With active summer riding, training and competition plus increased ambient temperatures, dehydration becomes a real risk for you and your animals. Have you ever felt out of sorts, weak and just generally "wiped out' on a summer hike in warm weather? That's dehydration in action and just like you, your horses can experience similar debilitation of performance and demeanor. The first symptoms are mild but become increasingly problematic if the condition is not addressed. Weakness will increase, you might feel a bit dizzy. By the time you start to cramp up, you're getting closer to a medical danger zone. Profuse sweating exacerbates fluid loss and it can be even worse in humid conditions where sweat can't adequately cool core temperature. Adding excessive heat to a dehydrated body is fuel on the fire and without treatment it can lead to deadly consequences. Horses will often give you everything they've got under competitive circumstances so it's up to us to know the signs of dehydration, to be proactive in our planning for it and to treat the problem early and aggressively.
You can lead 'em to water..... but will they drink? Horses drink anywhere from 5 to 20 gallons of water a day depending on conditions. They can be fussy about the taste, temperature and even the container they drink from. A dehydrated horse that won't drink is a problem. If your horse is one of these fussy types, it's a good idea to experiment with his/her idiosyncracies and find out how to optimize their water consumption. Problems with dehydration can occur when we travel with our horses and the water source is unpredictable. So be your own scientist, try some experiments to learn more about your horse, then use that info. for training them to drink more. NOTE: it's important to experiment at home,
you travel. Try adding (start with very small amounts) lemon, apple juice, a small amount of salt or electrolyte powder, or other powdered flavorings to mask the taste of "foreign" water. Offer two different buckets, one the "usual" to act as a control , the other with water at different temps or flavorings. Observe your horse's preferences, changing one thing at a time and using the same "control" for each experiment. A little time spent paying attention may reveal all kinds of quirks that you can use to your advantage.
Some published experiments have shown that if you offer slightly salted (1Tbs per gallon) water immediately post exercise then replace it with non-salted water about 20 minutes later the horse will drink a larger volume of water over all. While horses in general may drink water best around the 60 degree temperature range, it's physiologically ok to give cold water. It's also ok to let them drink as much as they want after exertion. A horse that will eat will generally drink, some endurance riders have trained their horses to eat watermelon. Since it is mostly water, it may help a hot and distracted horse think about drinking.
Electrolyte supplementation may be especially important for any horse participating in endurance or high energy competitions where they will sweat heavily. This kind of supplementation is best tailored to each horse according to his/her particular quirks, the general diet he/she is on and the conditions at hand. It's worth formulating a plan with Dr. Weeks when you have your general wellness discussions and annual physical exam. There are many, many tricks and techniques to help minimize and manage exercise induced dehydration. What are some of yours?? You might have a great idea that will help that one particularly finicky drinker sail through the summer, please share it on our FB page!
Here are a couple of links to more information on this topic.