The drought drags on...

Dry conditions hitting horse owners, rescue groups in the wallet
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Cracks in parched soil
(Photos by R. Scott Nolen and Malinda Larkin)

Surveying the 26 acres of pasture at the Hooved Animal Humane Society’s farm immediately reveals something’s a bit off. It’s mid-June, and yet, a bone-dry, near triple-digit heat permeates the air of this horse rescue facility outside the small northern Illinois city of Woodstock. The olive drab shade of the grass is a stark contrast to the normal kelly green it usually takes on this time of year. No more than half an inch of rain has fallen in the past two weeks.

Weather conditions didn’t improve much as the summer went on. July was the second warmest and fourth driest on record in Illinois, according to the Illinois Water Survey. By August, HAHS volunteers had been supplementing the horses’ diets with hay for two months, when usually the horses would still be feeding off pastureland.

Tracy A. McGonigle, executive director of the nonprofit rescue facility, says hay usually costs about $3 for a normal-size bale but has increased to at least $5.50. She’s even heard reports of $12 a bale.

“We’ve gone through about a bale a day per horse, and we have 53 horses. It’s a lot. It’s extra costs for us,” McGonigle said in early September.

“We have been lucky so far and gotten our hay locally, but the next batch might have to come from farther away. I’ve heard people going as far as Wisconsin and Canada.”

Dry as a bone

According to the Sept. 18 U.S. Drought Monitor, moderate to exceptional drought covered 64.82 percent of the contiguous U.S. These conditions have left much of the country—encompassing a lot of the West, Great Plains, and Midwest as well as portions of the South—about as arid as previous droughts of the 1930s and 1950s. (Comparatively, those droughts peaked at 79.9 percent of the contiguous U.S. in July 1934 and at 60.4 percent of the contiguous U.S. in July 1954.)

One of the longest-suffering states has been Texas. Its drought officially began in January 2011 and came to an end that fall in some parts of the state, but not all.

Dr. William A. Moyer, professor of equine sports medicine at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, said it’s because of the size of Texas the drought remains in some areas and not others. For example, east Texas has been doing reasonably well this year, whereas west Texas remains largely barren.

Overall, the drought has been record-setting for the state, Dr. Moyer said, with about 3 million acres burned this past year and prairie fires erupting every day for a time. The effect of the drought on horse owners has been mostly monetary as it has affected their ability to feed and care for their animals.

“The ability to graze grass and forage came darn near to a halt unless a farmer or rancher had the ability to irrigate with access to an aquifer or well. It was really devastating,” he said.

Warding off disease

Dr. Tom R. Lenz, an equine veterinarian and former American Association of Equine Practitioners president, agrees that the drought has had a dramatic effect on horses. He’s located on the border of Kansas and Missouri, and local veterinarians have told him they’re seeing sand colic in horses. This is something they don’t typically see, because the region doesn’t have sandy soil.

“I think because the horses are trying to get every last blade of grass and every last stem of hay that they’re taking in a lot more dirt and sand than normal,” Dr. Lenz said.

Horses in a pasture
The Hooved Animal Humane Society currently cares for 50 horses, three potbellied pigs, and two goats. About 98 percent of its animals represent abuse cases. HAHS has 44 trained investigators. When animals are impounded, they come to the nonprofit’s facility in Woodstock, Ill. HAHS’ purpose is to adopt out the animals.

And because pastures are eaten down, more toxic weeds are being consumed by horses than is normal. Horses will avoid weeds of any type if they can, he said, but if they’re starving or if they don’t have much grass, they’ll even eat toxic plants.

“In drought years, we typically see a lot more toxic hepatitis due to weeds than we normally do,” Dr. Lenz said.

Drought conditions have also caused horses to come down with more encephalitic diseases such as West Nile infection and eastern equine encephalitis as increased irrigation and watering associated with the drought have resulted in an increase in the numbers of certain mosquito species.

We have seen an increase in horses coming in due to the drought and phone calls from people trying to place or sell their horse because, financially, it has become hard to take care of them. We get two to three calls every day of the week asking what can I do for them.”

Hillary Clark, program director, Hooved Animal Humane Society

But Dr. Lenz said that’s not the whole story. Horses have been infected with more viruses also because their owners have become more complacent about vaccinations.

After the outbreak of West Nile in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, most equine veterinarians saw an increase in requests for vaccinations from owners who normally would take their horses to the veterinarian only in an emergency.

“Now, over the last few years, those people have gone away again. You talk to most horse clinics and they’ll say they see a 15 (percent) to 25 percent decrease in vaccinations,” Dr. Lenz said.

