How Horses Drink Water: Everything You Need to Know

horse drinking from water trough

How Horses Drink Water

Whether you are a new rider or a longtime equestrian, you know how important proper hydration is to the health of your horse. Providing clean drinking water is perhaps one of the most important aspects of caring for your equine companion. But have you ever stopped to think about how horses actually drink water?

So, how do horses drink water? Horses do not lap up water like a cat or dog. Horses siphon water through their pursed lips similar to cows, llamas, and other large mammals. If you listen closely you may hear a sucking sound the next time you observe your horse drinking water.

Now that we understand how a horse manages to drink water without lapping it up, we can dive into everything else we need to know about keeping our horses healthy and hydrated.

Everything You Need to Know About How Horses Drink Water

As a horse lover, you likely have spent hours scrubbing water buckets and making sure that your horse has access to water at all times. But how important is this to the overall health of your horse? Just like humans, water is crucial to your horse’s health and wellbeing. 

Failing to provide your horse with adequate fresh water each day could lead to dehydration, indigestion, colic, or even death. 

How Much Water Does a Horse Need Each Day?

The amount of water that your horse needs each day will depend on a few things including the size of your horse, time of the year, and amount of daily activity your horse participates in each day.

Similar to humans, some horses enjoy drinking water more than other horses and will require a higher daily intake. However, as a general rule, horses need between 5 to 10 gallons of water each day to stay healthy and hydrated. 

If you’re more of a visual learner, I cover some basic water tips along with other horse care tips in this video:

How Long Can a Horse Live Without Water?

It is important to never let your horse go without water for an extended period. However, it can be helpful to understand the limits in case you ever find yourself rescuing a dehydrated horse. Additionally, understanding these facts can provide you with greater insight into just how important water is to a horse’s overall health.

After two days without water, horses may begin to show signs of colic, organ failure, or unwillingness to eat. More horses can only survive for 3 to 6 days without adequate water. For this reason, it is important to find ways to convince your horse to drink water if, for some reason, they are refusing. 

Can a Horse Survive on Water Alone?

wild horse drinking waterWe now know that a horse can only live between 3 to 6 days without water. But how long can a horse survive on water alone? Most horses can live up to 25 days without food, as long as they have access to clean water.

Once again, you must never let this happen to a horse in your care. However, it can be helpful to understand these timelines as a way to care for abandoned horses or rescues.

If you suspect that a horse has gone several days without food or water, it is important to contact an equine veterinarian to check for signs of illness or disease.

Recognizing Signs of Dehydration in Your Horse

Just like humans, dehydration in a horse is incredibly serious and can quickly lead to several health conditions. For this reason, you must learn to recognize the signs of dehydration in your horse. Dehydration in horses may occur for a number of reasons from unfamiliar surroundings, to illness, and of course exercise and hot weather. 

One of the greatest dangers of dehydration is a lack of electrolytes including sodium, chloride, and potassium. If your horse does not receive adequate hydration and electrolytes quickly, they may go into kidney failure. For this reason, it is important to keep electrolyte supplements on hand to quickly rehydrate your horse in the event of an emergency.

Some of the most common signs of dehydration in a horse including the following:

  • Sunkey Eyes
  • Dull Demeanor
  • Lethargy
  • Dry Skin
  • Dry Mouth
  • Drawn-up Flanks
  • Thick Saliva
  • Depression
  • High Protein Levels in Blood Test

 

If your horse is dehydrated, they will likely show several of these signs. It is important to remain watchful during times of uncertainty, heightened stress, or increased activity to eliminate the potential for dehydration.

Testing Your Horse for Dehydration

While mild cases of dehydration can be solved by providing adequate water and supplementing with electrolytes, more serious cases may require professional intervention. So how do you test your horse for dehydration?

Besides a blood test which would reveal high protein levels in a case of dehydration, there are several easy ways to test your horse in the comfort of your own barn. While it is not the most scientific method, many horse owners conduct a skin pinching test to identify dehydration. Simply pinch a fold of your horse’s skin and then release it.

If your horse is hydrated, the skin will immediately bounce back into its original position. However, if the skin remains ridged, your horse is dehydrated. Skin that remains in a ridged position for up to 5 seconds displays a mild case of dehydration.

Skin that remains rigid for over 10 seconds is a sign of severe dehydration. If your horses’ skin remains rigid for more than 10 seconds following the pinch test, contact your veterinarian immediately as severe dehydration can lead to several life-threatening conditions.

Why is My Horse Not Drinking Water?

horse drinking diagramJohn Heywood once said, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” Any horse owner or equestrian certainly knows this to be true.

In my many years as a rider and horse owner, I have experienced several occasions where a horse I was caring for refused to drink the water they were provided.

Not only can this be incredibly frustrating but it can also result in dehydration. So, why do horses refuse to drink water? 

Water Taste

Whether you are trail riding, attending a competition, or simply settling down in a new state, you may notice that your horse is hesitant to drink water. Even if the water is clean, your horse may recognize that it tastes different from the water that they are used to. 

Some horses are pickier than others when it comes to taste. If you are attending an event and notice this pattern in your horse, you may consider adding flavor to the water. A few days before you leave for your trip, start adding flavoring to the water. Many horse owners use apple juice or Gatorade as they are cheap and accessible. However, you could also consider flavored electrolyte supplements. 

This practice will introduce your horse to the new flavor which will mask the odd taste of unfamiliar water while on the road. 

Water Temperature 

Just like some horses are particular about water taste, others are picky about the temperature of their water. Especially in the cold winter months, you may notice that your horse refuses to drink incredibly cold water. You can remedy this situation by warming the water or relocating the water source to a covered area in which it will stay warmer.

Adequate Hydration from Grazing

If your horse has the privilege of foraging for fresh grass during the summer, you may notice that they drink less water. This is simply because they are staying hydrated due to the water found in grass. While your horse may get adequate hydration from this source during the summer, you will need to monitor their water intake during the winter to ensure they are remaining hydrated.

Health Conditions

Horses, like humans, follow their natural instinct to know what their bodies need. If your horse has an untreated health condition, illness, or injury, you may realize that they are drinking less water. If your horse has shown signs of disinterest with food, they are likely uninterested in water as well. 

Anytime you notice that your horse is not drinking as much water as they should it is important to begin monitoring their intake. Understanding the signs of dehydration in your horse is the best way to prevent a more serious situation from occurring.

How Often Should You Change a Horse’s Water Supply?

Water that is left in a trough for more than 3 days will quickly become stagnant, something that will cause your horse to not drink. To avoid dehydration because of this, only fill the trough with 3 days worth of water. Once the 3 days have passed, clean the trough and refill with fresh water.

It is important to monitor the trough throughout the 3 days in case your horse is not drinking or there is no water left. This will help you further monitor the hydration of your horse.

Taking care of a horse is an incredible responsibility but an immense privilege. Providing them with clean, fresh water may seem like quite a chore on some days, but it is truly one of the best ways to ensure their health and happiness. For more tips on caring for your horse, check out my article on 50 Tips for New Horse Owners.

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