Water Bucket Blues

Why do horses tip water buckets, defecate in waterers, and/or dip hay in their water?

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Water Bucket Blues
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Q.Out of seven horses here, I have five with water bucket issues in stalls, and it’s getting on my nerves. Our Morgan pony paws at his water bucket and spills out most of the water, no matter how many buckets we leave or how we try to tie them down. Two geldings, one a Quarter Horse and one an old Thoroughbred, both defecate into their water buckets, no matter where we put the buckets in the stall or how many buckets are put in the stall. And one of the two driving mares—which are in a big run-in shed together—fills their waterer with hay and eats the hay from the waterer. She carries the hay to the waterer, even when the hay is put in the opposite corner of the shed from it. So, the waterer is nasty for both of them all the time. And when they eat the hay, they drip a lot of water on the floor, so everything is wet. Any clue what these animals are up to? Some days I think we should just water them twice a day like farm horses. That way they would be thirsty and so would drink up instead of making messes.

—Jennifer, via e-mail

A.I certainly understand your frustrations. At the moment, our clinic has one stallion and two mares that tip their water buckets every night. The mares paw at their buckets, and the stallion plays with his buckets with his head. He also carries his hay from the hay rack across the stall, puts it into the water buckets, and eats it wet from the buckets. Our barn manager just commented today that these three seem to be in a contest to make the biggest mess. Anyway, I can comment on each of these watering issues.

Spilling water by pawing at the bucket

When horses drink from natural streams or ponds, they usually paw at the water’s edge. If they step in, they also paw, and sometimes they paw, then roll in the water.  We don’t really understand what this natural form of pawing water accomplishes, but if you watch a horse pawing at a water bucket or water tank, it sure looks like the same pawing behavior seen at a more natural water source. I agree that it is very difficult to eliminate. Yelling at the horse or trying to punish the behavior is not usually successful

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Written by:

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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