The latest models of automated waterers and feeders can take some of the work out of horsekeeping, and automatic stall cleaners can even minimize your time wielding a pitchfork!

Finding it difficult to schedule enough quality time in the barn these days? Worried that all your other obligations are going to mess with your horse's need for regular feeding and his love of routine? Feel like you never have enough hands to get all the work done?

Never fear, my hapless, harried reader. Help is out there, in the form of automated feeders, waterers, and even stall mucking assistance devices. It might not be quite the barn-o-matic version of the future projected in those old "Jetsons" cartoons, but it can help you spend less time toiling over your horse, and more time enjoying him.

Saundra TenBroeck, PhD, University of Florida's Department of Animal Sciences extension horse specialist, cautions, however, "These types of devices are potentially useful tools to augment horse care, but are not a replacement for routine management and attention to detail." She stresses that automated devices should be used to improve what we're doing, not necessarily replace what we are doing.

Here's a quick look at what's available.

Auto Watering

Humans long ago determined that schlepping water in heavy buckets was one of the least pleasant chores associated with horsekeeping. Horses consume six to eight gallons of water a day on average, and under some conditions they can drink up to 12 gallons daily, which is a lot of liquid for a person to carry.

Automatic waterers offer a number of advantages over buckets and troughs. They provide a constant supply of fresh water with little to no labor on your part, they cut down on mess, and they don't provide a breeding environment for disease-carrying mosquitoes or potentially toxic algae the way troughs do. In addition, automatic waterers ensure water stays available to your horse even during the coldest winters.

One of the chief disadvantages of automatic waterers is--or was--that they made it difficult to monitor exactly how much water was being consumed by your horse. But newer models now come equipped with meters that can tell you, down to a few milliliters, how much liquid is flowing through the system. Shut-off valves to individual stalls can also limit the mess should a water bowl become clogged or broken and overflow; and gravity-fed models that refill without paddles or float valves are less damage-prone and easier to clean.

TenBroeck says, "I'm pleased to hear about the addition of these flow meters and gravity flow to replace paddles on automatic waterers, as this addresses two of the major limitiations of those devices."

When selecting an automatic waterer look for durability and a warranty. Generally speaking, the fewer moving parts in reach of your horse, the better. You'll probably need some professional help to install indoor or outdoor automatic waterers; water lines must be buried to the correct depth for your climate and soil conditions, drainage beds might need to be installed, and you will need expert advice on the best place to site the drinking bowl(s), especially if you choose heated models that require access to electricity. Although these systems are an investment, most people find they pay off in terms of long-term convenience, peace of mind, and equine health.

Feed on Demand

Imagine sleeping in on a Saturday morning, secure in the knowledge that an automated feeder is delivering your horse's hay and grain for you!

It's no fantasy. Several manufacturers now have feeding systems that can be programmed to deliver feed at a particular time. Some handle only grain, some hay, and some both--and some are designed to deliver several feeds at frequent intervals throughout the day, mimicking a horse's natural grazing inclination.

As with waterers, durability is key in an automated feeding system. Consider the materials and location of a unit before you buy. If it's painted metal, it might chip, rust, or develop sharp edges. If it's plastic, it might degrade with sun exposure. How the unit is powered is also a concern; some might require an electrical outlet, while others are battery- or solar-powered. Finally, there's the convenience factor. How easy is the unit to install, fill, and clean? How much feed will it hold, and what kind? (Most automated feeders will get bogged down by sticky, molasses-laden feeds, or wet feeds like beet pulp, but they might do fine with pellets or extruded diets.)

Western pleasure competitor Sylvia Pattinson recently installed automated feeders in her 12-stall barn in Brighton, Ontario, Canada, to deliver hay to her Quarter Horses. "I program them to feed hay a flake at a time through the night, and there does seem to be less wastage this way," she says. "I haven't had them long enough yet to see if they cut down on the risk of colic, but I do believe that feeding smaller meals, more often, is healthier. I have noticed that the one mare who is a cribber is cribbing less since we got the feeders."

Depending on your needs, an automated feeding unit can cost anywhere from $300 to $2,500 or more.

Shake, Shake, Shake

Stall cleaning is one of those tiresome, time-consuming chores that hasn't changed much over the millennia. But while no one has yet invented a robot who'll do the whole job for you, there are devices available that can help do away with all that tedious sorting of manure from clean bedding.

The original is the Brockwood Stall Shi*fter, which claims to have been making stall cleaning "almost pleasurable since 1997." Prompted by a case of mucking-induced tennis elbow, inventor Harry Hopkins put together a prototype machine to help sort manure from shavings. "It worked so well I decided to sell it," he says.

The Stall Shi*fter consists of a portable sloping screen, which vibrates thanks to a small electric motor. A plastic muck bucket is positioned at one end, and soiled bedding is scooped onto the screen. The vibration sends any type of fine-particle bedding--sawdust, peat moss, or pelleted pine bedding, for example--back to the floor of the stall, while particles of manure from "the size of a corn kernel on up" roll into the muck bucket, ready for removal.

Hopkins has three models of Stall Shi*fters available, from basic to deluxe, and he claims that users save, on average, 50% on bedding and get their stalls mucked 65% faster than if they were doing the job entirely by hand. The Stall Shi*fter retails between $1,800 and $2,250.

A similar product is the Muck-O-Matic, which has vibrating fiberglass rods rather than a screen; it retails for $1,450-$1,900. Neither unit will make the trip to the manure pile for you, but they are well worth considering if you have a large number of stalls to muck daily.

TenBroeck emphasizes the benefit of reducing bedding wastage with these implements. "Waste management is one of our biggest challenges with stalled horses and bedding costs are skyrocketing," she says. "A 50% savings in bedding is not insignificant and composting would be enhanced if the C:N (carbon to nitrogen) ratio were better, i.e., less wood, more manure."

Take-Home Message

Adding some automation to your barn is a trade off. Although these gadgets might save you time and money in the long run, things with moving parts have a tendency to break down, so they require regular maintenance and a vigilant attitude. You should always be prepared with a low-tech backup system. And, of course, automated systems are no substitute for conscientious, hands-on horse management, which should always be your priority. Used with the correct approach, automatic waterers, feeders, and stall cleaners can enhance the horse ownership experience, giving you more hands-on time with your horses.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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