Keep an Eye on Horse Health during Drought

David Welsh
WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Forestry and Consumer Sciences

Drought conditions can take a terrible toll on horses, but observant owners can help mitigate the ill effects of the long, dry summer on their animals. Paul Lewis, a professor of animal and veterinary sciences in the West Virginia University College of Agriculture, Forestry and Consumer Sciences, offers the following suggestions to help horses beat the heat:

  • If pasture grazing isn't available, replace it with hay. Concentrated feed isn't the best alternative to pasture, and it should not comprise more than 50% of the horse's diet. The horse must have a minimum of 1 pound of roughage per 100 pounds of body weight per day.
  • Reserve the highest quality hay at your disposal for your youngest and oldest horses. Senior animals are less resistant to drought conditions, and their younger counterparts require more nutrients to grow. Monitor changes in weight loss or body condition score. Choose concentrates with higher levels of fat and protein for both younger and older horses.
  • During a drought, the horse's daily dry feed intake (from hay, pasture, and concentrate) should be at least 1.5% of their body weight.
  • Water intake is critical. The horse will need at least 1.5 to 2 quarts of water per pound of feed it consumes daily or approximately gallon per 100 pounds of body weight. This is particularly true for active animals or animals in a high-temperature environment.
  • Equally important is water quality. It should be high; water should be free of algae and microbial growth. If water looks discolored (blue-green, in particular), don't make the horse drink it.
  • Active animals, or horses under training with a moderate level of intensity, require particular attention. Owners should monitor the animals' calcium, phosphorous, and mineral balance. Owners may also consider a feed with a fat level higher than 6% to help the animals maintain good health and increased energy density in the ration.
  • Monitor noxious, opportunistic weeds in areas where horses might graze. These plants can thrive in drought conditions, and horses aren't as discerning as ruminants when it comes to plant matter. Pull weeds when possible, or isolate your animals from places where they grow.