Water Bucket Blues

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Q. Out of seven horses here, I have five with water bucket issues in stalls, and it's getting on my nerves. Our Morgan pony paws at his water bucket and spills out most of the water, no matter how many buckets we leave or how we try to tie them down.  Two geldings, one a Quarter Horse and one an old Thoroughbred, both defecate into their water buckets, no matter where we put the buckets in the stall or how many buckets are put in the stall.  And one of the two driving mares --which are in a big run-in shed together --fills their waterer with hay and eats the hay from the waterer. She carries the hay to the waterer, even when the hay is put in the opposite corner of the shed from it. So, the waterer is nasty for both of them all the time.  And when they eat the hay, they drip a lot of water on the floor, so everything is wet.  Any clue what these animals are up to? Some days I think we should just water them twice a day like farm horses.  That way they would be thirsty and so would drink up instead of making messes.


A. I certainly understand your frustrations.  At the moment, our clinic has one stallion and two mares that tip their water buckets every night.  The mares paw at their buckets, and the stallion plays with his buckets with his head. He also carries his hay from the hay rack across the stall, puts it into the water buckets, and eats it wet from the buckets. Our barn manager just commented today that these three seem to be in a contest to make the biggest mess.  Anyway, I can comment on each of these watering issues.

Spilling water by pawing at the bucket

When horses drink from natural streams or ponds, they usually paw at the water's edge. If they step in, they also paw, and sometimes they paw, then roll in the water.  We don't really understand what this natural form of pawing water accomplishes, but if you watch a horse pawing at a water bucket or water tank, it sure looks like the same pawing behavior seen at a more natural water source. I agree that it is very difficult to eliminate. Yelling at the horse or trying to punish the behavior is not usually successful.

The most efficient approach is either to hand water or devise a horse-proof water system where the horse cannot spill the container or be injured pawing at it.  An example would be a water bucket or water bowl mounted at a fairly high height in a sturdy housing (where the horse can easily drink but not get a foot into it while pawing). Some of the commercial automatic water bowls are in a suitably sturdy housing. For a water bucket, I have seen a simple wooden, box-type housing constructed of heavy plywood covered with rubber matting (such as stall matting) into which the bucket sits. Over and over again we have learned that the simple hardware bucket anchors available for flat-back buckets are not sturdy enough for serious bucket pawers.

Defecating in water

Again, it might not be much consolation, but this problematic behavior also might have a basis in natural behavior of horses. It is a common natural behavior for stallions to defecate near watering sites.  The stallions might perform elaborate rituals, with posturing and defecating near the watering area. Stud piles accumulate close to watering sites.  Again, we don't understand the message this behavior represents, but the behavior has been interpreted as a means of communication or "marking" of valuable resources. Under natural conditions the feces are usually near the water, but not in the water.  Stallions and geldings in box stalls will sometimes defecate near --but not in --the waterer or bucket, while some clearly aim for the container. Like the pawing at water containers, this behavior also is very difficult to eliminate. I had a pony living in a tie stall (straight stall) that could (and did) turn around and deposit droppings into his water bucket in the manger.  We ended up more or less cross-tying him so he couldn't turn around.

Hay dipping and wetting

Dipping of hay into water is a pretty common behavior in stalled horses.  While some people attribute all sorts of bad intentions to such behavior, hay dipping is interpreted by behaviorists as a learned behavior.  This is based on the assumption that horses prefer moist forage, and by accident learned to wet the hay.  Then they continue to do that. Probably not a bad deal for the horse, but a mess for us to clean up.

Sometimes just wetting down the hay before feeding, or feeding the hay in a tub with water, will reduce the movement of hay to the water bucket. But sometimes it's difficult to break old routines. One horse I knew continued the ritual of carrying hay to his water bucket even when we fed his hay in water in a new muck tub.  When we removed the water buckets, he still carried the dripping hay to the area where the buckets had been.

So what can you do? These are not just nuisances but can represent significant horse health and barn hygiene problems.

You mentioned hand watering.  These water-related "misbehaviors" common to stalled horses are exactly why stabled horses were traditionally hand-watered. If you do go to that system, it is known that horses do most of their drinking right after meals. So most people water at least twice a day, or during and after each meal, allowing plenty of time for the horse to drink all at will. You'll want to make sure your horses' daily intake is ample.  As with any watering system, you want to watch the feces, as well as the skin and membranes, to get an indication of hydration status.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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