By Darlene Cox
One of the most important requirements of your horse during trail riding is keeping him hydrated. Dehydration may lead to your horse to a bout of colic, tying-up (azoturia), or heat stroke. Dehydration severities can range from mild to life threatening, or even death. Maintaining the proper balance of water and electrolytes for your horse is imperative to his health and your peace of mind. There is no fear greater to any horseman than to be miles out on a trail and have your horse in peril of dying.
Hydration needs of your horse while trail riding are different than when he is at home relaxing in his pasture. Traveling and trail riding are stressful and you may find your horse refusing to drink while on the road, on the trail, or in camp. There may be many factors in the equation that keeps your horse from drinking: the water may not taste the same; he horse is too excited with his new surroundings and will not be calm enough to drink; he may be overheated; or he may have an imbalance in electrolytes.
While riding, we should be ever vigilant of our horse's hydration, and there are several ways that you can test to make sure he is hydrated:
- Skin pinch test - Pinch the skin over the point of the shoulder. If your horse if fully hydrated, his skin will pop back immediately. However, the skin will remain tented (pinched up) the more dehydrated a horse becomes.
- Capillary refill test - Press your thumb against your horse's upper gums. Once you remove it, count the seconds it takes for the area to return to the same color (the depressed area will appear white right after you remove your thumb). It is best to have a baseline number in mind taken at a time when you knew your horse to be fully hydrated. The longer it takes for the capillaries to refill, the more dehydrated your horse is.
- Mucous membrane test of inner eye lid and gums - Observe a baseline color of gums and inner eye lid. This can probably range from pink to a pinkish-yellowish color. Gums should be moist. If the color is dark red, then your horse is dehydrated. Again, you are looking for a deviation in color from the baseline.
- Jugular vein refill test - Squeeze off the jugular vein for a moment before allowing it to refill. Count the elapsed time before refill. Again, having a baseline reading is important.
- Gut sounds - If you are proficient with the use of a stethoscope, you can listen to the upper and lower gut sounds to determine hydration. Obtain a baseline reading first. Reduced gut sounds are indicative of dehydration.
There are several steps that we as responsible horse owners can take to insure that our horse is adequately hydrated during trail riding.
- Introduce your horse to electrolytes or other flavorings (Kool-aid, Gatorade, etc.) in his water several days prior to trail riding. This will get your horse used to the taste of the electrolytes and/or flavoring additives, and he will not hesitate to drink them while on the trail ride. Electrolytes will generally stimulate a horse to drink because they are salty. If your horse does not like the taste of the electrolytes or flavorings, bring along a small salt block or add salt to his feed while in camp to encourage drinking.
- If possible, bring water from home and offer to your horse during rest breaks while trailering. Some horses will not drink water from different sources, because it tastes different. However, bringing along the water that he is used to may prompt him to drink. Offer water several times during each stop.
- As soon as you get to camp and off-load your horse, fill up his water bucket and get him settled in before moving off to other things. Keep in mind that your horse will be stressed from the drive, being in different surroundings, and around other horses.
- While on the trail the cardinal rule to remember is to NEVER PASS UP WATER! Each time you need to stop and allow your horse an opportunity to drink. If you are riding in a group of horses, it is important that all riders understand they must remain close at hand to allow every horse an opportunity to drink. If the first riders water their horses and then move on down the trail, those horses left behind will not want to drink for fear of being left behind. Be courteous and thoughtful; always make sure that all horses drink their fill before leaving the watering source.
Some younger horses that are not used to drinking from trail water sources (creeks, ponds, lakes, rivers) may not initially venture to the water because of their uncertainty. Having a been-there-done-that horse in the group go into or to the water first will show the more timid horse that it is okay. This actually mimics horse herd dynamic behavior as often one horse will drink first before the others follow.
Bring along a tube of electrolyte paste in your saddle bags to use in an emergency while on the trail. The tube I always brought along was often time needed either for my own horse or someone else's horse.
Incorporating the above steps will keep your horse happy and well throughout the trail riding season.