Of Winter and Water, Patience and Persistence (A Short Story)
We all know that providing our horses with fresh clean water every day is one of our primary horse care responsibilities. Full size horses should have at least 10 gallons a day available for them to drink, summer or winter. In fact, in winter it is even more critical. But in winter, sometimes you need to get creative.
I have a personal story I wanted to share, about our winter water wars, which just today (hopefully) have been resolved. And I am still shivering off the cold as I type this, and going for my second cup of tea since coming indoors.
Here in Massachusetts we can have some widely fluctuating temperatures during the winter. Thankfully so far we had only one week this past November (early, right?) that was in the single digits during the day and below zero at night (Fahrenheit). Today it is 26 degrees, the first cold snap we’ve had since then, with most of our days being in the low 40’s in between. Not water freezing weather, which was nice.
My story starts with last winter. Providing water up until mid winter last year was always pretty simple. We had a big 15 gallon electric heated bucket for outside, and it served both my draft cross mare Lacey and our little welsh pony gelding Ceasar. These buckets have always served us well, so I was puzzled when suddenly it became apparent that nobody was drinking from the bucket during the day. I cleaned it out thoroughly (even though it wasn’t dirty), and checked all electrical connections. I became suspicious that perhaps something electrical went wrong and our equines may have gotten shocked while drinking.
So I trashed that bucket, and graciously received a new one, an exact duplicate, from my friend who was moving to a state where she wouldn’t need it anymore. With dismay I noticed that they were not drinking from this bucket either. Of course! It’s the same bucket in the same color. They must have gotten shocked if this bucket puts them off as well.
Thankfully it was towards the end of the winter season. I purchased a new, bright red, NON electric bucket. I saw a trick somewhere and filled a 2 liter soda bottle ¾ full of heavily salted water. This created a “bobber”, which through movement should keep ice from developing on the water’s surface. This worked handily and both horse and pony were happy and drinking again. I resolved to answer the winter water problem Next Winter. (I’m a pretty good procrastinator.)
So NOW it’s “Next Winter”. I came across some viable FaceBook information which taught that all electric buckets that are plugged in should also be grounded from the water to the outside in order to prevent shocking the horses. Up until this week they’ve gotten along fine with the bobber system. I decided to try a tank de-icer that gets put IN the bucket. This also aroused much suspicion and the water level in the bucket remained high. So I gave the information to my dad who is an Inspector Gadget of the barn (which is on his property next door to us). He just finished creating a grounding system. He gave the pony the red bucket with the de-icer, and gave Lacey - - wait for it – the former green heated bucket.
Did she drink from it? Of course not, much to dad’s chagrin. He even got into an argument with her over her wanting to walk past it to come in the barn in the evening as usual.
When I found that out this morning, I resolved to find a better solution for her. I had an extra red 15 gal plain bucket I was given by a friend. I also had some large disposable insulated bags given to me by a friend for a medication her husband gets mail ordered under refrigeration. I cut open the bags and they each took up exactly half a bucket and fit nicely around the whole perimeter. I secured them with duct tape. Lots of duct tape.
Now the bags are shiny foil so I did not think for a minute that this would be a won and done kind of thing. She was suspicious and took some snorty laps around the paddock when I simply gave her a new, hot pink hay net. And she’s not a spooky horse, which is weird. So I knew I might have to work for it.
When I arrived at the barn, my dad came out and told me how he put some of the water from the green danger bucket into a white 5 gal bucket, and he was frustrated that she wouldn’t drink out of that either, saying “She SAW me take the water out”. Well, of course, that’s why she is SMART, she knew that if it came out of the danger bucket it was still danger water. So I brought in the new shiny foil padded bucket and let the games begin!
Yes her first reaction was to snort and then jump sideways and land several feet safely away from the spooky shiny bucket. I have a few natural horsemanship tricks up my sleeve having learned from several different clinicians. One way to desensitize a horse from a scary object is to walk AWAY from them with the object in hand, dragging or carrying it along. This causes the item to lose its fear value because it is now moving away from them, not chasing them. If you chase a horse with an item it takes on a predatory value, it becomes a predator. Horses are prey animals, conditioned in their brain to flee things that are chasing them. When the suspicious object moves away from them, they can then switch their brain into the curiosity mode, and can start to investigate the new item and gather information about it and think on it. I made several laps of the paddock with the bucket in tow and Lacey followed me with much curiosity. I set the bucket down several feet away from the usual watering station that had the danger bucket on it. She acted unconcerned and turned to visit with the pony, so I set about filling the bucket. The 5 gallon bucket I keep in the barn for filling buckets is a safety bucket in Lacey’s mind, having drunk from it often. When I filled it each time she was desperate for me to let her drink from that safety bucket, but I wouldn’t let her. She needed to stay desperate. She was curious but still unconvinced that the shiny bucket was a safety bucket.
I crouched by the shiny bucket and spent a lot of time splashing the water with my fingers, and even took a few sips by my hands to prove to her it was safety water. She was very curious, and obviously very thirsty, but not convinced.
So I flipped over the green safety bucket and sat on it by the shiny bucket. I was in it to win it.
Sometimes that’s what you have to do. By sitting on the green bucket, she knew no safety water was coming from that. And by sitting I was giving my horse some undemanding time, time in my presence when I was not asking her for anything. My only motivation was to show her that the water was safe, and ensure that she would drink it. I care about her, so I would do this for her, even though it was cold, even though it seemed silly to any other person, even though I had things I could or should be doing. Sometimes you have to stop “doing”, and switch to just “being”.
Well, yeah ok….the “being” part only lasted so long (30 min.?)(it's cold!) when I decided to go for back up. I went in the barn and put six cookies in my pocket. I sat by shiny bucket again, only this time I had one cookie firmly in my grasp. I was able to lead her by the nose over to the shiny bucket, but she was not allowed to have said cookie until she had at least made an effort to touch the bucket. It took several minutes but she did. And then we went through various cycles of this, in between cookies she would need a few seconds to drift away, shake her head, lick and chew, browse the ground…..which was her trying to process her thoughts. Horses learn to accept a lot of things via a process called approach and retreat. They will go so far with their curiosity until they get the danger signal and pull away to re-group. They have to talk to themselves a bit. And then the next time they approach they will be able to get closer before they get the danger signal again, as long as nothing happens to prove to them that it really is dangerous.
Eventually the cookie was held over the middle of the bucket, and she made a rash decision to dip her nose in the water. This led to more sniffing of the edge and sides of the bucket and grabbing of the rope handles. Finally, before the last cookie came out, she dunked her nose and drank almost half the water, much to my relief. She got the final cookie as her reward for actually taking a drink, and I was able to come in from the cold knowing she had a new safety bucket with safety water.
I know it’s not going to be a perfect system if our temperatures bottom out, but cold water is better than no water. When it goes way below freezing I will be diligent about making sure the ice doesn’t take over.
Hope you enjoyed this story and that it might help you want to figure out how to help your horses when you know they are worried about something. They are much smarter than we usually think and things they do that we think are stupid are just their way of protecting themselves.