When cold winter temperatures arrive and the thermometer begins to dip below the 32° Fahrenheit mark, farm owners face a long list of seasonal chores: putting away hoses and draining outdoor water spigots, parking the horse trailer, preparing turnout blankets, and other general cold-weather tasks. Another important winter preparation is deciding how to keep your horse’s water troughs and buckets from freezing. This is a critical issue.
To avoid the dangers of dehydration, including impaction colic, cold-climate horse owners need to plan ahead to keep their horse’s water supply from freezing.
Here are a few ways you can defeat the ice and help keep your horse drinking all winter long.
A heated water bucket—that is, a horse bucket with an electrical cord and a heating element built into the bottom—is simple to use and extremely effective, even in temperatures far below zero. Particularly when used in a stall or shed oriented to keep the wind away and take advantage of your horse’s body heat, heated water buckets are a win-win. They’ll save you a tremendous amount of time and effort—no breaking away ice and repeatedly dumping and re-filling buckets. Plus, the warm water encourages your horse to continue to drink more.
The only real downside is cost. Not so much in the initial purchase price of the bucket (about $30 to $50), but in the increased electricity consumption.
Heated buckets tend to have a bad reputation as power hogs, but in reality they aren’t as bad as you might think. A regular 5-gallon heated horse bucket might use between 100 and 130 watts—a little more than a bright incandescent lightbulb—but it doesn’t necessarily have to run 24/7.
The bucket’s built-in thermostat should only activate the heating element when needed, and you can simply unplug the bucket during times when it isn’t needed. For example, if your horses are out of the stable during the day, or if daytime temperatures warm up sufficiently, you can unplug them. You can also plug them in just to warm up the water for a few hours before nightfall, or even use an outlet timer.
Ice-Free Outdoor Troughs
Larger outdoor water troughs can be a real challenge to keep ice-free because they have a large surface area of water exposed to the cold air. Also, they’re usually made of metal or plastic, neither of which offer much insulation. You have a couple of options here, although their effectiveness depends a great deal on your climate.
Some horse owners with a knack for DIY projects find that building a partial wrap-around enclosure for an outdoor trough can help keep the water from freezing for a longer period of time (enclosing the trough creates a layer of air that helps insulate the water). For colder locations, a floating or submersible heating element can do a great job, but the trough may still lightly ice over in deep cold, and these heaters can be a real electrical drain (depending on the size, they might use several hundred watts of power). On the other hand, the larger the trough, the better it will retain heat—up to a point. For very cold locations, the combination of an insulated trough plus a heating element may be necessary to keep the water warm overnight.
Climates with mild winters may only experience a few nights that dip below the freezing mark. In these areas, some simple ice deterrents may be all that are needed. Many horse owners have found that simply floating a horse-safe ball or toy in the water will help keep ice from developing. As the ball moves about the water’s surface, it helps create just enough disturbance to break up lightly forming ice. Electric circulating pumps are another way to keep the water active.
Frostless Hydrants and Automatic Waterers
While potentially expensive to initially install, frostless yard hydrants or automatic waterers (indoors or out) can save a lot of work and still supply your horse with instant fresh water, no matter how cold the temperature is.
Frostless hydrants and some automatic waters work on essentially the same concept: water is piped underground from the well at a depth well below the frostline—usually several feet. Water rises up a vertical pipe to the hydrant or waterer on demand, but then drains away and settles again below the frostline when not in use (some automatic waters also employ an electric heating element).
With an automatic waterer, your horse can get water whenever he wants; with a frostless hydrant, you’ll still need to refill his water, but the hydrant can be placed in a convenient location. Setting up these systems takes a little more work, but they save time (and money) later—and your horse’s water supply is always the same temperature as the well.
If your horses are able to stay indoors on cold nights but electricity is not an option, consider installing an insulated water bucket system. Usually this involves a standard 5-gallon bucket (not necessarily a “horsey” style, but perhaps a food-grade type pail) placed inside an insulated holder that can hang in your horse’s stall. The insulation surrounding the bucket helps keep the heat in and the cold out, plus some of these systems come with floats that help insulate the water from above, but which horses can easily push down to access the water.
In an ideal situation, you would add warm water to the insulated bucket on each refilling to give the system a better chance at holding in the heat for a longer period. Whether or not this setup will work for you depends on the severity—and duration—of cold temperatures within the barn.
If you aren’t afraid of DIY projects, you might consider building your own insulated bucket system. One outdoor option is to stack several old tires and then place a 5-gallon bucket inside them; the layer of air inside the tires insulates the bucket from the cold air.
Naturally, if your water buckets are freezing, so are the hoses used for filling them. If you have a heated outdoor area—perhaps a small tack room, or a heated garage, you can roll up hoses after use and store them in a warm location to keep them from freezing. This is likely easier than hauling water long distances by hand.
It’s also (sometimes) possible to drain the water out of the hoses before they freeze and leave them outdoors, but it’s difficult to get all the water out this way and you may wake up to frozen hoses anyway.
One last thing: don’t forget to keep your horse supplied with a salt lick. It’s one extra way to encourage him to drink during the cold season.
Good luck—and remember, the cold days won’t last forever.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!