Desert Horse-Keeping

Combat challenges that come with caring for horses in arid climates.

Horse owners in cold, wet climates dread the springtime rain and mud that eventually breathe a rainbow of life back into their barren winter landscapes. But those residing where sun-and-saguaro, 100-degree heat is the norm deal with an entirely different set of challenges. By May, the rains—if they’ve materialized at all—have pretty much vaporized, paving the way for months of sun-baked soil and parched vegetation.

Yet not all desert is equal. Higher-elevation desert (think inland Northwest and Great Plains) deals with temperatures just as cold as—or colder than—those back east and down south. Large areas of the United States fall into the desert category, which is loosely defined as areas receiving less than 12 inches of rain per year.

Many problems beset the desert horse owner: How can you protect your horse from strength-sapping heat and dehydration? How can you maintain quality pasture and conserve natural resources? How can you guard against sunburn- and cancer-causing ultraviolet (UV) rays and the diseases and dangers that threaten in bone-dry conditions?

Hydrate While Conserving Water

Probably the most obvious challenge in desert areas is making sure your horse has an adequate supply of fresh, clean water at all times. The desert’s intense heat can quickly compromise a horse’s hydration, so automatic waterers in turnouts are an obvious solution. But remember that anything mechanical can fail, so whether you use these or simple buckets or a trough, you’ll need to keep vigilant watch to be sure they’re in working order at all times—in both hot and cold weather.

“Automatic systems conserve water because they only use as much water as your horse can drink,” says Alayne Blickle, of Nampa, Idaho, an educator who works with horse owners on land management and horse-keeping practices and the creator and director of Horses for Clean Water. Also, she says, because the water in automatic systems circulates rather than standing stagnant, you’ll avoid providing a breeding area for mosquitoes that can carry West Nile virus and other pathogens.

Blickle recommends insulated models to keep water cooler in summer and prevent freezing in winter and models with moderately sized pans that won’t accumulate as much dirt and algae as larger bowls, thus saving water and time during the cleaning process.

Another way you can conserve water is by capturing roof runoff—though it can be a rarity—and divert it to stock tanks. “You can do this using existing gutter equipment or design something yourself,” she says, adding that rain barrels and cisterns are additional ways to conserve water, both for stock watering and irrigation.

Preserve Your Pasture

Horses naturally graze most of the day, so unless you buy and feed baled hay (and ideally, even if you do), you’ll need to maintain pasture that can provide part, if not all, of your horse’s nutritional needs. Consult with your local extension agent to learn what grasses do well in your area and what it takes to grow them. Some factors to consider when selecting pasture forage are:

  • Soil type
  • Existing grass type
  • Annual rainfall
  • Days of sunlight per year
  • Temperature range in your area
  • Pasture size and horse stocking density
  • Traffic (Is it a forage or an exercise area?)

Blickle says that although the desert might seem harsh, it’s truly a fragile environment that must not be overgrazed. “Restoring damaged habitat can take years and years, or (the land can) even be irreparable,” she says.

It’s tempting to put your horses out when rainfall is more plentiful and grass more lush, but, she advises, “overgrazing compromises your grasses’ health; overgrazed plants aren’t as vigorous and experience a lot of die-off and invasion by weedy species. You end up with bare, compacted soil that leads to more dust and erosion from wind and rain. And runoff—soil and nutrients—ends up in streams, lakes, and rivers, damaging fish habitats as well.”

To save your pasture from overgrazing, Blickle recommends creating a sacrifice area—a small enclosure that serves as your horse’s living quarters for part of the year. “There are two critical points when grass plants need a break from your horses,” she says, “during the winter when grass is dormant (not actively growing, so unable to survive continuous grazing and trampling) and during the growing season when grass has been grazed below 3 inches tall.

“Your sacrifice area should be large enough to allow your horse to exercise and will be governed by the amount of space you have available and the number, ages, and temperaments of all the horses you house,” Blickle continues.

For efficiency, she advises keeping your sacrifice area near the barn for ease of care and access. “Locate your sacrifice area on high, dry, well-drained ground. Install gutters and downspouts to divert rainwater (from its surface), and provide footing such as gravel or chipped wood that allow water to percolate through the soil.

“A slight slope will help with drainage, but too much of a slope will create an erosion problem,” she adds. If possible, “surround your paddock with grassy areas for a natural filtration effect, and prevent water pollution by keeping at least 100 feet, if possible, between your sacrifice area and any water bodies or ditches. Also, remove manure often to reduce your horse’s parasite load and reduce insect breeding areas.”

Irrigation system

Irrigation Options

If you want your horse to have access to grass in his pastures, chances are you will need to find a way to provide the forage-sustaining water that the desert cannot. Josh Davy, MS, a University of California Extension advisor based in Red Bluff says desert farm owners can choose from several pasture irrigation systems:

Sprinklers consist of wheel lines, hand-moved lines, or newer hose-based systems that you can move around using a tractor or all-terrain vehicle. They require little or no surface preparation, but you’ll need to purchase and install sprinkler pipe and heads, and you must shoulder the energy cost of pressurizing the system when applying water. The sprinkler systems that must be moved periodically involve more labor. Sprinklers might require protective barriers to prevent damage from—and to—running, playing horses and can provide uneven coverage in windy conditions.

