Drought Slams Horse Owners, Rescuers as Hay Costs Soar

Waldo Canyon Wildfire
The Waldo Canyon fire out of control in Colorado Springs. "We knew it was probably a wise move for us to get out the way," said Front Range founder and president Hilary Wood. Photographer: E. Slizowski via Bloomberg

Although his 80-acre Indiana Horse Rescue in the state’s southwestern region is in the grip of drought, Tony Caldwell doesn’t have it too bad. He’s close enough to the Ohio River to partly offset the brutally dry summer of 2012.

“Our alfalfa hay is really good,” he said, before acknowledging that this year’s harvest still could be only half its usual yield.

I spoke with Caldwell and a number of other horse-rescue organizations around the country by telephone this week. The relentlessly hot dry weather, amplified in many areas by wildfire, has been devastating to farmers, ranchers and other horse owners.

“Everybody is using their winter hay now. The pastures are destroyed and they probably won’t recover before winter,” said Caldwell. “The price of hay has doubled, and the availability is down by 75 percent.”

Caldwell is somewhat sanguine about his own lot, but not optimistic about what lies ahead.

“Today the problem is not nearly as bad as it’s going to be,” he told me. “It’s terribly bad today, but it is going to get a lot worse.”

The drought in North America extends from Ohio to California, from Mexico to North Dakota. By August, more than half of the U.S. was baking in moderate drought, with 20 percent desiccated by extreme or exceptional drought. Fires have been rampant.

Barns Burned

“Because of the fires we have fields burned, barns burned down, horses being injured,” said Niki Dawson, director of Disaster Services for the Humane Society of the U.S. “Owners need assistance to cover medical bills, and we don’t want their first reaction to be to relinquish” their horses.

Dawson said her organization has donated 80,000 pounds of hay to horse and cattle owners in Utah and Montana. People in need can apply for grants via the Humane Society’s website.

“It’s been a rough couple of summers,” said Cynthia Armstrong, director of the Humane Society’s branch in Oklahoma, a state torched by drought and wildfires. “The heat has dried up the pastures, and this year we have added to the heat extreme fire dangers.”

Besides food shortages and fire there are other health threats. “It’s very important to keep these animals hydrated. Heat stroke is very serious and requires immediate medical attention,” she said.

Harm’s Way

The Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado ignited on June 23, torching tens of thousands of acres and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Along with some 32,000 people forced to evacuate their homes, Front Range Equine Rescue near Colorado Springs had to move a couple dozen horses out of harm’s way.

“When the fire was out of control, we could see all the smoke blowing toward us,” said Front Range founder and president Hilary Wood. “We knew it was probably a wise move for us to get out the way.”

As horrific as that experience was, the more serious concern is feeding the animals.

“The biggest issue is this hay situation,” said Wood. “If Colorado doesn’t have hay, you can’t look to your neighbors,” because the drought and fires are a nationwide crisis. “China is buying up a lot of hay, and that’s creating another problem.”

One of Wood’s neighbors is the Zuma Rescue Ranch, also in Douglas County. “Last year we were rescuing horses because of drought in other places,” says Jodi Messenich, Zuma’s founder and executive director. “This year we have our very own drought.”

Rescue Calls

The strain on organizations that help horse owners has been intense. “I’m accustomed to getting about one call a week,” said Messenich. “Now I’m getting multiple calls a day.”

Messenich said horses’ health problems are amplified by the extensive fires. “Because of the smoke we’re seeing upper respiratory problems. We’ve seen illness we usually don’t see, especially in younger horses, like heaves,” a chronic condition similar to asthma in humans. “The medical bills stretch a nonprofit’s budget.”

Horse rescues around the country need extra help, and will need it through winter -- at least. You can donate to any of the organizations mentioned here via their websites or Facebook pages.

(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include James S. Russell on architecture, Jeffrey Burke on books.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE