You Can Lead a Horse to Water…

Automatic watering systems can save time and money for most barn owners. But are they hard to install and what do they cost?

If you’ve decided that dragging a hose up and down the aisle is no longer a fun way to spend time, take a look at those tempting ads for automatic horse watering systems. The systems available today have a range of clever designs and can be safe, horse-proof suppliers of your horses’ most essential daily nutrient.

The challenge lies in figuring out where and how to place the units. Installation is, frankly, a lot harder than putting a screw-eye in the wall and finding a snap for the bucket. But then there’s no more hose-hauling, no more frozen buckets to be cleared. Those glossy pictures look better and better, if you can just figure out how to get the water line installed.

Installing waterers is not a complex technical concept. To supply them, you need to provide a frostproof water line and, if you have a heated model, you’ll need electricity. For those in balmy climates, the project may involve nothing more complex than running a water supply line along the wall to a metal water bowl with a paddle-type activator. These simple paddle-bowl units cost approximately $50, can be wiped out with a sponge, and turn up in many horse and barnyard supply catalogs.

If you’re in an area of occasional frost, you might be able to get along with a little strategically placed, Underwriters Laboratory-approved heat tape on your water line, perhaps just at the corners of the piping where the water pools a bit. As with all electrical projects in the barn, however, be certain that your wiring is out of horse and rodent reach, in metal or PVC conduit and properly grounded.

The only drawback to these economical units is the issue of clever horses: If you have a bored horse with a mechanical sense, he may realize he can press the paddle long enough to flood the stall. Most horses don’t ever dream up this form of entertainment.

Other simple watering systems use a similar bowl, but with a float valve, with or without insulation or heater options. These are less prone to being fiddled with, but with both paddle and float types one must be extra vigilant that the moving parts are not jammed and that the water is refilling properly.

Barn owners in cold climates, of course, know a more complicated design will have to replace simple bowl units. Fortunately, a remarkable number of ingenious solutions have been developed to tackle the water-in-cold-climates issue. Most involve significant insulation and some electrical wiring for thermostatically controlled heater units. Many take advantage of natural ground heat below the frost line to protect the water flow.

The challenge with these warmer, more resilient units is figuring out how to install them in a pre-existing facility. Mark McKinstry, marketing vice president at Nelson Manufacturing Company, Center Rapids, Iowa, notes that planning ahead and reading all the directions is essential, but a surprising number of folks forget to do just that. “The biggest problem is people don’t read the installation instructions, and where they go wrong is in not protecting the vertical portion of the water line, also known as the riser pipe, from freezing,” he says.

In the case of the Nelson horse waterers, units with a horse-proof lever-arm activation, part of their cold-proofing design is digging a deep hole beneath the water pipe that brings up natural ground heat to keep supply lines flowing. It’s a smart concept, but if you are working with an existing facility, you’ll need to install these waterers in your outside paddocks, since a hole extending 4 to 6 feet below your frostline is required for the upward-running water line. In areas with a 3-foot-deep frostline, this means you’re getting a well or outdoor plumbing company to dig 7 to 9 feet or more below grade. That’s simple in new construction, doable in paddocks depending on your fence lines, but not a likely plan in existing stalls.

If you can dig a sufficiently deep hole, plus a good, deep supply line trench, you’ve got a foolproof system. McKinstry points out that by using the earth’s heat, not only do you protect the water line (which is set within a tall, insulated PVC pipe), but the entire unit stays warmer, dramatically reducing the amount of cycling the bowl-side heater must do to keep its reservoir clear and drinkable.

Yet another design that can work in either existing barns and paddocks or new construction is a simple, square-tank model that mounts on a concrete pad. Refilled by a float valve, with a tray-mounted thermostat beneath the water container, these units, by Hoskins Manufacturing in Hoskins, Neb., and a number of similar manufacturers, are popular across the west, especially with cattle and hog farms. Their design is not quite as horse-friendly as rounded models, as they have corners that can bump a knee or hock, but they seem to last a long time, and one can always install a bit of neoprene padding for accident-prone boarders, if needed.

One Hoskins supplier, Troy Becker, of Stockyard Supply in Commerce City, Colo., notes that these units—like all waterers—run best if mounted completely level, and with a frost-free hydrant as the water supply, so water can drain off between refills. If not placed on a concrete pad, the metal-box units could be damaged as daily hoof wear on the surrounding ground pulls them off level, and the shallow water trays on either end will either be overflowing or empty when the control float isn’t centered.

Another supplier, Equuspring, offers waterers in heavy polystyrene models. These wall-mounted models need a protected water supply line and power for the 200-watt, 120V heaters. Still another supplier is Varnan, which manufactures waterers made from a durable plastic and also uses insulation and ground heat to help keep the water from freezing.

Worried about the combination of electricity and water? You should be. Insufficiently insulated and/or poorly grounded wiring for tank heaters, indoors or out, can make drinking a shocking experience for your horse. Use well-protected wiring to the tank heater, ensuring that metal edges and nails don’t damage the wire insulation, and check it periodically. Check to see if the unit is Underwriters Laboratories approved; not all are. Alternately, for outdoor use, look for pasture waterers with a combination of ground-heat systems and solar power, plus as much insulation as possible. Cloudy weather plays havoc with solar-only units, however, so keep a close eye on any water system to be sure that the animals are still getting the water they need.

In terms of economy, most insulated, heated, quality waterers, whether designed for one horse or between-stalls installation, will cost at least $150, and sometimes closer to $400 apiece. Thus, the two-horse applications are your best dollar value.

Installing shared units, however, means that there is a chance of shared illness. In addition, great care must be exercised when units are installed between stalls to avoid any gaps through which a hoof could be caught. And if the unit has a single bowl that both horses access through a window-like space, be sure that the space is just high enough for the horses’ noses to reach through, but not their whole heads. Offering a window through which to fight and fuss is an invitation.

Automatic waterers, when in­stalled correctly, can be real time-savers and provide horses with fresh, safe water around the clock.

For More Information

Nelson Manufacturing Co. — Phone: 888-844-6606;

Hoskins Manufacturing Co., Inc. — Phone: 402 565 4420;

Equuspring Livestock Products — Phone:714-379-4556;

Bar-Bar-A Horse Drinker — Phone: 800-451-2230;

Varnan — Phone: 866-311-7870;






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