Adequate pre, during and post competition hydration can be crucial to both the health and success of the event horse. Dehydration can not only cause serious health conditions such as collapse, exhaustion and even death, but subtle degrees of dehydration can affect performance, such as willingness and ability to jump, concentration and recovery.
Signs of dehydration and checking for dehydration
Small degrees of dehydration can be difficult to spot but recognising these early signs can prevent further worsening dehydration and potentially improve the performance and welfare of the horse.
Signs of dehydration:
- Delayed skin pinch test
- Dullness in the eyes
- Licking surfaces
- Lack of urination and/or defaecation
- Dry/tacky mucous membranes (gums)
- Delayed capillary refill time on gums
- Dark urine
- Excess sweating
The best way to prevent dehydration is to allow access to clean fresh drinking water at all times. This is often easy to do at home but when travelling and at a competition can be very difficult. Everyone will have experienced a horse that is unwilling to drink whilst at a competition. In order to try and encourage a horse to drink when away from home, try and keep the water as familiar as possible. This includes bringing water from home that the horse is used to and using a water bucket that again the horse is familiar with. However even taking these steps some horses are still very reluctant to drink and when coupled with hot dry conditions, can be very prone to dehydration. Adding apple juice, or mint to the horses water can help some of these ‘fussy’ horses to drink, but the horse needs to be introduced and familiarised with the additives at home first in advance.
Travelling the horse can make dehydration more likely, due to stress of travelling, potentially increased heat, and standing without water for a period of time. Recent research by numerous horse and veterinary organisations has shown that horses should be offered water every 4.5hrs. When travelling long distances or travelling in hot conditions plan the journey and allow plenty of time for water and food stops.
Another way of preventing dehydration at competitions is to look out for shade and stand the horse in shade where possible when not being ridden.
A final way of preventing dehydration is to cool the horse rapidly and effectively after exercise. This will reduce the horse’s temperature to help prevent further water loss.
When dehydration is severe and when a horse sweats, electrolytes are lost. Supplementing electrolytes around a competition can be very beneficial to help prevent further health problems such as tying up.
Small degrees of dehydration are not life threatening and a horse will eventually reverse them themselves given access to fresh clean water. The earlier a horse can drink then the earlier this mild dehydration can be treated. Reversing this dehydration early can therefore help performance.
With moderate dehydration the horse may be offered fresh clean water but if not happy to drink readily then giving the horse fluids by a stomach tube given by a vet may be required.
With severe dehydration it may be necessary for a horse to be on an intravenous drip, this will be given at such a rate as to replace the amount of fluid lost through dehydration but also give the amount of fluid required for daily maintenance of the horse.
Simon Woods BVSc MRCVS
Fyrnwy Equine Clinic www.fyrnwy.co.uk