Thursday, November 23, 2017

Winter Salt - and avoiding dehydration.

A quick reminder - don't skimp on the salt just because it's getting colder.

Even in the Southwest with the crazy weather - record highs in the daytime and cooling down at night, many horses are less inclined to drink enough water.  In most areas, horses are transitioning from pasture to hay for the winter with it's much lower moisture levels - and even when pasture is still available the moisture content is usually much lower than spring and summer grass.  This transition is a critical time for impaction colic as total water intake is reduced. For older horses this is compounded by the lower levels of saliva they produce even in optimal conditions.

Can we prevent impaction colic related to low water intake?

Adding salt to your horse's feed will help trigger thirst and increased drinking.  If you haven't already made a habit of adding a Tablespoon of salt to the feed, it may take some time for your horse to get used to the taste - start small with just a sprinkle and work up to an ounce a day for the average horse. Don't rely on salt blocks - horses generally can't get adequate amounts from them - but a plain white block should be available as a backup.  If you see the block being worn down from use, that's an indicator you probably should be adding more salt to the feed.  Loose salt is a good option but you need to protect it from rain and monitor intake.

It's also important to monitor water intake. I prefer to not use automatic waterers so I can quickly judge how much water my horses are drinking. For an average size horse we want to see them drinking at least five gallons a day, and preferably closer to 8-10 gallons when on dry hay and feed.
Automatic waterers need to be checked frequently - and an alternativee water source supplied if there is a chance they might freeze.

If you do have automatic waterers, learn how to check you horses hydration by doing a skin pinch on the neck - it should "snap back" within a second or two - and press your thumb on the gums to check capillary refill - the spot you pressed should pink up again within 2-3 seconds.  A horse becoming dehydrated will appear "gaunt" - even if they have good body condition - a telltale spot to check is the flank right in front of the hip.  Another sign is "sticky" mucous membranes and manure that appears dry.

Whether your use tanks, buckets, automatic waterers or a combination, consider the reliability of your water source.  Could a storm cause power outages which will keep your well from functioning or cause the water company's pumps to fail?  Think ahead and prefill extra tanks and buckets if they might be needed.

In warmer parts of the country, we're usually not as well prepared for freezes and may need to resort to bringing warm water from the house if there is a hard freeze.  Lining buckets or trash containers with clean garbage bags then closing the tops will let you transport full buckets without half of it splashing out.

If you suspect your horse is becoming dehydrated, try to provide as much wet feed as possible - soupy beet pulp or hay pellet mashes, well soaked hay.  Even if the hay freezes, as long as the horse eats it they'll get the benefit of the moisture.

I'm saddened every time I hear of a horse with a winter impaction which might have been avoided by monitoring water intake and the most important supplement of all - plain white salt!

Patti in (crazy record high hot) Vail AZ


  1. Hi Patti - I was wondering about adding extra salt if the horse has had a history of ulcers or stomach discomfort? Does salt tend to irritate the guts?

    Thanks, as always - Allana and Mojave

    1. Hi Allana ~
      No - the added salt won’t hurt the gut if it is mixed in with the feed. Horses who become used to free choice salt will make frequent use of it on their own - they wouldn’t do that if it bothered them. I give my horses around 3 oz/day in their feed (beet pulp + Timothy pellets + minerals and flax) - it is a bit more than they need for sodium but it’s currently their primary source of iodine at the moment. An ounce of salt in the winter for an average (900-1000lb) horse that isn’t working hard is a good insurance level as long as they are getting 4+ mg of iodine from their supplement or something like Source.

      When salt (and other electrolytes) can be a problem and possibly contribute to ulcers is when they are bolused or syringed in - they way endurance riders often do - and not diluted well by the horse eating and drinking. In this case, salt is a minor issue but potassium can be very irritating. And if a horse is already dehydrated, it’s best to slowly add salt in feed that also supplies water - like sloppy beet pulp mash.