Drought poses healthcare and management challenges for horse owners and managers. Conditions such as high temperatures, limited water and scarce forages create a harsh environment for horses to thrive in. Fortunately, there are ways to help horses maintain good health despite severe weather. Preparation is key.
Evaluate pastures for grazing potential. When quality forages are inadequate, consider adding roughage sources. Good quality roughage sources include hay, hay cubes or sugar beet pulp. Horses need a minimum of 1 pound of roughage per 100 pounds of body weight every day to keep their digestive tracts healthy. Concentrated feeds can provide protein and energy to horses deprived of pasture because of the drought. However, they are not the best replacement for pasture grazing. Concentrated feeds should not comprise more than half of a mature horse’s daily diet unless the horse is exercised intensely (e.g. race training, endurance training).
It is important to maintain consistent hay type, source and quality in order to avoid colic in horses. Since drought conditions reduce hay supplies, it can be difficult to maintain a consistent hay diet. Use care when transitioning horses from old hay to new hay. Gradually reduce the amount of the old hay and mix it with an increasing amount of new hay over 3 to 5 days. If buying hay from a new source, check for sharp awns, mold, trash, blister beetles and poisonous plants. If the hay has not been analyzed for forage quality, contact your county Extension office for more information on forage testing, or see the Alabama Extension publication, Collecting Forage Samples for Laboratory Analysis.
How Much Hay per Horse?
To prevent the possibility of feeding inconsistent hay sources, begin purchasing hay in spring and early summer. An adult horse at maintenance will consume between 2-2.5 percent of their bodyweight in feed (hay and concentrate). For example, a 1,100-lb horse will consume about 27.5 lbs of total feed per day. If an all hay diet is being fed in Alabama during drought conditions (during limited pasture availability), the hay feeding time frame could be 167 days or more. This time frame varies each year and by region. It will also depend on if cool season pastures are established. The amount of hay needed would equate to about 4,592-lbs of hay per horse, or approximately 76 60-lb square bales. However, this figure does not include waste.
Depending on forage type, storage method, environment and storage length, hay waste can average about 13 percent for square bales. Waste can average 35 percent (or between 31-38 percent) for round bales if fed without a feeder. When fed with a feeder, waste averages about 5 percent (or between 2-9 percent). Assuming 13 percent wastage when feeding square bales [ (4,592-lbs x 0.13) + 4,592 = 5,189-lb], you would need 86 60-lb square bales for this example. Assuming $6/bale, it would cost $516 for one horse eating hay only.
Adjust calculations for horses consuming concentrates. In order to make adjustments to calculate hay needs, weigh the concentrate to determine how much is actually being fed. You can use an inexpensive kitchen scale.
Consider the horse’s age and use when making decisions about feeding. Pasture young, growing horses, lactating broodmares and geriatric horses in areas with the best grazing, or give them highest quality hay. Older horses may have more trouble dealing with drought conditions and may have trouble digesting poor quality forage. Fillies and colts require additional nutrients to grow and mature into healthy adult horses. For both younger and older horses, you may want to select concentrated feeds with higher fat and protein levels to meet their nutritional requirements. Horses with dentition problems consuming alternative forage sources, such as hay cubes or alfalfa pellets, will need to have these feedstuffs soaked adequately before consuming.
Adequate water is another vital element of horse health during a drought. Ensure your animals have ready access to clean, fresh water. During hot weather, horses may consume 3 to 4 quarts of water for every pound of feed it consumes daily. That is around 25 gallons of water daily for a 1,200-pound horse.
As grazing becomes limited, horses will be more tempted to eat anything green. Check your pastures as well as areas around your pastures and barn for poisonous plants. Many of these will survive in dry weather when forage grasses die off. Mow or destroy the weeds or isolate horses from areas where poisonous plants are growing. For more information about poisonous plants, contact your county Extension office.
Heat Stress Prevention
Provide plenty of shade for horses to escape the heat of the day. The shade can be natural in the form of stands of trees or man-made run-in sheds. Avoid riding or working your horses in the heat of the day. Instead, choose early morning or late evenings when temperatures may be more moderate. Watch your horse closely for overheating. Signs of heat stress in horses are depression; off-feed; persistently high temperature, pulse and respiration; increased capillary refill time; dehydration without thirst; an irregular heartbeat; lack of sweating; and hot, dry skin. If you suspect overheating, immediately move the horse to a shady area and hose it off with cool water. Keep the horse moving slowly or stand it in front of a fan to increase evaporative cooling. Then get veterinary help for the horse.