Week 6- Fun at the Waterhole

June 10, 2012  •  20 Comments

Fun at the Waterhole

Before you panic and think this will be a dry blog, hang on.  Water is such an important thing to wild horses (wild animals, in general) and you learn a lot about them by watching them at their watering holes.  I want to share some of the drama and fun that we have seen at waterholes in various places.


I promise you will be entertained and hopefully, educated a bit too.  Of course, there will be lots of photos and more than one video this time.


The Education Part

Let's just get this right out of the way.


I am not an authority on water in the west.  I have tried to confirm any information that I have put in this blog.  There may be misinformation but I have tried hard to give you an accurate view.


It's a very dry year in the western United States.  I have talked to people in the BLM offices everywhere we have gone, and most have been the wild horse specialist for the HMA (Herd Management Area) we are visiting.  There is plenty of concern about drought just about everywhere we have gone; Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Oregon (though we aren't there yet).  Idaho seems to be in pretty good shape water-wise but it has been dry enough that there is little new grass in some areas.


Water levels, troughs, ponds, springs, etc will be closely watched this summer to make sure the horses are going to have enough water to sustain them.  In the past, emergency gathers have been done to take horses out of drought stricken HMAs and the horses later released when the water situation improved.  There are mutterings that may have to occur this year, but there is nothing definite.  It's a wait and see situation but it is a long time until rain can be expected to fill up those creeks and ponds.


Everywhere we have gone, we have seen dry troughs, dry waterholes, dry creeks.  Many of these watering places had water the last two times we were there, even in September, and this was May.  Grass is sparse in many areas since there was little rainfall.  Where we saw tall, lush grass, such as in Piceance Creek, we didn't find any horses- because the water source had dried up.


Many HMAs have ample water, even though it is a drought year.  There are hidden springs and while it is drier than usual, the horses will do fine.  They will have to work harder than usual but they will be able to find water.  However,  places that are dry normally, even in a year with good rainfall,  is where there may be problems.  Nevada comes to mind, of course, as it is mostly desert to begin with.


Only time will tell.  I do know there are people watching the situation very closely and it will not go unnoticed if water becomes critical in an area.


How Do Horses Get Their Water, Anyway?

I'm so glad you asked.  It's a complicated answer though.


Some places have year round creeks or springs.  Some creeks may appear dry but resurface in places.  The horses know where all those places are, even if we can't find them.



This is a year round creek in Idaho.  This water will not disappear any time soon!



Notice how the sagebrush goes right to the edge of the creek.  You can clearly tell just how far the water goes.  The vegetation around the creek is lush- which is why you can't see the horses well.









The BLM has developed many springs, putting in either water troughs or waterholes that are fed by the springs.  Of course, they stay filled as long as the spring has water.




This trough in Utah is fed by a natural spring.  Overflow dumps into a pond, which then empties into a creek bed.


Flow into many of the troughs is controlled by a regulator like modern toilets have.  When the water level drops, the "ball' drops and water is released into the trough.  Some troughs have no such regulators.  Water just runs into them freely.







Probably the most common type of waterhole that we have seen, is a natural spring which fills a bermed up area, like a man made pond, created specifically by the BLM for wildlife.  They are frequently shared by cattle and other animals in the area, such as Pronghorn Antelope or elk.  There is generally nothing pretty about them.




The stallion is standing on the berm, doing what stallions do- watching.


Yes, the water is almost always muddy.  This does not deter any wildlife from using it.  All animals, including horses, will drink out of a mud puddle, if there is one to be found.









We have found one BLM waterhole that was actually pretty.  We've never seen one before or since that had wildflowers around it!  Of course, it is likely this waterhole isn't used much, which is why it's so pretty!



This photo was taken in South Steens HMA (Oregon) in the spring of 2010.  It's hard to see but the edges are covered with small blue flowers.



Windmills have been used to pump water from wells in many western states since the days of the pioneers.  It's not unusual to see them even now.  We have seen windmills that pump water into large water troughs in several HMAs, most notably in Piceance Creek.  Of course, it depends on the depth the well is drilled to but I was told by a wild horse specialist last year that they only pull water from about 30 feet.  I am trying to confirm this and will update the blog when I do.




Alas, this is not our photo.  You would think with as many of these as we have seen, we take a picture of just one.  But no! 



This is very much like what we have seen, generally with a much smaller water trough.  I would assume that would be determined by how many animals are expected to use it and how much water is in the well.


We have seen many windmills with dry troughs this year.






More recently, the BLM has been installing solar pumps/wells.  These will pump to a greater depth than a windmill.  I am trying to get information on the difference between windmills and solar pumps and will update you when I do.



