Automatic Waterers Provide Fresh Water For Your Horse

Many barns keep two buckets of water in each stall, just in case the horse happens to drink one dry overnight, so it's no surprise that we're all wondering if an automatic watering system is worth the investment.

Drink Up

  • Check your automatic waterer daily to be sure it’s working properly.
  • Evaluate your horse, too, so you know he’s getting enough water.
  • Install the waterer away from the feed tub and at a proper height to keep out hay, grain and debris.
  • Choose a unit with smooth, rounded edges so the horse is less likely to injure himself if he bangs into it.
  • Consider ease of cleaning and maintenance, keeping in mind that stainless or galvanized steel bowls won’t pick up odors.
  • Consult an electrician if you choose a heated system that requires wiring. Plumbing depth and insulation are also important installation factors in cold climates.

Horses consume a great deal of water each day-anywhere from 5 to 15 gallons. Since water weighs about 81/3 pounds per gallon, you can get quite a workout simply hauling that 5-gallon bucket of water from the faucet to the stall each day. You’ve also got the chore of wiping the buckets clean before refilling them each day. Many barns keep two buckets of water in each stall, just in case the horse happens to drink one dry overnight, so it’s no surprise that we’re all wondering if an automatic watering system is worth the investment.

That’s the “glass half full” side of the story.

Automatic waterers aren’t perfect. When one goes awry, the horse is without water until you realize it. Or you could return to the barn to find his stall filled with three inches of standing water, which is still flowing out of the bowl.

Valves can jam. Floats can stick. Water lines can freeze. (Sure, the waterer itself might be heated, but what about the pipes feeding it?) Filters can fail. Some horses can destroy almost anything they set their minds to, and most automatic watering systems aren’t cheap to install or repair.

Certainly, we’d like to have the convenience of a waterer in our barn. Fortunately, most modern barns can easily accommodate the additional plumbing required to have automatic waterers in each stall. Antique barns, however, might require a bit more effort, if they can be converted at all. Check with the manufacturer or your plumber to ensure your water pressure is adequate, especially if you’re running water throughout a large barn.

With a little bit of ingenuity and a how-to book, you may be able to handle the plumbing yourself. However, we recommend that you contact an electrician if wiring is involved. And it will be if the unit includes a heater. Horses and electricity historically don’t mix well. In many instances horses mysteriously stop drinking from waterers. Upon investigation, it’s usually due to a tingling or electrical shock when they touch the water. Plus, of course, all electrical wiring should be in a conduit for extra safety.

Check your water quality, too. A debris-filled water line may jam up the waterer and cause malfunctions. Even something as tiny as sand grains can cause huge problems. The water source should be consistently clean and clear. If it’s not, discuss with your plumber a way to install a replaceable filter on the line.

Jamming and clogging are among the most frequent problems with waterers. Be sure you flush all installed lines clean before hooking them to the waterers.

And once in use, you’ll want to keep the bowl free of hay/grain before it mucks up the works.

Nearly all manufacturers equip their units with some degree of insulation, and many have heating elements. Even so, we recommend that you install pipes, lines and the waterers themselves away from direct drafts to help protect them from freezing. A good plumber will know how to do that and how deep to set the lines. Unless you live in a climate that never, ever goes below freezing, we recommend super insulation and heat.

Pasture Waterers

Pasture waterers operate similarly to stall waterers, and the same buying suggestions go for choosing one. You’ll want to consider a few other things as well.

Plan to place the pasture waterer at a location convenient for both you and the horses, because you’ll need to check it daily. Locate it as much out of the wind as possible. Wind adds to the likelihood of freezing.

Don’t place it in the same spot as where the horses are fed because you want to minimize the amount of debris that gets into it. However, you still want it to be in a prominent spot that the horses will be likely to gather. Some farms place the waterer in or near a shelter, but if you have a large herd, you don’t want some horses to be “forbidden” to come near the waterer by other horses. A waterer should be 360-degree accessible with adequate space around it so no one becomes trapped.

Be sure the water line feeding your waterer is set below the frost line in your area. Ask about a replaceable filter if the water feeding the unit cannot be guaranteed to be debris-free. Consider bluestone or another material around the perimeter of the waterer to reduce any chances of a mud hole from its frequent use. Pasture waterers are relatively permanent fixtures, so you’re not easily going to move it to a grassier site.

Talk with the manufacturer about the size of your pasture waterer to ensure it will accommodate the number of horses that will have access to it. You want to be sure it can refill itself quickly enough and endure heavy usage.

If you already have a water tank but the horses quickly empty it, consider the Trough-O-Matic float from Miller Manufacturing. It works with a hose and a visible float, keeping the tank water at the desired level. The Dura Mate waterer also works with a hose and a float, can be used in a stall or on a fence, and maintains a constant supply of water, but in a one-horse-size bowl.

Look for waterers that hide water pipes and electrical lines from the horse. Or consider a waterer like the Bar-Bar-A, which uses no electricity to keep it from freezing, or the Ritchie Thrifty King, which doesn’t require electricity except in the most severe climates.

We’d go even one step further. If you’re considering an automatic waterer, spend this winter monitoring and recording the internal temperature of your barn. Use this information to talk to the manufacturer and your plumber about the advisability of running water lines throughout your barn. A heated waterer will not keep the actual water line from freezing. And a frozen water line often becomes a broken water line when it thaws, creating a mess.

