Home Health & Care You can lead a horse to water, but should it drink?

You can lead a horse to water, but should it drink?

Tony O’Brien

Think about your horse’s water right now. Would you drink it?

Whether you use an automatic waterer, a rubber bucket, an old bathtub, or plastic trough, chances are you wouldn’t willingly take a straw and drink your horse’s water on a hot summer day. Yet, we expect our horses to live off of it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The first step to a healthy horse is hydration, but the water must be clean. Horses aren’t able to vomit, so once a horse drinks bad water or food, it has to pass all the way through their system.

Will my horse drink bad water?

This will vary per horse, but the danger doesn’t only lie in your horse drinking the bad water. Horses have a very good sense of smell and taste and will refuse to drink – even to the point of dehydration – if their water is polluted, stagnant, or even if their water supply changes abruptly.

The equine digestive system requires a lot of water to help it work. A dehydrated horse is much more prone to colic as the dry feed can compact in their stomach.  There are high risks resulting from your horse refusing to drink just as there are if your horse willingly drinks the bad water.

Water can become dirty in several ways.

Perhaps your horse has decided that his hay or feed would look good floating around in his trough. Leaves, branches, bark, small animals, feathers, and more can all easily make their way into a bucket. I also have two dogs that like to roll around in the arena then go sit in the trough, creating a not-so-lovely layer of mud.

One way or another, your horse’s water is going to get dirty, and dirty water is dangerous for many reasons.

Algae can grow quickly in warm weather and could contaminate your water in the space of a few hours. It can also quickly become toxic. Who knows what kind of germs those tiny organisms so thoughtfully share with your horse? Perhaps your horse is ‘tucked-up’ and isn’t drinking as much as he should, slowly becoming dehydrated.

Mandee Flanders

Now that we’ve learned some of the associated risks, here are 3 ways you can ensure your horse isn’t drinking or dealing with bad water.

1. Clean your horse’s water container regularly.

Regardless of the type of bucket or device you use, you need to make sure it’s clean. This can be something of a nuisance as these containers tend to get very dirty very quickly.

  • If you use something small, like a bucket or tub, empty and wipe it out once a day. Five minutes every day is much easier for you (and healthier for your horse) than 20 minutes once a week, or a whole day once a month.
  • There are some cleaning agents that can be used to help clean the water source, but be careful. One common household remedy is to clean the trough with bleach and add a capful to the fresh water to prevent algae growth. However, even then, you will have to clean your trough every two or three days. If you’re using town water, the water is already chlorinated for human use. Ask yourself: is it really necessary to bleach your horse’s water when the workload is the same anyway?
  • Use a stiff-bristled brush to scrub at the sides of your water container rather than simply wiping over it with a cloth or rag. Algae is very persistent and you may find you’re simply wiping over the slime instead of fully removing it from the trough walls.

2. Keep the water fresh!

Change the water regularly when it starts to look questionable. This will ensure clean, cool water as well as discouraging algae and mites that thrive on still, stagnant water.

3. Look at ways to naturally keep the water clean. 

  • Aside from bleach (as discussed above), another popular household remedy is Apple Cider Vinegar. Apple Cider Vinegar will deter most flying bugs and some algae growth. An extra bonus – when horses ingest water treated with a dose of Apple Cider Vinegar regularly, their coat becomes shinier, their digestive system healthier, and it acts as a natural fly spray!
  • If you use large tanks to water multiple horses (on a ranch or breeding farm, for example), consider koi or catfish. These will feed off the algae that grow in the tank, keeping it down and requiring no extra feeding from you. Most horses don’t mind the fish. However, keeping the water fresh by changing it over, or perhaps leaving a hose on a slow drip for a few hours a day is still necessary to ensure clean water doesn’t go stagnate.

Common sense is usually all it takes to know whether the water sitting in your trough is suitable for your horse or not. If you’re ever in doubt, just ask yourself: Would I drink that?”

Written by Ellie Fraser. Originally published on August 2, 2011. Updated June 28, 2020. 

RELATED: Keep Your Horse Cool & Comfy When it’s Hot Outside


  1. Thank you so much for informing me that you will want to keep the horse water troughs clean as large algae buildups can be dangerous for their health. Thank you so much for informing me that you can put fish in large water troughs and they will help prevent algae! For the last few months, I have been thinking that I want to put a couple of horses on the land in our backyard. There is plenty of room! I will have to follow your tips and look for animal feeders and troughs that will meet my needs.


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