Keeping a check on horses’ waterworks should become part of good management. A reliable way of doing this is to teach them to urinate prior to work. Start by whistling the horse either in the stable or in some long grass after work and after some consistent training they will urinate on the whistling cue prior to work at home or at a show.  Apart from monitoring urine output & health, it makes the ride much more comfortable for the horse. It is also handy if a horse is off colour and this area needs checking or urine needs to be collected for testing.

The urinary system consists of the kidneys, bladder, ureters (tubes from kidney to bladder) and urethra (tube from the bladder to the exterior). The urinary system maintains water and electrolyte balance while the kidneys act as a filter excreting waste products of metabolism, such as urea, and removing all waste products from the blood. The kidneys also secrete hormones.

The colour of the urine should ideally be pale straw coloured with the same clarity and consistency as water. Abnormal colour such as bright yellow, milky, or thick with obvious sediment or syrupy are all indicators of problems and/or insufficient water intake.  Dark urine usually indicates muscle damage from tying up (Azoturia)  Particularly offensive odours such as very strong ammonia is another indicator of imbalance. Mares normally produce thick and syrupy urine when they are in season.

Difficulties in urinating such as straining or adopting the stance and then dribbling or not passing any urine, or too many short urinations are usually signs of cystitis (bladder inflammation and infection), urethritis (infection of the urethra) or urinary calculi (stones).

A horse urinates from four to ten times daily. Flow should ideally be strong and continuous.

As the kidneys lie quite close to the top of the horse’s back (the right just below the last 3 ribs and the left slightly further back), inflammation, tenderness and swelling may be detected visually,  by external palpation and from obvious signs of discomfort.

If kidney stones or gravel are suspected a diagnosis should be sought without delay from an expert equine veterinarian before giving diuretics as they may move small stones or gravel into a ureter and cause a blockage. This is extremely painful and can cause renal colic and tissue damage.  Using an off the shelf diuretic in these cases is inadvisable.

Equine kidneys are particularly resilient and still able to function even when extensively damaged.  However there is a point of no return, and the structure cannot be rehabilitated, like the liver does. Urinary tract diseases need urgent attention and renal failure can occur. Causes are severe dehydration, blood loss, heavy metals, some kinds of antibiotic drugs and phenylbutazone, oxalates in tropical grasses and obstructions from urinary calculi.

Herbs to treat the urinary system, should be prescribed and dispensed by a professionally qualified equine herbalist.  There are many wonderful herbs for us to choose from to clear up urinary tract and bladder infections, calculi and tying-up.


The care of geldings’ and stallions’ urinary systems is a very important matter of hygiene, which if neglected, leads to infections and other complications.

The sheath and penis of geldings and stallions should be examined and cleaned regularly.  This is an area which is often overlooked and may also be difficult to achieve with some horses, especially if they are unused to such attention.

Dirt and secretions from the glands and skin lining accumulate in the folds inside the sheath known as “smegma” which is brown and smelly.  It may also accumulate on the penis.  In addition accumulations can occur in the end of the urethra and in the cavity around the urethra, forming a putty like substance known as a “bean”.   When these harden they cause the horse considerable discomfort and have to be removed very carefully.

Not all horses have this accumulation in all four areas outlined above, but most of them will have it inside the sheath.

Telltale signs that there is a build up include odour, sticky brown bits adhering to the hair on the belly in front of the sheath, extending the penis when being handled or saddled and/or difficulties with urination. This can include adopting the stance then not urinating, a shower like urine flow or repetitive short urinations, usually associated with several attempts before actually urinating.

Difficulties with urination indicate that the build up of debris has caused an infection of the urinary tract from ascending bacteria, which if chronic can travel to the kidneys themselves.  In these cases it is necessary to treat the infection with herbal urinary antiseptics, but first thoroughly check and clean all four potential problem spots.

In some cases horses will have to be sedated for initial examination and cleaning.   It is common to use baby oil to clean the sheath but this just helps more dirt to accumulate.  Use a totally chemical free shampoo. Do not use strong antiseptics especially those containing iodine or antibiotics as this may actually encourage the development of infection as it will destroy the normal bacteria inhabiting the penis.

It is quite easy to wash the inside of the sheath with the penis retracted, but be careful not to get kicked.   Use a mild solution of the shampoo with an oval sponge about the size of your hand.  It may take quite a bit of work to get all the smegma out as the sheath is quite voluminous. Rinse thoroughly using the hose. If the sheath is kept clean then usually the penis will not accumulate too much dirt, use the sponge and shampoo to clean it as well and rinse thoroughly.  Checking the urethra and it’s surrounds for the presence of a “bean” is obviously much more difficult and in most cases will initially require mild sedation.  They should be removed gently so as not to cause damage to the surrounding tissue and if present will cause extreme sensitivity to the gelding or stallion in question.  There can also be a build up of sticky dirt around mares’ teats and vulva, which can irritate them greatly.  This area is easy to keep clean in the same way, and it is also a good idea to include the anus in both sexes as this gets rid of any pinworm eggs which are laid there. Yuk.

