15 ways to prepare for extreme weather horsekeeping

When rain, drought or snow dominate the headlines, caring for horses can present some extra challenges. Here’s how to meet them.
Weather extremes, from tropical storms to blizzards, can directly affect the health and well-being of your horses.

Some weather we’ve been having, huh? Whether in the form of tropical storms, back-to- back blizzards or prolonged droughts, bad weather can make toting buckets, slogging out to pastures and other routine horse-keeping tasks a little—or a lot—harder. Of course, if you live in one geographic area long enough, you learn how to cope with its typical weather patterns. A horse owner in Minnesota can handle a two-foot winter snowfall just as easily as one in Florida can take in stride daily thunderstorms during the summer. But when unusually harsh or otherwise unexpected weather occurs, horsekeepers can end up scrambling.

Jenifer Nadeau, equine extension specialist with the University of Connecticut, has seen this firsthand. “Over the past few years,” she says, “many horse owners in Connecticut have struggled with extended power outages. They’ve had to buy back-up generators, haul water long distances, or lay in extra supplies prior to a big storm.” These are hard-earned lessons that take an emotional, financial and sometimes physical toll.

So take a few minutes to consider how you might handle the onset and aftermath of a severe weather event. How would you cope if you ran out of hay or were cut off from the main road for days on end? What if you lost power for several weeks? Simply asking these questions can foster creative thinking that may lead to a few changes in your current property and management routine that will pay off in a crisis.

To help you get started, here’s a quick look at three extreme weather scenarios and some suggestions for preparing to cope with them:

Tropical storms

The appearance of a tropical storm on weather maps makes every horse owner in its path worry, and rightfully so. Even if it never reaches hurricane strength, a tropical storm can be destructive and deadly. Begin your preparations when skies are clear so that when the weather turns dicey you’ll have less to worry about. Most of the following steps are good management practices in general:

1. Tend to your trees. Trim overhanging limbs and cut down unhealthy and weak trees that could damage structures and fences or block access to your driveway if they were to fall.

2. Repair hinges and gate latches. Worn hardware can break in high winds, allowing horses to escape. Periodically inspect all of the closures on your property and repair or replace faulty ones promptly. Likewise, try to get to repairs to fences, roofs and buildings without delay.

3. Organize your barn aisle. Keep the aisle clear of anything that could become a missile in high winds or impede an evacuation. This includes stall mucking tools, saddle racks and grooming kits.

4. Prepare for power outages. Headlamps offer a hands-free alternative to flashlights when working in the dark with horses. But it’s important to desensitize your horses to them ahead of time—some horses are spooked by a moving light. Also, consider installing a generator or at least acquiring a portable model so you can pump well water if the power goes out.

5. Establish an evacuation plan. Lay out how you will transport your horses and where you will take them. Be sure to account for contingencies, such as traffic or blocked routes. Keep an extra set of supplies in your trailer, including a first-aid kit, extra buckets, halters and lead ropes, along with copies of health papers and proof of ownership, such as photographic documentation of your horses and property.


Virtually every part of the country experiences a dry spell now and then, but droughts—a persistent shortage of precipitation or other water that lasts for weeks, months and even years—pose significant horsekeeping challenges. The shift in your priorities and the resulting changes in your management routine are likely to become the “new normal.” Here’s what that includes:

In drought conditions, be vigilant about monitoring horses for dehydration.

6. Protect the purity of the water you have. Check troughs daily to make sure your horse’s water is fresh and palatable. Algae can flourish in hot conditions and make your horse reluctant to drink. In particular, be on the lookout for blue-green algae, which can be toxic to horses and bloom in warm, shallow, stagnant water. Empty and scrub any tank that looks questionable. 

7. Be on watch for weeds. When pastures are stressed by drought, opportunistic weeds can flourish. Not only will they crowd out any grass that may be attempting to grow during a drought, but they can be a toxic hazard to hungry horses looking for something to chew on. Mow pastures regularly, even when growth of grass is slow, to keep weeds in check. And familiarize yourself with toxic plants in your area so you’ll recognize them if they appear.

8. Arrange for alternative forage. When pasture is sparse or nonexistent, you’ll need to provide the calories and “chew time” of roughage from another source. The easiest solution is to feed hay, although it can be difficult and pricey to find during a drought (see “When Hay Supplies Dwindle,” next page). Alternatives include a “complete feed” that provides nutritional roughage in a pellet form and alfalfa cubes, but these may not fulfill the urge to graze and chew, so your fences and trees might be targeted for gnawing. Talk with your veterinarian before making any significant changes in your horse’s diet.

