Drought is hard on you, your horse and your pocket so knowing how to make life more comfortable during such a depressing time helps a lot. The three main issues to be addressed are:
1. Feed, 2. Water and 3. Pasture/Property Management.
Feed is obviously the biggest issue and as it becomes scarce whether on the ground or to purchase, we will have to consider other options to keep our horses healthy.
Firstly, it’s important to learn how to condition score your horse so you know what body condition is acceptable and when to increase feed. It will help if you regularly estimate your horse’s weight either with a weigh band or by calculating weight-based on girth and length measurements. Here is a good guide on how to condition score your horse based on the Huntington Method used in Australia. If you are in the USA you will most probably use the Henneke Condition Score system.
Next, you need to assess what feed is available and how you will manage it – if you still have some grass, then decide if you will better off restricting your horse to easily re-generated paddocks or if you can rotate pastures frequently enough to not permanently kill the pasture. To save money when supplementing roughage such as hay or straw using a slowfeed hay net or feeder will also reduce wastage.
There is a very good booklet called Drought Feeding and Management for Horses by David Nash that goes into much more detail than I can in this article so download this excellent resource.
You will need to supplement the pasture (or lack of it) with roughage and in most cases, concentrates which will also become more expensive and in short supply so it helps to know what alternatives you can safely use.
Again, the booklet above has some very good charts on the feed value of various alternatives of which there are many. Be sure to consult this information and your vet before starting to feed anything out of the ordinary to your horse and be aware that sudden feed changes or too much can cause colic.
It’s a very worthwhile exercise identifying all the plants available on your property and in nearby lanes, roads or un-used areas as there may be many plants commonly called weeds that have the herbal and nutritional value that can give your horse some variety and green, succulent food.
As an example when I did a survey on my own place I found Tree lucerne (or Tasagate), Cleavers (sticky weed), Willow, Black Thistle (like Scotch thistle), Bidgee-Widgee (Buzzies), Slender Thistle, Fennel, Spiny Rushes, Sweet Briar, Common Sow Thistle (milk thistle), Dandelion, Nettles and of course blackberries, all of which are edible and not poisonous to horses.
It is helpful to also identify all those plants that are poisonous and know the symptoms they produce for if there is a lack of roughage, horses will eat those plants so they should be removed from their pastures. There is an excellent book called a Field Guide to Weeds in Australia by Charles Lamp and Frank Collett that will help you with identification as it has clear photos and thorough descriptions.
The drought booklet you have downloaded lists all the poisonous plants and a good herb book will tell you what herbs can be used for horses or click here for Country Park Herb’s web site. Many herbs are classified as weeds so don’t be put off by that – just do the research.
In most cases, well-fed horses will select only those plants that are safe or helpful for them to eat and these can include some Australian natives. When we go for a trail ride, I always allow my horses to nibble on things they fancy so they have shown me they like ‘Dolly bush’, various sedges and rushes, native tussock grasses, gorse and thistle flowers. All these plants can provide nutrients the horse needs so taking your horse out for a ‘grazing ride’ is most helpful. Its also a good way to warm up as you leave (and satisy their urge to eat) then cool them down the last kilometre home.
The third important factor in your drought strategy is to consider water and minerals. Water is vital and it must be a clean, reliable source that is checked regularly.
As dams get lower algae can cause a bad smell which could put some horses off drinking enough. As the water lowers, also check that the sides don’t become too steep or boggy for the horse to access the water. It may be better to syphon the water into a trough or fence the dam off and provide an alternative trough.
Smelly water caused by algae can be treated by adding gardening lime (Limil) to the water – a few cups per 1,000 litres in a tank or a bag or more for dams, depending on their size.
If you are using bore water it is a good policy to have the water tested as some highly mineralised water may contribute to the development of enteroliths (stones) that cause colic and require surgery to remove them.
Drought weather is usually hot so your horse will sweat more, therefore, require salt and other minerals. Having a free choice mineral lick and a separate salt block or loose salt is a start, but adding minerals to their bucket feed is best to ensure each horse gets enough. If using licks, make sure you have enough available for a larger herd so that all horses can access them, otherwise, the lower herd members don’t get a chance to partake before the others move off.
If you are exercising your horse to a sweat, then you may also need to supplement with electrolytes and/or additional salt – up to 3 tablespoons per day depending on how hard you exercise, and how they tolerate the taste. Read more about the importance of salt here.
Remember also that shelter from the sun is very important in the dry summer months so ensure your horse has access to shade at all times. Watch that dominant horses aren’t hogging all the shade, especially when there’s only one shelter shed or shade tree.
Be very careful with rugs and if possible, don’t use them at all as the horse can then regulate their own temperature far better without them. Even cool cotton rugs can elevate a horse’s temperature as most are made from poly-cotton so the synthetic fibre content can trap heat.
To check if your horse is over-heating when rugged, take their temperature first thing in the morning when it’s cool then again during the hottest part of the day. Compare this with and without rugs on to see if there is a big difference or if the higher reading is outside the normal range. If it is, you are stressing your horse and should remove the rug/blanket.
There are many more things to consider during a drought, including the option of agisting/boarding your horse where there is feed or better water and shelter. You need to weigh up the positives and negatives in doing so and do what is best for the horse at all times.
And if you can help other horses that have been abandoned or neglected by their owners during tough times, please do so for the horse’s welfare.