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The Importance of Hydration

For Horses When Traveling By Brad Harter

It was only after traveling for more than 50 years over hundreds of thousands of miles, with hundreds of different horses, that I really learned of the importance of keeping horses hydrated, and the importance of getting all of them to drink enough water to prevent the many problems even slight dehydration may trigger when traveling and riding.

THE FACTS- In general, horses need a minimum of 10 gallons of water intake every 24 hours and they may require as much as twice that amount to stay fully hydrated. But it is also important to understand the different factors that come into play for dehydration such as…

  • The daily temperature

  • The length of your trip

  • How long you will be riding

  • How much water a horse may have consumed before the trip or your ride

This all can affect, to some degree, the amount of water a horse may need. And, why some horses refuse to drink or limit their intake of fluids, especially when traveling long distances in a trailer will vary with the horses. Their age, their experience with traveling, and to some degree even their gender, can also be a factor. Knowing if your horse is dehydrated is simply observed by performing the pinch test on the neck. Pull the hideaway an inch or two and release it. If it snaps back quickly that is normal and your horse is probably not experiencing dehydration. If it does not snap back and goes back slowly in two or three seconds that is a good indicator your horse may be starting to dehydrate. For horses, the signal to drink is much different than the signal to drink for humans. The reason for that is our bodies retain salt much differently than a horse’s body does. When a horse sweats, a good portion of its salt dissipates in that sweat. It is salt in the body that is the trigger signal for thirst and drinking for humans. But, the more the horse sweats the more salt they lose, then the less signaling they receive that they may need to drink. And understanding the “water in/water out” factor becomes a part of the picture…

TRAVELING- Many years ago, a veterinarian friend told me that it was his belief that more than 90% of the problems we encountered with horses when traveling with them and hauling them in trailers were related to the horses becoming dehydrated. Colic, tying up (azoturia) and even founder can be triggered by something as simple as a horse becoming dehydrated during travel. The In/Out Factor: Horses need to urinate in order to drink more water, and not every horse likes to urinate in a trailer. If the floor is barren with rubber mats or wood flooring and there are no shavings many horses will not urinate because of the impact of splashing. Many mares will not urinate even with bedding underneath them because it splashes against the wall behind them. Getting mares off the trailer and short walking them is sometimes the only solution to get many mares to urinate. If you have put fresh bedding down in your trailer before leaving home, you can get that while on the road to see if your horses may have urinated. If it does not appear that they have passed any urine and you are a male, try standing quietly along their flank and take a leak yourself (no joke). This works well with about half your male horses especially if the trailer has been stopped for 15 minutes or longer. If you are a female and are not comfortable peeing in the trailer, take a small bottle of water and slowly dribble it down alongside the flank area. Placing older experienced traveling horses that are good urinators alongside horses that are not good at passing urine sometimes helps. Flushing the kidneys with water in and water out can be greatly beneficial in preventing more serious problems when traveling.


If you have ridden them all day in warm weather and put them on the trailer for a long ride home, getting them to drink for the ride or during that ride can be a challenge. There are two simple solutions to preventing this problem.

First, make certain they have free-choice salt before leaving home. Second, if you are going to be gone for more than a day take a bag of loose salt with you. What I have found is the best way to ensure they get that salt is to put it with their customary grain in a nose bag. Where they cannot pick around the salt. Getting them used to feed and salt in the nosebag before your trip always helps.


There is often one other problem you may encounter when traveling away from home with your horses in reference to getting them to drink enough water. Water often smells different in different parts of the country. I’ve been to some areas where it had a rotten egg smell just enough that the finicky drinking horses will turn their nose up refusing to drink. There is a solution to this problem...

There are a number of commercial products on the market to add to water that can help and some of them also contain electrolytes. But an old standby I have used often is simply Gatorade. The orange or cherry seems to work best but I cannot tell you why. You only need to use about half a bottle to a five-gallon bucket in most cases. The best thing you can do is condition your horse to the Gatorade addition a few days before leaving home. In some areas of the Midwest that rotten egg smell can be so bad, you might have to splurge and add a whole bottle of Gatorade to get those finicky drinkers hydrated enough. It is not the electrolytes in the Gatorade that are important but the simple fact it may help in masking the odor that is keeping your horse from drinking.

There is one last fail-proof solution if the Gatorade doesn’t work...

You have all heard you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink! While that may be true there is one other way to hydrate your horse, but I only suggest this method if you have been properly trained on how to perform this procedure. This procedure can also be beneficial in colic or twisted gut emergency. This requires a stomach tube, some lubricant, a small funnel if you have someone to help, or a small handpump. The lubricated stomach tube is passed down the esophagus and must not go down the trachea or windpipe! Having a veterinarian trained and skilled in this procedure is highly recommended. The water is added very slowly and is best if warmed slightly. A small amount is recommended like a gallon or maybe two depending on the degree of dehydration. Again, consult with a trusted veterinarian before performing this method of hydration. But do know that this procedure may be needed in extreme cases of dehydration.

And, never underestimate the importance of keeping horses properly hydrated. The many potential problems you can avoid will be well worth the extra effort to keep them hydrated in the trailer and on the trails!


Brad was an instructor by Hocking College in 1968 as a forestry and wildlife instructor. Brad developed a wilderness horse program in the natural resource program at the college in 1987, The first of its kind in the country. The original program was designed to meet the growing needs of federal and state agencies to employ people with natural resource training and backgrounds to safely use horses and mules in wilderness settings. The equine program grew to more than 50 unique equine classes and three distinct degree programs. During his last 25 years at Hocking Hills Brad taught several equine classes that he developed as requested by the industry. These classes included not only riding classes but also colt training, draft horse driving, and advanced packing in the wilderness into remote regions of the western states. Over those 30 years, Brad took more than 50 groups of students, along with hundreds of different horses, into remote wilderness areas in Wyoming and Colorado, working on various work projects for the United States Forest Service.

During that same period, Brad also began his own video business spending thousands of hours filming pack trips, as well as bird dog events all over North America from horseback. Brad has filmed thousands upon thousands of hours of field trials, along with following thousands of skilled dogs, while riding on the back of some great horses, who took him every step of the way.

If you ever get a chance to meet with Brad and listen to him share his wealth of knowledge, do not pass it up.


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