Tack n' Talk

Online Equestrian Resource

You can lead a horse to water, but can you make him drink?

Presented by:  Larissa W Cox, M.Sc. Applied Equine Science

Water is the necessary factor for all life on earth.  The lack of water can lead to many negative health issues faster than the elimination of any other nutrient.  Insufficient water intake can result in many maladies from minor fatigue and muscle aches to severe colic and even death.


An average healthy horse drinks about 10 gallons of water each day.  Do you know the signs of dehydration?

Dehydration doesn’t suddenly occur, but it is a gradual process.  Symptoms of dehydration after a day of riding or training during hot, humid weather, may include muscle cramps, rapid heart rate, panting-like respiration, excessive sweating or perhaps no sweating.  Also be aware that these symptoms may not appear until the next day!

Simple tests for dehydration include:


  1. Pinch the skin on your horse’s neck or shoulder.  The longer the skin stays elevated after you release it, the more dehydrated your horse.
  2. Look at your horse’s gums and nostrils.  Are they dark and are the mucous membranes reddish.  This may be an indication of dehydration.
  3. Check for capillary refill by pressing on your horse’s gums just above the front teeth.  Once your finger is removed, the spot will be white.  If normal colour does not return within a few seconds, your horse needs water.
  4. Take your horse’s temperature.  An elevated temp that doesn’t decrease after exercise may also be an indication of dehydration.

Fluid loss may require the addition of electrolytes.  Electrolyte demand is dependent upon a number of factors, including riding conditions, temperature, humidity, elevation and of course, the condition of your horse. 

It cannot be over-emphasized that free access to clean water is extremely important.  Some horses, especially those in competition, are averse to drinking water that is not familiar to them.  Plan ahead when traveling.  Perhaps disguising water with flavour additives such as peppermints, apple juice, etc. may be the answer.

Filtering water to remove odd tastes from various water sources is also another solution.

A small portion of your horse’s daily water intake is ingested through his feed, so soaked hay may also be the answer as it can provide your horse with as much as 2 gallons of water.  Salt blocks or free choice sea salt may encourage your horse to drink more with the added benefit of providing him with the necessary sodium to help control body fluid.

Horses get the “thirst signal” more slowly than humans as the sodium is less concentrated in sweat so the sodium becomes more concentrated in the blood.  In your horse, the sweat glands are very poor at conserving sodium so even though your horse has lost a large amount of water and sodium, the thirst signal does not go out to your horse to drink until he experiences a serious drop in blood volume due to dehydration.  So, when you lead him to water you can’t make him drink!


Know the signs and symptoms of equine dehydration and act…your horse will love you for it!



  kimgivemeahorse wrote @

Been there. Done that.

  beccaaja wrote @

Great tips!

I learnt this year that the skin pinch test is more decisive and indicative of the level of dehydration if you try it gently on the eyelid. This seems to work for me.


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