Water: The Most Important Nutrient for Horses

Water: The Most Important Nutrient for Horses

The misconception is that domestic horses can easily eat enough snow to survive—this isn't generally the case, so ensure horses have access to fresh, clean water at all times.

Photo: The Horse Staff

Water is the most important nutrient that we provide for horses on a year around basis. Horses need two to three times more water than other feedstuffs. For example, an 1,100 pound horse on a dry forage diet in an environment with an average temperature of 68°F will need a minimum of six to seven gallons of water per day (or 48 to 56 pounds of water per day), and many horses will drink more water than the minimum.

We all appreciate that the water requirement may double at high temperatures, but might not realize that at -4°F the quantity required is about 10 to 12 gallons per day—actually higher than at moderate temperature. The onset of cold weather can actually increase the requirement for water because there is no fresh grass and the air is very dry.

There is a misconception that domestic horses can easily eat enough snow to survive. Horses in the wild do adapt to lower water intakes, partially because food intake is also frequently reduced, but horses can survive longer without food than they can without water. Reduced water intake can also impair digestion and potentially contribute to the incidence of impaction colic.

It also requires a great deal of energy to eat snow, melt the snow in the body and raise the fluid temperature to normal body temperature of 99.5° to 100.5°. Increasing the temperature of 10 gallons of water from 32° to 100° requires about 1,372 calories—about the amount of digestible energy in a pound of feed. Melting the snow to get to water will take a great deal more energy and the horses will not readily eat a pile of snow the size of 20 five gallon buckets. It takes about 10 inches of snow to have one inch of water.

Providing horses with fresh clean water at an appropriate temperature all year around is a great management tool to reduce the risk of colic, maintain healthy digestion, and maintain body condition.

Reprinted with permission from The Feed Room, by Nutrena

About the Author

Roy A. Johnson, MS

Roy A. Johnson, MS, is an equine technology manager for Cargill Animal Nutrition. In his role, he is responsibile for the development of horse feeds for U.S. business, including feeds for Nutrena, ACCO, Agway, and private label brands. A former professional horse trainer, farm manager, and horse judging coach, Johnson was an assistant professor in the Agricultural Production Division at the University of Minnesota-Wasecae before joining Cargill. Johnson has also participated in a successful Thoroughbred racing partnership.

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