Managing and feeding horses during drought: Drought conditions in various parts of Australia have coupled with the arrival of the non-growing (winter) season. Grass has turned yellow or brown and the pastures are being eaten down with only bare soils left. If you are lucky to live in a higher rainfall area, you may still have some ‘standing hay’ or even green grass, however, the effects of the drought is likely to impact all of us in various ways.

In the last issue (May-June 2019), we focused on various strategies for drought-proofing your farm, but obviously, when the grass is not growing or there is very little, you will have to supplement to keep those equine guts happy.

Horse owners still need to ensure their horses are consuming at least 1.5% of their bodyweight in forage every day. Consumption of grass, hay and other forage fulfills both physical and psychological needs. If quality forages are hard to find or very expensive, you can consider alternative forage sources.

Let’s explore some ideas and options that you can add to the feeding regime and management of your horses during a long period of drought.

Working around increased feed prices

Just think of the hard-feeds you buy at the produce store. They are made with ingredients grown in rural Australia, where drought-affected harvests have yielded fewer supplies and resulted in higher prices. Feed companies have to increase their pricing to compensate for these extra costs.

Ultimately, the effect of increased feed costs is definitely felt the most by horse and livestock owners in the affected areas, where both roughage and commercial feed prices have gone up. Compared with five years ago, there’s been at least a three- to even ten-fold increase in roughage prices! Let’s look at some strategies to help you through the tough times.

Extending your horses’ grazing time and protecting your soils

This may sound obvious, but where possible, you want to make sure that you have explored all the options to keep you horses on pasture for as long as there is grass availability.

Planning ahead

Extending your horses’ grazing time should start much earlier, when you are still in the growing season (spring/summer time).

Grazing management and planning is aimed at maintaining grass cover and keeping grasses at a certain height so you have some ‘standing hay’ left for the winter period.

Subdividing your paddocks allows you to manage pasture availability as you can rotate your animals and rest pastures (and soil) to speed-up new growth and recovery when the rains return.

Rotation should still continue during the non-growing period, but you move animals less frequently when pastures do not grow or grow very little (slow growth = slow moves).

If despite all your efforts you have no paddocks with pasture left, you may be able to utilise grazing areas and strips that you normally do not use.

These could be the shared riparian areas, grasslands or council lands that are adjoining your property. Using mobile fencing you can create a new section to extend your horse’s grazing time.

If you intend to graze animals in tree lane ways or riparian areas with vegetation, check that your horses don’t damage established trees (especially by ring-barking) and shrubs. During drought periods, you may have to graze these areas for a few hours per day only, but it still adds fibre to your horses. diet.

Some owners may have the opportunity to use or lease paddocks from neighbours or elsewhere in their region. Just make sure you check all of the options.

Minimising sand and dirt ingestion

Another reason to avoid turning paddocks into drylots with limited grass cover is that it exposes your horses to ingesting dirt and sand.

During drought times and in these drylots, horses will eat sand and dirt from grazing much closer to ground due to reduced leaf area. If you are dealing with bare ground, it’s best to prepare an area with some special footing and mats to reduce excess intake of dirt and sand and use it feeding roughage.

If you are concerned about sand and dirt accumulation in your horse’s gut, the best way to clear it is to feed lots of roughage such as hay. But of course, this isn’t always possible during a drought.

An alternative and also very effective way of clearing sand is to feed psyllium husk.

Psyllium husks are high-fibre portions of the seeds of the psyllium plant (Plantago ovate), which are native to India and Pakistan. Psyllium husks are a laxative and have the ability to swell, capture and move sand out of the digestive tract with the manure.

How much psyllium? You have to feed – per day – about 50 grams per 100 kg bodyweight and for approximately five days. The husks have to be fed in a single meal. You can then check the sand/dirt levels in your horse’s manure by collecting some and dropping into a bucket of water. If you let it sit for some time, the dirt and sand will be left in the bottom of the bucket.

Weeds and toxic secondary compounds

Overgrazing pastures in drought conditions can cause the plants to dry up or go dormant giving way to less-desirable plants and weeds containing toxic secondary compounds. Common weeds that follow the drought include Capeweed, erodium, dock and thistles.

Weeds with deep tap roots may prosper longer than grasses with a relatively shallow root system. Under poor pasture conditions, your horses will be hungrier and more likely to eat weeds or toxic plants they would normally avoid.

To discourage horses from eating something they shouldn’t, you have to provide enough pasture/fibre substitutes such as hay or alternatives.

