AUBURN, Ala.–Droughts can be rough on horses because of high temperatures, limited water and scarce forages. There are ways to help horses maintain good health despite severe weather.
Evaluate your pastures for grazing potential. If grazing is limited or poor quality, replace it with a good quality roughage such as 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).
Consider the horses’ ages and uses when making decisions about feeding. Young, growing horses, lactating broodmares and geriatric horses should be pastured in those areas with the best grazing or they should be given the highest quality hay. Older horses may have more trouble dealing with drought conditions and may have trouble digesting poor quality forage. Fillies and colts need more 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 feedstuff 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 or around 25 gallons of water daily for a 1,200-pound horse.
Horses will be more tempted to eat anything that is green as grazing becomes limited, 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.
If you need more information about poisonous plants, call an Alabama Cooperative Extension System county office. We have an excellent Extension publication on the topic, ANR-975, “Poisonous Plants of the Southeastern United States.”
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.
With some simple management changes and common sense, you can keep your horse healthy and happy during the drought.