LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The Double R Horse Rescue looks different in drought: There's little but stubble in the pastures and a chain and padlock on the gate.
The owner began locking up the property last month in an effort to keep people from driving up at night and dropping off horses they can no longer afford to feed.
Horse rescue groups nationwide have been struggling to care for a growing number of animals abandoned since the Great Recession hit more than four years ago, but leaders say their work has become even more difficult and expensive this summer as drought and wildfires burned up pastures and sent hay prices skyrocketing. Many people who held on to their horses in the downturn are now letting them go because they can't find or afford feed that has more than doubled in price.
Jami Salter is caring for 15 horses at the Double R Horse Rescue in Riverdale, about 150 miles west of Omaha, and she said that's all she can handle. But she's still getting three or four calls a week from people asking her to take their horses, and at one point, people were abandoning one or two animals a week.
"People would just drop horses off without asking me," Salter said. "Every morning, I went out to water them, and I'd have more horses than the day before."
Most farmers and ranchers have had trouble growing hay this year because of the drought that stretches from Ohio west to California. Salter said a company that donates to her rescue got 46 bales last year from a 22-acre plot but this year expects only six or seven. Recent wildfires in northern Nebraska have added to the shortage, forcing ranchers to choose between feeding their horses and more profitable cattle.
Salter said she paid roughly $110 last year for a bale that weighed 1,200 to 1,500 pounds. This year, the price is about $260, and it takes seven or eight bales each week to feed the horses in her care.
Gov. Dave Heineman tried to help by allowing farmers to cut hay growing along roads earlier than usual, but Salter said that didn't do much for her. Her property has seen less than an inch of rain since May, and grass isn't even growing in roadside ditches.
Roger Kavan also has stopped accepting new horses at the Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue, an 80-acre sanctuary about 90 miles southeast of Denver. He has 20 horses already and said he's still getting one to three calls a day.
Meanwhile, horse adoptions — the rescue's main source of income — have fallen off as people become more reluctant to take on the expense. Kavan is paying nearly $7,100 per semi load of hay, up from $3,800 last year.
"We could take the easy way out, take them to auction and let the killer-buyers pick them up and wash our hands of it," Kavan said, referring to people who buy horses in the United States for slaughter overseas. "But we'll never do that. We're going down with the ship."
Advocates say no one tracks how many horses are abandoned, but the Washington, D.C.-based Unwanted Horse Coalition estimated the number at 170,000 to 180,000 per year in a 2009 report. Continued...