Not surprisingly, when winter hits, your horse doesn't feel much like drinking ice water either. In fact, the closer your horse's water is to freezing temperature, the less he will be inclined to drink it. Yet it's essential to keep your horse well hydrated during winter. Having your horse's body fluids at optimum levels will be his best defense against the cold-and colic. Adequate water in your horse's system allows him to efficiently digest feed and convert food calories into body heat.
A horse's drive to drink is dictated by his thirst. The problem, of course, is that the colder it gets, the less your horse will feel like drinking-even when his body really needs fluid. We've all heard the adage, "You can lead a horse to water…"
But what can we really do to encourage him to drink?
The most important thing is to make sure his water supply is a comfortable drinking temperature. Studies show that horses consume more water when it's tepid-in other words, cool but not cold. So you won't need to bring him that steaming cup of Chai, but you do need to take the chill off his beverage. If you want to be more precise, think temperatures in the mid 60-degree Fahrenheit range.
If your barn or run-in sheds have electrical outlets, buckets with built-in electric heaters provide an economical way to raise the water temperature. Of course, you'll have to be prepared to refill those buckets twice daily or more, since an average horse will drink approximately 6 to 8 gallons each day. A standard bucket holds approximately 5 gallons, although some bucket manufacturers also make heated 16-gallon and larger sizes. If your horse is consistently draining his bucket dry between refills, you'll need to add a second, or invest in a bigger one. Water is one essential nutrient you never want to skimp on.
One advantage to using a heated bucket is you'll have a fairly good idea how much your horse is actually drinking. And you'll be supplying fresh water with every refill, which may encourage your horse to drink more than he might from a large tank that gets cleaned and refilled less frequently-especially during extreme cold snaps when that chore is especially loathsome. Also it takes less energy to heat a 5-gallon bucket than it does a 100-gallon stock tank. Consider that most 5-gallon heated buckets use 120 to 130 watts of power, whereas most standard stock tank heaters use between 1000 to 1500 watts. In a 100-gallon tank, that heater is likely doing overtime to maintain the temperature of 20 times the volume of water than is contained in a 5-gallon bucket.