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Our Horses and The Drought

How can we keep our horses’ health safe during the California drought? Here are some tips.

The drought here in California is tough on everyone, even our horses. So it’s incredibly important that we watch them closely and keep an eye out for signs of problems. On April 2, 2015, veterinarian Doug Thal outlined some ways to manage your horses in his article entitled, “Managing Horses During Drought,” on Here are some of the highlights:


Since horses exercise naturally as they graze, if the ground is dry with very little green pasture, horses tend to exercise less and instead wait in the shade for feeding time. These horses are more inclined to have gastrointestinal problems that can lead to colic. So, Dr. Thal recommends feeding horses a generous amount of a bland (such as long-stem) grass hay to keep them eating and occupied during the day.  When moisture finally returns, it is important to moderate horses’ access to rapidly changing pasture, so their systems can readjust to green grass.


Drought conditions reduce hay supplies and makes it difficult for owners to maintain consistent hay diets for their horses. If you can’t maintain a consistent hay type, source, and quality, gradually reduce the amount of the old batch you feed, mixing it with an increasing amount of the new hay (over three to five days) to ease the transition. Dr. Thal advises that when purchasing hay from a new source, always examine it carefully for mold, dust, weeds, blister beetles, and sharp seed awns.

Toxic Plants

During drought conditions, toxic weeds might be the only green plants on pasture and horses are more likely to eat them. The best way to prevent this is to provide more consistent access to good-quality hay.

Sand Colic

According to Dr. Thal, “Horses tend to ingest more dirt and sand when pastured in drought conditions as they try to graze the last few short shoots and roots. Sand accumulation in the gut is a serious problem that can lead to colic and diarrhea. Reduce sand ingestion by feeding off the ground or feeding in sand-free areas of the pasture. This sometimes requires more than simply using a feeder, as hay usually still falls on the ground and is picked out of the soil. Consider placing rubber mats under feeders or feeding in stalls without sandy floors. Feeding a psyllium product regularly (usually one week per month) can also be beneficial, but it should complement these other management practices–don’t rely on it alone. Also, rotate pastures to avoid overgrazing and to help keep drought-stressed grasses alive. This will preserve some ground cover, thus reducing wind and water erosion and soil loss later.”


Monitor water quality in these situations and provide extra fresh water. If horses are housed in large groups, offer plenty of room for watering and feeding because injuries can occur as horses compete for limited watering and feeding areas.


Also take into account wind; blowing dust can irritate eyes and cause respiratory problems. Dr. Thal suggests getting fly masks to provide protection from insects and some of them can also help protect from intense sunlight and dust. Adequate shelter and clean bedding can also help horses avoid airborne dust.


Certain diseases such as pigeon fever (dryland distemper), vesicular stomatitis, and Rhodococcus equi pneumonia in foals can be more common in dry, hot, and dusty conditions. Know these diseases’ clinical signs so you can contact your vet immediately if you see signs develop.