Tips for Keeping Your Horse Hydrated on the Road and at Shows

Fresh, cool water = Healthy horse

Fresh, cool water = Healthy horse

Water facilitates digestion, helps the absorption of nutrients, and also regulates equine body temperature to keep him healthy.
© 2017 by Shuttertock New window.

Horse owners and trainers often face difficulties keeping horses properly hydrated while traveling and at shows and competitions.

If you have a finicky horse, a little extra preparation related to hydration and feeding will ensure that your horse will remain healthy no matter how long you are on the road and at competitions and shows.

Keeping a horse healthy takes five to twenty gallons of water a day, and sometimes more, since the average adult horse’s body contains approximately 70% water.

In other words, there are roughly 700 pounds of water in the average 1,000 lb. horse. Horses can go up to 25 days without food but only 5 days without water before it begins to affect their health.

In horses, water facilitates digestion and helps the absorption of nutrients. Water is an essential factor in breaking down the food a horse ingests. It is also regulates equine body temperature.

Horses ingest water and loose water throughout the day. Fluid exits the horse via feces, urine, sweat and water vapor in exhaled air. Dehydration occurs when loss of fluids exceeds fluid intake from food and water. As with humans, weather is a big factor in how much water a horse needs to consume.

A belly full of hay acts like a water reservoir and helps retain water in the horse's gut.

When it’s hot and/or humid, horse owners can expect their horse’s water consumption to increase even if he isn’t working. Add exercise to the equation and the horse may drink considerably more, depending on the duration and intensity of his workout, and the weather conditions.

“According the Dr. Hal Schott, a professor in the Large Animal Clinical Sciences Department at Michigan State University, "What your horse is eating has a lot to do with how much he’s drinking. The average horse on a predominately hay diet, (which most horses will be on while traveling and at shows), will drink much more water than a horse on pasture grass which can be as much as 90% moisture, while hay may contain less than 10%.”

In addition, most horse owners realize that just because a horse has access to water, it doesn’t always mean he won’t become dehydrated. His water source must be clean, cool and fresh; otherwise, he might not drink enough, especially when trailered for most of the day.

One common sense way to determine if your horse is drinking enough water is to regularly check the appearance and consistency of his manure. If it’s hard and/or dry, it means steps need to be taken to encourage the horse to drink more.

Horse stressed on the road and at shows?

Research has shown that when a horse’s routine and diet are disrupted, which occurs when traveling and participating in shows and competitions, he can develop gastric ulcers in a matter of days. The sensitive microbial population of your horse’s hind gut can be thrown out of balance in a matter of hours under stressful conditions such as during transit and at shows and competitions.

If the balance is disrupted enough it can cause colic, diarrhea or laminitis. Excessive sweating and poor water intake can lead to dehydration. Ohio State University conducted a research trial in which horses were transported in trailers. Blood samples collected during and after the shipping period revealed suppression of the immune system.

Horses ready for the road

Horses ready for the road

While your horse is in transit, lost fluids and electrolytes will need to be replaced if your horse is to remain healthy. New window.

According to Sarah L. Ralston, VMD, Ph.D., dACVN, Department of Animal Science, Rutgers University, a horse that is used to pasture feedings may have special problems when switched to dry hay during transit and at competitions. "While forage/roughage intake should be emphasized, dry hays may compound dehydration problems, especially in horses at multi-day events, if the horses were accustomed to being on lush pasture at home."

Dr. Ralston notes, "Soaking hay in water may alleviate this potential problem during competitions. Administering fluids by nasogastric tube may be beneficial in cases of severe losses during multiple-day competitions (if allowed by the competition rules). If at all possible, the horses should be allowed to graze as much as possible."

In addition, when horses sweat they lose precious fluids and electrolytes. Horses that are in transit and at shows and competitions sweat for many reasons. It can be from anxiety, excitement, or just because they are enclosed in a warm trailer or working hard during a competition or at a show.

Some horses sweat a little and others become ringing wet. In certain cases, stressed horses relieve themselves of excessive manure that has a cow flop consistency. Such behavior will also contribute to fluid and electrolyte losses.

Did you know?

Fluid lost through dehydration is pulled from circulating blood volume resulting in inadequate blood supply to the horse's tissues, inefficient delivery of oxygen to working muscles and elevated heart rate which can lead to fatigue.

Some in-transit horses won't drink during the first eight hours on the road and some may never be willing to take a drink, but it is important to continue to offer water every three to four hours. At every stop, or at least every four hours, offer horses water from home in a familiar bucket.

After arriving at the show or competition, make sure your horse has access to water at all times possible under conditions similar to those in his pasture or stall. The same goes for feeding your horse both on the road and at shows and competitions.

