Be Water Wise

Don't leave home without considering your horse's water needs. Here's what to plan for, plus hauling, watering, and use tips.

Credit: Photo by Kent and Charlene Krone
Let your horse drink from water sources along the trail or near the camp to conserve the water you’ve hauled in. Your trail horse needs about 10 to 30 gallons of water per day to stay hydrated and healthy. You’re responsible for meeting his critical water needs, whether you go on day rides, horse camp, or pack into the backcountry.

Never assume water will be provided at the trailhead/staging area, and don’t expect to find full water troughs in campgrounds.

Here, we’ll tell you how to meet your trail horse’s water needs.

Plan Ahead

Use these planning trips when you haul your horse from his trusted water source.

  • Trailering. Every time you load your horse into your trailer, also pack a full water can, as well as a pail or tub your horse can drink from.
  • Day rides. Pack one full, five-gallon water can per horse; this is usually sufficient for a day trail ride in temperate weather. Use a rectangular, heavy-duty plastic can. It’s easy to handle and weighs only about 40 pounds. (One gallon of water weighs eight pounds). Once empty, you can refill it at a nearby faucet or stream.
  • Horse camping. If you’re going horse camping, your water considerations will be more extensive. Some camps will have a natural water source, but just because such a source is on a map doesn’t mean your horse will always have access to it. The banks might be too high for him manage safely, or the water might flow seasonally. Find out before you go, and haul in your own water, just in case. Note: At dry camps (those without water) the length of your stay will be limited by how much water you’ve hauled in, so plan well for an enjoyable stay.
  • Packing. It’s impractical to haul water for your horse on a pack animal, so always call ahead to make sure the backcountry has a lake or water source for your horse to drink from.

Haul H2O

You have several options for hauling water in your trailer; here’s a rundown.

  • Buy a built-in. Some trailers have water containers built into one corner or under the saddle racks. Built-ins are convenient, but consider refill ease, especially if you won’t have access to
    Credit: Photo by Kent and Charlene Krone
    Some horse camps will have a natural water source, but your horse might not always have access to it. Find out before you go.a faucet and hose on the road. If you’ll need to haul water from a stream or other source, you’ll need small containers you can lift when full. Also, if you need to fill your built-in container from the top, see whether you need to move your whole rig to a water source, which sometimes can be inconvenient when camping.
  • Invest in containers. One good option for overnight trips is simply to pack a sufficient number of five-gallon water cans. Quantity will depend on whether there are other water sources available, and the number of horses for which you’re responsible. If you have a two-horse, straight-load trailer, you can slide the cans under the saddle racks against the back wall of the tack compartment. In two-horse slant loads, position the cans against the road-side wall in the tack compartment.Or, simply set the cans in the back of your towing vehicle. You can store rectangular plastic water cans side-by-side just about anywhere in your rig; they won’t scratch truck beds or trailer walls.
  • Think big. To supplement your water supply on longer trips, install a 50-gallon plastic water container in one corner of your trailer’s tack compartment. Then fill. Also pack four 5-gallon water cans and four 2 1/2-gallon water cans. Use the 2 1/2-gallon cans to water your horse at rest stops; it’s easy to pour water from this small can into a bucket, then refill it from the closest faucet. Use the 5-gallon cans in camp. Use the 50-gallon container as a backup supply.

Watering Tips

Now, here’s how to give water to your horse safely and efficiently.

  • Bring your own pail. Give your horse water in his own bucket; disease and parasites can lurk in common drinking areas. Also, your horse might prefer to drink from a familiar container and you’ll be able to monitor how much water he drinks each time.
  • Make him drink. Some horses are finicky when it comes to water taste. To tempt your horse to drink unfamiliar water, add an eight-ounce can of apple juice per one gallon of water. (Tip: Do this at home a few times before you leave to accustom him to the apple flavor.) Another technique: Blend your horse’s home water with the local water source to disguise the taste difference.If your horse refuses to drink despite your efforts, don’t despair. Of all the years I’ve gone horse camping, I’ve never seen a horse die of thirst. A horse will drink. The secret is to get him to want to drink. Offer water in the morning, on a ride, and before and after each feeding.
  • Pack canvas. On the trail, tie a canvas water pail to your saddle or pack. This pail will come in especially handy on federal lands, where you’re not allowed to take your horse to lakes, streams, ponds, or rivers. Make sure the pail opens wide enough for your horse to easily put his nose into it.
  • Pack a rope. Tie a 30-foot rope to your saddle or pack. If you come upon a stream that you can’t hike right down to, simply open the canvas water pail, tie the rope to the handle, and toss it into stream. To fill, let the water carry the pail downstream, or let the pail sink. When full, pull it back up with the rope.

Water-Use Tips

Give your horse water in his own bucket; disease and parasites can lurk in common drinking areas. Here are some conservation tips you can use while horse camping to stretch that precious water supply.

  • Water the feed. If your horse’s feed contains water, he’ll need less water afterward. To soak baled feeds such as oat, alfalfa, or grass hay fill the haynet with feed, then plunge it into a tub of water. Let it sit for a few minutes, then allow it to drain into the tub to save excess water. Hang the net, and allow your horse to eat. If you have pelleted or cubed feed, simply place the feed into a feed tub, and pour about a gallon of water over it. Let it sit for a few minutes, then allow your horse to eat.
  • Catch excess water. After giving your horse soaked forage, fill an empty feed tub about halfway with water, and set it under the haynet to catch excess water. Then place the tub in a corner of the corral. Or, place it just outside of the corral fence, where your horse has access to it, but can’t turn it over or play in it.
  • Tap other sources. Let your horse drink from water sources along the trail or near the camp to conserve the water you’ve hauled in.
  • Recycle camp water. Save your end-of-day shower or basin-bath water in a pail. The next day, after your ride, use the leftover water to rinse your horse’s back to cool him. You can use leftover dishwater and laundry water the same way. (Tip: When rinsing your horse’s back, stand him in the shade so the water won’t quickly evaporate in the hot sun; his back will stay cooler longer, and he’ll be a happier horse!)

Bonnie Davis, The Trail Rider’s consulting editor, has been horse camping and trail riding for more than 45 years, and is a nationally recognized clinician. She owns Two Horse Enterprises, which offers products and information geared to horse campers and trail riders. Find her blog, “Hoof Prints and Camp Smoke,” on

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