How to keep a water trough from freezing in the 21st century

How much does a fat penguin weigh? Enough to break the ice. Sadly though, unless you live in Antarctica, you may not have access to a fat penguin to break the ice on your horse’s water trough in winter.

Water is the most important ingredient for life. This is easy to remember in the summer, when horses pour sweat, but it is just as important in winter for several reasons. First of all, horses have limited access to fresh grass (which has a higher moisture content) in the winter, when their diet is largely comprised of dry roughage. Second of all, lower water consumption increases the risks of impaction colic, which can be fatal to horses. Ensuring access to fresh water requires creativity and ingenuity for the horse owner, and while some solutions do not require electricity, modern technology can support us in our fight against the wiles of Mother Nature. For a more thorough treatment of non-electric ways to keep water thawed, you can read our article here.

So How Can I Keep My Water from Freezing Without Electricity?

The first thing that can give you a leg-up in keeping water from freezing is your choice of materials for the water container. Black rubber is the best for absorbing the heat from the sun, whether you have a trough for your herd in a pasture or paddock, or a bucket in a stall or run-in shelter. Additionally, if you can set up the water container in the part of the paddock or pasture with the greatest sun exposure, that will

The next best strategy is to insulate whatever water container you have. If you have a large trough in the pasture, you can build a holder for the trough to insulate it. One option, while labor intensive, is to pack a hole in the ground with manure, which releases heat as it is broken down. If there is a base of manure under and around the trough, the heat released by the manure rises and circulates around the trough, keeping the trough warm. Another less labor-intensive option is to buy two troughs of different sizes (for example, one 15-gallon and one 18-gallon) and pack the larger trough with shavings, straw, or foam insulation. The point of this is to make an insulating layer within the larger trough, which the smaller trough can be settled into. If you have a round bucket, you can also make an insulating layer by taking an old tire, filling the inside of the tire with rocks, straw, or foam insulation, then setting the bucket in the middle.

Finally, no matter what insulating system you use, you can make a float to break up the ice formation. Take an old plastic bottle (such as a 2-Liter bottle) and fill it 2/3 of the way with a mixture of hot water and 1 cup of salt. The salt will raise the freezing point of the water, and the 1/3 volume of the bottle dedicated to air will keep the bottle floating. Place these bottles in the trough. They will bob around, keeping the water surface moving and slowing the process of ice formation. Furthermore, if the water in the trough should freeze, the horses can push the bottles down and access the water underneath. A similar effect can be achieved by floating a ball or two in the water.

What If I Want to Use More Techy Solutions to Keep My Water from Freezing?

There are a number of submersible as well as clip-on water bucket heaters available, which can be programmed to set the water to specific temperatures. Furthermore, if you have a metal or plastic stock tank, you can invest in a stock tank heater, which can either float or be submerged. This 3-in-1 is another innovation that can work as a drain plug, a floating de-icer, or a submerged water heater. Still another option is a heated bucket. These buckets have heaters built into the bucket itself. The disadvantage to such buckets is their size; they are not large enough for more than one animal. They are best suited to use in a barn whose electrical system is safe, and where flammable materials are kept separately. Finally, there are several heated and insulated stock tanks on the market, which can be programmed to maintain the water at a specific temperature. 

Many people choose to avoid the problem of de-icing stock tanks and buckets entirely by installing an automatic watering system. These systems have many advantages, however they do not give a horse owner a free pass to enjoy winter inside with no worries. Just like any plumbing system, automatic waterers depend on their pipes being able to function. If water freezes in the pipes, they may burst. Furthermore, the spigot in an automatic waterer is also a weak spot, vulnerable to water freezing and stopping the flow of the water. With such systems, it is very important to check their functioning often. Putting ample insulation around the pipes, paying special attention to the spigot and joints, can help minimize the risk of bursting and freezing around these weak spots. Another disadvantage of automatic waterers is the inherent risk that they do not allow caretakers to measure how much their horses are actually drinking. In this case, owners and caretakers need to be even more vigilant about watching for signs of dehydration.

Conclusion

Care of our horses’ drinking habits is of highest importance in winter. Sadly, there is no perfect way to winter-proof a trough or water bucket because every method requires a degree of work and vigilance. The more labor-intensive ways are not guaranteed to keep water from freezing, and the less labor-intensive ways are more prone to mechanical failure. The best way to ensure your horse’s access to clean water is to find the method that suits your available resources (physical, financial and time) the best, and be ready to bundle up and check on your horse’s water often. And maybe learn how to swing an axe to be able to break the ice, just in case.

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