Water Makeovers on the Farm

There are many things to consider when supplying water for horses. If you depend on a stream, pond, or ditch (rather than a controlled system such as buckets, tanks, or automatic waterers), there could be concerns regarding water quality (for your horses and for the environment) and safe footing. Regardless of where you live, water quality and protecting water bank vegetation are issues that might require you to fence your animals away from a stream rather than use it as a water source. On the other hand, controlled water systems have their problems, too, such as broken water lines or cleaning issues.

In this article, we'll look how you water horses, from natural ponds and streams to technologically advanced automatic systems. Then we'll offer options on how to make those systems--or another system--work best for you and your horses.

What to Choose?

There are many types of watering systems that work for horses; when choosing or redoing a water system, select the type that best fits your needs. In a cold climate, your top priority will be to make sure the water source will not freeze.

If you're not sure where to start in selecting, designing, or improving a water system, Bob Coleman, PhD, extension horse specialist, University of Kentucky, suggests looking at examples in the Horse Facilities Handbook, $35, published by Midwest Plan Service (available from Iowa State University; 800/562-3618; www.mwpshq.org/catalog.html).

Streams and Ponds

Use of streams for water might be affected by the Clean Water Act of 1972, says Angela White, Department of Animal Science Horse Center at Oregon State University. This law prohibits degradation of a riparian zone (vegetation on the bank of a natural body of water) by animals that come to drink. You might have to create an alternative water source or allow access to the stream at one location, fencing horses away from the rest.

"The regulations vary from region to region," says White. In some areas you might be compensated enough for fencing off a riparian area to develop an alternative water source. "This is one of the programs we were able to take advantage of at our Horse Center; we received several thousand dollars to fence off a stream through the Conservation Resource Enhancement Program at USDA," she adds. "There are other responsibilities; we must maintain certain trees and native riparian vegetation along the stream, and the fence itself."

If your animals water at a stream, check local regulations and consult your Natural Resource Conservation District (NRCD), advises Betsy Greene, PhD, extension equine specialist, at the University of Vermont. "Your NRCD can be a great help with water problems," says Greene. "For instance, the King Conservation District (www.kingcd.org) in Western Washington has some helpful publications and a lot of good online material on things like decreasing mud and dealing with water quality. The University of Vermont (www.uvm.
edu) and Rutgers University (www.rutgers.edu) also have good information online."

Some farms use seasonal ponds or ditches that fill or flow during wet months, says White. "The problem with these sources is they're inconsistent. In dry months, you can't count on them and need an alternate water supply," she says.

One issue when using a stream or pond is water quality. You don't know what kind of pollution might be entering upstream or through groundwater. Other horses, livestock, or wildlife might be shedding pathogens that cause disease (such as leptospirosis). Snails in the water can be hosts for flukes that are part of the life cycle for the Rickettsia organisms that cause Potomac horse fever. In some instances, you might have chemical pollutants.

"Years ago cows suffered from dental fluorosis because they drank from a stream below an aluminum plant on the St. Lawrence River," says Greene. "You don't always know what's in the water." If you need to test your stream or pond, your county extension agent can recommend an inexpensive water quality test. This is something you should check regularly; just because the water looks clean does not mean it is safe.

"If you decide to maintain a pond filled by seasonal or permanent water flow (or create a man-made structure to fill periodically with water), there are general rules for maintaining an open water source," says White. "One consideration is making the access point stable so it won't erode, and creating enough slope so water runs in, but animals can comfortably get in and out.

"Depth and size depend on how many horses you're watering and whether they are large or small," adds White. Depending on soil type, you might have to put in a liner or barrier such as a concrete bunker that you can clean periodically. Preferably it should give horses traction if they fall in.

A pond is considered an attractive nuisance. Children might come to swim or play in it, and you can be held liable if they have an accident. "The owner of an attractive nuisance has the responsibility to fence it and keep people out," says White.

