Automatic, Free-Choice Water Choices

There are many ways to provide free-choice water to our horses, but one of the easiest is to install automatic waterers that provide safe, fresh water any time of year.

There are very few times when we don’t want our horses to have free-choice water. There are many ways to provide their water, but one of the easiest is to install automatic waterers that provide safe, fresh water any time of year. Following is information on how to select the right automatic waterer for your needs and property.

When you hear guzzling and slurping in your barn, you know that your horses are drinking. Each needs to consume 10, 12, or even as much as 20 gallons a day to stay hydrated. And while keeping the horses watered can be a chore, there are many products available to ease the task.

You know how tough it is to haul buckets or drag hoses. In the Stable Management Readers’ Choice survey (December 2009), readers listed watering as the second worst chore, behind cleaning stalls. And when asked what they would most want if they had the money, installing automatic waterers was number three.

Automatic waterers keep water flowing with the least amount of effort, saving you precious time. Here, we’ve surveyed a range of products to help you choose a system that will work best for you.

Water On Demand

An automatic waterer controls the flow of water into a drinking bowl. The horse dips his muzzle into water already in the bowl, or presses a paddle like a drinking fountain. A hidden valve starts and stops the flow and adjusts the water level.

Some waterers have no standing water. The bowl is empty until the horse activates the paddle. Other designs hold a measured amount of water in a bowl or tank.

For example, Nelson waterers use the balance beam, a weight-activated valve. “It depends on gravity. When the horse drinks, fresh water refills,” says Scott Torticill.

In the Petersen waterer, “Water is in the tank at all times,” says Christy Siemer. “The bowl depth is 5.5 inches.”

The Bar~Bar~A waterer uses a design for water to drain after the horse drinks. With these systems, training the horses to work the waterer is required—not that such training is a problem. David Anderson of Bar-Bar-A says, “Horses are easy to train. After you install the unit, take the horse to it and press down on the paddle. Rub some water on the horse’s nose, and after that it generally takes about one hour for the horse to figure it out.”

The bowl can be designed especially for the muzzle of a horse, or be a trough that can be used by several horses.

A stall waterer typically uses a bowl, mounted on the wall. To serve two horses in separate enclosures, the waterer can consist of two water bowls, for placement on a fenceline or a stall wall. Horses on each side of the divider share a single unit.

“We have different sizes,” says Travis Hight of Cancrete. “A double 18-inch waterer can divide pens or stalls.”

Outdoors, you can choose a freestanding waterer. The waterer is above ground, with its water supply line buried.

The shape of the Equuspring—a tall cone 36 inches high with a wide bottom and narrow opening for the bowl—keeps horses’ feet out of the bowl. The Drinking Post is another manufacturer that offers a tall design, placing a water bowl on top of a pipe, eight inches in diameter.


The construction of the waterer must be tough enough to work efficiently 24/7. Both external parts and the inner mechanism must endure the effects of horses and the environment.

As well, the components need to function with the water quality you have, without corrosion. And for a waterer installed outdoors, any part exposed to the weather should maintain its reliability.

Most models are made from metal, plastic, or concrete, each with pros and cons.

Metal “Nelson waterers are made of stainless steel,” says Torticill. “Stainless steel will last forever, and it holds up to the animals’ abuse.”

The less-expensive cast iron and galvanized steel waterers typically have shorter life spans. About the stainless steel bowls in Cancrete tanks, Travis Hight says, “We don’t use galvanized metal, because you have to replace it in five years.”

Plastic John Mellott describes the Equuspring design: “It’s a linear low-density polyethylene. It’s very tough. We have these out in the weather in Arizona and Texas, and we don’t have any problems with weather exposure.” As for cold weather, Mellott’s brother Chris lives in New Hampshire and had this to say: “I live in New Hampshire and have used the pasture waterer during winters here. Sometimes it would get down to minus 15. The pasture waterer has been in continual service for about five years now with no cracking. The stall waterer is made out of the same type of plastic.”

Hubert Johnston of Varnan says, “Ours is a two-piece plastic waterer. The plastic is rotomolded polyethylene—it’s a very heavy plastic. With its super insulation, it’s over 100 pounds.” Varnan waterers have been installed in Canada, Minnesota, and Michigan, and the company has not had any reports of plastic cracking.

Concrete. Hight of Cancrete says, “We use a special concrete, a special formula.” This air-entrained, steel-reinforced concrete is made to survive winter’s freeze and thaw cycles.

Petersen also makes concrete waterers. They’re heavy, with a 500-pound tank serving up to 12 horses.

Many waterers are made with insulation, such as Petersen, Varnan, Equuspring, and Ritchie. “They are highly insulated, which is more energy efficient,” says Ruth Peterson about the Ritchie models, which are insulated with polyurethane. “The water stays cooler in the summer.”


