Home » How To Clean Horse Water Troughs: Everything You Need To Know

How To Clean Horse Water Troughs: Everything You Need To Know

Barn chores are never ending.  Horse owners know this especially well.  One of the most important chores is keeping your horse’s water trough clean and algae free.  Providing fresh, clean water is vitally important for the health of your horse.

Scrubbing the algae and grime out of a water trough isn’t the most appealing way to spend your time.  But after cleaning my own troughs countless times, I’ve learned what works best and what to avoid.  I promise, it’s not as hard as it seems.

Keep reading and I will share every trick I know to clean any type of water trough, tank or bucket!  Your horse will appreciate it and you’ll love how easy it is.  Let’s get started.

How to clean a water trough

No matter what size or type of water trough you have, the basic cleaning steps are the same.  Empty, scrub, rinse, refill.  There is no magic solution that prevents you from ever having to clean a water tank again.  However, with the tricks I’ve learned over the years, you can go longer between each cleaning.

Before we get into how to clean a water tank, let’s talk quickly about trough material.  Choosing the best type of trough from the beginning will save you tons of cleaning time.

Types of water troughs

In general, there are two types of material used for water troughs or stock tanks: metal and plastic.  Either material is similarly resistant to algae growth.  Both should also be reasonably simple to clean if they are free of scratches and rough spots.  Issues start arising once they are used and abused and algae can get a foothold on the rough spots and start growing faster. 

Plastic tanks tend to scratch easier than metal.  Therefore, when it comes to algae growth, the smoother surface of metal tanks will take longer for algae to get a foothold and grow.  Smooth metal is also easier to scrub algae and dirt off with a brush than rough plastic. 

Choosing between plastic and metal still involves trade-offs.  Plastic may scratch but metal does eventually rust in harsh elements.  No matter which you choose, by a quality tank that will last.

Steps for cleaning a water trough by hand

Regardless of the type of water trough or tank you have, the basic cleaning principles are the same.  I’ll share everything I’ve learned to make this process fast, easy and keep your tank cleaner for longer.

Step 1: 

Drain the old water

You must drain all of the water currently in the trough in order to gain access to the sides and bottom for scrubbing.  Large troughs may have a drain port built into the bottom for quick emptying.  If a tank is small enough you may be able to simply tip it over.  Using a bucket to bail the water is another option.

Before you start emptying the water trough where it stands, determine if it will make a muddy mess around the tank.  Standing water and mud is not only bad for your horse’s hooves, it will smell, attract insects and grow more algae.

Hook up a garden hose to the drain spout if there is one to empty the dirty tank water away from that area.  If you can’t use a hose on your tank, choose a bucket that is small enough for you to fling the water away so it spreads out.  Avoid trying to syphon out old water.  It is never worth the energy required or the mouth full of dirty water.

If you have a garden or flower pots, you can go a step further and use this dirty water for your plants. 

Step 2:

Scrub the trough with a stiff, plastic brush

Now that the water is gone, the next step requires the most elbow grease.  Using a stiff, plastic bristle brush, scrub the entire interior surface.  

Stay away from wire brushes or steel wool because those will cut scratches into the tank which allow algae to grow faster in the future.  

I found that hand held brushes with handles give me the best leverage and scrubbing power.  If the tank is really deep or you have a bad back, try a brush with a long handle.  For a cheaper option, try a toilet cleaning brush.  Some tanks have grooves so make sure to pick one that fits into all the spaces.  

I also have a dedicated bath loofah for those spots that the brush just can’t reach.  

A dense bath loofah also works amazing for quick wipe downs in buckets or tanks that don’t have a buildup of algae.  

To kill bacteria and algae, scrub with 10% bleach (1 part bleach, 9 parts water).  If your horse is sensitive to the smell or any residual taste, try using apple cider vinegar instead.

If your tank goes too long between cleanings, use the added scrubbing power of dish soap before going over it with the bleach.

The goal is to remove all the bacteria and algae so it takes longer to grow next time. 

Step 3:

Rinse the trough with fresh water

After scrubbing all the dirt and algae off the sides, it’s time to rinse.  The easiest way by far is with a garden hose.  However, if one doesn’t reach or the water is turned off during the winter, you will have to do it by hand with buckets.  Again, try to keep the water from puddling around the area where your horse has access.  If the tank is small enough, I always pull it away to rinse.  

Make sure to rinse off any dirt, soap and bleach used during the scrubbing step.  If you have time, you can let the tank air dry in the sun for a couple hours to further help kill any algae left behind. 

