No more buckets to haul, no more troughs to fill. Sounds blissful, doesn’t it' Automatic waterers can take away much of the drudgery of keeping horses. They’re also expensive and bring their own sets of nuisances as well.
A trough-style waterer is economical in the pasture, where it can save water that gets dumped out when cleaning a large trough. Plus 25 to 30 horses can drink from one waterer. But individual stall waterers can quickly become a luxury.
Stall waterers start at around $125. Extras, like heaters, run the price up. The Farnam Automatic Waterer lists for $129, but add a heater and the price goes up to $229.
Many horse people are accustomed to seeing Nelson’s shiny stainless steel waterers, or the famous red-and-yellow of Ritchie, but there’s a wide range of waterers available.
Miraco has one waterer specifically designed for horses, while larger manufacturers like Farnam and Nelson have many more styles to choose among. Two of the most common models include pipe-mounted waterers, which attach to PVC water pipes, and are used in stalls. These waterers hang on the wall, much like a drinking fountain.
Base-mounted waterers are more often seen in pastures and paddocks. They’re set in concrete and become a permanent fixture in the field.
Almost any horse barn can host automatic waterers, although some older barns may need to be retrofitted to put them in stalls. If you have a system that works well, i.e., spigots near each stall so no one has to go too far to fill buckets, it may not be worth the price to have the proper plumbing installed to each stall.
However, if you find that filling and cleaning buckets is costing you money in time and labor that could better be spent elsewhere with the horses, consider outfitting the barn with waterers.
In most automatic waterers, typically, a float valve keeps water at a continuous level and shuts off automatically to prevent overflow. Most floats are enclosed away from horses so that they can’t force them open.
Other kinds of valves include gravity valves, also known as “dump” valves, or solenoids, which simply allow water to drain by gravity. Anti-siphon valves allow water to travel in one direction only.
However, Nelson’s balance-beam valve means that there are no floats or paddles, which we think is nice because it means there are fewer parts to break.
We’d install waterers in their traditional spot: In the opposite corner from the hayracks and feed tubs, which narrows down the risk of hay cramming the valves. Waterers are often wall mounted in stalls, with water pipes placed out of the reach of inquisitive horse lips.
Sometimes it can take a while for horses to learn to operate the paddle-operated waterers in stalls, but they eventually figure it out, and paddle-type waterers are usually cheaper than float-style. To teach horses to use waterers, hand walk each horse through so they see how to fill bowls. Usually, once one horse figures it out, they all catch on.
Safety is key. Look for rounded corners or an entirely round bowl to minimize injury if a horse bangs his head on the waterer. Waterers are sturdy devices and made to withstand everyday rubbing and nudging from horses. If one of your horses does damage part of a waterer, parts are replaceable on most models. Be sure you ask about that before you place your order.
For outdoor waterers, location and planning are important. A concrete pad surrounded by gravel will help stop a sloppy mud hole from forming, and grading the ground around the waterer will help it drain.
Keeping the outdoor waterers protected from snow and wind reduces energy costs, prevents freezing, and makes it easier for horses to use. We like to keep units off the top of hills where the wind blows to minimize freezing effects.
Debris in water lines is a big problem when installing automatic waterers, so take care to flush lines before attaching. Most companies will try to talk you through installation and trouble-shooting by phone and/or over email, but if you’re not handy enough to do fairly complex installations that include plumbing, hire someone who can.
Heaters can be a crucial part of waterers in cold climates. Hacking at ice in troughs and hauling water in buckets may start to look appealing after dealing with burst or frozen pipes. Like the waterers themselves, these vary, but typically go inside the units. If you’re running water outside to fill your waterers, you will put electrical lines in the same ditch to power heaters.
Summer’s Tough, Too
With all the concern about West Nile Virus, shallow low volume/quick fill or covered automatic waterers are appealing, as people fret about horse troughs as possible breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
Michael Gerbo, the executive vice president of Ritchie, says that there are several advantages to shallow low volume/quick-fill or covered waterers in areas affected by West Nile. Gerbo says that studies have shown that when the surface of the water is disturbed, the larvae of the mosquito will swim to the bottom of a deep water tank. So even though a horse may be drinking, the mosquito larvae won’t be removed from the water tank.
Summer also brings algae, which can wreak havoc on basic troughs. Although standing water in bowls can grow algae in the right conditions, it’s less of a problem than it is with troughs because the water doesn’t “stand” for long.
Automatic waterers give horses cool, fresh water during every drink, a nice summer perk. They also save on water when cleaning. If you’re filling up a large tank, cleaning uses lots of water. With an automatic waterer there is minimal waste if any.
Automatic waterers aren’t labor-free by any means. They need to be checked every day to make sure that they are working. They can clog and must be at least wiped out every day. You should give them a thorough cleaning at least twice a week.
Ease of cleaning is key to most consumers. Removable bowls, like those on the Nelson, Farnam and Varnan waterers, can be easier than units that just have removable plugs. You can give a better cleaning to something you can pick up, scrub, and rinse, as you would a bucket.
However, Ritchie’s waterers are designed so that water draining pretty much cleans the bowl as it swirls down. This means that less dirt clings to the walls of the bowl, so you may not have to clean it as much as other non-removable bowls.
We prefer stainless-steel bowls for our waterers because the material is least likely to pick up any odors that might back off some horses. Frankly, water consumption is our biggest concern overall. We believe most horses will learn to operate most waterers easily, but you’ve got to know if they do. Unfortunately, on most waterers, it’s nearly impossible to tell if a horse drinks, let alone how much he drinks every day. Monitoring water consumption is a basic tenet of good horse health care. It can even be critical.
For that reason, the Nelson and Miraco waterers, which are the only ones currently available with monitors, top our list of recommendations. And, when you add in its removal stainless steel bowl and the pretty-much foolproof balance-beam filling system, it’s easy to see Nelson is the way to go.
That said, we anticipate that more waterers will add the consumption monitoring device option, so ask the companies about it when you shop around. And definitely shop around. You want a dealer nearby where you can get installation, parts and service, if needed.
Finally, pricing waterers is tough, and you may find a huge variation among dealers. We applaud Farnam and Varnan for listing prices online, which makes shopping much easier. Most companies don’t do it, citing wide varieties in local markets and varying shipping charges.