On overgrazed and stressed pastures, always be very careful when the drought breaks – with the first rain – as the weeds will accumulate in large quantities.

It is important to keep horses off these areas, slash and manage the paddocks before returning the horses to them. In the next edition I will provide some tips on how to manage your horses and pastures when the drought breaks.

Alternative sources of hay and chaff

When your quality roughages such as grassy hay and lucerne hay are more difficult to get or getting too expensive, the option is to mix roughages.

The following options are suitable hay and chaff sources:

  • Oaten hay/chaff, Barley hay/ chaff, and triticale hay/chaff (this is a cross between wheat (Triticum) and rye (Secale)) and rye hay/chaff.
  • Straw types such as wheaten, barley and pea straw.
  • Different hay types such as teff hay, vetch hay, canola hay, sugarcane hay and pea hay.
  • Some millet hays such as Foxtail or German millet can also be used as horse forage.
  • Ensiled forages such as grasses and legume haylage or silage.

Do your research before sourcing and feeding, as not all types may be suitable for your situation and your horses! Not all alternatives can be used as a full grass or lucerne replacement either, so keep this in mind when you consider the type of roughage and the amounts you can feed.

Download the e-book (pdf) table of alternative forages at the end of this article, below.

Often, these alternative options have a lower digestibility and quality.

Some of these forages are higher in sugar and are not suitable for horses and ponies with metabolic conditions.

C4 plant forages are typically high in oxalates, which means that you will have to balance the calcium intake with a supplement.

The general advice is to feed smaller amounts of a variety of forages, which makes it also a good sensory experience for your horses!

There are also forages that you should avoid feeding to horses, such as sorghum hay, lupin hay and red clover hay.

These forages contain secondary compounds that are poisonous to horses and can cause various disorders such as nerve, respiratory and liver damage.

Other fibre sources and feedstuffs

Other types of roughage can be hay cubes or pellets, hulls and other fibre foods. These are not used as a full replacement of traditional (long-stem)roughages, but as a supplement to the diet to increase fibre intake during drought times.

Some of these products can be added to the diet to provide enough fibre.

Hay cubes or pellets are a common fibre source in the northern hemisphere and are now also getting some traction here in Australia.

Hay cubes are made by compressing hay into small square blocks or pellets (5–4 square centimeters).

Most hay cubes are made from lucerne or meadow hay. Cubes can be used effectively when certain classes of horses need supplemented feed or when conditions are less than ideal for feeding grain mixes. It has been reported that horses may choke on the cubes; therefore, it is important to dampen the cubes prior to feeding if your horse tends to eat quickly.

The most common hulls and seed coats used are oats, rice, sunflower seeds, and soy beans. These are low in energy and high in fibre. You can add them to the concentrate/grain mix to replace cereal chaff. Hulls and seed coats can be dusty — so dampen the products prior to feeding.

Other fibre sources that you can feed to horses include copra meal, rice bran, and beet pulp. These products are mixed into the feed ration of your horse and should not be fed as a replacement of roughage.
Check the nutrient profile of these products before using, because they vary in energy, protein, fat, and non-structural carbohydrate levels.

Fresh fodder options

Fresh fodder such as barley and legume sprouts can be good additions to your horse’s diet during winter and drought.

There are commercially designed hydroponic fodder systems on the market specifically developed to sprout grain and legume seeds to feed livestock and horses.

A selection of grains and legume seeds is spread onto the specialised growing trays and are watered at pre-determined intervals with overhead sprays. A set temperature is maintained inside the chamber to ensure the best growth.

Each day you take feed out of the trays, rinse the tray, reseed and push the newly seeded tray into the other end.

The system holds enough trays so your desired amount of feed is available everyday. The sprouts grow in sprouting trays with no growing medium. Feed quality barley germinates within 24 hours of seeding. The barley grows in the same tray for six-days and is ready for harvest as a 15 to 20 cms high grass mat.

Keep in mind that the sprouts are high in water and low in fibre, so you still need to add roughage if you do not have enough pasture for your horses.

Setting up the system will entail costs, and the seeds will require ongoing management and water.

Fodder trees and shrubs

Trees and shrubs can potentially supplement the quantity and quality of pastures for grazing horses and reduce feeding cost of roughage. They can function as a substitute when there is seasonal shortage or risk of drought.

There are various trees and shrubs that been reported to be browsed by horses with no obvious clinical signs of toxicity such as Tagasaste, Kurrajong, Beech, Birch, Acacia species, Casuarinas, Willow, Carob tree, Mulberry, Moringa tree, some species of gum trees, etc.

