May 8, 2019

Back to Basics – Water 101

Whether you have one horse or a whole herd, one of the most vital nutrients in their diet is water. Most horse owners follow the general principle that if the water is safe for us to drink, then it is reasonable to assume that it is safe for our horses. While this is a safe bet, horses do have specific water requirements and there are management decisions that can be made to improve the water quality for your horses which is beneficial to their health and happiness. So let’s get back to basics and learn more about how we can provide enough fresh, clean water for our horses.

Water by the numbers

A horse’s body contains 65 to 75 percent water and the percentage varies depending on the age, amount of body fat and muscle mass, and the amount of workload or exercise the horse receives. The amount of water offered to a horse will be based on its weight.

“Most horses in the 1,000 to 1,200 pound range will generally need six to 10 gallons of water daily,” said Bob Coleman, Ph.D., associate professor and equine extension specialist at University of Kentucky. “That is what we are going to offer them as a starting point; some horses may need more or less.”

Keeping Dehydration at Bay

So what is the best way to tell if a horse is getting the proper amount of water?  In general, there are two simple tests you can do to assess how well your horse is hydrated – the skin pinch and the capillary refill.

As a horse becomes dehydrated, the skin elasticity decreases. The skin pinch involves taking a fold of skin from the neck, just above the shoulder and lifting it up. If your horse is hydrated it should snap back in place quickly. If your horse’s skin tents up or doesn’t snap back, then this is a symptom of dehydration.

The second test is the capillary refill. You should lift the upper lip of your horse and do a visual inspection of the gums about the teeth. The gums should be pink, shiny, moist and slippery. Then, you should press your thumb against their gums, release your thumb and count how long it takes for the gums to go from a pale, white color to their normal pink color. Normal capillary refill time is under two seconds.

“One of the biggest indicators of water consumption is to monitor how well your horse is eating,” said Coleman. “One of the first things you’ll notice with a horse not drinking enough water is that their dry matter intake will slow down. First, check to make sure your bucket or automatic waterer is clean, and then you need to check if anything is changing the palatability of the water.

“Clinical dehydration happens when a horse has a 6 percent reduction in body weight through the loss of water. Most of us are not going to be weighing our horses and monitoring at that level, but even at a lower loss of weight you’ll notice a change in activity level. Your horse will start to get lethargic.”

Two other common symptoms of dehydration include decreased manure production and decrease in the manure’s moisture content. It is important to know what is normal for your horse. Measuring vital signs when your horse is healthy can give you a good baseline for comparison.

Reduced water intake can lead to very serious health conditions, including impaction colic. A horse who is not drinking enough water can begin to experience dehydration and impaction colic in as few as 48 hours. In the summertime, it is critical to replace water losses as the horse manages its body temperature. When a horse becomes 8 to 10 percent dehydrated, you will need a veterinarian to administer fluids.

Time to Assess Your Water Source

Best management practices involve delivering fresh water to your horse. The days of horses accessing streams and ponds are dwindling for many reasons, including water quality concerns and environmental impact.

“We can use the natural water sources such as streams and ponds,” said Coleman. “I just recommend that you don’t give the horses access to the water source, instead you need to deliver water to the horses in a tank or waterer. We all need to be good stewards. We are not trailing thousands of head of cattle miles and miles to market anymore. Streams don’t need to have horses in the water, this affects water quality for everyone downstream and also can erode the stream banks as the horses enter and exit. Ponds have the same erosion and contamination issues. I would also be concerned about algae blooms. Not all algae are going to cause a problem but unfortunately, you may not know you have a problem until a post-mortem is completed.”

Setting up a proper water delivery system involves designing an area with a concrete or crushed rock pad large enough for all four of the horse’s feet to be on the pad while drinking to help reduce erosion. Other factors to consider are tank/fount capacity, refill rate and tank/fount locations.

Your Horse and Water Quality

The biggest measure of water quality is total dissolved solids (TDS). TDS is comprised of inorganic salts (principally calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, bicarbonates, chlorides and sulfates) and some small amounts of organic matter. Elevated TDS can make your water have a bitter or salty taste. If you currently do not have a water quality report available, you might want to consider contacting your local health department.

“We know that TDS of one to three thousand parts per million (PPM) is in the safe range,” said Coleman. “Once you start getting to seven thousand PPM then you have water quality issues. The other item to look at is high coliform counts which are an indication of bacteria. Certain coliforms are not going to bother your horse but the higher counts indicate fecal contamination somewhere along the line which means you need to be concerned about E. coli and salmonella. Also, if you have nitrates (agricultural run-off) in your water, especially if it is a change from prior years, then that is telling you that something is leaching into your water. It might be time to consider a new water source.”

Horses are sensitive to the taste and smell of their water. Water that is high in sulfur or tastes bitter can be masked by flavoring the water with prepackaged electrolyte mixes, packets of Jell-O gelatin powder, apple cider vinegar or any flavoring that your horse prefers.

Delivering Clean, Fresh Water to Your Horse

There are three mandates every watering system needs to meet:

  1. Keep the water clean.
  2. Keep the water fresh.
  3. Keep the water at the right temperature.


Whether you are planning an upgrade or starting from scratch, make sure that your trough and valve combinations are sized to provide as much water as your horse wants while limiting the amount of water that sits stagnant when they are not drinking. The easiest and hassle-free option to consider is an automatic waterer. Top of the line waterers feature rugged, insulated polyethylene or stainless-steel units with designs that seal cold air away from the high capacity valves. Options such as thermostatically controlled heat, self-regulated heaters, immersion heaters, protective shrouds, tamper resistant lids and digital water meters are typically available.

Ritchie Industries, Inc., the company that invented automatic waterers in 1921, has designed some of the best-selling waterers of all time. The Classic Equine by Ritchie waterers are specifically engineered to meet the rigorous standards that horse owners demand.

“We run a nonprofit operation here,” said David Smith, ranch manager at Wolfe Ranch of Quakerdale. “I am the only full time employee and I take care of 12 ranch horses and one boarded horse. We have 11 Ritchie waterers on-site and having fresh water for the horses at the ready is awesome. The maintenance is very minimal and to be able to just walk by with a quick glance to make sure the water is clean and available – that is a real time saver.”

Wolfe Ranch of Quakerdale in Marshalltown, Iowa, is a nonprofit ranch that offers camps, riding lessons and special events. Wolfe Ranch has also partnered with Quakerdale Family Services to provide faith-based Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) and Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).

“With waterers installed in the fence line I can water two lots at the same time,” said Smith. “No more hauling hoses everywhere and no more broken buckets. Where we can save money, we try to find the best products on the market so the upkeep does not nickel and dime us. Even with the abuse that horses put on the equipment, the Ritchie waterers are holding up very well.”

For more information on Ritchie waterers, visit

A Hydrated Horse is a Healthy Horse

Water is essential to well-being of your horse. Take the time to plan an effective watering system that offers your horse free-choice access to clean, fresh water at all times and be rewarded with a healthy and happy horse.


Written by Audra Kalvar

Audra Kalvar is a freelance writer with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture from the University of Illinois and over 27 years of experience writing about the agriculture industry. She grew up on a livestock and grain farm in west central Illinois and has managed the family farm for the past 13 years. She currently resides in southern Indiana and raises sheep and chickens.