You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. Or can you?
Last week was one of those weeks I dread as a horse mom. It started when my mare Diva stopped eating, snubbing her hay and leaving her entire bucket untouched. Not good. Then the glassy eye, out of it, lowest of low energy. Belly sounds ok. Under her lip. Wet. No rolling. No biting at her belly. Good. And then, of course, what only horse owners do, the searching of the paddock for her poops, and examining consistency and number, not easy when she lives with two others horses. Poops were harder than usual and littler. Hmmm. What I didn’t mention was that Vancouver Island has been experiencing an unprecedented heat wave, and our June has been the hottest since sometime in 1930. And that we live on a flat property with little or no wind, some shade, but not as much as I would like, and a rather obnoxious amount of dust from the uncharacterically dry terrain. It is not, like so many properties here on Vancouver Island, optimal horse territory. And like many horse owners, we work with what we’ve got.
Diva, a 16 year old dark bay Percheron Morgan, has been in my life for a little under twelve years. Let me just say that this horse is the most important thing in my life, bar none and when she is not well, well, I am a bit of a mess. She is not a good drinker at the best of times and worse in the heat, when she refuses to leave her position under the biggest shadiest tree on the property, and is even harder to monitor with our large tubs and three horse herd. She was also born and raised on the west coast, just like me, and as such, very unaccustomed to a heat wave where temperatures hover above 30 degrees celsius for weeks on end with no reprieve in sight. In general, I am an very attentive horse mom. On this occasion I fell slightly short, due to my own dislike of the sun and all things hot and a few days traveling for work. It meant less time was spent checking in and spending quality time in and out of the saddle and that I missed the signs of Diva’s decline into dehydration. To my credit, Diva is all about subtlely, as many horses are, and dehydration is one of those things that only begins to appear as external symptoms, and fairly hard to read ones at that, when the body’s lack of water is getting into the red zone. It means that dehydration is easy to miss until it’s too late.
In my case, too late translated into a visit from the vet, who proceeded to sedate, examine her intestines inside and out (that armpit high glove always makes me so glad about my decision not to become a vet), inject with Banamine, tube, hydrate with fluids and electrolytes and leave me with a finally hungry horse to get as much water into as possible. Before that I was busy syringing her water and electrolytes (much to her annoyance), doing regular energy and body work, and bathing her to try to beat the heat, but was getting increasingly worried by her continued disinterest in all things life giving, like food and water.
Today, you’ll be very happy to hear, Diva’s poops are just gorgeous (and yes, if you’re a horse person you totally get this), she’s eating away and drinking loads and galloping about as if nothing ever happened (here she is striking a pose a few days ago). Hooray! It was a wake-up call for me and I’ve heard of several cases of mild to severe dehydration happening in parallel to Diva’s incident, one mare teetering scarily close to death. Which means it’s a very good thing to be aware of and know how to work with for any horse owner.
Here are some of the things I learned about how to lead a horse to water and actually make them drink, all of which you can take away and use with your horses during this spicy summer we’ve got ahead of us.
Sometimes you just have to make a horse drink. Horses, bless their beautiful hearts, can be somewhat stubborn about the idea so here’s a few ways to convince them it’s essential to drink something (which it most definitely is).
- First off, syringes are magical things, as are water and electrolytes. Diva was beyond annoyed at me at first for invading her personal mouth space and syringing as much water mixed with electrolytes as I could get into her, but she got used to it after a day or so. Agreed, about a half of the stuff ended up on the ground but that means that half of it actually went somewhere and did something, which is much better than nothing. Have a bag of electrolytes at the ready, for whatever heat wave is coming your way and make sure you’re mixing it with lots and lots of water. Electrolytes can be toxic if not accompanied by adequate amounts of water. I’ve heard products like Thirst Quench can work great too to amplify your horses desire for water and combine well with electrolytes.
