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September 19, 2011

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Testing your horse for proper hydration – part 3 in 3 part post

by DePaolo Equine Concepts

How Do I Know My Horse is Properly Hydrated?

Water requirements for healthy electrolyte balance and proper hydration vary greatly based upon a horse’s activity level, feed program, age, weight and metal state.   There are a few simple tests that can help you identify dehydration before it turns into a serious problem.[1]

  • The Pinch Test: pinch the skin on the horse’s shoulder or neck.  The longer the skin stays “pinched”, the more dehydrated the horse is. The slower the return of the skin to normal, the more likely it is that the horse is dehydrated. One to two seconds is normal for the skin to return to normal.
  • Examine the Gums: a healthy horse’s gums are bubblegum pink and moist.  Horses with dark or reddish gums and a dry feeling to the tissue are dehydrated.
  • Check Capillary Refill Time: this test can be done after you check the general color of the gums by simply pushing on the horse’s gum just above the front teeth.  The spot will be white once you remove your finger. If the color does not come back within a few seconds then the horse is likely to be dehydrated.

  • Take the Temperature: a temperature elevated to 102 or over that is present in a horse that has not been worked recently or a temperature that does not come down after exercise can be a good indication that the horse is sick and will soon be in danger of dehydration or that the horse’s body is not cooling itself properly.
  • Check the Heart Rate: horses that have an elevated heart or pulse rate above the 28-40 beats per minute that is normal in an adult horse should also presume that the horse might be dehydrated.

Daily steps should be taken to keep horses properly hydrated. These include:

  • Monitoring Intake:  Horses that are watered by hand two times a day are the easiest to monitor.  You can make a fill line with a marker on the inside of every horse’s bucket and check what its average normal intake is below the line.  Any horse that has not had the usual amount to drink during the day might be dehydrated.  Horses that are watered with automatic waterers are harder to check on unless the waterer measures water usage during the day.  Horses that are turned out together are also harder to monitor as the water source is communal and not necessarily indicative of an individual horse’s water intake.
  • Maintaining Water at Room Temperature: maintaining water sources at a moderate temperature is crucial to properly hydrated horses.  Have a back-up plan for stabled and pastured horses in the winter (either say: in case of a freeze or if the water freezes).  Horses that have been without water for more than a few hours are at risk of dehydration and should be carefully monitored.[2]
  • Providing Water Immediately After Exertion: The idea that horses will colic if they drink water directly after exercise is a myth.  Rehydration post work will help replenish the lost fluids and it is more likely a horse would colic due to dehydration.  Since horses can lose up to 75g of sodium and 30g of potassium during heavy exertion, fluid replacement is crucial to maintaining cellular balance necessary for hydration and proper thirst response.
  • Encouraging Water Consumption: Many trainers or barn owners will “flavor” the water of every horse in the barn to help prevent “picky” horses from being able to tell the difference in the taste of water between home and new places.  Apple juice and Gatorade are additives that can assist in masking the taste of unfamiliar water sources.  There is also new research that says that horses who are offered water with dissolved salt in it post exercise have a stronger thirst response and will drink more in the hour or two post exercise than horses who are not offered salty water.  Provide a teaspoon of salt a day in the horse’s feed or offer free access to a salt block in the stall to ensure that the horse will maintain proper electrolyte balance to induce thirst.Is this stuff true about adding Gatorade? I can’t imagine that is a good idea.  Also we say in the Redmond salts that a salt block isn’t good because horse’s are lickers like cows are and that you should feed loose salt.  Thoughts?
  • Providing a Clean Water Source: horses that are stabled should always have access to clean buckets of water or clean automatic watereres. Horses that live turned out should not have to drink scummy or algae covered water out of troughs.  Horse owners that are dependent upon natural water sources to hydrate pastured horses need to supplement the water supply if the natural source becomes muddy, shallow, or contaminated in some way or if it becomes frozen in the winter. In addition, horses that have never depended solely on natural water sources may not be aware that they are supposed to drink from a stream or pond.

Please make sure you read the other posts in this series on water in the body and water intake.


[1] Nutrition “Sufficient Hydration Critical to Good Health” Ellen Haight

[2] The horse.com “Drinking Water Temperature( Book Excerpt) Sue McDonnel PHD Sept 28, 2005

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