Did you know that from a nutritional perspective, water is described as the first limiting nutrient? While all of the six nutrient classes (protein, lipid, carbohydrate, vitamins, minerals, and water) have essential functions, water is absolutely critical for life. Indeed, a lack of water will have significant and severe consequences for an animal far faster than deficiencies in other of the other nutrients.
For our horses and ponies, ensuring a fresh, clean, and adequate supply of water is a basic need and one that underpins all other aspects of their care and management.
But why is water so important and what can we do to ensure that the hydration status of our horses is maintained within a healthy range?
Let’s explore wonderful water and consider how we can make sure we help to keep our horses hydrated.
Water is a pretty impressive molecule. Consisting of one oxygen atom bonded to two hydrogen atoms, water molecules have some interesting and hugely useful properties – some of which are absolutely critical for supporting many aspects of life on earth – this includes in the environment as well as within animals themselves.
Water is known as ‘the universal solvent’ because it can dissolve a huge range of other substances. This ability is critical for normal bodily functioning. Indeed, much biochemistry is absolutely dependent upon the properties of water. It’s presence is essential for normal metabolic functioning and to support the network of essential biochemical reactions needed for life.
In animal nutrition, three sources of water are recognised – drinking, water from food and metabolic water. For most species, drinking is the key source of water. Food can also provide water in the diet and if a diet is high in moisture, then drinking might be minimal. Indeed, many horses and ponies on high moisture grazing or other forage, will significantly reduce their voluntary water intake by reducing the frequency of drinking as well as the amount drunk.
Finally, metabolic water is that produced within the body as a result of ongoing metabolic reactions. However, the amount of water produced and made available in this way in the body is minimal and should not be relied upon as a significant source.
From a practical perspective, in most cases, we can support a healthy hydration status in our horses by ensuring they have access to a suitable supply of clean drinking water.
Water and Temperature
Water is also essential to ensure the maintenance and regulation of normal body temperature. Our horses need to maintain a consistent core body temperature within very tight limits. Their hydration status is directly linked to this and is a consequence of the chemical and physical properties of water.
Water has a high heat capacity – this means it takes significant amounts of energy to warm up a body of water, but then that heat is retained well. This characteristic is critical for much aquatic life too and helps minimise sudden and significant temperature fluctuations, notably within seas, oceans and even ponds. This property means that internal body temperatures can also be maintained with minimal fluctuations.
For our horses, water is also vital for supporting temperature regulation when they sweat – an essential and important cooling strategy when internal temperatures rise beyond specific levels. When horses sweat, water (and electrolytes) are released onto the surface of the body. Water has a high heat of vaporisation, meaning that when sweat (which is mostly liquid water) evaporates into steam (or gaseous water), excess body heat is carried with it, leading to cooling.
Evaporative cooling in this way is a critical way by which our horses ensure they maintain their body temperature within very tight limits. This is needed when they are exposed to high external temperatures or as a result of performance output.
In the case of dehydration and when fluid balance is poor, the ability of a horse to effectively cool by sweating can be seriously impaired, which in itself becomes a significant welfare, performance, and recovery issue.
Notably, sweat also contains electrolytes, which are also essential for health, wellbeing and supporting performance output and subsequent recovery. As well as ensuing provision of fresh, clean drinking water, for horses in hard work or regular competition, daily feeding of electrolytes, such as Science Supplements Complete Electrolytes, is a good choice. For leisure horses, or those at rest, SafeSalt is a great dietary supplement option to ensure adequate dietary salt provision, as well as encouraging fluid intake too.
Supporting Water Intake In Our Horses
Clearly, ensuring that our horses have a fresh, clean supply of drinking water is important. However, sometimes ensuring that they will have an adequate intake of water is also critical – you can take a horse to water but cannot make them drink!
This can often be a real problem during the cold, winter months, and especially problematic when the water supply and provision is cold and potentially prone to freezing. This might mean that some horses and ponies voluntarily reduce their water intake significantly. In some cases, this can result in dehydration or lead to more serious consequences including digestive disturbances and colic.
Top tips for tip top water intake...
- Keep all drinking troughs and buckets clean, change contents and refill regularly. Remember that many horses will not drink right to the bottom of a bucket or trough, so you may need several filled buckets, or larger drinking vessels if your horse routinely seems to empty what is provided.
- Automatic drinkers can be great labour-saving devices but are not ideal for monitoring what (or if!) your horse is drinking. They can also become blocked or stop working, so need to be checked at least twice daily for functionality. Also note that some horses dislike using them, or need to learn to use them, so always offer an alternative source of water in such cases.
- Water can taste different in different receptacles, places and geographical areas, a consequence of materials, mineral content and even water treatment processes. If you are travelling with your horse, or competing, it is good practice to have a regular bucket and a supply of water from ‘home’ if you have a choosier equine.
- You can sometimes encourage interest in drinking by ‘baiting’ water sources with a tasty addition. Some apple juice added to drinking water may encourage water intake, or even adding some sliced apple or similar to float in drinking water can help too. Other horses enjoy soaking their own forage in water which can also enhance and support water intake, although be sure to change such water frequently as debris can rapidly ferment, making water unpalatable and potentially even hazardous to health if there is growth of microorganisms.
- When it is really cold and freezing is an issue, don’t forget to break ice on water sources regularly – don’t rely on your horse to break ice themselves.
- Very cold and icy water can also significantly decrease drinking, so offering warmed water is a great strategy if possible. A flask or kettle full of hot water added to your horse’s water bucket might just make the difference between them drinking or not when temperatures drop. Some yards even benefit from water heaters!
- If you are feeding bucket feeds, add high moisture or soaked ingredients such as sugar beet to support fluid intake. You might even add extra water to bucket feeds if drinking is reduced.
- Adding salt to your horse’s diet is a useful strategy to support health as well as hydration and fluid intake. Normal table salt can be added to your horse’s feed, but for horses with sensitive digestions or to support digestive health, SafeSalt is a good option where palatability and gastric health are important. SafeSalt is encapsulated in oil which is digested in the small intestine. This ensures effective absorption of the constituent sodium and chloride ions, without potential gastric irritation during digestive transit, as might occur with normal table salt.
Science Supplements offer a premium range of high specification equine supplements that are carefully formulated by nutritionists and veterinary surgeons to support your horse’s overall health and wellbeing.