonia and disease organisms in with your horses.
  • If you blanket your horses, make sure that you remove the blankets and check their body condition regularly. Check blankets for proper fit and damage and make any necessary adjustments and repairs immediately. Check your horse(s) regularly to make sure blankets are not creating rubs or sores.
  • Pick hooves regularly so that frogs have a chance to dry out and reduce your risk of thrush. Chronic mud on a horse’s legs can result in bacterial or fungal infections such as scratches. Also be sure to remove ice buildup from your horse’s feet.
  • Keep your horses as clean and dry as possible to reduce the risk of developing scratches or rain rot.
  • Have a plan to deal with the potential loss of electricity on your farm due to a snow or ice storm. If water on your farm is provided from a well, do you have a back-up water source should you lose power?

 Resources and further reading:

Kristula, M.A. and McDonnell, S.M. Drinking Water Temperature Affects Consumption of Water During Cold Weather in Ponies. Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science. Volume 41, issues 3-4, August 1994. pp. 155-160.

Swinker, A., In Cold Weather Horses Will Reduce Water Consumption and Be At Risk of Colic. Equine News. Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension. November 2012.

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