As show/riding season gets under way, we will be traveling longer distances in warmer weather, horses will be sweating more profusely in the summer heat, and the threat of dehydration colic increases. It behooves the savvy horse owner to plan weeks in advance to be able to predict your horse's water consumption while away from home. Remember: dehydration is the number one cause of colic and colic is the number one cause of mortality in horses! Water is the #1 nutrient in your horse's diet plan!!!
First and foremost, know what is NORMAL for your horse. Do you know how many gallons your horse drinks on a typical day? Do you know WHEN they like to drink? How does exercise affect water consumption? These are some questions that you might want to ponder, answer, and note before you leave for your first event. For some, it may mean turning off the auto-waters for a couple days to measure how much they drink in buckets. I use those 7 gallon flexible garden tubs for water buckets when traveling. At the last show, the horses drank between 1.5-2 of them a day which is 10.5-14 gallons of water per horse!
My competition horse always drinks after consuming her grain ration, so I use this to my advantage by feeding her Outlast stomach buffer mixed with a handful of grain about 15-20 minutes before loading her into the trailer. She then drinks right before we travel, so I know she's hydrated.
Train horses at home to drink. Over the years, I've seen a few clever ideas to encourage water consumption on the road. One trainer I know feeds ALL of her horses' pelleted products, everyday, in a watery soup! Though messy, she has trained each horse to slurp up the water before accessing the pellets at the bottom of the bucket. She can then use this technique to ensure that horses drink water whenever she wishes. Another idea is to find a sugary solution that masks foreign water smells and makes the water tasty. Ideas have ranged from Tang and Gatorade, to fruit juice or molasses. The trick though, lies in training this behavior BEFORE you leave. Don't rely on this technique, however, if you haven't practiced it and made it habit at home. Also, if you add something to your horse's water while away from home, make sure you provide a fresh bucket of water without the solution next to it in case the solution has the opposite effect.
Literature and nutritionists agree that daily electrolyte supplementation is NOT beneficial. However, having a tube of electrolytes on hand (that you know that your horse likes) is a good idea for long distance travel, competing in extremely hot/humid climates, and performing in significantly higher elevations. Plain white salt (NaCl) is part of the electrolyte crowd, so adding 2-4 TBS of plain white granular salt to their diet could help. Start this a couple days before leaving on your trip if you don't already do this daily.
Bring water from home on day trips or overnighters. Water from different regions will have different smells and tastes, so I always travel with enough water to get me through a day or two. I LOVE my Country Plastics upright water caddy that squeezes into the corner of the trailer tack room.
Offer water frequently while traveling. I stop to offer water at least once every three hours or more if weather is extra hot! Offering the water, even if they don't drink every time, will train them to drink while traveling. Also, the extra stops give them nice breaks to relax their muscles and chew hay. Hay consumption while traveling will encourage water consumption too.
Water is the most important nutrient that your horse consumes on a daily basis, yet we often forget to stress about it as much as other parts of our horse's nutrition. All five steps listed above are tools in your nutrition toolbox to prevent dehydration colic, so go figure out how many gallons are in that bucket and starting counting. Also, experiment before you leave home with any water enhancers or electrolytes. This homework will give you super powers and extreme peace of mind once you've hit the road.