Cold Weather and Your Horse’s Drinking Water

by Matt

Cold water — ah, so refreshing on a hot summer’s day.

You slip out of the saddle and grab the water bottle out of the tack room fridge, letting the iciness slide down your throat and freeze your brain. You grab a sponge and squeeze it over your sweaty horse’s head, neck, and chest, offer him a drink from the hose while you get busy cooling him down. He wants more water than you’ll let him have, grabbing the hose with his teeth, pulling on it while you laugh and tug back.

(Later you’ll regret this because his teeth mashed the brass fitting down and now you can’t get a nozzle on it and you have to use your thumb to build enough pressure to hose out the wash rack, but for now it’s fun.)

In the center of our summer fun, there you find water.

Not so much in winter. In the cold months, water is a thing to be avoided at all costs. Don’t get it on your gloves, your boots, and definitely don’t get it on your horse — with that winter coat, you’ll never get him dry. As for the aisle, well, do you like ice skating indoors? And there’s no drinking out of a hose these cold days — you might be lucky to get your horse to drink at all.

Decreased water consumption in the winter months is frequently a problem for horses, whether because their water buckets freeze or because they just plain don’t like cold water. No matter why they are deprived of water, horses suffer serious health consequences in such cases: veterinarians often report an uptick in colics after cold snaps. Often horses fill up on dry hay, which is great for keeping them warm, but without water, they’re prone to potentially serious impactions.

Breaking the ice is often a daily (or twice or three times daily) chore at farms in cold weather, especially in outdoor troughs. If your horses are happy to drink the cold water, this is sufficient, although you might consider a stock tank heater if it’s so cold that you can’t keep with new ice forming on the surface. But if you have a picky drinker, you’re going to have to find a route for warming the water.

Heated water buckets come in all makes and models, from five-gallon buckets with a caged heating element in the bottom, to large pasture-sized models with the heating coils encased inside the unit’s structure, such as one’s developed by Nelson Manufacturing, You can even buy heaters that attach to the backside of the buckets you already have. Heated water buckets are especially helpful for stalled horses when the temperature in the barn goes below freezing overnight.

Water bucket heaters are immersion units which heat water (relatively) quickly. They’re useful for warming water for horses who don’t drink cold water, but they’re not to be left unattended or left within reach of the horse.

As with anything in your barn that uses electricity, following the manufacturer’s instructions is essential, and there is no such thing as “too much” caution. Stables are dry places full of kindling. Incorrect usage of products like water bucket heaters have caused devastating barn fires, and still more fires have been caused by shorted electrical equipment. Have your electrical outlets installed and inspected regularly by a professional electrician, and check and double-check your equipment for safety. If a horse can reach a cord, a horse can chew on a cord. And if an electrical cord has any sort of damage, it has the potential to short out and spark a fire in seconds.

Keeping a horse drinking water all winter long can be a challenge — even an expense. But as you break the ice in the waterer, or show the electrician where you want the new automatic heated waterers installed, just remember — in a few months you’ll be coming in from the hot sun, ready for a drink from the hose and a cold shower!

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