Does Horse Water Bucket Placement Matter?
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink … unless, perhaps, you move the water source to a different location. Researchers recently tested whether bucket location in a stall impacted how much horses drink. As it turns out, it just might.

Brianna Akam, an undergraduate student working under the direction of Bethany Siehr, MA, assistant professor of equine business management at Wilmington College, in Ohio, shared the study results at the 2017 Equine Science Society (ESS) Symposium, held May 30-June 2 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Water, of course, is widely considered the most important part of a horse’s diet. Without it, horses can develop a number of life-threatening issues, including colic, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances. So, many horse owners will try just about anything to ensure their charges stay well-hydrated.

In their study, Siehr and colleagues hung two water buckets in each of 12 test horses’ stalls between the door and a corner hay and grain feeding unit; they hoped to determine if horses drank more from the bucket closest to the door or the feeder. For six days, the team dumped, rinsed, and refilled the water buckets each morning and measured water intake and refilled buckets again at noon, 5 p.m., and 10 p.m.

The test subjects were mature stock horses that were lightly exercised for 30 minutes four days per week and turned out in a drylot for 30 minutes three days per week. The horses remained stalled when they weren’t in work or turned out. The team purposely excluded horses known to dunk their hay to avoid skewed data, since water used for dunking could end up on the stall floor rather than being consumed.

Upon analyzing their data, the team found that horses drank significantly more water each day from the bucket closest to the door as opposed to the one near the feeder—an average of 4.43 liters and 2.14 liters, respectively. (Water bucket color, on the other hand, did not matter; the team looked at that aspect in another study presented at ESS).

While more research is needed to determine the reason for the bucket preference, Siehr offered two hypotheses:

  • Because horses weren’t in strenuous work during the study period, they might have been more active in their stalls and, thus, chose the bucket farthest away from the feeder so they could move rather than remain stationary; or
  • They might have chosen the bucket based on stall construction. The horses’ stall-fronts are constructed of wood on the bottom and bars on the top. “Due to the construction and the location of the feeder, there can be little interaction with other horses during feeding,” Siehr said. “It may be suggested that horses preferred a bucket away from the feeder as to have more visual contact with stablemates during this study.”

Siehr also said past management techniques might have impacted horses’ bucket preference.

“When we dumped and rinsed buckets each day at 7 a.m. we did not notice a significant amount of debris (i.e., hay, grain, etc.) in either bucket from any of our horses,” she told The Horse. “However, it may not be common practice in some barns to dump and rinse buckets every day, which could cause one of the buckets which isn’t being drunk out of to accumulate unwanted feedstuffs. This may have led the horses to be predisposed to this preference based on past care.”

Regardless, the team concluded that when stalled horses had the option, they chose to drink out of the bucket farthest away from their food source.

Siehr and her team said owners can apply these results to the daily management of their own horses.

“The horses displayed a strong preference of which bucket location they preferred, however, all horses drank out of both buckets each day,” she told The Horse. “If feasible, we believe supplying a stalled horse with two water buckets may increase water intake. As well, dumping and rising the buckets each day was important to ensure there was no preference based on cleanliness or palatability over time.”