Winter. It's a word that, to many of us, is synonymous with bitter cold, harsh winds and loads of snow and ice underfoot. It's also a time when one of the more challenging daily tasks is that of providing a constant supply of fresh water for our equine friends.
Water consumption is key to keeping horses hydrated and healthy. Studies have shown animals tend to drink greater amounts and more often with free access to warm water. But… how many of you have ended up with back and arm strain, numbed fingers and wet clothing after lugging sloppy buckets along slick paths from house to barn or pasture?
Solutions to this problem are multifold. They can save time, money and most importantly, your health.
For the pasture, automatic frost-free waterers are an optimum choice. Designed specifically for livestock, most quality brands are made with stainless steel, aluminum or polyethelene housing. Constructed with safety in mind, they feature round surfaces and few moving parts. Gravity valves replenish water while the animal drinks, thus ensuring an available supply without the risk of stagnation. They can also be fit with custom designed insulated immersion heaters that are both energy efficient and thermostatically controlled for ease of use. Built to last, such waterers generally come with a correspondingly strong warranty.
For those with a lesser budget, there’s the old stand-by stock tank. Made of tough polyethelene or galvanized steel, most can be fitted with drain plug or floating heaters during cold weather. Of course, one still has to run a hose from tap to the tank to fill it frequently, and if the pasture is remote, that can pose a challenge. On the plus side, these tanks are lightweight enough that a single person can overturn them when they’re in need of scrubbing. If there’s a large amount of water to be drained, attaching the hose to a small submersible sump pump and to letting it flow out away from the pasture will eliminate icy spots underfoot.
Many using heated stock tanks make it a point to fashion a lid for them out of plywood and foam to conserve heat and thus, save money on the electric bill. Lids may be used to cover the majority of the tank during daylight hours, or if horses are kept in at night, the entire tank opening.
While the covered heating element in pasture waterers means they can be situated virtually anywhere in the pasture, it’s always best to position a stock tank with the back to your fence line if using a plug-in portable heater. This helps prevent curious animals from nosing about the electric supply, as does encasing the cord in a short length of pipe or conduit.
Some words of caution if you decide on of these options. Be sure to ask for and thoroughly read the installation specifications. Any power supply lines must be buried deeply in the soil, and properly grounded to ensure the safety of both humans and animals. Using the services of a licensed electrician might cost more in the beginning, but this one-time expense can be allayed by knowing all are safe from shocks and possible electrocution. Also, consult with a knowledgeable salesperson regarding the size automatic waterer or tank needed. Having one that’s too large or too small can mean more work and waste.
For those who continue to use buckets in the pasture, there are ways to streamline the watering process. Several people we spoke with are fans of the five-gallon utility pail for hauling water, because lids may be purchased to fit the top and prevent sloshing. (Plastic wrap will do the same in a pinch!) Wrapping a metal handle in self-adhesive bandage material will also provide a cushiony, warm grip and prevent undue stress on fingers.
Of course, some innovative thinkers don’t carry buckets at all. Purchasing a cheap plastic toboggan can mean little stress as it glides across the snow with buckets inside. Have a large dog who’s comfortable around horses? Many can be easily taught to pull a toboggan full of buckets (or even bales of hay) with the aid of a simple, soft homemade rope harness. A bonus in this method is that horses get accustomed to new sounds and sights!
Supplying water to horses inside can also be a challenge. Individual stainless steel stall waterers work on much the same principle as their larger pasture counterparts. They also require special grounding and insulated lines that withstand severe low temperatures, but will pay for themselves over time in terms of saving labor. And like pasture waterers, those made for stalls can be equipped with optional meters to monitor consumption.
Heated buckets with electric cords can be handy for the person with a few well-behaved horses, but the cost per unit and relatively short lifespan of a few years tend to rule them out for larger facilities. Again, it’s imperative to make sure animals cannot reach the cord. That means securing it through a hole in the wall, connecting to a properly grounded outlet and using a sturdy bucket holder inside the stall.
Many in colder climes have installed frost-free hydrants in the barn so they only have to fill buckets and carry them a short distance to the stalls, rather than from the house. If you use this method, an immersible bucket heater can help warm the water before it’s offered to each animal. Be careful to never leave such a device unattended though, as it can deliver a nasty burn and spark fires if exposed to dry surfaces.
A safer alternative is to leave a length of hose in the basement, entryway or some other warm part of your home. Carry it to the barn, hook on the hydrant, and walk down the aisle filling buckets in each stall. Then drain and coil to take inside. One stable owner we spoke to in Vermont keeps her frost-free hydrant and hose encased in a wooden box with a 100-watt lightbulb trained on it. Heat generated by the light seem to be just enough to keep the hose supple and warm.
Another innovative breeder in Pennsylvania has installed durable 50-gallon plastic trash cans in a corner of each barn. Each one is wrapped in a hot water tank insulation kit and is equipped with a floating tank heater and a dispensing spigot installed on the bottom. Mounted on cinder blocks, they’re at an optimum height for filling buckets.
Another intrepid soul in Missouri who would otherwise have to haul buckets daily maintains an indoor stock tank housed inside a covered, foam insulated wooden frame. She filled it once weekly with a hose, then dips buckets inside each day to obtain water.
Winter weather doesn’t necessarily have to be spent staggering under the load of heavy water buckets. There’s still plenty to do with shoveling and plowing. And after all, with shedding season right around the corner, let’s conserve energy to use those currycombs!