Stall Waterers

"There are some nice automatic water systems that work well in stalls, but are not designed to have heaters," says Coleman. "If you choose these, make sure your barn is warm enough to keep the water line to the barn from freezing, and protect the line to the waterer (from nibbling horses). If a horse grabs the line and breaks it (or the float breaks), you may end up with a dry well and a foot of water in the stall."

Install a shut-off valve at some point between each horse's waterer and the main water line so the water can be turned off if the automatic waterer malfunctions.

"At one farm, they had waterers with a ball the animal had to push with its nose, and we had a horse that never learned how to do that," says Coleman. "In some ways the waterers that flow until the water gets to a certain level are best, but this adds more to what you have to check. Some automatic waterers are not easy to clean. Buckets are simple; you just dump them and run a scrub brush around the inside."

In a barn, White prefers light-colored buckets; you can see debris better than in dark ones. "I prefer buckets to be flat on one side so they stay in place against the wall. They should have a closed handle, rather than a twisted end where it goes through the top of the bucket and attaches back to itself. Then a horse won't get tail or mane hairs caught," says White.

She likes buckets hung on a wall rather than on the ground where small animals might try to drink from them. A bucket on the ground is a hazard if a horse tips it over and gets a leg caught in the handle. It's better to use a tub or hang the bucket no lower than the point of the shoulder.

An automatic watering unit should be made of something non-corrosive, such as brass or stainless steel, rather than aluminum. In some waterers, the basin is polypropylene, which cleans easily and doesn't harbor bacteria. Ann Grell, JAG Ranch & Services, Lake Matthews, Calif., says aluminum is hard to keep clean because it reacts with things such as chlorine. She likes Nelson waterers because of the ease of maintenance and because there's no place for mosquitoes to breed.

Some waterers are more trouble-free than others. Stainless steel is more durable than plastic or painted steel. Paint will eventually chip and rust and plastic weakens over time; cold weather and heat eventually leave it brittle. Valve systems using floats or paddles can stick.

Stock Tanks

Whether you use an automatic waterer or tank you fill with a hose, ease of cleaning is important, especially in warm weather when algae and other organisms grow. "Some people still try to use goldfish to keep water tanks free of algae," says Grell. "But they are very dirty fish, and if some of them die, water quality is even worse."

Minimize the amount of standing water on your property. "If there are pastures, pens, or stalls not currently in use, dump the water out of those tubs or tanks," says White. Standing water can be a breeding area for mosquitoes that spread disease, and it attracts birds and small animals or pets that might try to drink and fall in. A tank is a hazard for young children or foals.

"When I was at WSU in Washington, we put a board in each tank for small creatures to climb out," says Greene. "You don't want decomposing corpses degrading the water quality. If the horse refuses to drink the water and colics, you'll have much bigger problems than if you avoid this by putting a board or 'bird ladder' in every trough."

A large enclosed tank (like the type where animals push a ball out of the way to drink) keeps small creatures from falling in and stays relatively clean if there's enough water going through every day (enough animals drinking). "But if water stands in those tanks, they get pretty nasty," says Coleman. "The tank is sealed and water can get very warm in a dark-colored tank, encouraging growth of many things and an unhealthy slime buildup."

Some horses paw or chew on waterers, so you want one with a smooth edge that's difficult for a horse to grab onto. White likes tanks with high sides so horses can't put their feet in them, and tanks that are slightly sloped and rounded.

A tank also needs a drain plug so if it gets dirty and is too heavy to dump, it can be drained.

White prefers small tanks, between 100 and 200 gallons, rather than bigger ones that are harder to dump. "I also like water troughs made of material that won't deteriorate or develop sharp, rough edges; rust-proof galvanized is best, or recycled plastic."

When installing a permanent water tank in a pasture or paddock, Coleman recommends using a crushed rock base that's large enough so there will be a dry place around the waterer that won't be churned to mud from all the horse traffic. "All too often, people put the waterer on a two-foot by two-foot concrete pad, then wonder why there's mud all around it," he says.