- Next, start soaking your hay. This is an awesome way to get water into your horse and keep the dust down during the dry spells. I’ve taken to soaking for about an hour (so I don’t lose too many nutrients) and draining off before I feed, or giving it a good spray down right before feeding for a healthy dose of moisture without losing any nutrients. An hour of soaking will is great medicine for horses that are sensitive to sugar, cutting down the sugar levels in their hay substantially. I drain off and feed in the same bucket to keep the dust down. And if you’re feeding cubes or beet pulp make it extra extra watery. Voila!
- Buckets and troughs everywhere! Make sure water is everywhere your horse is. If your horse is un-enthused about drinking like Diva, make it as convenient as possible for them to drink. When things are hot, dehydration can happen quickly and horses tend to find the shade and stay in it, so the easier it is to hydrate the better.
- Last way to make your horse “drink”. If your horse can do grass (be sure of this before trying – many horses have a sensitivity to grass), find the lushest, greenest around and graze them for short intervals. The greener the better so you know it contains lots of moisture and nutrients. Surprisingly, dry and yellowed grass can contain more sugar than moist, wet grass. This one will also earn you plenty of brownie points with your equine bestie.
Cool things down. Our horses are far more prone to heat exhaustion than we are, so here’s a few ways to keep them cool as a cucumber this summer.
- Choose your ride times carefully. If you’re a lover of all things hot, you might be tempted to take your horse out for a ride in the heat of the day. Take into consideration that your horse, your friend, will probably not benefit from that choice. Ride early, ride late. Do it when it’s cooler, when less water is going to be lost from your horse’s already challenged supplies.
- Do what you need to do to lower the core temperature. If you don’t have a thermometer for your horse, now is a great time to get one. If your horse doesn’t seem to be holding up well in the heat, do a daily internal temperature check and make sure they are under the magic number of 101 degrees (if not, it’s time to call the vet). Then find your preferred tactic for lowering body temperature. With Diva, I gave her daily dowsings with the hose but found that the water usage and the fact that the water temperature was not very cool made this a less effective method than hoped. A friend filled a bucket full of ice and water and used a towel to cool down the key areas, between the hind legs, on the belly, between the front legs, on the neck and at the withers. Over the kidneys can be helpful as well. I think this is a great idea and will definitely be trying it out next time, if there is a next time. With all of this, making your safety top priority. Not all horses are fans of ice cold water in the privates.
- Shelter. Need I say more? This is an essential. Your horse needs a place to beat the heat and since you can’t bring them in the house, if you don’t have something for shelter, it’s time to fashion one. Big trees will do the trick and preferably a stall or shelter that stays out of the sun and cool throughout the day.
Last thing, think outside the box. If your horse gravitates towards dehydration and nothing seems to stop the cycle, there could be some deeper emotional or energetic factors at hand. Water and our relationship to it, has multiple connections to our emotional well-being. It’s well worth getting some help on this level now, for a way healthier future. I’d be happy to help out and often one energy work session is enough to shift things remarkably.
If you’re wondering if your horse is dehydrated, it is worthwhile taking a closer look. After working with thousands of horses, I’ve seen dehydration show up in countless ways.
In Diva it showed up as poor digestion moving slowly towards impaction in the hind gut presenting as low appetite, glazed over and glassy eyes, elevated respiration and coughing, hard balled-up manure, lowered elasticity in the skin and low energy. But it can also present more subtly and chronically as arthritis, allergies, sore muscles, issues within the immune system and poor quality of coat, skin and hooves. In my experience, our horses are like us, and by majority are hovering on the edge of dehydration most of the time, particularly in the heat. It is worthwhile trying out a few of the things above to get water into their system. And because energy work is my thing, try out my hydration visualization for you and your animals which makes sure that the water going into your systems goes where it needs to go, into the cells, and not straight to your bladders.
I hope this piece and my not-so-fun experience with Diva helps even a few horses and their people stay hydrated and happy through this unprecedented heat! Stay cool, stay hydrated. If you’re concerned or your horse is showing symptoms of dehydration, consult a professional. Water is absolutely essential and things can get serious quickly if noticable symptoms of dehydration are left unaddressed.