Neglect and ignorance of this area of hygiene frequently leaves horses in considerable pain for long periods of time, and can also lead to the development of squamous cell carcinomas or other cancers.


Ad lib access to large quantities of clean, fresh drinking water is a principle of basic nutrition.  Water is an essential nutrient, the better the quality the better the nutrition.  The three main, vital functions of water in the body are transport of nutrients and wastes, pH control and the dissipation of heat.

Lots of horses these days may have to drink sub-standard water just like people. Mains water which is high in chlorine and fluoride, recycled water with likely excess bacteria levels, river and irrigation channel water which may be polluted with various algae. Bore water not fit for human consumption may be suitable but should be analysed for mineral composition and mineral supplementation varied accordingly.  A good example would be bore water which is high in salt, obviously it would be harmful to add excess salt to the feed in this situation.

Observing whether your horses are drinking sufficient water and if not taking steps to make sure they do is very important. Water consumption is influenced by mineral content, contamination, and types of containers. Many horses may not consume enough water for balanced hydration if the water is not to their liking for whatever reason.

An average sized horse (450 kg) needs to consume approximately 10% of its body weight daily in hot weather to maintain optimum water levels.  If horses are eating dampened down mixed feeds and/or lush grasses, then this will make some contribution to this percentage.

In addition to the factors above water consumption will vary depending upon climate, temperature, age, size, work load, electrolyte balance or if the horse is sick.

Troughs and water containers should be kept scrubbed out regularly so that the water in them is kept invitingly clean. Horses will often not drink enough water for reasons other than lack of cleanliness.  The main culprits are automatic waterers in stables and yards and water in plastic buckets, especially small ones. Horses drink better if containers are large. Concrete troughs or old bath tubs or laundry tubs make good water containers. However both especially old bath tubs should have the edges protected say with rubber, as they can cause splints easily if horses bang their legs on them.


It is important to realise that plastic is not inert. Test this by filling a plastic container with water and leaving it all day in the sun. If the water tastes of plastic at the end of the day, use it for manure instead, it is possible to buy quality, highly durable plastic containers for water, but these should only be used in the stable.

Mains or town water can be made more palatable to horses and increase their consumption by the addition of dolomite, bentonite or zeolite at the rate of one tablespoon to 20 litres.  These clays will filter out much of the fluoride and chlorine. Horses usually love dam water, because it contains minerals in their natural form, but during drought times, when dam levels are getting very low horses and other stock should not be allowed to drink from these dams at this time.

Dehydration is a common problem in performance horses. Even though horses have a great ability to sweat and therefore dump heat, there is a limit. In hot and humid conditions the effectiveness of their cooling mechanism is taxed to the highest degree.

Synthetic electrolytes are routinely given to horses and whilst they are obviously necessary in many instances, excessive dosing when they are not called for can have a negative effect.

The important minerals in electrolyte balance are sodium, potassium and chloride.  Sodium and potassium work in harness. The ratio is essential for hydration (body fluid) balance, kidney health, pH balance and prevention of arthritis. The kidneys are responsible for removing wastes from the body via fluids so if there isn’t enough sodium, dehydration will result. If there is too much sodium there will be fluid retention. Sodium in its natural form alkalises and is not retained in body fluids while common salt (sodium chloride) produces an acid state with excess being retained in fluids. Feeding common salt (sodium chloride) is certainly not the way to get these two essential minerals into the horse’s body.

Potassium works in harness with sodium to carry out the functions discussed above and also regulates muscle function and tone.

The best way to provide salt to horses is to give them ad lib access to large lumps of Himalayan natural rock salt, which looks like pink quartz. When extra salt is needed it is best added to the feed in the form of sea salt and Himalayan rock salt granules.

When it is necessary to get water and electrolytes into horses in a hurry, offer a bucket of molasses water to drink.  Molasses is high in calcium and magnesium as well as the B group vitamins.  A tablespoon of rock or sea salt granules plus 250 ml Apple Cider Vinegar can also be dissolved in 10 litres of molasses water. A good general rate of dilution for molasses water is 1 tablespoon to 5 litres but this can be doubled to make it more palatable if really necessary.

To test for dehydration the pinch test is invaluable, just pick up a fold of skin in the middle of the neck between your thumb and forefinger, this should spring back immediately in an elastic way in the well hydrated horse. If it stays sitting up, this indicates some degree of dehydration.

Epsom Salts (magnesium sulphate) are commonly given to horses as a diuretic. This is not recommended as frequent use can damage kidneys. In cases of dehydration Epsom Salts are particularly contra-indicated as they will pull water out of the gut.

© Victoria Ferguson 19 June 2019