I know what happens if horses don’t drink enough. Too often in the past, I’ve seen horses that don’t drink much water have bouts with colic and mild digestive upset. No matter what you do with your horses, it’s important to make sure they have regular and constant access to fresh clean water—especially those that are finicky, like my horse Dually.
Necessity of Water
No matter what you do with your horses, water must be a first priority. When I led out big pack trips through the Rocky Mountains, we had to make sure to take trails that bordered streams and that the horses were allowed to drink each time we crossed a stream. The experienced and wise trail horse drinks at every opportunity because he doesn’t know when the next opportunity will come.
When we take our horses on the road, I make sure they have water breaks if they are in the trailer more than a few hours; and we carry water from home, just to make sure it is familiar and tempting.
When horses are at home in the pasture, I make sure that everyone knows what gates should stay open so that horses can get to the water tanks. Horses need regular access to water.
But even if you offer water consistently, what can you do to make sure your horses keep drinking—especially when you have a horse that doesn’t drink much? Salt is a necessity in a horse’s diet. You know that if you eat a bag of salty potato chips, you’ll crave a drink. I wouldn’t eat chips unless I had my water bottle in my hand. The same is true with horses—giving salt can encourage horses to drink more. Salt plays a vital role in hydration (water retention), muscle contraction and contains nutrients and minerals that are vital to digestive health.
When you drink more, your kidneys can keep the appropriate amount of electrolytes in the bloodstream and also impacts blood pressure. The same is true for horses. Salt also plays a role in digestion by helping break down food and by increasing hydrochloric acid, which lines the stomach walls and aids in the digestion of food.
Salt in Nature
Salt deposits are found in nature and wild horses would find them in their foraging areas, if left to roam. With domestication and confinement, we have to provide salt, since the horse cannot go looking for it. Most horses will voluntarily consume salt in the quantities they need, but there are always a few “high maintenance” horses whose salt consumption must be monitored.
Here are some tips to help make sure your horse keeps licking salt and drinking water no matter where you are:
For the traveling horse: Before we leave on a trip with our horses, we package their daily grain ration and supplements in a baggie—one for each day (or two baggies if they get grain twice a day). I always add a little granulated salt each day (Redmond’s Daily Red) just to make sure the horse is drinking well, and so we don’t have to carry around a salt lick.
For the high-maintenance horse: I know some horses that just won’t lick a rock and oddly enough, these seem to be the same horses that don’t drink enough. For these horses, I like to top dress their feed with granulated salt every day. Since horses are generally very good about monitoring their own salt intake, I don’t want to force too much salt on them. Start with about a half an ounce and monitor their water intake and urine output (how much shavings are you going through?). If they still need to drink more, add a little more to their ration.
For the Type A horses: Some horses feel stress more than others and some horses lead a very physically and mentally stressful life. Research has shown that many of these horses are prone to ulcers, which may manifest in poor appetites, decreased energy, lack-luster attitude and colic-like symptoms. Horses prone to ulcers may be reluctant to consume salt, but they still need some in their diet. My number one horse, Dually, falls into this category. For him, I feed Redmond Daily Gold, a clay-based salt and mineral supplement that helps neutralize stomach-acid build-up and improves appetite and digestion. As a matter of fact, I take it myself daily (in a capsule made by Redmond for humans) for indigestion, so I have a sense of how much it helps me and what it may be doing for Dually.
For the finicky horse: Some horses won’t lick a rock of salt on the ground, but if you hang it up on the fence, they’ll enjoy licking it a lot more. Hanging up on the fence, especially if it is near his water bucket, will make it an enticing toy and keep it clean. Some horses won’t lick on a rock on the ground if it is dusty and dirty.
No matter what salt you choose, make sure your horse has access to salt daily—and of course, make sure water is clean and fresh.
Enjoy the ride,