The Shock Factor: When Waterers Bite Back

Jan 14, 2021 - 7:55 AM

If you had to guess the most common reason horse people call their insurance companies for death claim reimbursements, colic is an obvious choice.

But the second most common cause of death seen by equine and livestock appraisers? Electrocution. Specifically, horses and cattle that have been electrocuted by an automatic waterer or floating de-icer.

Here’s what horse owners need to know about livestock water and electricity and how to maintain a safe environment for your horse.

Always remember to take caution when combining water with electricity. An automatic waterer, heated water bucket or floating de-icer that isn’t functioning properly can result in an electric current flowing through the water or into the ground where the horses stand while getting a drink.

“At the bare minimum, this can cause a horse to receive an electric shock while drinking, which may cause the horse to avoid drinking water and lead to dehydration and colic,” said licensed electrician and livestock expert Timothy Allen. “Worst case scenario, the horse is electrocuted while attempting to take a drink.”

Three horses by a fence and water trough in winter.
An automatic waterer, heated water bucket or floating de-icer that isn’t functioning properly can result in an electric current flowing through the water or into the ground where the horses stand while getting a drink. mvburling/IStock Photo

One of the more common problems that can occur with automatic waterers, even during the summer months, is ground saturation. This happens when the ground around the automatic waterer absorbs too much water, and you’re left with standing water. Saturated ground is highly conductive, which means an electric current will more easily pass through wet ground than dry ground.

“If an automatic waterer has electricity leaking from the waterer, and the ground in front of the waterer is also wet, this can become a deadly combination,” said Allen.

Another common issue is a result of the ground naturally shifting, which can cause electrical wires inside an automatic waterer to crack or break, resulting in electrical leakage. These wires can also deteriorate due to environmental conditions or become damaged due to rodents. The insulation in the heating element in an automatic waterer can also break down over time.

If the outer housing is cracked on the floating de-icer or heated water bucket,  water may leak into the wiring or electrical source. Any one of the above factors can result in electricity flowing where it shouldn’t.

“It is important to understand that electricity always wants to find the easiest way to the ground,” said Allen. “Livestock are more sensitive to electric currents than humans, as they don’t wear running shoes or work boots, which helps insulate and lessens the severity of humans getting an electric shock.”

If you suspect a problem with your horse’s water source, never stick your hand in the water to see whether the horses are getting shocked. The safest method is to shut off the power to the water source and call a licensed electrician. If you’re careful, you can also use a voltmeter, which can be purchased at any local hardware store, to test whether an electric current is flowing through the ground or in the water. For those that use electric fencing for their horses, an electric fence tester can also be used to check for electric current.

“When using a voltmeter or electric fence tester, it is important that one of the probes needs to be inserted into the ground in order to test the electrical leakage into the water,” said Allen. “But, if the leakage is going into the ground, the average person may not realize this, which creates a deadly scenario. This is why it is recommended that the power be shut off and a licensed electrician is brought out to assess the situation.”

What can you do to help prevent an electric shock or electrocution from occurring?

– Make sure the ground underneath and around your water troughs and automatic waterers is dry. Ideally, an automatic waterer should be installed on a cement pad, surrounded by gravel fill, and all ground surfaces should be graded to allow water to drain away from the automatic waterer.

– Throw away cracked or damaged floating de-icers and heated water buckets.

Shifting ground, age and rodent chewing can all lead to the deterioration of the wires in an automatic waterer over time. Tori Repole Photo

– Install a ground fault circuit interrupter, also known as a ground fault interrupter. GFCIs can help prevent electrocution by sensing when there is stray voltage and cutting off the power before anyone can become injured. The only downside is that GFCIs are prone to tripping as they are sensitive to elements such as rain water, snow and condensation.

– Make sure extension cords are in good working order and don’t have any wear and tear such as damaged plugs; kinks (which can cause breaks in the casing); frayed, nicked or cracked casings; or deterioration due to sun exposure. The cords on floating de-icers and heated water buckets should be checked regularly for similar problems. Once a cord is damaged, it can cause the electricity to travel in a different path than intended.

– If using extension cords, make sure they are grounded extension cords and have three prongs on the plug instead of two, and ensure all three prongs are in good working order. It’s also important not to overload extension cords. For example, only use one circuit breaker per floating de-icer and be mindful of what else is on the same circuit breaker. The length and size of extension cords can also be a factor when putting more than one heating source on a circuit. If in doubt, consult a licensed electrician.

– If installing a new automatic waterer, consider hiring a licensed electrician to do the job. Depending on where you live, you may be required to apply for an electrical permit from your local municipality. This means that a professional will inspect the waterer to ensure it’s been installed and hooked up properly. For newly installed automatic waterers, some insurance policies may not cover electrocuted animals if the installation didn’t have an electrical permit.

– Using caution, get into the habit of testing your water sources at least once a month with a voltmeter or electric fence tester.

– Pay attention when your horse is drinking water. Horses will test the water source with their whiskers first. If a horse walks up to the water source, reaches forward to take a drink, and then steps back abruptly, investigate! They may also avoid the area altogether.

Tracy Dopko is a senior equine, livestock and agricultural appraiser with Daventry Appraisal Services, a leading equine appraiser and equine expert witness firm. She is hired globally to conduct appraisals and testify as an equine expert witness and has been in practice for over 20 years.


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