“A little bit of it is the economy, but I think most of it is that people are just complacent. They don’t hear about the disease on the news—until recently—and so they don’t see it as a big risk, so they quit vaccinating. I think we have a lot more of the horse population that’s unprotected than we did three to four years ago.”

Supply and demand

Horse owners even as far north as Minnesota and North Dakota have been dealing with the drought.

Dr. Richard “Dick” Bowman, regulatory veterinarian at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn., rehomes and adopts out Thoroughbreds at his ranch in North Dakota. As of September, he had 70 after taking in 36 this summer. Typically, they graze in the summer on his 450 acres.

A horse eating from a container on the ground
The number one ailment seen in the horses at HAHS is malnourishment, followed by foot issues, then emotional issues.

“The pasture has depleted rapidly with little regrowth. I rotate pastures and give them long terms of rest, but a typical horse farm doesn’t have that luxury,” he said. “We’re almost to capacity to what we can handle.”

Dr. Bowman said the area has been so dry that wildfires have popped up, even as close as a quarter of a mile from his ranch. The fires haven’t affected any farms but have burned up available feed, including several hundred acres of grass and hay. This has tightened up the local supply, driving up costs.

He estimates the cost for alfalfa hay at $200 a ton. Comparatively, the same amount could have been bought for $50 to $60 locally last year.

“If we go into the fall dry again and have a repeat of last year’s mild winter, there’s not going to be any grass for the animals to eat in the winter, and if there’s not substantial moisture in the spring, I’m not sure what we’ll do with the horses at my place, because we’ll be out of feed,” Dr. Bowman said.

Bursting at the seams

Many other horse rescue and rehabilitation facilities are likely to be similarly strained.

Although there is no official count of unwanted horses, a study reported in the Journal of Animal Science concluded that nonprofit equine rescue and sanctuary facilities appear to be struggling with insufficient resources to meet the increasing demand for accepting, caring for, and providing sanctuary or finding new homes for unwanted horses in the U.S. (see JAVMA, Dec. 15, 2010, page 1353). Further, without additional resources, these organizations cannot predictably expand to provide quality care and rehabilitation for even more horses. That study came out in August 2010, and the situation has only gotten worse with the drought.

“Generally, it’s safe to say most of the rescues, especially in the drought areas, are probably filled to capacity and pretty much unable to take more horses. And the cost (of caring for them) is going up prohibitively with feed. That’s been complicated by the fires. Plus, there’s no more (horse) slaughter in the U.S.,” Dr. Bowman said.

According to the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, U.S. exports to Mexico of horses intended for slaughter increased from 52,338 in 2010 to 67,540 in 2011. Exports to Canada numbered 74,426 in 2010, but figures for 2011 are pending.

Dr. Lenz, past chair of the Unwanted Horse Coalition, said he hasn’t heard of a lot of horses being sold in the way that many cattle have been sold.

Emaciated horse
Ever since the economic downturn, the HAHS has seen more and more abandoned horses, according to Tracy McGonigle, executive director. Many horses come in emaciated, whether from being turned out, neglected, or otherwise. The rescue facility frequently receives calls from animal control.

“I would expect we’ll see in the fall or winter more horses going through sale barns, probably the low- to medium-value horses,” he said.

Dr. Lenz adds that buyers for horse processing plants buy fat horses, so they will not be buying the horses that have lost weight during the drought.

Wasting away

The Hooved Animal Humane Society doesn’t take in owner relinquishments. About 98 percent of HAHS’ animals come from criminal investigations.

Now in its 41st year, the HAHS does receive some grants, but the nonprofit relies primarily on donations. Its budget is anywhere from $350,000 to $500,000 a year.

McGonigle says the HAHS hasn’t had to cut back yet, thanks to donations. One supporter, after reading an article about the HAHS having to feed its horses hay this summer, donated 100 bales.

It’s a good thing, too, because Hillary Clark, program director at HAHS, said they rescued five horses in August alone. All were emaciated and admitted on an emergency basis. She attributes each of those cases to the drought, the economy, or both.

“We have seen an increase in horses coming in due to the drought and phone calls from people trying to place or sell their horse because, financially, it has become hard to take care of them,” Clark said. “We get two to three calls every day of the week asking what can I do for them. There’s definitely been an increase in (those calls) from the previous year.”

She continued, “It is stressful because we feel for them. It’s getting hard to give them venues and avenues to place horses. I love that they try to be proactive (and call HAHS), but our resources are running out. We give the (phone) numbers of hay banks that could have been traditionally able to help, but they’re affected, too.”