Q: Last weekend at an event my horse stopped drinking, which has never been an issue for him before. He also doesn’t seem to be as keen to drink on the trailer as he once was. Do you have any suggestions on how I can keep him drinking?
A: Staying adequately hydrated is vital to your horse’s overall health, well-being, and performance ability. Dehydration not only increases the chances of an impaction colic but also reduces fluids available for the production of bodily fluids such as saliva, mucus, and digestive secretions. Dehydration can also lead to issues with muscle contraction and nerve conduction, thus it negatively impacts performance. In severe cases it might even lead to tying-up.
So if your horse is dehydrated not only does this have health implications, but he also won’t be at his competitive best! In fact it has been reported that a 1% decrease in hydration can result in as much as a 4 % drop in performance.
Not drinking while traveling or while at shows is not an uncommon issue in sport horses. There are several possible reasons why your horse might stop drinking.
1. The show water might smell or taste different than your water at home. The amounts of dissolved solids and salts varies with water source. Municipal water is often treated with chlorine, and if your horse is on well water at home, he might find city water’s taste or smell off-putting. It’s a good idea to take some water with you from home just in case. Try mixing water from home with the show water. You can also put apple juice, flavored drink mixes (Kool-Aid), apple cider vinegar, or something similar in your water at home before you leave and then continue the same at the show. This masks the taste and smell of the water. Just be sure that you also provide a source of untreated water for the horse, in case he also finds the water additive offensive.
2. Your horse might have lost valuable electrolytes during transit or as a result of heavier work, which is negatively impacting his thirst reflex. This can be especially true if the weather is unusually hot. Adequate circulating sodium levels are part of maintaining a desire to drink. When horse’s sweat they lose large amounts of sodium and therefore might also lose the desire to drink even though they are dehydrated. You might not be able to see it, but a horses can lose a significant amount of sweat during travel, potentially as much as 18 liters over a 10-hour trailer ride. This could mean that your horse is suffering from low-level dehydration by the time he arrives at your destination. You can combat this by insuring adequate salt intake and, additionally, using a well-formulated electrolyte.
3. You might not be providing adequate sodium on a daily basis. You might think that by providing a salt block you have this covered, but few horses use a salt block adequately. A 1,100-pound horse needs to consume 10 grams of sodium a day, which is provided by an ounce (about 28 grams) of sodium chloride. This is equivalent to 2 pounds a month. Keep in mind that this requirement only covers maintenance needs.
Without adequate salt intake, sodium levels fall and your horse is closer to losing that desire to drink. It might then only take an unseasonably hot day or a long trailer ride to push your horse into that no-drinking zone. While you should have salt available for horses all the time (don’t forget to take your salt block with you when you travel), horses might better use loose salt added to their daily feed ration. I prefer to provide 1 tablespoon of salt per 500 pounds of body weight each day in feed. Heavy work days or particularly hot weather call for an electrolyte in addition to this daily salt.
4. Decreased feed intake. Consuming feed, especially forage, encourages fluid intake, so if your horse has gone off feed you might find he goes off fluids as well. Stress is a common reason for horses to stop eating, so taking necessary precautions such as using preventative doses of omeprazole (the drug approved for treating and managing gastric ulcers in horses) when traveling to reduce gastric ulcer risk. This might help not only encourage eating but drinking as well. Be sure that your horse has access to feed while in transit.
5. Your horse might be stressed by the horses he is being transported with, making him less willing to eat and drink. Some horses are dominant and others less so and when placed together in close quarters this can create a lot of stress especially for the less dominant horse. As a result they could become too stressed to eat in transit or drink at rest stops.
In the horses that I have worked with the simple act of insuring daily salt intake typically turned things around for nondrinkers. Here are some other tricks you can try to help get fluids in to your horse:
Soak your horse’s hay: This is an easy way to get water in to your horse. Soaking for about 30 minutes is plenty. Make sure you remove any soaked hay from your horse’s stall before it turns sour which can happen quite quickly in hot weather.
Add water to grain and supplemental feeds: A lot of horses love sloppy meals, and this can serve as an easy way to get water in to them.
Add a handful of sweet feed to your horse’s water: There are some commercial water-additive products designed to encourage horses to drink, and these additives reportedly work well. Also try adding a handful of oats or sweet feed to the water and see if it does the trick. Just remember to always have additional water available, so the horse has an alternate water option available if he decides he likes the additive water even less than regular water.
Train your horses to drink saline: Research has shown that horse that consume 0.9% saline solution (add 1 tablespoon of salt per gallon of water) when hot subsequently consume greater amounts of plain water than those horses that consume only plain water. You can train your horse to drink saline. Start with 1 tablespoon in a 5 gallon bucket and build up to 5 tablespoons dissolved in a full 5 gallon bucket of water.
Hang multiple water buckets around the stall: Don’t ask why but this recently worked for a friend’s horse who wasn’t drinking. She tried it on the advice of a friend. Whatever works!
If none of these work and your horse starts to display signs of dehydration you need to contact a veterinarian, who can determine if intravenous fluids are necessary to rehydrate your horse.