The leaves, stems, pods and fruits of trees and shrubs can be used as a supplement to their other feed.

Tree and shrub fodder as a sole diet is not suitable for horses! Moreover, like with many other feed products, gradually introduce you horse to the fodder and don’t over feed.

Forage trees and shrubs must have nutritive value to be useful as forage. Tree and shrub forage have been primarily used as feed for ruminants, although there are some reports of their inclusion in the diet of non-ruminants (poultry, pigs, and horse).

To date, there is not much known about the feed value and palatability of tree and shrub forage for horses. Most of the reports on plants and trees focus on the toxicity for horses.

When selecting forage trees and shrubs you must take into account that you may find limited information about the use of trees and shrubs for horses, moreover there are many contradictions in the literature regarding the acceptability of fodder from trees and shrubs.

This may be explained by the following aspects:

  • Acceptability can change during the year. Animals may select only young leaves. For example, as the leaves mature, the levels of secondary compounds may increase and the animals may not like the taste of the leaves anymore.
  • In some cases it may take some time for animals to accept a new feed, but once accustomed they may consume it readily.
  • Preference for one feed over another does not mean that they will not eat it when the choice/ pasture is limited.
  • Within a single species, differences can exist between varieties, individual trees and even between different parts of the same tree. Acceptability can be influenced by the local climate and soil conditions.
  • There is limited information about the nutritive value, palatability and toxicity of various parts of plants for horses.

If you have trees and shrubs on your property that you have seen your horses browse on, and can potentially feed to your horses, the best method is to cut and carry branches to your horse paddocks, rather than allowing your horses to browse freely in the tree sections. Especially during drought, horses may cause damage or kill the trees by ring barking or could overeat on the trees and shrubs.

Early in the non-growing period, you may still have some leaves on deciduous trees, but as the winter progresses those will drop and you will have to rely more on evergreens. Keep this in mind if you are intending to plant your fodder system for future use!

Concentrates and supplements

It is important that you aim for at least 1.5% of your horse’s bodyweight in forage/ fibre sources every day. However, when you substitute quality forages for lower quality ones, you may need to add some concentrates and/or supplements.

The amounts and type of additional feedstuffs will largely depend on the nutritional requirements of your horse.

Horses that are young, breeding, working or older often require supplementation.

Feed stuffs such as grains, oils/fats (rice bran, canola) and protein sources (soybean meal, lupins, faba beans, canola meal, cottonseed meal) can be added to increase the energy and protein levels in the diet of your horses.

Mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be required when feeding horses with lower quality feeds or during dry pasture conditions.

Generally, the two major minerals that need additional supplementation during drought are calcium and sodium.

Calcium can be deficient when diets consist mainly of cereal grain/hays and when feeding C4 (tropical) grass hays such as millet hays.

Sodium is easily added to the diet either directly by supplementing the feed or by providing a salt lick block.

Some trace-minerals and two vitamins, A and E, can be deficient as a direct result of drought feeding.

Vitamin A is stored in the liver and is obtained from green pasture and quality hay. Even small amounts of pasture will supply adequate quantities of Vitamin A.

Youngstock can experience deficiencies when they have been without green pasture or green hay for periods greater than six months.

Grains and hays tend to be good sources of Vitamin E, although considerable variation does occur. It is therefore recommended to add mineral and vitamin supplement during these times.


Feeding your horses in a drought can be a great source of anxiety and stress. Unfortunately, periodic drought is a way of life here in Australia and when pastures dry up and hay stores dwindle, the remaining options for feeding horses can become costly.

It is, therefore, crucial that you prepare for drought long before pastures wither and hay supplies dwindle.

Care for your pastures and rotate your horses so that you have some leaf area left for the drier/winter months.

Harvesting your own hay, or buying hay early, while the growing season is still in full swing, allows you to save money and reduces the stress of finding sources.

If you end up in a situation that you have to find other forage and fibre sources, do some research to find out what is available in your area and suitable to feed to horses. Your horses may first turn their noses when they first get something new, but allow them to adapt and feed their regular/preferred forages with something new. This also ensures that you do not upset their digestive system.

Regardless of the fodder type you choose, always make sure it is clean and free of mould. If the hay is dusty, it should be dampened down prior to feeding.

Keep in mind that all these different types of hay will affect what else you need to feed to keep diets balanced and meeting requirements.

In the next issue (September-October 2019), I will talk about managing your horses and pastures when the drought (finally) breaks.

Download the table of alternative forages as an e-book (pdf file) using the link below.

[wpdm_package id=’45280′]