Automatic waterers rely on a water supply line, either municipal water or a well. Water pressure affects the amount that flows into the unit.

About the Nelson models, Torticill says, “It will run on 25 psi, which is not much pressure.” Others specify 20–60 psi (Varnan) and 45 psi (Drinking Post).

“The Equuspring is for city water, so probably 30 psi would be okay,” says Mellott. “I like to see pressure down, not too high. There’s not an issue with low pressure.”

If you have a high water table, consult manufacturer’s guidelines. Anderson says, “If the farm has a high water table, the Bar~Bar~A will operate with the inner mechanisms fully submerged. All parts are non-corrosive, so water will not rust or damage the unit.”

Plumbing for waterers requires running water lines so they don’t freeze in the winter. Instructions usually show the water line buried below the frost or freeze line, which could mean as deep as three feet. With each unit, you or a plumber place pipes for connecting to the water line. The manufacturer may recommend installing a water filter on the line to protect the system.

Is installation a do-it-yourself project? “One-third of our customers buy and install the Nelson waterers themselves,” says Torticill. “One-third buy the units and have a contractor install them, and one-third have the contractor buy and install the waterers.”

And what about retrofitting an existing barn? “Usually the issues are finding a way to run the water line below ground,” says Peterson. “That can be difficult if you have a concrete floor in the barn.”

Also, do you need to heat the water in freezing weather? “If you have a heated barn, you don’t need the heater on the waterer,” says Peterson. If the barn isn’t heated, insulated waterers can help somewhat in colder temperatures. In a very cold climate, however, a heater and thermostat might be needed to prevent water from freezing, which will require running electric lines to waterers equipped with heaters.

Heaters should be designed to avoid any possibility of electric shock. Torticill adds, “Our heating system works off convection heat. The heater never comes in contact with water or metal. It’s hidden and protected underneath the water bowl.”

But there is an alternative to heaters. Brands like Equuspring and Varnan rely on insulation to prevent freezing in most locations. These waterers keep water flowing by being buried below the frost line, and thermal heat from the ground prevents freezing.

“Our tallest waterer, buried deeply in the ground, rarely has freeze-ups,” says Johnston. When they do, “You can get some ice on the top, which can be scooped out like a Frisbee if the bowl is kept clean.”

One last point on outdoor installations: Position the waterer on level ground. “We recommend placing the waterer on a concrete pad,” says Hight. “If the waterer is on wet dirt, the bowl can start to tip.”

Water Flowing

It takes regular management to assure abundant, clean water. When you install this equipment, you expect trouble-free operation. However, routine checks on each unit are recommended to be sure the water refills as intended.

Clean bowls encourage horses to keep drinking. To that end, Petersen waterers have a three-inch quick-flush drain to clear debris. “You can drain it to clean it,” says Siemer.

“The Nelson stainless steel drinking bowl lifts off for quick, easy cleaning,” says Torticill. “It’s like a large stainless steel salad bowl—you empty it and wipe it out.”

The Varnan water tub also lifts out. Johnston says, “It’s easy to clean with vinegar or Clorox. A farm can keep extra tubs, so you take the old one out and put the clean one in—then you clean tubs back at the barn.”

With Equuspring, Mellott says, “Pull the plug to let water drain out, and let it refill. Swish out any hay or algae, drain, and refill again. Swish it out again, refill, and walk away.”

Weather extremes test your water system. In summer, you don’t want the water so hot that horses don’t drink as much as they should. Conversely, water in frigid temperatures could freeze over. You may need to adjust the water level for less water in colder weather—less to heat, and yet enough to avoid freezing.

If the power fails and heaters aren’t working, here’s an alternative source of hot water: Schneider’s Insta-Hot Portable Equine Washing System. In a frozen-water emergency, use this propane-powered system’s hose to add hot water, from 80° to 150°, to melt frozen water in any container.

Another issue with automatic waterers is that they can overflow if a valve or paddle sticks. In this case, you may need to replace the mechanism—again, something you can often do yourself. Look for units with easy access to the inner components, such as an access door or a liftoff cover. For example, the new Ritchie EcoFount has a large door on the side. Peterson explains that even people “who are not that handy can change the float or the valve.”

On the Varnan waterer, “You can change the working parts by hand—no tools needed,” says Johnston.

And if you are worried about not being able to monitor how much your horses are drinking, you can add a meter to the water line to check water consumption.

Ritchie offers an add-on water meter, which you can attach to the water supply hose. Check the dial to see how much water flowed through the unit, from 0 to 50 gallons.

A constant supply of water is a luxury that’s worth it. With a watering system working for you, your horses enjoy fresh water on demand and you and your staff gain valuable hours in your day.

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