Step 4:

Fill with fresh water

Once the tank is rinsed and back in place, all you have to do it fill it back up with fresh water.  Again, a hose is the easiest way to do this.  For many years, I hauled water in a 5 gallon bucket.  It gets the job done but takes a bit longer.  Placing the heavy bucket in a wagon helps get it from the nozzle to the tank without hurting your arms and back.

Step 5:

Add Mrs. Stewart’s Liquid Bluing

Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing is a non-bleach additive for reducing algae growth that occurs in water troughs, fish tanks, ponds, and bird baths.  It is manufactured and tested as a non-toxic, biodegradable and environmentally friendly laundry whitener but it has a whole slew of other applications which you can learn about on their website.    

I’ve used this product for years and none of my horses have gotten sick or ever hesitated to drink the blue water.  Mrs.Stewart’s Bluing was developed in 1883 and since then they “have never received a report of a sick or dying animal as a result of using MSB in such ways.”

 A small squirt is all that’s needed for a 20 gallon tank to turn blue.  Use just enough in larger troughs for the water to turn a nice blue color once stirred.  It’s cheap, safe and easy to use!

You can find a bottle of Mrs.Stewart’s Bluing online or at grocery stores that carry laundry products.  A single bottle lasts many tank refills.  

This is the best secret to keep water troughs cleaner for longer.  

Eventually, algae will build up and you will have to scrub the tank but your horse will enjoy fresh water much longer in between cleanings. 

Other ways to clean a water trough 

Scrubbing horse water troughs by hand is by far the simplest and fastest way from start to finish and requires the least amount of supplies.

If you have a huge tank that will take too long to clean with a manual brush, a high powered garden hose nozzle or pressure washer is your next best bet.  

Be mindful though that high powered pressure washers could blow a hole in thin walled or weak tanks.  This method will also make a larger water mess during the cleaning process.    

How do you keep a trough clean longer

You’ve spent some time cleaning your water trough and now it would be nice to go awhile before you have to scrub it again.  There are several ways to extend the cleanliness of a water tank and the water itself.

  • Try using Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing after every cleaning session which I mentioned above.  
  • Keep the water trough away from the hay feeder.  Horses are messy eaters.  Grain and hay will quickly dirty the water if large amounts fall in.
  • Place the trough in the shade.  Direct sunlight increases algae growth.  Hot water in a sun baked trough may also turn your horse off from drinking.
  • Don’t use trees as a shade source.  Needles, leaves and bugs will fall from it into the water.
  • Use a small net to remove debris.  Scooping needles, leaves, hay and dead bugs out of the water on a daily basis will prolong the freshness.  
  • Don’t wait until your horse drinks to the bottom of the tank.  Adding clean water everyday or every other day will keep the entire tank fresher. 

How to slow algae growth in a water tank

Standing water and algae go hand in hand.  There is no preventing it.  Besides Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing, there several other products you might want to try to slow algae growth in your horse’s water trough. 

  • Stock Tank Defense:  These tablets contain beneficial bacterial that naturally eat algae and help keep stock tanks clean and the water clear.  One tablet will treat 150 gallons.  Apply every 1-2 weeks or with every complete water change. 
  • Copper Sulfate:  Copper sulfate is an algicide and is commercially available in liquid or crystal form.  Apply every 2-4 weeks as needed and with every complete water change to prevent algae growth from occurring.  Keep in mind that copper sulfate will deteriorate metal over time so this is best used in plastic tanks.
  • Chlorine Bleach:  Unscented chlorine bleach will help reduce algae growth but some horses may not tolerate it.  Add 2 to 3 oz for every 50 gallons of fresh water each week. 
  • Gold Fish:  Yep, you heard right!  Goldfish in appropriately sized stock tanks can provide added cleaning power.  They will eat mosquito larvae and help keep the algae in check.  Goldfish are cheap and they actually work, so check out my recent article to see everything you need to know about adding goldfish in your horse’s water trough.

How often should you clean a horse’s water trough

Clean water is so important to the health and well-being of your horse.  Watering often not only provides your horse fresh, cool water, it keeps the trough cleaner for longer.  You should at least be checking the water level daily.  Topping off should also be done at least every other day.  Never let the water levels drop to the bottom of the tank.

If you employ the above tips, you can most likely get away with quick weekly cleanings.  These cleanings should involve very little elbow grease on your part since dirt and algae buildup should be relatively low in a week’s time.  

You will have to experiment and keep track to see how long you can go before the sides start turning green even with daily refreshing.  Long stretches between cleaning sessions result in more work later.  Once you develop a routine, maintaining fresh water for your horse is a cinch.  All the tips in this article are well tested so give them a try for superior results.  

Clean water is just one important factor when it comes to your horse’s nutrition. Make sure you check out the best types of hay to feed your horse as well!