You Can Lead a Horse to Water And…

By Terry Golson

As the saying goes, You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. Last July I discovered how true this is. Tonka and I were at a USDF dressage show where the temperature soared above 90 F, the sun was unrelenting, there wasn’t a breeze and there was no shade. Despite that, my good little horse put in an effort that earned us two second place ribbons.

hot show

Or course, I’d brought plenty of water for him. Which he refused to drink. When a horse doesn’t want to drink, there’s nothing much you can do. I tried sloshing some on his lips. He turned away. I tried offering it from my hand. Nope. Finally, I handed him ice cubes from the food cooler. Those he munched on. It was enough to keep him from overheating and getting dehydrated, but I knew I needed to figure out a way to get him to drink when we’re away from home.

I’d heard that if you put treats in water, that your horse will go “bobbing for apples”, and then will drink. This sounded like a brilliant solution. I put a quartered apple in his bucket in his stall. He took a look at the apples floating in his water and turned his back to it. Apples are his very favorite treat, so I knew this was not the simple fix that I’d hoped for! But I wasn’t about to give up. I could train this.

I put a bucket of water in front of him. He wasn’t interested.

looking away


I fed him a chunk of apple. Then I fed him one lower, and another, lower again, until the apple was level with the bucket. He thought it was weird to get a treat there, but he does love apples, so he munched away.

near bucket


Next, I held the apple at the water’s surface. He grabbed for that. Tonka made a face at the wet apple. But he ate it.

hold on surface


I repeated this a couple of times until he was comfortable getting his lips wet while eating.

near surface


Next I let a couple of apple pieces float on the water. Tonka looked at me with that Are you serious? expression. He tried to bite the apple, but it skittered away. He eyeballed me again. Then he went bobbing for apples.

in water


And then he got into it with lots of splashing and lip wiggles.



If I hadn’t broken this down into incremental steps, and made each one rewarding, Tonka would never have gotten his lips wet, not even for apples.

Yesterday we went to a show. It was hot. His bucket of water was in the shade just inside of the trailer. He wasn’t interested. So I floated a quarter of an apple in the bucket. He bobbed for apples, and then he had a long drink.



It was a fine day. Once again my good little horse did his best, which was enough to get two second-place ribbons, earning higher scores than a number of horses that were far bigger and more athletic than he is.


It was a satisfying feeling, but made better with the knowledge that we arrived in good shape, and left hydrated and happy. So, let’s revise that old saw to With a little training, you can lead a horse to water and you can make him drink.

8 thoughts on “You Can Lead a Horse to Water And…

  • Sue Talbot

    I wonder if this works for dogs. Although I’ve been reading this blog for a while (since the demise of the Hen Blog—sob, sob, but I won’t dwell on that), and I’ve taken to heart, and somewhat to practice, the idea of trying to figure out what is going on in my dog’s mind when her behavior is not what I would hope for. The last time my dog refused water, I tried really hard to think about this, and while I figured out why, I don’t know what to do about it. If you have time, I would love some advice about how to calm a dog when it is terrified of loud noises—thunder and/or fireworks, in my case. At home, the solution is to allow her on the bed, with lots of cuddles. The severe trembling goes on sometimes for hours, but at least she knows she’s safe. On the other hand, when one lives in a city where the 4th of July is a month-long holiday, explosions are taking place at all times and in all places. Last week, we were on our usual hike in the park (a much-loved activity for both of us) when a couple of bottle rockets went off a couple of miles away. I spoke to her, and we continued, but all was clearly not well, and by the time we got to the half-way water stop, she was highly agitated and not only refused to drink but then dragged me forcefully the remaining half-mile to the car (and this from a dog who heels beautifully both on and off leash.) I was truly worried that she was going to have a nervous breakdown, or escape the harness. Nothing I said or did made any difference; I couldn’t even get her to stop or sit. I am thinking of buying one of those Thunder Shirts, but I wonder if there isn’t a better way to deal with this? Obviously I am very reluctant to leave her alone at this time of year, even locked in the house. If you don’t have time to answer this, Terry, I understand—maybe you can direct me to someone who might help. Thanks! And congratulations on all the second-place ribbons—red is as good as blue, in my opinion, and you are surely on the way up!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I’m not an expert in thunder phobia with dogs, but Patricia McConnell is. Read this post, and then search further in her blog. Also, Victoria Stilwell always gives competent and kind advice. Read this. I hope this helps. And thanks for the congrats. So glad you’re still with me here!

  • Emily

    I just had a similar experience with my little Arabian. Never a big drinker and now in a new home. Their watering system keeps the water cool and fresh, but requires the horse to push down or nudge a ball out of the way. I’d seen him use the same technique with ice, but he seemed ‘unwilling’. And he has a history of being ‘picky’ about his water at the last barn.
    Anyway, with warmer weather arriving, I knew he needed to acclimate rather than be ‘forced’ by thirst (he is 26 btw).
    Over a couple of days we used a similar technique with carrot pieces. I’ve yet to witness him drink from their system, but his condition and that he now nickers after taking a drink when I’m with him tell me that he’s figured it out.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I used to keep Tonka at a stable with those ball waterers. It does take some getting used to. Great that your old guy figured it out! Do check the waterers daily as the ball can get stuck, and in the winter can freeze in place. The upside is that the ball keeps the water clean and free of bugs, etc.

  • Jan

    Great blog, very clever way to get Tonka to drink. Do not have that problem here as usual it is raining !! They say we are going to have the wettest June on record if it does not stop soon, but then I don’t envy you your high temp’s either far to hot for me. Love reading your comments and pic’s on Facebook have just not got the courage to join….:)

  • Tracy

    A tip: While some I know would fill portable tanks in their horse trailers, I never liked toting too much water from the home tap in the summer because I always thought the water would host bacteria, etc. But to ensure my horses would drink water from a new location’s taps –water that often smelled and tasted very different from what they were used to– I used to add a few drops of peppermint oil to my horse’s water at home for a good week before we traveled. Then add the same peppermint oil drops to the water we encounter while on the road. It always worked. For some reason, as you know, horses love peppermints. Adding just a few drops to a large bucket is barely noticeable to my nose, but it masks sulphur smells or other odors/tastes that some water sources contain.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Most places I go don’t have a water source so I do bring from home. I do put fresh water in the tote every time. The peppermint oil is a good idea. Tonka does love peppermint.

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