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Mimi on the left, galloping into the finish at the 120km FEI 2* class at Cirencester 2005. (Photo by kind permission of Eric G Jones). This was a hot day with temperatures measured at over 30 degrees at the venue. Mimi's intake of water was much higher than normal on this particular day.
Your horse's body loses fluid through sweating, urination, defeacation and other processes (for example respiration). If your horse is not replacing those lost fluids at the same rate as they are being lost, dehydration occurs. Replacement of fluid comes primarily from drinking, although some fluid is also absorbed from wet feed (sugar beet, fresh grass etc). When exercising, horses create lots of heat which must be removed from the body and sweating is the best way for this to occur. However, this means alot of fluid loss, and this fluid must be replaced to allow the horse to continue on course to the end. These are the tips I have been given to prevent dehydration...
Before the ride....
To ensure good hydration before a ride, try the following ideas which have been suggested to me and I have found to be successful. Firstly, feed table salt every day (50g or 2 tablespoons for a normal horse, up to 100g a day for horses which suffer azoturia). This can be given in the feed or put in a bucket of water alongside your horse's unsalty water. Also feed a broad spectrum vit/min supplement (Equizest Endurance Plus is my personal favourite - www.equizest.com ) to ensure your horse is getting sufficient electrolytes and vitamins for performance over distance. Alternatively you can give electrolytes for several days prior to the ride, during the ride and for several days post-competition.
Feed plenty of roughage such as hay or haylage. This helps to draw water into the hindgut so encourages your horse to drink more, and provides a good source of water for when the horse begins exercise.
You can also provide sugar beet water (1 scoop of soaked sugar beet in a bucket of water) - it looks revolting but the sugar beet sweetens the water so your horse drinks more and it also provides extra fibre when the horse gets to the bottom of the bucket and eats the sugar beet.
Add water to the feed, up to half the feed bowl, to increase fluid intake with horses less inclined to drink straight from the buckets.
Finally, offer your horse water before leaving on the morning of the ride, and also offer water again when you arrive at the competition - travelling also causes dehydration!
During the ride...
Firstly, teach your horse to drink from water troughs, puddles etc when training at home - how? It's easy...
Initially teach your horse that GENTLY sliding the bit from side to side means "drop your head" - as soon as your horse's head drops, reward with "good boy/girl" and scratching the withers. Scratching the withers helps lower the pulse too - horses with high pulses tend not to drink but as the pulse drops your horse may relax and decide to drink after all. Repeat this and reward any lowering of the head until it is a learnt response by your horse. You can do this in your yard at home - it doesn't need to be at a water trough yet!
Next step is to ask for this response at a water trough when out riding. Keep asking your horse to "drop the head" until he has dipped his lips into the water and then reward with the voice and scratching withers again. You DO NOT LEAVE until your horse has DIPPED HIS MOUTH IN THE WATER.
Most horses do not drink at this stage, but they do learn that if they put their mouth in the water they are rewarded and then allowed to carry on. If they do drink that is great, and remember to use lots of reward. You must now repeat this step until it is absolutely clear in your horse's mind that he must "dip the lips" each time you offer water. You can also repeat this at puddles, streams and other water sources you may find.
This process I have described above is important at the rides because if your horse is getting dehyrated but is still excited, he will generally want to carry on without drinking. By training your horse to always put his mouth in the water, he will get a small amount of fluid in his mouth and if thirsty this may be enough for your horse to decide to drink properly. If you cannot get your horse to even "dip his lips", then chances are he will not drink.
Secondly, provide plain water, salty or electrolyted water and sugar beet water and let your horse choose which he prefers. You can also put pieces of carrot and apple in the water to encourage your horse to "apple-bob" and then decide to drink.
Thirdly, give your horse electrolytes. We give a small amount at every vet gate of a major ride (more than 80km), just before the horse goes back out onto the course. At rides up to 80km, we rely purely on providing salty water which the horse can choose to drink from. REMEMBER NEVER GIVE ELECTROLYTES BEFORE YOUR HORSE DRINKS - if your horse is dehydrated and you give him more electrolytes this will pull water from the already dehydrated body tissues INTO THE GUT and results in further dehydration of the body. Always give electrolytes after your horse has had a drink and before resuming exercise to encourage drinking at the next crew point or vet gate.
Fourthly, try to crew your horse approximately every 7 miles (11km). This allows your horse to get into a good rhythm round the ride and he can drink at regular intervals. Crewing more frequently disturbs the rhythm and crewing at longer intervals may result in a reduced performance as the horse gets more dehydrated between crew stops.
Finally, in most cases competitions are held on warm sunny days when dehydration is most likely to occur due to the higher temperatures and humidity. However I have had two rides where the weather was absolutely horrid (high winds, thick fog, hard rain and sticky ground conditions). In order to avoid dehydration at these rides, we found we needed to FEED the horses in order to get them to drink at the crew points. This was simply due to the horses getting cold despite the fact that they were trotting and cantering almost the entire way. As they were cold, they didn't fancy drinking, but by giving them handfuls of feed they picked up and were prepared to drink properly again.
Rehydration after the ride...
The amount of rehydration necessary will be related to the level of dehydration achieved during the ride, so the better hydrated your horse is during competition, the faster he should recover. I provide my horses with plenty of plain, salty and sugar beet water for up to 72-hours post-competition, both in the stables and in the field.
Dehydration is best avoided by correct training to make sure your horse is fit enough, and by riding according to the weather conditions on the day. A hot humid day is going to result in a much slower competition than a cool breezy day, so adapt your riding and speed to the conditions you are in.
Lastly, always WAIT for your horse to drink - given a minute or two to relax most horses who have been working more than 45mins will drink. At the big competitions, I provide my horses with a drink and a "slosh" after they have been warmed up but BEFORE THE START of the actual ride so they go out having already started to drink!
If you have any comments or questions, please contact me through the horsesanddogs website and I will be happy to help.
Last updated 27.12.07