Winter Hydration: Don't Eat Yellow Snow

Seeing the snow fall is a magical part of Winter for this California girl.

Rain brings winds and shivering ponies, but snow, snow is perfect. My girls are happy and “blanketed” in fresh snowflakes and their fur is all puffed up and insulating. Nature seems to provide a perfect balance to the elements.

They have a tree, which they prefer to stand under even though it’s nothing but twigs and branches right now. They also have run in shelters, but seem to only go in there to poop and then flee from the “dangers” of the cave.

What this Cali-bred horsewoman hadn’t yet experienced was WINTER. ACTUAL Winter. Having lived in California and Texas, I only saw snow on super rare occasions and the sighting of flittering flakes was akin to seeing a unicorn. All cars stopped in the middle of the road and dozens of zany LA-creatures frolicked for moments of chilly bliss before regaining their senses and getting back into the cars. The “Snow Incident of 2004” was probably an 1/8th of an inch of flurries that never even hit the ground. It likely lasted 12 minutes. We still talk about it.

Now I am in a “winter wonderland” and I get snow almost every week. It’s still wimpy snow by REAL Winter standards, but it brings temperatures that are consistently below freezing and now I get the real joy of being a horse owner: Water Trough Vigil.

Oh. My. Gosh. Doesn’t that just look like LOADS of fun?!

I get to break ice every morning and some mornings I bring a gallon of hot water to kick start the ice thaw of the day. By about 10am, the water is sufficiently “thawed” to not rebuild a crust of ice. This brings me to the point of today’s blog: WINTER HYDRATION.

Horses lose water in several ways: Sweat, internal processes, respiratory systems, urine.

Sweat is the coolant system of the body. When the internal temps tip too high, perspiration is increased to keep the skin wet and offer “chill” on the skin. A relatively sedentary horse, during winter, doesn’t sweat all that much. Ol Bessy just lumbers around her pasture and eats hay and hits the water trough and calls it a day. If she does sweat, it wicks off quickly and might go unnoticed.

The urine process can slow if there is not enough hydration present. This results in a bit of extra work for the kidneys to condense the urine and “save” some of the water for the body. Not ideal. You can check for coloration of urine: the darker it gets, the more concentrated it is. Lighter and creamier is ok, but something akin to coffee should be seriously looked into.

Internal processes include the digestion of forage necessary to keeping the body warm. Lacking water would be bad.

This leaves a mondo category that might be overlooked: water loss due to respiration. Horse lungs are MASSIVE. They require a lot of fluids to maintain tissue moisture levels. Lungs also account for 20% of cooling in mammals. The bigger the lungs, the more temperature exchange is occurring. If you have a horse with little meat on its bones, you have less insulation to keep the lung tissue toasty. You end up with a quadruple whammy: lungs are cold, lungs are cooling off the body, water loss due to breathing, water loss due to heating the body up, water loss means drinking more water, which in turn uses more energy to heat the water. No wonder hard keepers can be especially hard during winter months.

I’ll admit that my fat stores are saved below the belt. It’s handy that my legs don’t get as cold when I run, but I do find that running with a vest on helps keep my lungs “warmer” and I can warm up faster into my run. If I don’t have something warm on up top, my lungs struggle to heat up the air as fast as I am breathing it. It’s sharp and cold and struggling. Generally my whole “engine” needs to warm up before my lungs, hands and toes are warm and comfortable. I short-cut this time when I run in a vest as I am losing less heat through my lung process.

Drinking ice cold water uses calories. Not very many, but it takes about 1 calorie per oz to heat up to body temperature.

A horse drinks roughly 7 gallons of water a day (5-10 gallons is the swing). That’s 896 ounces thus the same amount of calories to heat it up.

Considering my horses will be fed roughly 20,000 calories a day or more (grass hays are about 800 cal per lb and each flake of what I am feeding now is about 6 lbs and they get 4 flakes a day each) maybe 900 calories spent in merely drinking water isn’t that big of a deal. If you have a hard keeper, this might be a HUGE difference.  The half lb of grain you feed a day would be going straight to water heating and nothing to the rest of your horse’s body warmth needs. I feed the two year old a scoop of extra grain mix to give her a boost, as she’s not as “layered” in meat like my petit walrus, Stella, is.

Comparative feed chart

Why and how to calculate your horse's daily caloric intake

Your thirst perception is also diminished in cooler weather. Having ice water in the trough is even less appealing. We don’t want our horses to skimp on the water because it’s downright painfully cold to drink and “I’m not thirsty anyway.”

Depending on how cold your Winter will get, will determine how aggressive your tank deicing needs to be. You might be lucky, like me, and just need to break ice in the morning and add a gallon of hot water and let the day do the rest. Some people put a floating ball to break surface tension. Others need heaters, insulation wrapped around the tanks or practically have to build a walk-in greenhouse in their pasture, for the tank to capture light from the sun and be protected from the ambient temperature of the great (and freezing) outdoors. Some add salt (roughly a tsp per gallon) to lower the freezing temp of the water. You’d have to test the flavor and make sure your horses were finding it palatable! But for some, that has kept the water from freezing in moderately frigid temps. Probably not as dependable for people going weeks below freezing without break.

Or you can just throw a Husky in and let him do the ice breaking.

Aside from keeping your water accessible (no surface ice) and a slightly tolerable temperature, I like to also bring warm water to the barn in the morning and I pour it over their “crunchies”. If they get morning mash or any type, or pelleted feed, I like to make it toasty and mushy from the get go. I feel it helps with digestion to break apart the pellets and deliver them wet and near body temperature. They have never complained.

"Steaming crunchies?! Yes please!"

Another facet to bear in mind is water retention in a horse. Horses, like humans, need salt in order to retain water. Having a salt lick and a mineral lick around is not just a summertime need, it is crucial in the winter. My girls “liked” the multi-mineral salt lick they had in the Summer, but they “love” it now. I actually just replaced it.

Just like a horse’s weight can be “out of sight, out of mind” hidden under their furry coat, their hydration levels might escape notice. You can feel ribs and you can check neck tenting as a rough hydration gauge. Be a hands-on owner all year, but especially in Winter.


I don’t always drink tough water, but when I do, I paw through ice and guzzle it in sufficient quantities. Stay thirsty my ponies. Soon Summer will be back and we won't be able to keep them out of the troughs.


Holly Jonsson


Director of Sales

Through a lifetime of "horse crazy" and the fortunate experience of riding nearly every shape and size of horse, I got to see a wide array of hoof shapes and sizes. No Hoof, No Horse is very true to me. I want to ensure that horses on every continent have a variety of footwear to pick from, to ensure the best match is found. I want your partner to be happy from the ground up!

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