By Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.
The horse world is cluttered with feeds, supplements, and remedies all promising a better, “new and improved” horse. While many such products do in fact improve horses’ health and condition, there are certain basics that every horse needs, regardless of breed, age, condition, or purpose. Even seasonal or regional changes do not alter these foundational principles.
Water is the most important nutrient
It must be plentiful, clean, and of the right temperature to encourage horses to drink. A horse at maintenance, living in a temperate climate will require a minimum of ½ to 1 gallon per hundred pounds of body weight. For the 1100 lb (500 kg) horse, that equates to 5.5 to 11 gallons (21 to 42 liters) per day.[i] However, his demand for water will increase with activity and warmer temperatures. Here are some factors to consider:
— Water must be freshened daily. Dead insects, bird droppings and excessive pond scum can poison your horse[ii]. Using smaller water troughs can make cleaning easier.
— Never add salt or electrolytes to your horse’s only water supply. Plain water must always be available.
— Pasture is high in moisture, typically containing 60 to 80 percent water, whereas most hays have only 7 to 10% moisture.
— High protein diets increase water requirements since protein can have a diuretic effect.
During cold weather, horses drink less, especially if the water is ice cold. This potentially leads to dehydration – the main cause of colic in the winter
. Heating water between 45 and 60 degrees F (7 to 15 degrees C) will promote more water consumption. Be sure the heater has no exposed wires that could electrify the water source.
— If you rely on creeks or ponds, the water must be moving and deep enough to not freeze.
— Snow consumption will not meet your horse’s water requirement. One gallon of average snow contains only 10 ounces of water. Also, eating snow will force your horse to burn precious calories needed to keep his body temperature steady.
Salt is required daily, regardless of the season
In cold seasons, salt helps promote that all-important water consumption. In warm seasons, supplemented salt replaces what is lost from perspiration. A full-sized horse requires at least one ounce (two level tablespoons or 30 ml) of salt each day for maintenance — this much provides 12 grams of sodium. Heat, humidity, and exercise increase the horse’s need. There are several ways to accomplish this:
— Granulated salt can be offered free-choice. Check your source for prussic acid, an anti-caking agent. This contains cyanide and should be avoided.
— A salt rock should be available should your horse want more. Experiment with different natural types to see what your horse enjoys most. Many horses, however, are not comfortable with constant licking.
— If salt consumption is too low via free-choice feeding, calculate the amount of sodium your horse is getting from any commercial feeds or supplements and add salt accordingly. (For palatability, limit the amount to no more than 1 tablespoon per meal.)
— Do not offer electrolyte supplements instead of plain salt. Electrolytes are meant to replace perspiration losses and the horse must be in good sodium balance (from salt) before adding them.
— Watch the iodine content in mineralized salt preparations. Too much iodine, and not enough selenium, can damage the thyroid gland. Iodine and selenium intakes need to be similar.
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