Q: Should I give my horses warm drinking water in the cold weather? What are the pros and cons of warm drinking water versus cold during the winter?
A: Drinking water is one of the most important aspects of horse care in any season, but during the winter, providing fresh water can be particularly challenging due to freezing temperatures. Horses do not seem to mind drinking cold water: however, research shows that overall consumption decreases as water temperature drops. Researchers have also noted that if given the choice of cold and warm water, horses will preferentially drink the cold water. This becomes a problem if, through their choice, they are drinking less than they would have if only warm water been available. The ideal temperature for drinking water is 45-65 degrees Fahrenheit, but it can be made warmer if consumption remains low.
Decreased water consumption increases the risk of impaction colic, which is a major health concern and a leading cause of death. Therefore, take steps to maximize water consumption throughout the year. If you live in a cold climate where water freezes, having the ability to offer warm water is a good idea. This could be in the form of heated water buckets, insulated regular buckets, or adding boiling water to cold water to raise the temperature even for a short period.
If it is not possible to offer warmed water around the clock, consider making it available for a period of the day, such as overnight if horses are brought into stalls. Remember that if cold water is also available, your horse might choose to drink that rather than take advantage of your efforts to provide warmer water.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have shown that heating water continuously versus providing ambient near-freezing water increases horses’ water consumption by 41%. They noted similar results (38% increase in consumption) when warmed water was provided twice a day versus continuously. Video footage showed the studied horses consumed most of the water within three hours of feeding. Consuming forage typically creates a drive to drink. Therefore, this might be the most opportune window in which to provide warmed water. Other important thirst stimulants that can help encourage water consumption include adding salt to feed rather than relying solely on salt blocks.
As to whether drinking cold water is dangerous, this is a myth that should be cast out. Allowing horses to drink cold water will not have negative health implications. Another winter water myth is that horses will gain the water they need by eating snow. This is very unlikely, as the water content of snow can be quite low, and it is just not feasible for it to meet horses’ need to consume 30 to 50 plus liters a day.
I live with my best friend and her husband on their ranch and there is an issue with their mini-donkey and mini-horse. They are a bonded pair and live together in a large (1 acre) turnout with a run-in shelter. They were moved for the winter from a 3-acre pasture and reside outside my window so I can keep an eye on them. Since the move they have steadily refused to to drink out of their 40-gallon water tank. This is their regular tank (they drink readily from it in the summer), it has a deicer installed (we are in snow-country) and is kept clean. But every time I look out to check they are both out there chowing down on snow! If they were my animals I would be more stringent about figuring out what is going on. But they are not and their owners, while experienced horse owners, are not concerned in the least. Any suggestions as to something I can do with what resources are at hand?
Try a new de-icer in the tank; the one that’s currently being used may be giving off stray current. It happened to me once–horses both stopped drinking water from the tank, and it was a few days before they started again. I had to put out an additional tank and break ice for a couple of days until they gave the tank with the new heater another try. Learned my lesson: Always have a back-up heater/de-icer on hand.
My 2 mini donks won’t go to the water tank with the heater in it when it’s really cold and windy; I put 2 10 gallon “Gatorade ” jugs stuck in old truck tires in my shed. I’ve cut styrofoam floats for them, and when filled with warm water they NEVER freeze no matter how cold it gets–even if it goes to -20° F. My hinny, who is IR, and has to be fed separately, gets the same set up in his little shed stall, only I use a smaller tire and a 5 gallon jug. These insulated water jugs have gotten me through Wyoming winters for over a decade.