Cold weather can be a challenge for everybody, even for farmers and ranchers. Cold weather makes everything a little bit harder to accomplish and equipment tends to get broken or fail more often in winter, or at least seems to be. Horses are specially sensitive to cold weather and lack of proper hydration during cold days. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, when horses consume winter feeds, water requirements may increase. Hay and grain typically contain less than 15% moisture, while in contrast, pastures posses 60 to 80% moisture. There are two common complications resulting from inadequate water consumption during cold weather: decreased feed intake and impaction colic. Even if quality feed is offered, horses will consume less if not drinking enough water. If less feed is consumed, horses might not have enough energy to tolerate the cold. Fecal contents must maintain adequate moisture levels. If fecal material becomes too dry, intestinal blockage or impaction may occur. A horse will not develop an impaction in one day, but can over several days to several weeks of inadequate water consumption.
Most adult horses weighing 1,000 pounds require a minimum of 10 to 12 gallons of water each day for their basic physiological needs. During winter months, water should be kept between 45 to 65°F to maximize consumption. Previous research indicated that ponies increased their water consumption by approximately 40% each day when the water was warmed above freezing during cold weather. Increasing salt intake will also stimulate a horse to drink more; adult horses should consume one to two ounces of salt per day. Waterers should be cleaned regularly, and clean, fresh water should always be available, regardless of temperature. If using a tank heater to warm water, inspect it carefully for worn wires or other damage, and check the water for electrical sensations or shocks. Snow or ice is not an adequate water source for horses. There have been a few scientific studies that show some horses who are acclimated to winter weather conditions can meet their water requirements from snow. However, there are serious health risks associated with snow consumption, including the length of adjustment period as horses learn to ingest snow, the actual water content of the snow, and total water intake. Therefore, some wild horses can receive their water needs from snow, but the risk of gastrointestinal tract problems, colic, and reduced feed intake is significant for domestic horses. It is important to have a good working client relationship with a trusted veterinarian that can help you if your horse colic. Colic is a veterinary emergency that needs prompt care.