"When planning or redoing a pasture system, having a source of water in each pasture is important," says Coleman. Some farms create an alley from various paddocks to a central watering system, but the alley is traveled continually, grass is trampled out, and it becomes muddy or dusty. The alley takes up part of the pasture, creating wasted space. You need more fence, more gates, and there are more places where horses are at risk for injury when going in and out. You usually have to put rock in the travel areas, or figure out a way to move your water source.

"One way to do this is use a portable tank that is easily moved and has a readily available water source," says Coleman. "You can put a hydrant in the fenceline (protected from horses) so you could water the horses anywhere in the pasture."

Coleman suggests going to farms in your area to see what other people have done. It doesn't matter whether it's a water system for cattle or sheep if it will adapt to work for horses. Think about durability, how you will clean the tank, where you'll put it, ways to minimize investment and still find something workable for your situation--and plan ahead for all possible problems.

Take-Home Message

Whether you are trying to do away with the muddy pit that used to be a pond or create a more manageable system for your barn or field, remember that horses need lots of clean, fresh water that isn't frozen. There are many ways to improve water sources on your farm, but you might have to get some help to do the best job.

ROTATIONAL WATERING: Inexpensive, Simple, and Portable

"Here at the University of Kentucky, the tank I use is one I selected after experimenting with several types of waterers on another project," says Bob Coleman, PhD, extension horse specialist at the university. "It's a 60-gallon tub with a really good float valve at the bottom. The horses generally can't get at it (to play with it) because they'd have to immerse their heads to do it. I fill these big tubs from a water hydrant, using a five-eighths-inch industrial strength (agricultural grade) hose. This enables me to move the tank around a pasture for rotating the grazing. As long as you run the hose along the fenceline, the horses can't get at it. I have 250 feet of hose, so I can put the tank wherever I need it.

"This is just a big plastic tank we bought from a company that sells pasture equipment; it comes with a valve, and only cost $100," he adds. "Something like this can be purchased at a farm store that supplies equipment to people who are managing pastures and grazing rotation (cattle, sheep, etc.); it's not specifically for horses.

"I clean it with a stiff-bristled horse brush," says Coleman. "We have three of these tanks. They are lightweight, so you can tip them over to rinse, and pick it up and carry it wherever you need it."

This tank won't work in cold weather because the hose and valve freeze, but for summer pasture rotation, this type of waterer is adequate. "In one corner of the pasture we have a heated stock tank that won't freeze in winter. I plan the pasture rotation so the paddock with the heated tank is where my horses will spend the winter," says Coleman.--Heather Smith Thomas


Water lines to pasture tanks or automatic waterers should always be beneath the frost line. The riser pipe must have an insulation tube encasing it or be warmed with heat tape. If you have an electrical source for a heating unit in the water tank, the heat tape can be wired into the electrical box for the waterer. You can put the plumbing and the power line in the same trench when installing the waterer.

"Even if you don't have many cold days, if there's potential for cold weather, think how you will heat the water or protect it from freezing," says Bob Coleman, PhD, extension horse specialist with the University of Kentucky. "If you use floating tank heaters, place them where horses can't get to them. A farm manager in Canada put a lid on his water tank, covering two-thirds of it. This not only kept horses from playing with the heater, but also served as insulation. He had a galvanized water trough, built a box around it, and put a lid on it," says Coleman. The box broke the wind and created an insulating air space around the tank.

The University of Vermont's Betsy Greene, PhD, an extension equine specialist, says that even though you can put extension cords in PVC pipe or conduit, it's best to have an electrical outlet at the water source so you won't need extension cords. You also need to make sure there's never a short in the water heater; if horses get a shock they won't drink.

If horses must drink at a stream or pond and it freezes over, you'll have to chop ice daily--and make sure horses can reach the water in the hole you chopped. If ice is too thick, you might have to stair-step the ice and cover the footing area with sand or gravel so they won't be reluctant to walk on the ice.--Heather Smith Thomas

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.

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