Beat the Freeze

A dependable water source is crucial in all seasons. If your climate gets cold in winter, having a dependable source means making sure the water will not freeze. No matter how handy or sophisticated the system, it won’t work (and can create a major headache to fix) if the water line or tank freezes. But there are a variety of ways to keep the water flowing.


Horses at pasture have been watered in “stock tanks” for a long time, but these require daily ice breaking in cold weather. Some of the first insulated water tanks for horses were made by Ritchie company in the 1920s, and a host of other companies have created innovative stall and pasture waterers in recent years.

Waterers that don’t depend on a heating unit are often insulated by a protective outer container using insulating material like styrofoam. Some pasture tanks are made of structural foam (polyethylene plastic mixed with tiny nitrogen bubbles), which is durable and resilient as well as insulating. Some are a twin wall polyethylene material (two or more inches apart) with the air space in between filled with spray foam.

A stock tank heater can be used if there’s a nearby electrical source. One type of heater rests at the bottom of the tank, the other floats on top. The heating element in the floating variety is below water level. As long as it’s in the water, it is not hot to the touch, and if it gets out of the water it shuts off automatically.

“Even if you don’t have many cold days, you need to think about how you are going to heat the water or protect it from freezing,” says Dr Bob Coleman, extension horse specialist, University of Kentucky.

“If you use floating tank heaters, place them where horses can’t get to them. One farm manager put a lid on his galvanized water tank, covering 2/3 of it. This not only kept horses from playing with the heater but also served as insulation. He built a box around the tank,” says Coleman. This broke the wind and created an insulating air space around the tank. The extension cord for the tank heater went through conduit so horses couldn’t get at it.

It’s important to have adequate wiring that’s well grounded. There’s usually no danger of horses getting electrocuted, but poor wiring might develop a tiny short and horses might get a little buzz of electricity off the water, and refuse to drink. Often people blame this on the heater, but it’s actually a grounding problem within the electrical system. Horses have a keen sense of electricity and can detect any electrical activity within the water. It’s best to have a power source close by and no extension cords. If a cord must be used, place it inside a pipe so horses can’t get at it to chew on it.


Automatic waterers are another way to keep horses hydrated in the winter. Many of these waterers are designed to remain functional in cold weather—either with an insulated tank or bowl, a heater, or a combination of heating unit and insulation.

In an automatic waterer, heat is provided by warmer water brought into the tank from underground. If there are many horses drinking, there may be enough water movement—with new water coming in—to keep the water from freezing. Choose a tank size appropriate to the number of animals; in winter you do not want a large tank—there would be too much water that just sits in the tank and gets colder, in spite of insulation. If the waterer is not in use, a shut-off valve can be used to prevent water from entering—and drain the line to prevent freeze-up.

Some insulated tanks are small covered troughs with a drinking hole protected by a floating ball—pushed out of the way by the horse’s nose when he drinks. Having a cover over the water surface helps keep ice from forming. The ball is designed to pop back up and seal the hole when the animal is finished drinking. There’s no water exposed to cold air except when the ball is pushed out of the way to drink. This usually works well unless temperatures drop below zero.

Some automatic waterers have a heating element underneath the tank (and attached to the bottom) to warm the water. Newer units use about 150 watts of energy; older ones of similar size use about 300 to 450 watts. These are controlled by a thermostat and only turn on when the water temperature drops below a certain point.


Many buckets are made of insulating material, and, again, like a thermos bottle, will keep water from freezing for several hours.

There are also insulated bucket holders made of a poly material with spray foam between double walls. The back is flat and can be bolted to the stall wall or paddock fence. The holder has a round opening into which a five-gallon bucket slips. The bucket that comes with it can be filled in the morning, and water will stay ice-free most of the day. It can be filled again in the evening and probably not freeze until after the horse has drunk all he wants.

Most of these bucket holders come with an insulated floating cover made from a piece of structural foam (heavier and stronger than styrofoam) that floats on top of the water. The horse merely has to nudge it and water comes over it for drinking. Some covers are dish-shaped; when pushed on they fill with water the horse can drink. Having a cover helps prevent heat loss and the water stays ice-free much longer. Horses readily learn to use this; they know the water is there, so they push on the lid.

An insulated bucket holder is not fool-proof in really cold weather, but works better than a regular bucket and is economical.

Remember, too, when emptying ice out of buckets or tanks, don’t dump them next to the watering area or just outside the barn door, or you’ll have ice chunks in your way, or you may create icy spots.


Electric water warmers are the least expensive type of heated waterer. Most water bucket de-icers are 250-watt units that plug into a barn outlet and are simply dropped into the bottom of a bucket to keep water from freezing. These are thermostatically controlled and don’t get very hot, but can be dangerous if they malfunction. Make sure bucket heaters have adequate wiring, and never come into contact with flammable materials, and that horses can’t play with them. And avoid using extension cords.

Several companies sell heated buckets. One type is a plastic polyethylene bucket with a heating coil built into the bottom, running through the plastic, so there is no element in the water itself. A cord attaches to the bottom of the bucket and plugs into an electrical outlet.

This type of heating unit does not get very hot; it’s meant to merely prevent ice from forming. The bucket is made of thin plastic, about 1/8 inch thick. The heating filament inside the plastic stays at a low temperature, and never gets hot enough to melt the plastic. The bucket holds five gallons and is flat-backed so it fits securely against a stall wall. The electrical cord comes out the bottom of the bucket and can go out through the wall behind it. Many horsemen feel this solution is a little safer and easier than a drop-in heater, where the cord comes out the top of the bucket, making it accessible to a horse.

One bucket with a built-in heater has a compartment underneath to store the cord. In other words, you can use it as a regular bucket the rest of the year and the cord is out of the way.


Water hydrants in a cold climate should be self-draining. When you turn the hydrant off, water left in the upright pipe drains back down, so there’s no water in the vertical pipe that could freeze. Several companies make frost-free hydrants, with the control valve located below frost line.

To ensure proper drainage and prevent freezing, the area around the bottom of the hydrant’s upright pipe should be filled with gravel. Each time the hydrant is turned off, water in the riser drains out the bottom, leaving the riser empty.

With a little planning and expense, you can save loads of time in the winter and keep horses happy, healthy and hydrated.


If you have problems with a waterer in winter, it’s often because the water line freezes. To prevent that, the pipe must be buried below the frost line, and the riser must be adequately insulated (situated in an insulating tube) or heated. Some horsemen use heat tape. If you have an electrical source for a heating unit in the water tank, 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.

The trench for the water line must be at least a foot deeper than frost line in your region. Even if you’re putting a waterer inside a barn, the water line must be below frost line.

Put the water line even deeper where it goes under a road or walkway, or any area there might be vehicle or horse traffic. Impact on the ground drives frost deeper.

The upright pipe to your tank or waterer must also be well insulated. Some companies sell an insulated earth tube that can be put down the hole where your riser pipe comes up. This 16-inch-diameter tube is made of two-inch styrofoam and helps insulate the pipe. Ground heat will then surround the pipe, even above ground level.

If you dig a deep hole, down past the frost line—an extra four to six feet down past the water line itself—this generates ground heat for your riser. The hole enables warm air to come up through the insulation tube around the vertical water pipe and keep the water from freezing. Ground temperature below frost line is usually 48 to 56 degrees. The earth tube is durable PVC on the outside and foam insulation on the inside.

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!