By Kelly Munro
Frozen stock tanks and water troughs in our paddocks and pastures not only pose a dehydration risk to horses, they create a lot of extra work for us. In order to keep fresh water available to our horses at all times, we are constantly breaking and removing ice, hauling hot water from the barn, or installing costly electric systems.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an easy and inexpensive, low-tech way to eliminate or at least reduce this burden? Well, good news! Here are some simple #barnlifehack tricks that do a surprisingly good job of keeping the water ready to drink, even in the single digits, without constant management.
1: The Floating Object
Just as a river rarely freezes compared to a lake, moving water stays liquid longer. How can we use that to our advantage without leaving a hose running all night long? The answer is as simple as placing some large floating objects in our stock tanks.
A basketball, tennis ball, or other non-sinking object bobs and floats around in the water, agitating the surface and making it difficult for an ice skin to form over the top of the tank. Plus there’s an added benefit in really cold weather! If an ice skin does manage to form, the floating object creates a weak spot in the ice that your horse can more easily break by pushing down on the ball to create a drinking hole.
Be careful that the object you use isn’t imparting a funny flavor to the water or scaring your horse away from drinking deeply. If you don’t see horses comfortably approaching the trough, stay with them and use treats and kind words to show them that the new floating objects are safe to drink next to.
2: The Salt Water Bottle
An old cowboy trick is to fill milk jugs, or other sealed plastic containers, with salt water and place a few in the stock tank. Saltwater has a lower freezing point than freshwater and tends to stay liquid even in the coldest weather.
In fact a water to salt mixture of about 3:1 won’t freeze until around -5 Fahrenheit. That’s the cold! So a saltwater bottle can easily last all night in the single digits without freezing.
But what good does this really do? While this scientific property of saltwater is fascinating, it’s not actually particularly useful to us since horses can’t drink saltwater, and freshwater freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit no matter what.
Does this bottle of unfrozen saltwater make it warmer in the tank water? No! The temperature of the liquid saltwater is just as cold as the freezing freshwater. The idea that the proximity to the saltwater somehow keeps the freshwater from freezing is a myth. However, the floating bottle does agitate the surface which helps prevent and ice skin from forming and horses can push the bottle down with their nose to break a hole in the iced over tank.
Myth busted? Well, sort of… the saltwater bottle does work well to prevent stock tanks from icing over, but not necessarily because of the salt. It works in the same way as any floating object would, by agitating the surface of the water. A partially filled saltwater bottle does float especially nicely in the tank and is more difficult for horses to remove than a lighter bottle.
3: The Insulated Side Walls
Insulating the sides of our water tanks can keep them warmer which delays or prevents freezing. How does this work? Heat is lost from your horses’ water to the surrounding atmosphere primarily via the principle of conduction. Heat energy is transferred from the warmer substance to an adjacent cooler one where they are touching. In our case, the air is cooler than the water as temperatures drop outside – at night, for example.
On the side walls of the stock tank, the air first touches the material of the stock tank and heat transfer occurs between those two media. Then the heat transfers between the water and the walls of the tank. Some materials are more conductive than others. For this reason, a plastic stock tank freezes more slowly than a metal one.
To prevent this type of heat loss through the sides of your water vessel, you can insulate it to create an even slower transfer of heat to the surrounding air. There are insulated buckets available to purchase. You can wrap the tank in foam, partially bury it in dirt, manure, or bedding, or use large tires filled with spray foam to surround a round bucket or tank. The tire and foam materials are not very conductive and the black tires warm easily in the sun creating more heat to hold in.
In your efforts to insulate, be careful that there is nothing a horse could get trapped in or easily ingest and that no sharp edges were created. Drink responsibly!
4: The Floating Lid
This is the same principle as putting on a hat to keep from losing heat from the top of your head. You can do this with your horse’s water by using a floating piece of foam the size and shape of your vessel to insulate the surface of the water from direct contact with the air, which prevents heat loss much like a pool cover.
When the horse pushes his curious nose on the floating foam, it sinks a bit and water flows over the top for him to drink. Some commercially available foam water covers even have a bowl shape in the top that water pools in for easy drinking. If you are making your own, be sure to use a stronger structural foam that is difficult to damage by biting. You don’t want your horse ingesting little bits of styrofoam or other material as he plays with the water.
Alright, technically this is just two low-tech methods for keeping your horse’s water available to him in freezing conditions: agitation and insulation. To recap, you can try to prevent the ice from skinning over by agitating the surface with a floating object, or you can insulate your water to prevent conductive heat loss. Within these two principles are many ways to accomplish your goals, so be creative and have fun designing your own #barnlifehack that will keep your horse watered and your chore list short!