It might surprise horse owners to learn that besides colic, another common cause of death seen by equine appraisers is electrocution ‒ specifically, horses that have been electrocuted while drinking from a heated trough.
Caution always needs to be taken when combining water with electricity, no matter what the season. An automatic waterer, heated water bucket, or floating de-icer that is not functioning properly can result in an electric current flowing through the water or into the ground where the horses are standing. This can cause a horse to receive an electric shock, which may deter the horse from drinking water and lead to dehydration and colic. In worst-case scenarios, the horse is electrocuted and killed.
Ground saturation around the automatic waterer results in standing water that does not absorb into the ground. This saturated ground is highly conductive, and if an automatic waterer has electricity leaking from it, the combination can be deadly.
Naturally-shifting ground can also cause electrical wires inside an automatic waterer to crack or break, resulting in electrical leakage. Weather and rodents can degrade the wires, and the heating element can also wear over time, causing a breakdown in the element’s insulation. Damaged or cracked floating de-icers or heated water buckets can allow water to get inside the device and flow back into the water source along with electricity.
If you suspect a problem with your horse’s water source, never to stick your hand in the water! Shut off the power to the water source and call a licensed electrician. A voltmeter, available at any hardware store, can detect if an electrical current is flowing through the ground or the water, but be very careful. If you use electric fencing, 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 be inserted into the ground, but if the leakage is going into the ground, there is the potential for electric shock. For this reason it is recommended to shut the power off and contact a licensed electrician.
- Ideally, automatic waterers should be installed on a cement pad surrounded by gravel fill, with the ground surfaces graded to allow runoff away from the trough so water does not collect and cause ground saturation.
- Dispense of cracked or damaged floating de-icers and heated water buckets immediately.
- Install a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI or GFI), which can help prevent electrocution by sensing when there is stray voltage and cut the power before any humans or horses can be injured. GFCIs are sensitive to elements such as rain water, snow, and condensation which can make them trip, which is a disadvantage.
- Test your water sources at least once a month with a voltmeter or electric fence tester.
- Watch your horse(s) drinking water. They will usually test the water source with their whiskers first; if this causes them to pull back suddenly, there may be a problem.
- Examine extension and product cords regularly for signs of damaged plugs, kinks, fraying, nicked or cracked casings, or sun damage.
- Extension cords must be grounded, with three prongs on the plug instead of two. Never overload extension cords and be mindful of what else is on the same circuit breaker. The length and size of extension cords can also be a factor; if in doubt, consult a licensed electrician.
- Automatic waterers should be installed by a licensed electrician and inspected. Note that some insurance policies may not cover electrocuted animals if the installation did not have an electrical permit.
Tracy Dopko is a Senior Equine, Livestock & Agricultural Appraiser with Daventry Appraisal Services, in practice for over 20 years, hired globally to conduct appraisals and testify as an equine expert witness.