Hydration & Forage

7 min read
Hydration & Forage

Hydration & Forage

Hydration and Forage

Dehydration can negatively affect both health and performance. Dr David Marlin gives us the facts on the link between hydration and forage. 

Dr David Marlin 
Scientist and writer 26/05/2020

Water really is amazing

It is the only substance that exists as a solid, liquid and gas at the natural temperatures on the earth’s surface. Around 97% of the water on earth is in the oceans (326,000,000 cubic miles) and only around 0.3% of the total water on earth is accessible for drinking; around 1/10th of the water that is not sea water. Pure water is sometimes referred to as the universal solvent as more things dissolve in water than anything else. Pure water is also colourless, odourless and tasteless. The water that we drink today is the same water that was on the planet when life began and is the same water that the dinosaurs drank. Water is continuously recycled.

We all know how important water is for survival. We can only survive for around 3 days without water, depending on the weather, although people have survived for up to 10 days. We can go much longer without food; anywhere from 2-4 weeks. If a person lost 5% of their bodyweight as sweat during exercise they would be in trouble. For a horse this amount of dehydration is well tolerated. Horses appear to be particularly resistant to dehydration, most likely due to their large hindgut which holds a lot of water. When water is lost from the circulation through sweating, this is replaced by water drawn from the hindgut. This is one of the reasons that gut sounds are reduced in endurance horses. The downside of this is that if the hindgut has less water than normal then its function is affected and this can increase the risk of impaction colic.

Dehydration can negatively affect both health and performance. Performance starts to be affected at a loss of around 5% (25kg in a 500kg horse). Interestingly, decreases in bodyweight of up to 3% are associated with improvements in performance. Dehydration can worsen respiratory disease such as IAD, and particularly in horses with chronic conditions such as equine asthma. Dehydration leads to thickening of mucus and poorer/slower clearance from the airways. Dehydration during transport on longer journeys (over ~10h) also increases the risk of “shipping fever” (pneumonia). This is because the combination of elevated head position, reduced air quality, thickening and therefore slower clearance of mucus and immune suppression leads to rapid growth of pathogenic (disease causing) bacteria that normally live in the horses’ airways.

A 500kg horse contains around 300 litres of water. Of this, around 100 litres is outside the cells of the body and around 200 litres is inside the cells. Of the 100 litres outside the cells, around 50 litres is in the GI tract, 40 litres is in the circulation and the remaining 10 litres is between cells or in the lymphatic system. Perhaps surprisingly the lungs are over 90% water, whilst blood is only around 80% water and the brain around 70%. Even bone contains around 40% water! The horse takes in water by drinking but also through water stored in feed and forages and at the same time water is lost in urine and faeces, breath and sweat. The amount of water that can be lost in faeces is often not appreciated as faeces are usually 80-90% water. Some water is also lost each day through the skin even when the horse is not sweating. This is because the skin is not like plastic and impermeable to water. Around 45% of the water lost each day will be in faeces, around 30% in sweat, respiratory water loss and loss through the skin and only around 25% in urine.

Over time water intake and water loss much balance to maintain normal hydration (sometimes referred to as euhydration). The hydration status of the body is monitored by sensing the concentration of sodium in the blood. The body then either stimulates drinking through thirst to correct dehydration or increases urine production if there is too much water in the body.

Many different things influence how much water a horse drinks each day including: forage type, feed type, protein intake, exercise, transport, stress, thermal environment, quality of water, electrolyte intake, reproductive state, lactation, diarrhoea, health and behaviour. Certain medications can also increase water intake, including diuretics (drugs that increase urine production e.g. furosemide) and glucocorticoids (e.g. prednisone). An average normal water intake would be around 5% of bodyweight per day – 25 litres in a 500kg horse.

The amount of water a horse drinks is very strongly influenced by the type of forage fed. So a horse at pasture 24/7 might be getting 50 litres of water from the grass as grass is low in dry matter and high in water and these horses may drink very little water from buckets or troughs. The same horse eating ad lib haylage might only get 20 litres of water as haylage has a higher dry matter content than pasture and so we would expect to see a greater intake of water. Finally, if we are feeding ad libitum hay then the same horse may only get 5 litres of water a day from the hay and in this case we would expect to find them drinking 20-30 litres of water.

