Texans Ponder Drought's Long-Term Equine Impact

Drought conditions have been bearing down on Texas for more than a year. Now with little relief in sight, some rescue operators wonder how the persistent lack of rain will affect their missions and the future of the horse industry in that state.

According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions--an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that studies climate change and energy policy issues--Texas' 2011 drought represents the worst one-year dry spell since 1895. And though some rain has fallen in some parts of the state, Brian Fuchs, climatologist for the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, believes dry conditions in Texas are probably not likely to significantly abate soon.

"In the past 60 to 90 days parts of Texas have had some pretty decent rains and top soil moisture levels are increasing," Fuchs said. "Most of this relief has happened in northern Texas, but central and southern Texas have not seen this type of relief."

Fuchs said that predictions indicate drought conditions will continue in Texas through 2012. Some Texas A&M University climatologists speculate the drought could persist until 2020.

Jennifer Williams, PhD, president and executive director of Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society, in College Station, said the dismal long-term outlook is bad news for rescue operators, law enforcement agencies, and horse owners already overburdened by drought-connected animal care costs.

Williams said rescuers are increasingly bearing the brunt of drought-related horse care issues: spikes in hay and grain costs are forcing increasing numbers of hard-pressed owners to surrender their animals to rescuers. Other owners, she said, are simply not feeding their animals or are abandoning them altogether, leaving law enforcement agencies to rely on rescues to care for animals while cruelty cases are pending. As a result, Williams said the swelling number of horses and donkeys residing in rescues is stretching rescue finances to limit and threatening the agencies' ability to help horses in need.

"The situation is dire and getting worse," Williams said.

To cope, some rescue operators are making hard choices about how to use their increasingly limited resources. Mark Meyers, executive director of the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue in Miles, said the agency rescued 600 donkeys abandoned in central and eastern Texas in 2011, and has already taken in another 80 animals in 2012. In all, the agency is currently caring for 800 donkeys.

"We have had to defund projects and equipment upgrades in order to cover hay (costs)," Meyers said.

Meanwhile the Fort Worth-based Humane Society of North Texas took in 221 equines in 2011, and continues to take in about eight horses confiscated by law enforcement personnel each week, said Sandy Grambort, the agency's equine coordinator. A $15,000 grant from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Hay Bale Out Program, coupled with $5,000 more in support from local donors has helped the agency purchase hay. Some of those resources have been used to help local cash strapped horse owners feed their animals. But even with this kind of help, Grambort wonders just how long rescuers can continue to cope under pressure from an even longer lasting drought.

"The crisis can no longer be shouldered by the rescue community alone," Grambort said. "It will take the entire equine industry--rescues, breeders, competitors, and average horse owners--to get us through."

Williams agrees, but she worries that the persistent drought will irreparably damage Texas' horse community before any collaborative plan can be put into place.

"We're already seeing people take their horses out of the state because of the drought," Williams said. "If the drought continues through 2012 or beyond, I don't know what will become of the horse industry here."

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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