Most riders  would  not  start a ride with  a lame  horse. Even if they wanted to try, the  vets would  not  allow the horse to start. On the other hand, many  riders, most  unknowingly start a ride with a partially dehydrated horse. Yet, there is more and more evidence that pre-ride dehydration may be far more dangerous to the horse’s ultimate welfare. This article  provides steps  that you can take to ensure your horse is fully hydrated and ready to go when the trail is open to competition.

Preventing dehydration or, better, positively maintaining proper hydration is both an art and a science. These must be tailored to the individual equine. The ideal endurance horse follows the motto “drink early, drink often.” So, you must know your horse  and  proper techniques to tell how well hydrated your horse really is. Quite frankly, finicky drinkers may simply not be well suited for the sport.

So first, you must learn  how to monitor your horse in training. You should measure hydration the  same way the  vets do. You should inspect these hydration factors before, during, and after your training rides.

From the Veterinary Considerations chapter of the AERC Rider’s Handbook, which is online at, here is how to check the horse’s hydration status:

  • The hydration of the horse  is checked  by looking  at the mucous membranes, capillary  refill time, jugular vein refill time, skin elasticity and listening to the gut  sounds. Proper evaluation of the hydration factors requires considerable experience, as individual horses do show variation. Changes from the baseline for a horse  are significant be cause often dehydration is present before these parameters change. Riders should know  their own  horses’ baseline parameters. Get experienced riders  and  vets to help you learn  how to check these factors.
  • The skin pinch is one method of determining hydration. It is performed by pinching the horse’s skin with the thumb and forefinger over the point of the shoulder (not over the neck). In a fully hydrated young  horse,  the  skin will pop back immediately. As the horse  becomes progressively more  dehydrated, the  skin will stay puckered up for progressively longer periods. You should know the normal for your horse.
  • A capillary  refill test is performed by applying thumb pressure to the gums, removing the thumb, and then ob serving  the  time  it takes for the  blanched area  to return to the same color as the surrounding membrane. This test indicates the ability of the heart to replenish its capillary system, and is a very important tool in assessing metabolic conditions. Recovery normally takes less than two seconds at the pre-ride exam. Capillary refill time should ideally be one to two seconds. Again, know your horse.
  • The mucous membranes that are  observable are  those of the inner eyelids and  gums.  Pink moist  gums indicate proper blood  perfusion of the tissue. Normal  mucous membranes can vary in color from pale pink to yellowish. Abnormal variations include reddish injection, mottled appearance, brick red color, and shades of purple. Changes from the base line are considered significant.
  • The jugular vein refill time  is taken by briefly occluding the  jugular vein and  observing the  time  it takes to refill (typically about a second). Dehydration slows the  time  it takes for the vein to fill.
  • Gut sounds are heard in the  flank and  abdominal areas. These sounds are graded after listening to the upper and lower area of the flank on both sides. Listen to these sounds with a stethoscope to train yourself. Gut sounds that are reduced from normal can be a sign of dehydration.

So, how do you make sure your horse arrives at the starting line well hydrated and  ready to go?

First, always make sure your horse has unlimited access to fresh water at home as well as access to a salt block and/or loose salt.

Next, if necessary, teach your horse to drink well on the trail during training rides. While some  horses do this  naturally and  come  from  a gallop  to a sudden stop to sip from  an awful looking mud puddle, others need to train with horses that drink well to get the idea. You may have to wait several minutes at a water hole for the horse  to drink. Some riders will get off and  loosen  the girth  to let the horse  know that it is okay to drink.

Always give your horse two or three days of very light exercise or rest before  a ride so that your horse starts the trip to the ride at his best—not exhausted from eleventh-hour conditioning efforts.  Never make  the  mistake of overriding your horse the week before  a competition.

Next, keep  the  horse  well hydrated during trailering. Many riders  like to give a dose  of electrolytes before  leaving home to encourage the horse to drink the fresh water that you should offer at least every four  hours.  Because many  horse  are  not eager to drink while  traveling, consider offering the  horse  a really wet, sloppy slurry of well-soaked beet pulp or chopped bagged forage.  In  fact giving  the horse a choice of a couple of slurries, is even better as we have found the horses like variety.

If you are going to be traveling more than four hours to the ride, we recommend getting the horses off the trailer every four hours or so to stretch their  legs, drop  their  heads, pee, take a drink if willing, and eat a slurry. At least stop the trailer for 15 minutes or so and offer the horse that water and slurry. If there is grass when you get the horse off the trailer, hand graze the horse. Also, remember that you never try something new just before a ride. So, of course, you have been feeding the slurries to the horse for at least  three weeks before  the ride on a regular basis. Note that it takes about three weeks for an equine digestive system to develop  the  proper bacteria for a new feed!

Several studies have demonstrated that trailering is stressful and  dehydrating to the  horse,  particularly in hot  weather. Horses can lose 4% to 6% of their body weight subsequent to long distance transport. Keep the horses as cool as possible by providing maximum ventilation and sponging the horse at stops in periods of high heat and humidity. Ask the horse if it prefers one  of those “fancy  trailers with all the trimmings” or a nice open  stock trailer, and I’ll bet the answer is the stock trailer.Once you arrive  at the ride site, check the horse’s hydration level. Offer fresh  water. Administer a dose  of electrolytes and/or offer loose salt to create thirst. Hand graze the horse on grass if available if the horse is used to it. Offer damp hay. Provide the horse with shade and a breeze  in really hot weather if possible. Also provide cooling soaks and sponging.

If the ride provides a scale to weigh your horse (this is common, for example, at rides in the Southeast Region where a horse scale moves from ride to ride), weigh  your horse, record  the weight, and  then track the weight before, during, and after the ride.

If the horse  is finicky about water, bring  some  from home.  Another  trick that this  author has never tried, but has been told about by veterans, is to put  a little  cider vinegar in the  water at home so the  horse becomes accustomed to the taste and smell. Then add  a little cider vinegar to water at the ride site to disguise any strange smell or taste.

Also, make  sure  the  horse  has arrived at the  ride site with plenty  of time  for recovery. For a 25 or 50 mile ride  only a couple  of hours from home,  this may mean as little as half a day before  the start. For a 100 mile ride more  than a few hours from home,  the horse  should have at least  a full day to recover. In the extreme case of the Pan American  Championships where the East Time Zone had to travel across the country, the  horses were  given  a week  or more  to recover after transport prior to competition.

More and more research shows that the horses that maintain normal weight, hydration levels, and electrolyte balance during a ride perform the best and look the “fittest to continue.” To do that you must start with a properly hydrated horse. If you horse  is not  properly hydrated, do the  same thing you would do if the horse is lame: don’t start; wait for a better day. If you and your horse are well hydrated the “trail is open”!

 –Stagg Newman, AERC Education Committee Co-Chair













About the author

The SEDRA 'Webmaster' is, more or less, the voice of the South Eastern Distance Riding Association Board of Directors. We would like to thank all of the members and supporters who have contributed over the years to one or more of our special programs, volunteering, educational clinics and/or our trail preservation fund! THANK YOU for your much appreciated contributions and continuing support of the long distance riding sport!

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