9. Remain vigilant about dehydration. The unavailability of water—for any reason—is a significant risk factor for colic. Checking horses for dehydration is a good habit to have in general, but during drought conditions it becomes even more important. Young and old horses are especially susceptible to dehydration, as are pregnant mares. To check your horse’s hydration status, pinch a small fold of skin on the point of his shoulder and pull it away from his body slightly. Then release the skin; it should flatten out within two seconds. Any longer suggests dehydration and the need to immediately take steps to get your horse to drink.


With modern forecasting technology, heavy snowfalls and blizzards rarely surprise anyone. Typically, you’ll have at least a day or two to prepare for the event. If your barn has been sufficiently winterized and you’re used to cold weather, you might be in good shape already. If you’re unaccustomed to large snowfalls or if you haven’t had the opportunity to prepare for the season yet, you’ll need to spend that time making quick preparations. Here’s where to focus your efforts:

10. Evaluate the integrity of your farm buildings. Accumulated snow is extremely heavy, and some of the greatest losses to livestock from winter storms come from roofs collapsing in the days that follow. If you have any doubts about the strength of your structures, plan to have the horses weather the snowfall outdoors. With blankets, hay and the shelter offered by trees or a run-in shed, most horses will do just fine outdoors, even in the bitter cold.

11. Assess your feed and hay stock. Heavy snows wreak havoc on transportation, and getting more feed to your farm may be difficult or impossible for weeks. Make sure you have enough feed to last for at least two weeks and head to the feed store if you don’t. If your hayloft isn’t well stocked, start working the phones to see where you may be able to purchase a few bales. Be concerned about quality, however—moldy hay is worse than none at all. If you can’t find hay, check at the local feed store for alfalfa cubes or other forage substitutes. It will likely be more expensive, but a horse who goes without any roughage has a higher risk of colic and other health problems.

12. Have a plan for water. Horses can’t eat enough snow to stay hydrated, so you’ll need to be able to provide water, even through waist-deep drifts and when the power is out. Are your pipes insulated? Will you need a generator to keep your well water running? Can you store water in troughs, buckets or barrels and keep it from freezing? Develop a plan for ensuring your horses will never go without water. Many wintercolics result from dehydration.

13. Stock up on kitty litter. The nonclumping clay type is useful for traction on ice that forms around the barn. Rock salt works also but may burn animal paws, and the runoff can kill pasture plants.

14. Check your tractor. Make sure it is fully fueled and in good working order. You’ll need it as soon as the snow stops for clearing paths to and around the barn and possibly delivering hay and water to pasture-bound horses.

15. Identify a “turnout” space. If your horses will be kept in stalls during a large snowfall, you’ll want a space where you can turn them out or even just hand-walk them several times a day. Being cooped up in a stall isn’t good for a horse mentally or physically. Your blizzard “turnout” space might be an indoor arena with a structurally sound roof or simply the barn aisle, where you can lead the horse back and forth and do some simple groundwork until you are able to plow a path to his regular pasture.

For horsepeople, the weather is more than a universal conversation topic—it’s a constantly changing variable that has a direct influence on our daily routines. When the forecast calls for some clouds or light rain, we don’t need to change much, but when things take a turn for the extreme, we need to be prepared to take action. The payoff comes when sunny skies return and we are all safe and sound.

If you’re in an area with warming weather trends, diseases that were previously considered rare may suddenly appear on your radar. Recently, a pigeon fever outbreak in Missouri had veterinarians and disease specialists more than a little concerned.

Previously, cases of pigeon fever had been few and far between in the state, which has a continental climate— cold winters and hot and humid summers. Not ideal for pigeon fever. “Before the summer of 2012, I personally had seen only two confirmed cases in Missouri,” says Philip Johnson, BVSc, MS, MRCVS, DACVIM, of the University of Missouri.

“That summer we saw a handful of cases at the university teaching hospital and heard about many more in the field in Missouri.” Pigeon fever, caused by Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis, is most often seen in hot, dry climates like that of California, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas. Signs of the disease include painful swelling, abscesses and inflammation in the legs, chest and abdominal cavities. But the outbreak in Missouri wasn’t entirely a mystery.