So far, the only solar wells we have seen are at Sand Wash Basin HMA, though I am sure there are others.


This particular trough has a regulator on it.  When the water level drops, it automatically pumps more water in.










Now that all the mechanics are done, let's have some fun...




Going to water is part of the wild horses' routine or rhythms.  How many times they go to water in the course of the day, I don't know, but undoubtedly it is several, including in the middle of the night.  Some herds go to water like clockwork.  You can go there at 4:30 and they will show up just about that time.  Others seem to come and go randomly.


According to friend and wild horse ecologist, Mary Ann Simonds,  horses will drink from 10 - 40 gals of water a day depending upon temperature, and movement.  Standing at rest in a stall on a nice temperature day and eating dry hay, they well drink 10-12 gals. Moving around out on the desert --most would prefer 25 gals. Wild horses do obtain some moisture from grasses in the spring and therefore get some water from plant material.  Some of the horses who live in dry desert climates seem to get by with less water than the more Northern horses.


We were quite surprised a couple of weeks ago when we went back to a water trough and pond that about 100 horses had been frequenting.  It was obvious they had not been using it for awhile.  Not only was the trough brimming, but so was the runoff pond, and a stream existed that hadn't been there when we were there three weeks earlier.  We had thought it was only a stream during the early spring!



Just Who Determines When to Go to Water?

We have watched horses going to water dozens of times.  It's a funny thing to watch.  One minute the horses are grazing peacefully, or sleeping or grooming or doing other horsey things.  The next thing you know, they are all headed in one direction.  It is very clear they are going somewhere and that somewhere is often the waterhole.


When you start really paying attention, you quickly see that it is usually started by a lead mare in one of the bands.  It doesn't seem to matter which band or where they fall in the whole scheme of things, but band after band will start to fall into line.  It  is interesting though, when a bachelor band goes to water, it does not usually start the parade.  From what I can see, though there are always exceptions to the rule, it is always a lead mare.  Now the mare might on occasion think the bachelors have a good idea and follow, but it usually seems to start with her.


Off she goes!




Many of you are familiar with the story of me following the herd of horses to water last spring.  It's my favorite story of the two stories I know.  Well, one of my favorite of one hundred stories, then!  LOL



Just like it usually happens, one mare decided it was time to go to water.  She started off, the rest of the near 100 horses followed and I followed behind, doing my very best to keep up.  Right!  I thought she was going to take the same route she had the day before.  I had followed then.  I knew where we were going.  Right!



Well, let me tell you!  They lead me on a merry chase over hill and dale, up, down, over, up again...  By the time I figured out where we were (about 45 minutes later), we on a very high hill!  Absolutely no way was I going down that!  I had to backtrack and sidehill down to get to the meadow where Marty was waiting with the truck (someone had to go for the 'wheels').  Lo' and behold, as soon as they got to the meadow, they walked down the road to the very same water trough they had gone to the day before.  Only this time we took the long way around!  Crazy horses!




Such a nice orderly line!  Of course, I am holding down the rear position.  Yes, that valley below is where they intended to go!  YIKES!




The mare will usually lead the band or even the whole herd to water, but somewhere along the way she will drop back.  The stallion almost always leads the way when they get close to the waterhole, trough or creek.









Time for a drink...







Rules and Protocols


Rules and protocols about the waterhole may differ from herd to herd, but I can assure you- there ARE rules.



Generally, the mature stallions and their bands come in first.  If there are a lot of "big guys", they still seem to take turns though there can be tension just as they get to the waterhole.  Next come the younger stallions and their bands, then the stallions with just one or two mares and finally the bachelors.  We have seen bachelor bands arrive at the waterhole earlier than the other bands and they will stand off a ways and wait until the other bands water, sometimes waiting a long time, if it's a big herd.  They know their place!



Many of you probably recall the video I did of the wild horses running into water.  The whole video was about 15 minutes long, so you saw a little snippet of it.  In this section, the horses have already come in single file and are breaking up to go to the trough in front, as well as a pond and trough in back.  Watch how certain bands stand and wait their turn.



Watch for the horses who are drinking to suddenly jump back.  The regulator has just dropped and water starts going into the trough again.  Now, I suspect this trough has been there for decades too, but they still don't trust that the water suddenly starts pouring in!






Bachelors watching and waiting their turn...














Fun and Games


This is what is fun!  Get a couple of family bands together at a trough or waterhole and trouble is bound to erupt!  Usually it's nothing serious, just a whole lot of posturing. 



