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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Horse Troughs

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Water troughs, better known in Texas as horse troughs, were intended for the hydration of livestock. But Texas ranchers and their families found far more use for these open containers of water than merely affording Old Dobbin a place to drink.

Horse troughs also played a role in many a Hollywood Western as a handy receptacle for bad guys in saloon brawls. Nothing like knocking a drunken cowpoke in a slimy horse trough to put him in his place, so to speak.
In the 1963 Paul Newman classic “Hud,” the cold-hearted, hot-blooded character played by the late actor in his salad days seemed to think the ranch’s horse trough could sober him up if he splashed his face enough.

In real life, many a ranch kid ran to the trough to stick an injured or burned limb in. Cartoon characters like Daffy Duck also found that a convenient horse trough could cure the effects of a shotgun blast or a hotfoot.

While the trough shown in “Hud” was a circular galvanized metal affair, the first generation of Texas troughs was made of wood. Later, ranchers made concrete tanks and eventually turned to the galvanized tank.
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“They lined the inside of the wooden troughs with pitch,” Merkel advertising executive and cartoonist Roger T. Moore recalled. “They always leaked a little, but not enough to make a difference.”

Despite the pitch, the troughs eventually sprouted some form of vegetation. Wet wood made a nice growth medium for algae, and the constant water supply encouraged other plants as well.

But in a country where water was and is always at a premium, a full horse trough was as good as a creek or river if neither body of water lay particularly close.

Moore remembers a wooden trough on his grandfather’s place that the old man claimed had been the site of the first baptizing in that part of Taylor County.

Other horse trough uses include:

  • A place to obtain water for the radiator of your over-heated Model T.
  • A place to dunk someone who had offended you in some manner.
  • A place to take an outdoor bath. Vaudaline R. Thomas, in her self-published book “Plum Creek Memorabilia,” recalled a West Texas cowboy who preferred bathing in the horse trough. One day when the wife of a neighbor drove up, she spotted the cowboy as he enjoyed his bath. Every time he tried to get out, Thomas recalled, the lady revved the motor of her Model T to announce her continuing presence, forcing the hapless hand back into the water. “This went on for some 10 minutes,” she wrote. “She was determined that he have one good Saturday bath.”
  • Horse troughs made a handy place to keep minnows in anticipation of the next fishing trip. They ate mosquitoes, too.
  • You could even keep a creek-caught bass or mess of perch in the horse trough for a time. Moore remembers one friend who put gold fish in his family’s trough.
  • On a hot day, dipping your hat in the trough provided a little natural air-conditioning for a while.
  • As long as a careful guard was kept, a horse trough made a great place to cool a watermelon.
  • Throw in a block of ice and a horse trough made an excellent beer and soft drink cooler.
  • In lake-shy West Texas, a horse trough could be as big as an ocean for a kid with a homemade toy boat.
  • Finally, troughs attracted wildlife, from quail to deer.

    © Mike Cox
    "Texas Tales"
    October 15, 2008 column
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