“There was a severe drought that summer,” says Johnson, “followed by wet weather in the fall—these weather conditions are favorable to pigeon fever. I suspect this disease will be more common in Missouri and other Midwestern states from here on out.”

There is no vaccine for pigeon fever, but if spring and summer are becoming warmer in your area and mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects enjoy a longer active season, don’t be surprised if your veterinarian suggests adding one or two vaccines to your horse’s regimen. In addition to the “core” vaccinations—against tetanus, eastern/western equine encephalomyelitis, West Nile virus and rabies—that are recommended for all horses, your veterinarian may determine that your horse now needs protection against other viral or bacterial diseases.

And, of course, your veterinarian is your first and best resource when it comes to disease outbreaks in your area. Don’t rely on the rumor mill or social media for information. Consider bookmarking your state veterinarian’s office or your state department of agriculture to get accurate and up-to-date information. Another good resource is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at www.aphis.usda.gov.

When hay supplies dwindle

If you grow your own hay you already know that crops are sensitive to any type of extreme weather conditions. Too much rainfall and a crop rots on the ground. Too little rain stunts seed and leaf production, resulting in hay that is long-stemmed, coarse and has little nutritional value.

That’s what happened in the southern plains during the summer of 2011. A widespread drought left horse owners and livestock operations scrambling to find quality forage. But even those outside of the region felt the pinch. “The drought in the southern plains pulled hay from other areas of the country,” says Katelyn McCullock, dairy and forage economist with the Livestock Marketing Information Center, an organization that provides economic analysis for the livestock industry. “That left many states, even those not in the drought zone, with lower stocks than in previous years. Then again, the following summer, a more widespread drought centralized over the Midwest devastated hay production numbers and continued to pull hay from other areas of the country.”

But transporting hay across the country is expensive, and that created a secondary problem—sky-high prices. “As anyone who has ever moved a few hundred bales into the hayloft knows, hay is heavy, bulky and difficult to handle,” says McCullock. “The cost of transportation is a huge problem, and prices were much higher for even lower quality grades.” As McCullock points out, “it was the perfect storm for record high hay prices.”

Here are a few guidelines that can help you minimize your own risk of running short on hay in the aftermath of drought: 

• Find a local farmer who supplies good-quality hay and stay loyal to him. If supplies run short, growers tend to take care of their most loyal customers first. And if your regular source does run out, he’s more likely to put you in touch with another grower who can get you by in the short term. 

• Store more hay than you think you need. Providing you store and stack hay properly, it’ll retain most of its nutritional value for a year or more.

• Use slow feeders to stretch your hay supply. Horses consume anywhere from 15 to 25 pounds of roughage per day, depending on their size, activity level, age and breeding status. But slowing them down a little can satisfy their nutritional needs with less waste. 

• Consider alternative forages if supplies run short. One option is complete feed pellets, which are formulated to meet a horse’s roughage needs. Hay cubes—either alfalfa or a timothy/alfalfa mix—are also worth considering. But horses with dental issues may have trouble chewing them, so be prepared to soak them in water to prevent choke. 

• Keep track of hay supplies and shortages. Your state department of agriculture is a good source for what’s going on. Other options include your county extension office or the U.S. Department of Agriculture-sponsored www. fsa.usda.gov/haynet when local sources run low.

Growing zones and laminitis risk

The warming trends of the past decades don’t just mean unusual weather events. There’s another consequence that is more subtle but has significant implications for equine health: a change in the growing seasons.

The latest version of the U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone map, released in 2012, shows that all the plant zones have shifted north.

Based on average annual minimum winter temperatures, the map helps gardeners and other growers determine which plants will grow well in their region. The 2012 edition was based on an analysis of winter temperatures for the period 1976 to 2005, updating a 1990 version of the map, which covered 1974 to 1986.

This change in zones means that some northern areas now have longer growing seasons, which in turn extends the risk period for pasture-induced laminitis.

Many grasses grow as long as the temperature stays above about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If your horse is prone to pasture laminitis, it’s no longer enough to judge your horse’s risk based solely on the calendar. Instead, pay close attention to the weather patterns and growth of your fields. Growth that used to be expected in late April, for instance, may occur in mid-March under warmer conditions. Similarly, grasses may grow later into the fall.

This warming trend doesn’t appear to be reversing itself anytime soon, so these adjusted risk periods for laminitis are probably here to stay.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #444.

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