Stallions get too close to another stallion's mare.  They get bumped.  They look sideways.  Who knows sometimes what sets it off?  But there is almost always action!






















Most of the time, the horses drink and then leave single file again.  Occasionally, though, they will hang around and eat or sleep even.












Uh OH.  The Waterhole is Dry!


This is a scenario that took place at Sand Wash Basin HMA.   Before you get overly concerned, the was ample water to be had, both here and nearby. 



I think the horses were confused by the fact their waterhole was empty.  They walked around it, sniffed at it, pawed at it and generally looked mystified.  There was a solar well with a trough right by the waterhole but it was pretty clear they were not used to it.  Most of them looked at it if as if it was a scarey alien.  They also didn't like the fact that the water would suddenly start running when the level went down.



Some of the bands that came in would walk around and around the trough taking the longest time to actually approach it.  Others would stand and look at it and then leave without getting water.  Others would come in faster, perhaps already mastering their discomfort, though they still didn't like it.



This is one band's approach.  It was agony watching this unfold.   I wanted to reassure them- or something!  LOL


I have shortened the length considerably so you don't go to sleep waiting for this stallion to approach the trough...






I trust this is a learning process and the horses will adjust to the water trough.  However, I was surprised when I found out that the water trough in the photo array below, which has the same mechanism to fill it, has been there for over 30 years.  Maybe adjustment is relative!




By the way, that bay roan is a big, tough band stallion!  ;-)



Methinks the bay mare is the braver of the two.  ;-)













































If You've Got Lemons, Make Lemonade


So, just what do you do if the waterhole is dry?  Well....




You can use it as a salt lick.  I'm sure those minerals are delish!












You can use it as a place to roll- it's nice soft dirt, after all!














And you know what happens when one horse rolls- others follow suit, of course!















Or you can use it as a playground...


















Oh yes, there are many uses...just use your imagination!


Don't you agree?  Waterholes are fun stuff!




Yes, I am concerned about the water situation in the west.  There are certain areas that are very concerning.  Historically, water has been brought into some of those areas that suffer the worst- when it is feasible and it isn't always feasible- for the horses and other wildlife in the area.  Emergency gathers may occur in areas where the water is seriously depleted,  but if they do, I feel confident it will be for the good of the horses.  I have seen how bad it is in May and early June.  There is a lot of summer left....



I will be trying to stay informed and will keep you informed as I get new information.



I hope you have learned something today.  I also hope you have been entertained.   :-)




Every blog takes between 12- 14 hours to create. Please let me know you are enjoying them.   I would be delighted if you shared with your friends and acquaintances.  Thank you!


Until next week...



Other Important Stuff...

Many of you know that we partnered with Mary Ann Simonds for our wild horse DVD.  I would like to give special recognition and thanks to her.  Through the years, she has been an invaluable resource for understanding wild horse behavior.  Without her knowledge, expertise and willingness to teach, we would only be guessing at much of what we see.  Thank you Mary Ann!


If you would like to learn more about horse behavior, both wild and domestic, visit her website at http://maryannsimonds.com


If you are interested in the Wild Horse DVD by Mary Ann Simonds and us (if you love wild horses, this is not to be missed), you can view a trailer and purchase it here:



Did you know you can subscribe to my blogs?  Just go to the bottom and click "Subscribe."  You will receive an email when each one is published.  This will work for Firefox and Internet Explorer.  If you use Google Chrome (like I do), you will need to check "Help" for instructions on how to subscribe.


As long as I have the interest in the blog, I will continue to publish every Sunday (unless we are without internet service or barring some other issue).  I will continue through our nine week wild horse photography trip (home on July 5).  We still have a lot of places to go and things to see, so come along with us!














Susan Smolensky(non-registered)
So glad I found your blog! It's very intersting and the photos and videos are just great. Thank you!
Patricia Deuter(non-registered)
This is awesome, I love watching the horses. I love learning about there behavior and what is being done to help them with the water situation.. I really want you to know how much I appreciate all you time and energy in binging these pictures and blogs to the public and those like me who just love the horses.
Debbie Prichard(non-registered)
Loved your descriptive photos. My husband and I have been to Sand Wash a few times and we've captured some great pics also. I love how the next band waiting to use the watering hole watches their manners till the first band is through.
Carolyn Edson(non-registered)
Very informative description of the horses and waterholes. Love the pictures too. Well done.
Gayle Hammon(non-registered)
This was fantastic!! I would love to see the horses in the wild. But since I cannot, this makes me feel like I am there! Adore the pictures videos, everything you have. Please keep doing it. Thousands of people need to be kept informed of these precious animals!!!
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