There’s nothing like a steaming cup of coffee or a hot bowl of soup on a cold winter’s day, right? Well, imagine if all you had to drink was frigid water, or worse, you had to eat snow to quench your thirst. Not a happy thought, yet that is exactly what many horses face on a daily basis in the Winter. While it is certainly true that horses are not humans and don’t need to be treated as such, it is well proven that horses supplied with warm water during cold weather drink more and have fewer health problems as a result.
Maintaining ample water intake is actually a critical part of ensuring the health of your horse during the winter months. Studies have shown that horses prefer drinking water with a temperature of 7-18 C (45-65 F). Under average conditions, a horse will consume about 30 ml of water per pound per day, which works out to approximately 6-8 gallons for a 1,000 pound horse. They will drink considerably more in warm weather or if they are exercising and sweating.
This might lead you to believe that if their needs go up in hot weather, they must correspondingly go down in cold weather, but this is not the case. The amount of approximately 30 ml/lb per day is what the horse’s body requires to perform its basic functions, whether the temperature outside is cold or moderate. Water is particularly important to the horse’s ability to move food through its digestive tract. Low water intake is directly related to an increased incidence of impaction colic, especially when all the rations a horse receives are dried feedstuffs.
There are several things you can do to increase your horse’s water consumption during cold weather:
1) Provide warm water. Heated buckets or horse-safe stock tank heaters are the best way to provide the horsey equivalent of that hot cup o’ Joe.
2) Feed concentrates as a warm, moist mash.
3) Make sure your horse is getting enough salt, as salt encourages water consumption. Horses generally need to take in 1-2 ounces (28-57 grams) of salt per day. That means that a horse should go through one of those four pound, brick-sized salt blocks in 32-64 days. If your block is sitting there longer than that, your horse is probably not getting enough salt. Adding loose salt (one tablespoon = 18 grams) to a warm mash is a good way to get some extra salt into your horse’s diet.
Please remember that horses can become seriously dehydrated if they are forced to eat snow as their sole source of water, and while many can and will break the ice on water buckets and troughs, they may still not drink as much as they should if the water is cold. Consuming snow and cold water can also lower a horse’s core temperature, increasing the horse’s susceptibility to cold and requiring him to take in more calories to keep warm.