Climate also has a major impact on water consumption. Allowing for differences in diet, a horse in light work in cool weather may drink 20 litres per day whereas the same horse working hard in warm weather may drink 50 litres per day. Adding electrolytes to the horses’ diet will also increase water intake and this is often used for horses that are prone to impaction colic to ensure they are always hydrated.

Some studies have also shown that water consumption varies according to how the water is presented to the horse, with water consumption being less in small bowl automatic waters compared with buckets or troughs.

Water temperature may also influence water consumption, especially in cold weather. Ponies living outside at around -5°C drank 40% less cold water at ~1-2°C than water at 19°C. But when indoors at 15-29°C ponies drank similar amounts of cold and warm (23°C) water (Kristula and McDonnell, 1994; McDonnell and Kristula,1996).

The response following exercise appears to be different. In the first 5 minutes after exercise horses drank and average of 10 litres of water at 10°C, 12 litres at 20°C or 10 litres at 30°C. Between 20 and 60 min of recovery horses drank: 10°C - 5 litres; 20°C 8 litres; 30°C – 7 litres. Over the whole hour after exercise horses drank most water at 20°C (20 litres) compared with 30°C (16 litres) or 10°C 15 litres) (Butudom et al. 2004).

Soaking and steaming hay 

Soaking and steaming hay are good ways to increase the water content and help improve hygienic quality and offset dehydration. Steaming of course has the advantage of being much quicker and maintaining nutritional quality of hay CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION. The amount of water that will be taken up will depend upon the water content and maturity of the forage being soaked or steamed. Earing et al. (2013) found that steaming increased the water content of an alfalfa-orchard grass mixed hay (initial water content 8%) to 23% (an almost 3x increase). In a 2h feeding period the horses also ate 4x as much steamed hay compared with the same hay unsteamed. The same authors using similar hays found that soaking for 15 or 60 min increase the water content from 9% to around 17-21%.

Some horses may appear to drink much more than expected for their diet, level of exercise and climate due to a number of conditions. One of the early signs of Cushings (PPID) in horses is an increase in water intake. If you notice your horse is drinking more than normal and if there has been no change in workload, weather or diet then it would be advisable to contact your vet. As in people, increased drinking and urination can be a sign of kidney failure, but this is rare in horses. Finally, some horses may drink excessively due to boredom; this is referred to as psychogenic polydipsia. Horses with this condition are relatively easy to diagnose and will have a low plasma sodium concentration combined with a very pale urine (low urine specific gravity).

Key Points

  • Normal healthy horses have a wide range of normal water intake. 
  • Water consumption is affected by forage type, feed type, protein intake, exercise, transport, stress, thermal environment, quality of water, electrolyte intake, reproductive state, lactation, diarrhoea, health, medications and behaviour.
  • Do not restrict water intake unless under veterinary advice.
  • Horses can be allowed to drink up until the time of exercise and immediately on finishing exercise without ill effects.
  • Steaming hay is not only a good way to improve hygienic quality and palatability, it also increases water intake.


Butudom P, Barnes DJ, Davis MW, Nielsen BD, Eberhart SW, Schott HC 2nd. 2004. Rehydration fluid temperature affects voluntary drinking in horses dehydrated by furosemide administration and endurance exercise. Vet J. 2004 Jan;167(1):72-80.

Earing, J.E., M.R. Hathaway, C.C. Sheaffer, B.P. Hetchler, L.D. Jacobson, J.C. Paulson, and K.L. Martinson. 2013. The effect of hay steaming on forage nutritive values and dry matter intake by horses. Journal of Animal Science. 91: 5813-5820.

Kristula, M. and McDonnell, S. (1004) Drinking water temperature affects consumption of water during cold weather in ponies. Appl Anim Behav Sci 41, 155-160.

Martinson, K., Jung, H., Hathaway, M. and Sheaffer, C (2011) The Effect of Soaking on Carbohydrate Removal and Dry Matter Loss in Orchardgrass and Alfalfa Hays, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, Volume 32 , Issue 6 , 332 - 338

McDonnell, S. and Kristula, M. (1996) No effect of drinking water temperature (ambient vs. chilled) on consumption of water during hot summer weather in ponies. Appl Anim Behav Sci 49, 159-163.


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