You Can Lead A Horse To Water, But Study Shows He’ll Only Drink If It’s The Right Flavor by Denise Steffanus|04.27.202104.27.2021|2:43pm9:51pm You can take a horse to water but you can't make him drink. A new study says adding a little flavor to the water may solve that problem. Tessa Van Diest, a second-year veterinary student at Washington State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital, and Dr. Jamie Kopper, associate professor at Iowa State University, were concerned that hospitalized horses that did not consume enough water could develop colic, a potentially life-threatening condition. Traditionally, horses hospitalized at Washington State that don't voluntarily drink are offered water flavored with peppermint, sweet feed, or apple electrolytes. Until this study, no one had documented the horses' response. “We were choosing some things that were commonly done in our hospital to try and get horses to drink water, and we wanted to see if they actually worked,” said Kopper. The researchers chose 40 horses for the study, a mix of trail horses, pleasure horses, and show horses of different disciplines. “Most of the horses were Quarter Horse-type horses typically presenting for a lameness and getting followed up with surgery or some sort of diagnostic imaging,” Kopper said. The horses were divided into four groups. Each horse within a group was given a bucket of plain water and a bucket of flavored water (peppermint, sweet feed, or commercial apple electrolyte), according to its flavor grouping. Horses in the control group were offered two buckets of plain water. Assistant professor Clark Hogan helped to compile the statistics. Kopper said the results of the 72-hour study were surprising and not at all what the researchers had expected. “I think what surprised me the most was the horses actually did not appear to like the peppermint flavoring or the apple-electrolyte flavoring, and drank way more plain water compared to those two flavors,” she said. Even horses that loved peppermint candy shunned the peppermint water. “We actually had one owner who was really surprised because she said peppermints were one of her horse's favorite treats,” Kopper said. “But it was pretty uniform across the board that all the horses that were given the option of having peppermint in their water hardly drank that water at all and almost drank all their water from the plain water bucket. “What I really took away from that was that if you're going to try flavoring a horse's water to try to get them to drink more, it's always important to give them a bucket of normal water as well, because sometimes what we think they might like, they actually wouldn't like, and it would have the opposite effect—drinking less.” The winner of the taste test was sweet-feed flavored water, which the horses in that group significantly preferred over plain water. Practical flavorings For the study, Diest and Kopper chose flavorings that would be readily available to the horse owner: commercial Purina sweet feed purchased from the feed store; McCormick peppermint extract sold by the local grocery store; and apple-flavored electrolytes. To achieve the sweet-feed flavor, the researchers simply put a cup of sweet feed in the bottom of a bucket of water. Could the researchers have used simply molasses to flavor the water, because it is the common flavor in commercial sweet feeds? Yes, but there was a matter of practicality. Not every stable has a jug of molasses sitting on the shelf, but every stable has sweet feed. Kopper said that adding salt to a horse's diet also is a common way to encourage a horse to drink more water. However, clinicians must consider the illness for which a horse is hospitalized to assure feeding extra salt is safe. Also, horses that are being held off feed during treatment would not be able to be fed salt. Other uses Knowing your horse's preference would be useful in situations other than illness or hospitalization, Kopper said. Horses on the racing or show circuit, and even pleasure horses hauled to trail rides, may balk at water that tastes different from what they are accustomed to at their home barn. “Definitely, each [study] horse was unique,” Kopper said. “So there were some horses that just loved the sweet-feed water and would drink and drink and drink it. Other horses had less of an opinion about it. So figuring out where your horse falls and if it has a flavor preference could be really helpful.” Kopper suggested that horse owners set up their own taste test at home in advance to determine which flavor a horse prefers. Then they can carry that flavoring with them when they are away from home and add it to the water if the horse shuns the unfamiliar taste.