It’s vital to keep your hardworking trail horse hydrated and cool, especially as the weather warms up this season. Here, endurance champion Lari Shea, owner of California’s Ricochet Ridge Ranch, gives you her top tips to encourage your trail horse to drink water on the trail and after a ride. Then she’ll give you important electrolyte guidelines. Finally, she’ll outline her safe, effective cool-down routine.
- Let him drink on the trail. “Let your horse drink every time you come to water on the trail,” says Shea. “Encourage him to drink out of streams and puddles. Most water sources are fine.” Horses often prefer mud puddles to ice-cold running streams. Even though the stream looks cleaner, puddle water is warmer and contains minerals your horse might find appealing. Other horses prefer running water, as their instincts tell them this water is cleaner.
- Allow him to eat on the trail. Allowing your horse to graze on the trail helps to keep him hydrated, as it encourages thirst during exercise. “Many riders don’t let their horses eat when on a long trail ride, but this is a mistake,” says Shea. “There’s no veterinary reason to keep a horse from eating along the trail. Regularly stop your horse and let him graze a few minutes throughout the ride, especially on long outings.
Allowing your horse to eat will also keep his digestive system moving, which helps reduce colic risk. “The intestinal flora in your horse’s hind gut, which aids digestion, starts to die off two hours after he has last eaten,” notes Shea. Back at camp or at the trailhead, dampen his hay and add water to his grain.
- Allow him to drink after your ride. Voluntary drinking during the early recovery stage after exercise is critical for replacing the water and electrolytes lost through sweat. Discard the notion that allowing your horse to drink his fill will cause him to colic, cramp, or tie-up. “A hot, sweaty horse needs to rehydrate,” says Shea. “If you walk him until he’s cool to the touch without letting him drink, he may lose his incentive to drink.”
- Offer tepid water. Studies have shown that horses will voluntarily drink more within the first hour after exercising if the water is about 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Monitor water intake. A normal horse of average size will drink 6 to10 gallons of water per day when he’s not working. If he’s working, he’ll need as much as five times more. Monitor your horse’s water intake, so you’ll know he’s drinking enough. To do so, count the swallows. It takes approximately 25 to 30 swallows for your horse to consume one gallon of water.
- Talk to your vet. If your horse has been working hard and sweating a good amount, he might need an electrolyte (salt) supplement to replace the salt lost in sweat. Talk to your veterinarian first. Your vet can tell you whether this is advisable for your horse and, if recommended, how much to give.
- Make your own paste. If your vet gives the go-ahead to give your horse electrolytes, you can make your own electrolyte paste. Combine two parts regular salt (sodium chloride), two parts lite salt (potassium chloride blend), and one part dolomite powder or Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate). Mix together. Put two tablespoons of the mixture in a tablespoon of water, then add one or two tablespoons of Maalox or yogurt. Administer by syringe into your horse’s mouth, per your vet’s instructions.
The quip “never let ’em see you sweat” certainly doesn’t apply to horses. Your horse creates a tremendous amount of heat when he’s carrying you on the trail. His body dissipates heat in two primary ways: (1) by sending heat to the blood in his peripheral circulatory system, where it flows near the surface and is cooled; and (2) via evaporative cooling of surface moisture (sweat).
When sweat evaporates, the energy exchange cools your horse. Of course, this works best when air humidity is low. If it’s hot and humid, evaporation doesn’t work as well.
“Sweating in itself isn’t a bad thing,” notes Shea. “What matters is how quickly your horse recovers and whether or not he’s dehydrated.
“If your horse sweats a lot, he’ll lose fluids from every body system that contains fluids. He’ll also lose electrolytes. Every system slows down when he gets dehydrated.”
Your horse also dissipates body heat through by breathing in cool air and exhaling hot air. He loses a great deal of moisture with every breath.
Here’s how to help your horse cool off and stay hydrated.
- Wet him down. You can help your hot horse cool off by wetting him down. Tie to your saddle a sponge and/or scoop cut from a plastic bottle. A one-gallon, zip-close plastic bag will also work. When you get to a stream or lake, apply water to your horse’s body.
- Target the water. Focus on wetting the areas of your horse’s body where blood vessels are close to the skin surface, such as his jugular vein, belly, and his front and inside upper hind legs.
- Scrape it off. After you apply the water, use the side of your hand or scoop to scrape off the water as it heats up. Keep replacing the warm water with fresh, cool water. This will help your horse sweat less, cool off faster, and stay hydrated.
- Allow him to stand in water. On the trail, you can also let your horse stand in a stream or lake to cool down.
A champion endurance rider, Lari Shea has completed over more than 6,500 miles in 50- and 100-mile endurance races, placing in the top 10 in 95 of 106 races completed since 1988, and winning first place in 34 of those races. Shea also has more than 30 years of experience as a riding instructor under her belt, specializing in trail and endurance riding. She owns and runs Ricochet Ridge Ranch on the coast in California’s Mendocino County.
Cynthia McFarland is a full-time freelance writer who writes regularly for national horse publications. Horse-crazy since childhood, she owns a small farm in north central Florida. She and her Paint Horse gelding, Ben, enjoy regular trail-riding adventures.