Horses suddenly don't want to drink out of automatic waterer

I’m looking for some ideas please. My two horses are pastured 24/7 and have been drinking out of the auto waterer for years. This summer they suddenly stopped wanting to drink from it. I noticed one day my mare walk up to the waterer, put her head down, but then not drink and noticed my gelding doing the similar thing a little later. I brought out buckets and they drank from them. I figured the waterer was maybe too dirty for them (large crows have been leaving all sorts of strange things like vertebrae in there but I have been cleaning it). Anyhow, the next day after I had cleaned I noticed the same thing, they didn’t want to drink out of the waterer. I took a bucket and yogurt container and took the same water from the waterer to the bucket and they both hungrily drank it. So i’m quite sure it’s not the actual water that is the problem. I tasted the water and it tasted fine to me. I have since been filling large troughs from them but where I live it gets to -30 in the winter and this soon won’t be an option.

My initial thoughts to why they won’t drink out of the waterer were either the heating component had malfunctioned and it was shocking them somehow. I kept testing my hand in the waterer and didn’t feel any shocks and I had someone come out to look at the waterer and he thought everything was fine. My other thought was maybe they accidentally touched the fence electric wire while drinking one day but I find this doubtful.

I really need to figure this out before winter. I will replace the waterer if need be but would prefer not to if there isn’t anything wrong with it - and I’m not sure they will ever drink out of the new one if I do go that route.

Anyone have any ideas? Have you seen this happen before?

Thanks in advance.

Can you try turning off the electric fence and the bowl heater to see what they think then? Even though you’ve checked, that still sounds like a stray voltage issue. They can be very hard to suss out. You don’t feel anything when you put your hand in because a) you’re wearing shoes that insulate you from the ground and b) horses are more sensitive.

​​​​​​I’d guess the guy you had out tested the water with a voltmeter, but if the charge is intermittent, he might have missed it. They’re not terribly difficult to use and can be picked up inexpensively…buying one and checking yourself throughout the day might be worthwhile.

Also check all around and in the waterer for wasps or other critters.



We had over about 15 mares drinking out of a 10’ trough by the barn and there was a pond nearby.

One winter we decided to put an electric heather in the trough, ran an electric line on a pole to it, conduit to the tank and put a floating heather on it.

Mares kept drinking fine.
Winter sets in, we turn it on and all but two mares drank like they had been, the other two would not even come close to the tank, only drank from the pond.

Turned the heather off, all drank fine again.

We called an electrician, all tested fine.
After trying to use it a few times, we gave up.

Some horses are just so more sensitive than others, if your horses tell you something is wrong, believe them.
Water is just too important.
If you have to buy a new heather, can you make it contingent with your horses using it, or you can return it if not?
A good company should stand behind their products and in a situation like yours, honor your request.

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I have had the electric fence off since this happened. Good suggestion on the voltmeter - I will look into that!

I don’t know… My gelding has been drinking out of it for 8 years with the heater as is and the mare for about 5 years. I think you’re right though - they are trying to tell me something and I should listen. I suppose a new waterer is the way to go. I just hope they don’t have such good memories that they refuse to drink out of that. If they do I’ll have to board them out - I won’t be able to hose water to them in the winter.

Thank you for your response!

if you get a new one can you put it in a somewhat different spot?

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Turn the power off for a week and manually fill the bowl. See if they start drinking again. If they do, you have an electrican problem and need someone to come do some more thorough testing.

I suspect that just one shock would leave them leery for a long time.


I should add that I am the only one who believes the shock theory - it’s just my own theory. I was hoping to see if anyone else on the boards here has encountered this. The guy who checked out the waterer thought it was very unlikely as do the engineers I work with. They don’t think that it would actually shock them - it was just one of the only things I could come up with the explain the behaviour.

Wow, really? Stray voltage is SUCH a common issue when horses stop drinking. Either from a heating unit or a nearby electric fence. I’m surprised anyone could possibly call it “very unlikely”!!


Some horses don’t have to be shocked, they may just feel the extra current and don’t want to go near.
That is what we thought those two broodmares did, knew there were ghosts in that tank when the heather was on.
Others may have felt it also, just didn’t bother them?

Your tank may have developed some stray voltage somewhere your electrician didn’t test for, but is keeping horses away?

That makes the most sense when horses don’t want to drink from a trough with electricity to it.

How to get them over it once you get that fixed?
They should just be fine once they know is not there any more, if that is what is going on there.

Thank you! You’re making me feel more confident in my theory :slight_smile: - always go with your gut. I’m going to buy a new one.

Thank you! Hopefully this happens with the new one. And it will look slightly different.

Thanks to everyone who replied. I will just take the plunge and buy a new one. Unfortunately I can’t move the location as that would be $$$$$ to dig a new water line.

You’re definitely not coming from left field with your idea!!!

Replacing the waterer is a good first step, but if the voltage is spilling over from the fence, it might be a little harder to fix. Sometimes it seems like those problems are strange voodoo magic instead of science :lol: Have you been overly dry lately? Maybe your fence isn’t grounding well? Watering your ground rods might help if so!

Well they don’t seem to be worried at ALL about going near the fence. They are getting right up next to it to get the grass under in the area right around the waterer but I will have the electrician who sets up the new waterer check the fence as well. Also the big water containers I have been hand filling for them are right on the cement pad next to the waterer and they are really happy to drink out of them. Hoping its “just” the waterer. Just = $1,000 :slight_smile: haha.

If you put in a new waterer, don’t turn on the electricity to it at first, see if they are ok drinking out of it.
If they are, then turn it on and see what happens.

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Is the ground at all damp at the waterer, L?
If so then definitely the voltage will travel AND be stronger there.
Hope the new one’s the fix, and I 2nd Bluey’s suggestion

It may not be a “fence” issue…it might be a fence PLUS the waterer issue. Electricity is weird, and stray voltage IN the waterer might not be coming FROM the waterer…it could be coming from the nearby electric fence, even though the fence itself is fine.

For your sake, I hope not, since those things just seem to be a BEAR to figure out and solve. Fingers crossed that the farm gods just sensed an extra grand in your checking account, and the new waterer will take care of it :lol:

I know this thread is old, but I just wanted to comment that Simkie is 100% correct.

I work as an equine appraiser & equine expert witness and have had to appraise quite a few horses and cattle over the years that have been electrocuted as a result of stray voltage near or in an automatic waterer. After being called recently by an insurance company to do a death-claim reimbursement for yet another horse electrocuted by an automatic waterer, I felt it was time to share this information with horse owners.

As Simkie said, electricity can work in weird ways. It’s even possible for stray voltage to travel across the road from another farm, though this type of situation is rare. The only way to know for sure is to have a licensed electrician out to test the area. Based on everything bucksnort described, it sure sounds like there was possible stray voltage involved in this situation. bucksnort, did you ever get this sorted out?

The Chronicle of the Horse just published my article on the subject. I wrote this article in collaboration with my husband, who is a licensed electrician. I’m hoping this information will help educate horse owners and save at least one equine life.


Thanks for sharing @Daventry! Our horses started refusing to drink from their automatic waterer a couple of months ago. We checked it with a voltmeter and didn’t see any stray voltage, but forgot to ground it. We’ll try again with it actually grounded this time.

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