Developing Natural Springs as Equine Water Sources

Horse owners have several options to provide water for their animals; one of them is to take advantage of a natural spring on your property.

A spring is a discharge of water that has infiltrated the soil profile by precipitation. The discharge is created by water that flows along an impermeable layer of rock. In Kentucky there are two basic spring types: "wet weather" and "perennial." Wet weather springs are normally active during periods of wet weather, which means they are normally dry during the hot, summer months. Perennial springs, on the other hand, are active year round and are prime candidates for development as a livestock water source.

There are several benefits to developing a spring. Development of a spring might remove excess water from a saturated area, thereby allowing the area to be safely grazed, while at the same time providing drinking water. A properly developed spring might require the use of a pump, but under ideal situations gravity is all that is needed to provide drinking water to a tank(s).

Developed spring for livestock water

A developed spring

After the initial development, there is no cost to operate a gravity-fed spring. Since the water source is ground water, it is discharged at a constant temperature (about 55° F). The difference between ambient temperature and water temperature provides the sensation that the water is cooled in the summer and heated in the winter. This means no electricity is needed to keep the water from freezing. Spring development also can improve the ability to implement rotational grazing, which can increase pasture productivity.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service technical staff in your county is the best place to start for guidance regarding the development of a spring. They might also be able to provide cost-share assistance to partially fund the development of a spring for livestock.

There are several environmental and engineering issues that must be met to create a good development of a spring, including drinkability, flow rate, location, and protection.


The water must be suitable for horses to drink. Typically, the water quality will be acceptable to horses if it has been adequately filtered by the soil and has not been contaminated by nearby septic systems or karst features that collect pollution. Septic systems above the spring and possibly karst features that collect pollution might make the water quality unacceptable.

An assessment of the watershed (Kentucky Geological Survey maps, visual inspection of the topography and elevations, etc.) can aid in determining possible contaminants. A water sample can also be collected and submitted for analysis. The extension publication "Drinking Water Quality Guidelines for Cattle" can provide further reading for horse owners on the subject of water testing and drinkability. A list of certified labs can be found at the (Kentucky Division of Water Web site).

Flow Rate

Producers should make sure the spring will provide adequate flow when the pasture is being used. Determining the flow rate is fairly simple, but it should be undertaken during the driest times of the year. Flows during a severe drought should ensure the flow will be available during wetter times.

Measuring flow is accomplished by creating a makeshift dam below the spring outlet. A makeshift dam can be as simple as rocks and dirt clods formed across the flow with a small opening in the center. The flow across the opening can be used to calculate a rough estimate of the flow rate. Flow rates can also be determined by measuring the amount of time required to fill a known volume. An adequate spring flow would be the maximum amount of water needed per animal times the number of animals in the pasture at any one time with relation to the size of the storage tank. The table below provides estimates on the amount of water needed by animal growth stage.

Animal Water Requirement (gal/head/day)
Mature 8-12
Broodmare 8-12
Foal to 2 years 6-8
Pony 6-8

(Table taken from UK cooperative Extension Service ID-57)


There needs to be enough change in the elevation of the spring to a watering tank to provide gravity flow. If there is not, pumps will need to be used to transfer the water. There are solar-powered pumps that might be able to move the water effectively.


The spring must be protected by surface water to insure that the water remains unpolluted. This usually requires the formation of structures such as a fence or diversion ditch to keep pollutants, such as livestock waste, from contaminating the spring collection point.

By Steve F. Higgins and Donnie Stamper, Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering

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