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Water for Horses


The Most Important - and Overlooked - Nutrient for Horses

  • By Kathy Agnew

"I used to go to a large boarding stable that had a sign over the tap that read, 'Water not potable, do not drink.' But forty horses had to drink it every day." Dr. Joyce Harman*

Water has been in the news a lot lately. From the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico to concerns over our warm, dry winter, May's record heat and the recent discovery of contaminated bottled water. More and more people are opting for home water treatment such as Reverse Osmosis or Ultraviolet Sterilization to control the quality of their water and insure the health of their families. What about the treasures in our barns?

"Horses should always have free access to a good-quality, palatable water source." Dr. Joe D.Pagan**

Horses drink a lot of water. Studies show that depending upon variables in climate, nutrition, exercise level and health, a 1, 1 00 pound horse will drink between 4 and 23 gallons of water per day! We know precious little about the effect of poor water on horses although water quality issues related to animal health have been debated for decades. Currently there is no regulatory drinking water quality standard for livestock, with the exception of dairy cattle.

Most horses drink well water and the quality of well water is rarely constant. Underground aquifers often draw water from hundreds of miles away and farmland that has been sprayed with pesticides, herbicides and sludge, road drainage and runoff from industrial plants can have a toxic effect on both ground and surface water. While livestock, including horses, are generally able to safely drink water we might be unable to tolerate, there are limits. The young, old and infirm are especially vulnerable to contaminants such as high iron, bacteria, nitrates, high salinity and agricultural contamination.

According to Dr. Dan Pitzen, PhD-as published in Feed Management Magazine & Feed International -"areas of the country that commonly have iron in well water supplies seem to have a greater incidence of laminitis occurring." In addition, Eleanor Kellon, DVM led a study to determine if insulin resistance was related to iron overload. "This study has documented a highly significant elevation of body iron in insulin resistant horses on uncontrolled mineral intakes."

Chlorine, even in the small amounts added to municipal water supplies to combat bacteria, is toxic and the good bacteria the human or equine gut requires to function properly is vulnerable to chlorine. High levels are known to adversely affect human health, but there is no documented research regarding our equine friends. Many people regularly add chlorine to stock tanks to combat bacteria and algae, but it should always be carefully measured - especially if your farm water comes from a municipal supply already treated with chlorine. Better yet.consider healthier and more eco-friendly alternatives such as UV sterilization, barley straw or - yes - goldfish!

Nitrates can accumulate in forage supplies when excessive rates of fertilizer have been applied or when plants have been drought stressed. Generally, horses can tolerate higher nitrate levels than cattle, but again, sick, young or older horses can be affected, slowing the rate of oxygen exchange in red blood cells. Have your hay tested and check the nitrate content of water when a nitrate problem is suspected.

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment recommends you have your well ,especially shallow wells, tested three times per year - and any time you suspect a problem. Your local health unit will test for bacteria and nitrates at no cost, but if you are concerned about additional contaminants you will need to use a certified laboratory. You may collect samples or hire a professional to deliver to a lab for analysis as sampling and handling procedures depend on the water quality concern and must be carefully followed. Treatment exists for all manners of water contamination, but it is important to know exactly what is present before treatment begins.

Insure the health of your family and your horses with thoughtful management of your water supply. Water IS life!

*Dr. Harman is a past president of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, author of The Horse's Pain Free Back and regular contributor to "Ask the Vet" on

**Dr. Pagan is president and founder of Kentucky Equine Research Inc.

Kathy Agnew is a lifelong horsewoman and the personal assistant to a 21 years young Anglo-Arab, Gorky. Kathy and her husband, Steve, along with Steve's brother, Brian, own Great Lakes Water Solutions in Orangeville. Steve and Brian have both worked in water treatment for nearly 25 years and are decorated industry leaders. GLWS designs and installs commercial, industrial, farm, residential and regulatory systems and services all makes and models.

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