Your plumber may recommend heat tapes, insulated pipe covers, or molded pipe sleeves. He may also recommend that you block all drafts in your barn and close the barn up tightly-which, of course, he probably doesn’t realize would not be healthy for your horse. You’re going to have to weigh pros and cons.

The Waterers Themselves
Stall waterers can be either wall-mounted or free-standing drinking fountains. Freestanding pasture waterers are usually set in or on concrete with a heavy-duty casing. Some manufacturers state that their pasture waterer can also be used in a stall, which may be true, but be sure it is high enough that the horse won’t constantly step in it or fill it with flicked up shavings or sawdust. Pasture waterers are also more expensive than stall waterers, so be sure you know why you’re spending the extra money.

A valve or float usually controls the flow of water into the bowl. The most common types are: dump valves (which work by gravity); paddles (which the horse pushes to allow water into the bowl); floats (which turn the water flow on when the bowl goes down to a certain level); and balance-beam valves (offered by Nelson Waterers, which release water when the quantity drops to a particular level). Most companies install the valve in a manner that minimizes the risk of it jamming open, whether by debris or a nosy horse.

Training the Horse

Your horse will probably adapt well to an automatic waterer once he gets the hang of it. Bowls that keep a constant amount of water in the bowl at all times (balance-beam, dump valve, and float-valve waterers) are easier for the horse to get used to, as the waterer automatically fills itself. All the horse really has to do is drink. Paddle-type waterers require the horse to push on the paddle a bit to release the water.

Either way, you’ll need to show the horse how the water comes out, probably more than once. You’ll also need to eliminate the old water bucket from the stall or he’ll never learn to rely on the waterer. Keep a close watch on him until you’re certain he’s drinking when you first install the waterer. Better yet, get a waterer with an intake monitor installed on each individual fountain, so you know not only that all the horses are drinking, but that each is drinking enough to be healthy.

Some waterers require a little more “strength” to operate than others. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since you don’t want the valve to open because a spider crossed over it. But you also want to ensure that ponies, foals and other small horses are able to activate the paddle with a gentle touch of their muzzle.

Never accept a waterer that spurts water so quickly and with such force that it spooks the horse. Ask to play with the waterer before you buy it, or get permission to visit a barn that has that brand installed, so you can get some hands-on experience with it.

Most waterers are designed to be animal-safe. They’re sturdy and able to withstand the inevitable rubbing they’ll have to endure from itchy horses. However, for horses we prefer waterers that are rounded instead of rectangular because we feel edges are just something else for the horse to bang into. Nelson, Miraco, Rainbow, Rotonics and Equuspring all make rounded waterers.

Whether you choose a flat-back or corner-mounted stall waterer, don’t install it too close to the hay corner. That way you can reduce accidental (or purposeful) dunking of the hay. Food debris can jam valves and definitely will make the bowl dirty, requiring more frequent cleaning. Jams and clogs due to improper installation-whether location, not clearing/filtering the water lines, or debris in the bowl-are the most frequent problems manufacturers have to deal with.

While shopping, you’ll find the most helpful spots on a website are the FAQs (frequently asked questions) section, troubleshooting guides, and installation instructions. Although you may think these sections will only be needed after you purchase your waterer, we found during our research that they told us a lot about individual waterers, the problems they seem to be prone to, and how they may or may not fit into our own barns.

Clean Water
We lean toward stainless steel or galvanized steel bowls, like the Nelson and Hoskins waterers, because steel won’t pick up and hold odors. While many horses drink every day from a poly bucket, if the plastic in an automatic unit develops an odor, the horse may stop drinking. Replacing a poly bucket is generally simpler and less expensive than replacing a built-in poly automatic waterer. If you think there’s a chance your horse could become picky about his water’s smell, get steel.

Automatic waterers constantly freshen the water supply. This reduces water waste and keeps the water palatable. However, they aren’t all maintenance-free.

Check waterers daily to ensure they’re working properly. Most will need to be cleaned at least twice a week to reduce the slimy film that can develop on the bowl and to keep the mechanical parts free of debris. Removable bowls may be easier to clean than bowls that use a removable plug.

When you investigate your choices, be certain the sales representative shows you exactly what you need to do for maintenance. Nelson has videos on its website showing regular and long-term maintenance, so you know exactly what you’re getting into. Ask how easy it is to replace broken or worn parts and their availability. The Varnan waterers use a FILLPro water valve, which the company states is available in hardware stores.

Bottom Line
Automatic waterers do eliminate lugging water from faucet to stall or dragging a messy hose down the barn aisle two or three times a day. They can provide a constant source of fresh, temperature-controlled water, especially during the winter. However, they won’t eliminate the chore of checking your horse’s water every day, they can be costly to install, and most require maintenance.

You’ll want to weigh the labor-saving costs against the purchase and installation costs and possible mishaps of automatic systems. They’re probably best suited for a large barn that needs to cut labor costs or for a horse owner who is unable to refill buckets several times a day and needs to be assured the horse doesn’t drink the bucket dry before the owner can return to the barn.

We also recommend getting a water-intake monitor, such as can be purchased with a Nelson and Ritchie, so you know that your horse is drinking, especially for stall waterers. A horse who stops drinking likely needs veterinary attention.

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