What do horses eat in the desert?

Summer special "Water": The most exciting feed for the horse

Horses love to splash around in the water and then drink. Here at the trail ride on the paint mix Phoebe, which belongs to my friend Silke. Photo: Felsinger

Drinking, playing, splashing around, snorting: no other horse feed is as exciting and social as water. Do you want to know what your horse is doing with it? Then let's start at the very beginning ...

It stank like hell. Sulfur vapor billowed around the earth, below which chemical particles collided in a giant puddle and accidentally merged four billion years ago to form the first living beings - bacteria.

This damp prehistory is to blame for the fact that to this day no animal, be it the gerbil or the Icelandic pony, can live without water. It fills the body up to 65 percent of an adult horse, but this tank is leaking in umpteen places: with every breath, every drop of sweat, urine or milk, the level drops and has to be refilled.

The horse has to replace up to 50 liters of water a day

So much for the dry stalk of bare numerical truth around which juicy myths and exciting questions for behavioral researchers and physiologists entwine: Do horses have a nose for pollutants in water? How do horses survive days of dry spells in the desert, and how much water does a horse drink exactly?

Scientists have not yet found all the answers, although for decades they have been connecting water dial gauges to horse troughs, accompanying wild Przewalski horses to Mongolian ponds or deciphering the genes of desert horses. One thing is certain: our domestic horses preserved much of their ancestral heritage. For example, they like to sniff deep into ponds, shovel through bright green duckweed or stick their noses in buckets than to sip nicely from high-tech self-waterers - which in many stables are still too high and force horses to bend their heads unnaturally.

So much for serving. What the Temperature of their drinks When it comes to things, horses are tougher than we humans can imagine:

Given the choice between cold and warm, horses instinctively drink cold

American behavioral researchers around Dr. Sue McDonnell. It can be explained as follows: "In nature, cold means: fresh."

The fact that the same instinct that drives horses to fresh, cool water is sometimes deceptive - this is shown by the stories of horses thirsty for anything that smells faintly of water. Stefan Zöller, multiple German champion in endurance riding from the Bavarian town of Erlenbach, experienced this earlier when he was still on the road a lot. “There was already colic because horses drank from puddles in the field. There were probably pesticides in there“He remembers. "My horses only drank from puddles in the forest during rides and never had any problems."

On our trail ride through Botswana we were impressed how skilfully, well-mannered and determined the horses (almost without exception Boerpaards, i.e. Boer horses) drank from the water holes. Water is a rarity there during the dry season. Photo: Felsinger

Conversely, the chlorine, which is supposed to make tap water safe, stinks to uncomfortable drunkards: They disdain it if there is too much in it. Others only drink at home anyway and avoid foreign water sources on the way, which becomes a problem on sweaty trail rides, transports and tournaments.

Stefan Zöller does not own any such prima donnas. And at home he soaks rainwater from a cistern under the stable, which thanks to floor cooling, darkness and dirt filters made from stones and hemp, stays fresh and free of algae for months. What was actually intended for showering and was initially only intended to lower the water bill for the summer shower was sold as a thirst quencher. “My horses prefer rainwater to everything else,” said Zöller. "We have the rainwater analyzed regularly and have excellent values, even less nitrate than in tap water."

The Horse's predilection for rainwater and wet trunk games shows that drinking not only quenches thirst, but also tickles the spirit of research. Foals flicker devotedly with the valves of the self-waterers, if you let them - and put their intestines out of action by the easily triggered flood of water. He defends himself with diarrhea. For the little foal's body, which at this age still consists of 80 percent water, such water games can be life-threatening.

Documentaries by various researchers show how quickly young horses learn to sip the water:

First foals bite into the water, lick and nibble on the surface. After a few tries, they drink like the old people

Horses suckle pretty quickly from plastic hoses and shower heads, roll apples through the water tub to pass the time, snort half curiously, half alarmed at the glittering water surface - only to be terrified when it moves.

Their wet research keeps the animals in motion, which can be used when setting up stables and pastures in a variety of ways. Besides that If possible, water in a shady, windy place away from the droppings should stand - because then there are no problems with horse droppings and flies in the drink - the pool position influences the number of kilometers that horses cover in search of water.

Stable planners benefit from the observations made by the wild horse researchers who Water holes as social centers of primeval horse life discovered - comparable to the village well around which human life gathered before the invention of the water pipe.

Wild horses move up to 30 kilometers away from the water while grazing

With the removal and placement of water and feed, one can cleverly get stable horses to move more while avoiding the resting areas. “It is therefore best to install watering systems far away from the feeding area, under no circumstances in the stable”, advises Thorsten Hinrichs, owner of the active stable company HIT and one of the longest-serving German playpen planners. “The stable is a relaxation room. Eating and drinking only get in the way there because horses need more space around them during these activities. "

The same principle applies to every stable, regardless of whether it is a playpen or paddock box: “When the horses are drinking outside, they automatically come into the fresh air and have to run. In addition, the trough does not get dirty easily with leftover food or excrement, ”says Hinrichs. “But make that clear to a pit stall owner. Then it says: 'If we close the doors when it's cold, the horse has no water. ”Hinrich's counter-argument:“ Bad weather is no reason to close doors.