According to equine nutritionists, contrary to what many people have believed in the past, horses should be offered water immediately after working hard during shows or competitions, but in moderation and as part of the cooling process. Tepid water, instead of ice-cold water, is recommended and if the horse is not inclined to drink, feed him soaked sugar beet or hay to improve hydration.

Equine nutritionists also note that, "In horses that are in competitions, drinking helps in repair and recovery after heavy exertion, and dehydration, especially in endurance horses, can be critical. There is as high a risk of a horse getting colic from dehydration as from drinking water immediately after exercise."

Since chewing hay is a great pacifier for horses, it sometimes helps to offer him a bit of hay, since this may naturally lead him to drink the necessary water. In addition, a belly full of hay acts like a water reservoir and helps retain water in the gut.

Horse sweating in harness competition

Horse sweating after competition

Traveling and competing horses sweat for many reasons including from anxiety, excitement, or just because they are enclosed in a warm trailer or working hard during a competition. New window.

Another important thing to consider is the use of electrolytes: UC Davis's CEH Horse Report notes that "excessive or uncontrolled administration of electrolytes may actually have adverse effects on water and electrolyte balance in the horse."

Unless a horse has a history of dehydration or has not been drinking normally in the days leading up to and immediately before transit, administering electrolytes is not recommended prior to long journeys.

Regardless of how much your horse sweats or poops while in transit or while competing in shows, the lost fluids and electrolytes will need to be replaced if your horse is to remain healthy.

Although horses should be offered water frequently throughout their trip and at shows and competitions, veterinarians don’t recommend dissolving electrolytes in a horse’s drinking water as this may actually reduce water intake. It is best to dose electrolytes with an oral dosing syringe or mix them in the feed so you know exactly how much you are providing and how much your horse is consuming.

Tips to entice your horse to take that drink of water

Horses can be finicky when it comes to water, especially when traveling or in strange circumstances when at shows or competions. They may be reluctant to drink, or will drink less than they should, if the water tastes or smells different from what they are accustomed to drinking at home.

If you have a picky horse that isn’t fond of strange water, bring water from home or acclimate your horse to flavored water before you leave on your trip so he will continue to drink on the road. Remember, eating hay also encourages drinking more water.

Bucket of cool, fresh water

Bucket of cool, fresh water

When a horse is reluctant to drink while traveling, encourage him to drink more by offering him sips from a bucket of water that has had an ounce of table salt added.
© 2017 by Steven Lilley New window.

At every stop, or at least every four hours, offer horses water from home in a familiar bucket. Many in-transit horses won't drink during the first eight hours on the road and some may never partake, but continue to offer water anyway. While at shows or competitions, if possible mimic watering your horse in the same way as you would at home.

When a horse is reluctant to drink while traveling, one way to encourage him to drink more is to offer him sips from a bucket of water that has had an ounce of table salt added. This will encourage him to drink additional amounts of plain water in the next 20 to 30 minutes.

For the horse that is reluctant to drink water that is strange to his taste, you may want to put all or part of the horse's feeding of alfalfa or hay into the horse's water bucket. Not only does the horse get a very palatable feeding of hay, but he is also getting hydrated as he ingests the water long with the hay.

If you are going to be offering your horse flavored water to entice him to drink, be sure to do this long enough before the trip so that you know your horse will drink the flavored water. You definitely don’t want to try flavoring his water the first time when you’re on the road or away from home at a show or competition.

You can flavor water by adding unsweetened Koolaid, Gatorade, apple juice or molasses to the water. It doesn’t take much. You may have to experiment to find what your horse likes best. This way, you can add his “flavor of choice” to the water when you’re traveling so it tastes familiar, which will encourage him to drink.

You may also want to put pieces of apple or another treat in the bucket of plain water to encourage the horse to dive in to get the treat and a nice drink at the same time.

If you offer flavored water to your horse at home, on the road or at shows and competitions, always offer a separate bucket of plain water. This way your horse has a choice and you won’t discourage water intake if he’s not in the mood for the flavored water.

Make sure all water given the horse is cool and fresh, but not too cold or hot. Studies at Michigan State University determined that most horses will voluntarily drink more if the water is about 68 degrees Fahrenheit. In hot weather, add a few ice cubes if the water becomes too warm.

Consider this

Traveling with your horse and participating in shows and competitions is a great experience for you and your horse. With a little extra thought and preparation these special occasions can be healthy and rewarding for your horse and create some special memories for you.

About the author

EquiMed Staff shares a common goal of helping you improve your horse's health. The staff work together to develop unique web-focused content that answers the most common questions of horse owners. EquiMed staff written content is updated frequently to incorporate the best practices within the equine healthcare industry. Thanks for visiting!

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