Keeping horses properly hydrated during the winter months can be challenging. In particular, for those horses living outdoors when the temperature drops, more calories will be burned in order to stay warm. Knowledgeable horse owners generally feed more hay in order to meet this increased caloric demand. (*Note: When dealing with older horses and those with special health care needs feeding more than just hay may be required to meet their increased caloric demands. In addition, you will sometimes need to subscribe to additional management practices in order to keep them warm.)
For a variety of reasons, horses tend to drink less overall during the winter months. In addition, research has shown that hay (and grain) typically contains less than 15% moisture. When we as owners feed more hay we must keep this figure in mind. When feeding more hay, we need to realize that we also need to make certain that the horse or horses have a reliable water source; otherwise we are increasing his chances of developing impaction colic if we don’t provide it.
If there is snow on the ground some owners adhere to a common myth that during the act of grazing a horse will consume enough snow to meet his needs. This could not be further from the truth. The recommended temperature of water offered during the winter months should fall between 45-65 degrees Fahrenheit. This is not to say that they will not consume or even choose water that is a different temperature but rather that they will consume a greater volume of water that is kept at this temperature.
Below are my personal tips for meeting my horses winter water needs:
Install a frost free hydrant.
Partially buried underground, a helpful tactic in the prevention of freezing in and of itself, a frost free hydrant allows water to drain away from the above ground freeze zone which also helps to prevent the hydrant from freezing.
Unhook the water hose from the spout when not in use.
This easy measure erases any suction created by the hose that would allow water to remain in the above ground freeze zone of the hydrant.
Keep heat lamps running in well houses.
Another fairly inexpensive and easy method to keep your water source going in the winter months is to keep your well house heated. A well insulated well house with a heat lamp will generally remain above freezing.
Frequently check outdoor automatic waters.
Outdoor automatic waters do little good if they are not working. In addition, it is important that the flotation balls remain sinkable in order to allow access to the water within. Sometimes, if the temperature is low enough, these flotation balls will freeze into place if they remain wet after your horse drinks. A good system is to check that the flotation balls not only remain buoyed, an indicator that the water source is viable, but also that they sink when pressed.
Have a backup plan.
I actually have two backup plans in place. The first is a black water tank positioned in the sun. The heat from the sun not only helps to keep the water unfrozen but the black tank also absorbs additional solar heat. During the day, for the better part of the winter where I live, this will be sufficient to keep the water from freezing particularly if I keep some sort of object such as a large toy ball floating around in it. This tank can be filled with water should my automatic pasture watering system go down.
On very cold days and overnight if necessary, a tank heater will do the trick. While our livestock are normally fenced out of a stream that meanders around and through our farm, we do have the option of releasing them through gates in the fence such that they have access to a water source if necessary. By following these simple tips you’ll be able to keep your horse hydrated and happy and during the coldest of winter days.