How far horses should migrate to the water depends on the respective stable and pasture concept. "Between 40 and 100 meters are ideal," says Hinrichs, "in exceptional cases it can go up to 1000 meters." If horses have to walk for miles, the disadvantages outweigh the disadvantages. "Then horses drink less often, no longer 20 times, but maybe only three or four times a day." After all, horses are clever energy savers.

My friend Silke's horses love day-and-night paddocks. Zinc tubs, which are filled fresh every day, are great for diving into the nose. Photo: Felsinger

“The frequency of drinking determines the radius of the herd. In other words, the more horses drink, the closer they live to the waterhole, ”confirms Dr. Klaus Scheibe, former head of the Berlin Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research. He studied with a herd of free-living Przewalski horses in the Schorfheide near Berlin that there are water guides who also do them Encourage herd colleagues to drink.

“The drunkards take another horse to the water, go back and fetch the next one. So they commute until everyone has quenched their thirst "

Because marches like this cost time and energy, wild horses cannot afford the luxury of shuffling all their noses to water like a bored pit horse - especially since an enemy may be lurking by the water in the wild. At most twice a day, sometimes even only every two days, the Przewalskis in the Schorfheide therefore set out on the risky route to the waterhole; According to measurements, 2.5 to 5 liters of water per day are enough for the ascetics among them.

Half-wild Shettys dig in brackish water on the Baltic Sea island of Oie off Greifswald. Herds of ponies on the Canadian Sable Islands also quench their thirst. Probably the toughest water savers in the world but are at home in southwest Africa - graceful and tough descendants of feral domestic horses that live in the Namib Desert. As long as the arid desert soil still yields blades of grass.

Namib horses can do without water in the desert for four days

"This is unique in the world," says feed specialist Dr. Frans van der Merwe, who studied the Namib horses for almost 40 years.

Do such water-saving miracles have a kind of built-in eco button? Biologists found special mechanisms in gerbils, and Merwe also found evidence that Namib horses had theirs Actively concentrate urine more can to lose less water. In the Przewalski horses that Klaus Scheibe had under his care, there were no such signs: "We measured the salt content in the blood, everything was within the normal range."

The myth that southern French Camargue horses have them seems almost unbelievable special techniques developed to graze underwater without choking. "Anatomically, I don't see how a horse could do this" contradicts the British veterinarian and horse mouth specialist Professor Robert Cook and demands the video evidence. Cook saw amazing water techniques not in drinking and eating, but rather in swimming: “Horses actually manage theirs To seal nostrils waterproof.“

When they are not swimming, horses are open to anything that is fluid. According to the textbook average, they drink 5.5 liters of water per 100 kilos of body weight, with countless factors such as race, type, weather, performance, feed, gender or weight influencing the horse's thirst. Horses in the pasture, for example, only drink once every eight hours when it's extremely cold, but 1.8 times an hour when it is hotter than 30 degrees.

The need for water drops when horses eat dew-soaked grass. And increases with dust-dry forage, with hay and grain causing different thirst: 1

Horses flush 1 kilo of hay with 3.2 liters of water, 1 kilo of concentrated feed with only 2 liters

Long-stemmed hay makes you thirstier than finely chopped cobs and is healthier because it encourages horses to drink 27 percent more.

Because hay also binds water - there is 100 liters of space in the intestine, more than in a bathtub - especially endurance riders appreciate it natural water reservoir of the horses. "Grain-fed horses have 50 percent water in their intestines, hay-fed horses 78 percent", the legendary feed professor Helmut Meyer, who died in 2007, found out.

Hay and straw also replace sodium and potassium salts that are lost with sweat. Endurance or eventing horses in particular draw on the full amount of their wet supply at work. "On a five-hour ride, a horse sweats 30 to 40 literss “, calculates Dr. Juliette Mallison, who looks after distance rides as a veterinarian.

Foal mothers also have high water loss and a corresponding need for replenishment. A 500-kilo mare with a foal by her feet loses at least ten liters of water a day through her milk. Sturdy mares, stallions with metabolically disturbed Cushing horses or diarrhea patients also excrete a lot of fluids - and have to refuel accordingly.

The more a horse pees or sweats, the more it needs to drink. It's a rush, but the simplest rule that no feed expert could top with more sophisticated recommendations. Because all attempts to calculate the water requirement of a horse to the liter fail due to the many imponderable influences - similar to the gasoline consumption of a car, which fluctuates depending on the accelerator, engine condition, tire pressure, road conditions and other factors.

There have been horses that hissed away 120 liters a day - without having a particularly exciting lifestyle or being sick. Conversely, as a horse owner, you don't have to worry immediately if a paddled pasture horse overturns a water tub and the herd is without water for two hours. And it is also reasonable for a horse to drive a trailer for five hours without drinking - experience has shown that many horses do not touch a drop during transport anyway.

