Feeding the Evacuated Horse

Feeding the Evacuated Horse

When told to evacuate do your best to do so, and do it early. Try to take with you enough feed and water for each horse to last at least several days, preferably more.


Natural disasters take many forms. From wild fires to earthquakes, tornadoes to hurricanes, the United States sees its fair share. Currently areas of the United States are faced with the devastation left from the raging fires in the western states and hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, respectively, and surrounding areas. These terrifying events have resulted in the emergency evacuation of many horses, while other horses have remained in place and whose owners now face an unrecognizable landscape.

We know we should make changes in our horse’s diets slowly, but when natural disasters occur that’s not always possible. The problem with natural disasters is their unpredictability. You have no idea for how long you will be evacuated for and what will remain when you return. Will your hay barn with winter’s stock still be there? Will you still have fencing and be able to turn your horse out as normal? Perhaps your barn will be gone and you’ll have to turn him out, possibly with other unfamiliar horses. What about the feed store? Will it still be operational and will feed be easily available? All these are unknowns. What results is a scenario where you just do the best you can.

Here are some things to consider when faced with an approaching natural disaster or in the aftermath of such an event.

Evacuate Early

When told to evacuate do your best to do so, and do it early. Try to take with you enough feed and water for each horse to last at least several days, preferably more. This will enable you to feed your horse as you do currently, and if the situation dictates that feed changes will need to be made you have enough current feed to slowly transition to something new. The same is true if you decide to shelter in place. Don’t forget about water even when sheltering in place. Remember that if you are on a system that requires a pump but power goes out, you won’t have water until it’s restored. Horses need 5 to 12 gallons of water per day per 1,000 pounds of body weight, more if they’re lactating.

Caring for Horses You Don’t Know

If you find yourself in a situation where you are caring for evacuated horses or horses that were caught up in the disaster, and you aren’t sure what to feed, plenty of grass hay is generally the best place to start. When housing groups of unfamiliar horses together remember to always put out more piles of hay than horses and place the piles at least 20 feet apart, outside of kicking range.

If Hay and Feed Supplies are Limited

You might not be able to get the same type of hay you normally feed and, as the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers. Try to get something similar if you can—for example another type of grass hay if your horse usually eats grass hay—and know that ultimately, you might not have a choice. Feeding a good pre- or probiotic product might benefit your horse if you can find one. Look for one that contains yeast such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, some strains of which have been shown to provide a more stable hindgut environment, maximize digestion of feed, and might also help support immune response.

Sudden changes of location and feed, especially if combined with travel are stressful for your horse and increase the risk of developing equine gastric ulcers. In consultation with your veterinarian, you might consider administering preventive gastric ulcer medication during a natural disaster and in the days that follow.

If hay is in short supply you still have some options. Ideally try to find another source of forage with which to replace some of the hay. Hay pellets, soaked beet pulp, and commercial feeds labeled as complete feeds are all possibilities. However, if these aren’t readily available you might be faced with the tough decision of reducing the horse’s feed intake. This might result in weight loss. Clearly this is not ideal but if the reality of the situation is that you are looking at a finite amount of hay with no clear way to replenish it you might have to take measures to stretch it by feeding less each day to make it last until more can be found.

If you’re managing this scenario with multiple horses, assess each horse’s body condition and reduce feed intake to those horses with the most condition first. Try not to cut back hay significantly all at once, and always make sure that you are feeding a minimum of 1% of the horse’s body weight per day as forage.

Remember that if you have a horse in work that typically gets additional calories from grain and you’ll not be working the horse during this period, so you might need to reduce grain intake.

Advice From Those With Evacuation Experience

In speaking with owners who have experience evacuating from natural disasters they all stress the importance of bringing more feed than you think you’ll need. Label everything—halters, buckets, feed, etc.—and have clear feeding instructions written in large text that can be read in poor light by volunteers who might need to care for your horse if you’re not able to stay with him. Many areas have never tested their emergency response plan with a real natural disaster before, which means that problems are very likely to occur. Most evacuation sites are manned by volunteers and are often overwhelmed by the sheer number of people and animals trying to relocate. Expect chaos and try to remain calm and patient.

The above recommendations are all ideal scenarios. In reality many people facing evacuation, especially from wildfire—which can occur very rapidly—don’t have time to do more than load up and leave. Make safe shelter your No. 1 priority, but if you have the time to do more you’ll be very glad that you made the extra effort. 

If you have experience managing horses through a natural disaster and have words of wisdom to share with others who might currently be going through such an experience please consider leaving a comment below.

About the Author

Clair Thunes, PhD

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an independent equine nutrition consultant who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Sacramento, California. She works with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the United Kingdom Pony Club. Today, she serves as the regional supervisor for the Sierra Pacific region of the United States Pony Clubs. As a nutritionist she works with all horses, from WEG competitors to Miniature Donkeys and everything in between.

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