“Water must always be available to horses - regardless of the housing system. If this is not possible in exceptional cases, water must be administered several times a day, but at least three times a day until saturated. This also applies to the cold season. Snow is not a substitute for adequate watering. The statements about the harmlessness of the feed apply accordingly to the water quality. Drinking devices must be clean and checked daily for contamination. In addition, self-soaking requires a daily check of functionality. "

This is prescribed by the German guidelines for assessing horse keeping from an animal welfare point of view. We are therefore on the safe side if we give horses free access to the watering system around the clock - and if we are kept in groups, we ensure that even low-ranking horses have enough access to the water.

With this water cart, Silke transports the water to the pasture. There she hoses it into zinc or plastic tubs, which she cleans every day. Photo: Felsinger

When are horses really thirsty and how do we recognize this? "As the first warning sign of dehydration, they stop eating and become apathetic," replies veterinarian Dr. Sara Nyman from Uppsala, Sweden. Sunken eyes, hard horse droppings, constipation colic and wrinkled skin are further signals of dehydration.

We check for water shortages with a simple test: We grab a fold of skin on the neck. If the horse is adequately supplied with water, it immediately springs back again. If there is no water, the fold remains for a while

The thirst is controlled by feelers, which the Salinity in the blood plasma report to the brain. The salt content rises when the blood becomes thick and concentrated through sweating - a signal for the thirst center, in turn the Order to drink to give. However, this system, which is as simple as it is clever, gets out of hand due to profuse sweating, because the body then not only loses water but also a lot of salt. The salt content in the plasma then remains the same, there is no thirst.

Endurance rider Stefan Zöller knows this problem. His most successful horse, the half-blooded Cloud Question Mark, often barely drank for the first 40 kilometers. “The vets at Vet Gate always looked very critical. But those who knew Cloud knew that after 40 kilometers he was drinking, ”recalls Zöller, who during the break from riding also fed thin mash, which made him thirsty, and when he was riding through the desert in Qatar, he had to resort to the last resort to get his gelding to force you to drink: He rubbed Cloud's tongue with some salt.

Had the gelding not been drinking it would have been disqualified. Drinking is just as decisive for the success and well-being of horses as the right feed, especially since this would not be able to slip through the body without the staple food water.

Every food molecule that a horse eats is burned into water and carbon dioxide in the metabolism - with maximum energy production. Water dissolves feed into its components. Water carries digestive enzymes in gastric juice and bile. And it activates the bloodstream that carries nutrients to the cells. Without water, cells would shrivel and nerve signals would fall silent. A salty liquid sloshes in all tissues of the body, the ions of which are distributed inside and outside of nerve cells and transmit stimuli and commands in the body.

The entire organism benefits from the simple principle that water always flows to where the salt concentration is higher. Take the kidney, for example: Here the blood is first washed clean of harmful substances in hair-thin capillaries before a highly efficient water recovery system concentrates the urine - with the help of thousands of loops, through whose wafer-thin walls water seeps back into the salty tissue.

Despite all the savings measures: 80 out of 100 liters of water drunk ends up in the straw again

And this, although not only the urine, but also the horse droppings are concentrated. In the small intestine, a soup full of enzymes and nutrients, the rectum thickens the mash so much that it only contains 50 (with grain feeding) to 75 (with grass feeding) percent moisture.To do this, the intestinal contents are kneaded by muscles, while mucous membrane cells extract fluid from it and channel it into the blood.

If this reabsorption does not work, the horse will get diarrhea. Then not well-formed apples fall, then dung with 90 percent water content pleads in the straw - a huge leak in the body that has to be filled with intestinal-friendly food and topped up by drinking so that the body remains functional. Electrolyte supplements can now also be useful to replenish the body's storage capacity.

It is not for nothing that veterinarians warn against turning off the watering system for horses when they have diarrhea: The misconception that this would turn the porridge back into apples more quickly leaves the patient in a life-threatening drought.

If its water content drops from the normal 65 to 10 percent, thirst is an end. Then the horse sits fatally on dry land - and without help, researchers speculate, would be dead after a week at the latest.

This is what the guidelines for assessing horse keeping from an animal welfare point of view say

“Water must always be available to horses - regardless of the housing system. If this is not possible in exceptional cases, water must be administered several times a day, but at least three times a day until saturated. This also applies to the cold season. Snow is not a substitute for adequate watering. The statements about the harmlessness of the feed apply accordingly to the water quality. Drinking devices must be clean and checked daily for contamination. In addition, self-soaking requires a daily check of functionality. "

More water tips and knowledge about drinking:

Horse-water ABC: Algae to zinc tub - what is poisonous?

8 horse-friendly tips for watering and cooling

Feeding minerals in summer: Marstall Weide-Riegel, without vitamin additives - there's enough in the grass (partner link)

From carrots to oil: that's how much water there is in the feed

Refill electrolytes in case of heavy sweating and diarrhea: Marstall Subito (partner link)