Flood systems are closely spaced irrigation channels that carry water from its source to the pasture’s slightly lower opposite side. Flood systems require a great deal of land preparation (leveling and grading to a slope of 0.1 to 0.4 feet of drop per 100 feet of length). But once the prep work is complete, capital, maintenance, and labor costs are low in subsequent years.

Underground systems are buried water-carrying “tapes” with filter-containing emitters that deliver water evenly and continuously whenever you turn on the system. Although ground preparation, purchase, and installation expenses are high, labor required to operate these systems is low.

Susan Hunter of Hunter Creek Farm, a 57-acre mare foaling operation in Roswell, New Mexico, says she started out with sprinklers, but high winds interfered with even coverage.

So she opted to install an underground system with 1 ½-inch-wide tapes buried a foot deep every 40 inches. Each tape has inch-long emitters every 18 inches with elaborate filter systems to keep out dirt. “It’s divided into zones on a 12-hour cycle,” Hunter says. “I leave it on two to three weeks at a time, depending on how hot it is. It’s the best option I had.”

While an abundance of water might not seem like it would make the shortlist of problems desert-dwelling horse owners dread, Hunter decided against a flood system because she didn’t want her mares walking around in the wet (although a sacrifice area, stall, or drylot would make that option viable).

“I often see problems with too-wet feet, which adversely affects hoof quality,” says Wendy Krebs, DVM, of Bend Equine Medical Center, in Oregon. She advises keeping horses off irrigated fields at least part of the day to combat that problem.

On the other hand, in nonirrigated desert Blickle says hoof dryness isn’t usually an issue: “Just south of here, wild horses live on their own and thrive and do quite well in the naturally dry conditions.”

Krebs agrees. “I don’t really diagnose overly dry hooves,” she says. “Hooves that crack are usually from poor nutrition or sometimes poor genetics. Bruising happens, of course, but more often on soft feet than on nice hard, dry ones.”

Gimme Shelter

Desert-dwelling horses need some type of shelter, be it a barn, a shed, or simply a stand of trees. “There’s no reason you can’t just use a shelter for intense heat and for driving rain and wind during cold, windy weather,” Blickle says. “I like two- or three-sided run-in sheds; they allow for good ventilation, and respiratory issues can be horses’ Achilles heel. A shed will allow horses to control their own body temperature by getting out of the rain and wind. Just be sure they’re placed to block the prevailing wind in your area.”

Along with sun, wind, rain, and snow, you’ll want to protect your horse from harmful UV rays, which can cause sunburn or, worse, cancer. Krebs says sunburn is especially prevalent in horses with pink-skinned areas (especially around their eyes and noses) such as Paints. She also sees more squamous cell carcinoma in these sunburn-prone horses. “I recommend UV-blocking fly masks and masks with extended noses to cover the area,” she says. “And some owners use baby sunscreen on sensitive pink-skinned noses during summer.”

Desert Disease Risks

Internal as well as external factors can affect your desert-dwelling horse. Feeding on sandy ground, for instance, can lead to horses ingesting dirt along with their hay, which can cause sand colic. Preventing sand ingestion is key, says Krebs. “Feed from a trough rather than from the ground or, even better, feed on a matted area where the sand is covered up so they can’t throw their feed onto the ground and then vacuum up dirt along with it,” she says. Haynets are another off-the-ground option.

Pigeon fever, also called dryland distemper due to its concentration in desert areas, is another health issue that’s prevalent in arid regions. (Researchers still aren’t sure why, but they surmise that the causative bacterium, Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis, prefers hot, dry environments.) C. pseudotuberculosis—named because of pigeonlike swelling in the chest area where the abscesses form—lives in the soil and spreads in the air and via flies, direct contact, or cuts and abrasions. “It can cause external or internal abscesses,” says Krebs. “We treat external abscesses by draining and with antibiotics, if needed. The prognosis is good. In an internal cavity, chest, or organ, we treat with prolonged antibiotics, and about 50% of affected horses survive.”

Parasites, adds Krebs, don’t reproduce as well in desert areas, so they aren’t as big a problem as in some areas—except on irrigated pasture.

Fire Danger

Fire risk is high in desert areas, particularly in summer and fall when the sun has baked the brush to a crisp, crackling tinder. “Owners want to be in the rural/urban fringes near rangeland and at the edges of forested areas so they can trail ride,” explains Blickle. This puts them even closer to fire-prone areas.

To combat fire danger, she recommends owners:

  1. Create a defensible space ( around and between buildings to minimize the chances of sparks landing on and igniting nearby structures.
  2. Store combustible materials (wooden furniture, hay, shavings, firewood, grain bags, etc.) away from other structures.
  3. Avoid building on top of hills because fire travels uphill like a chimney.
  4. Not build wooden fences, especially those that run right up to the house or barn, acting like a wick. And clear weeds from the fenceline for the same reason. In all construction, use metal rather than wood wherever possible.
  5. Clean leaves and debris from gutters and downspouts. A nearby fire can spit embers a mile or more and ignite buildups. And keep brush piles, which can serve as kindling, away from structures.

Take-Home Message

The array of desert dilemmas that challenge horse owners is sizable. Yet with a good dose of committed dedication to dryland living, you can keep yourself and your horse safe, healthy, and happy and enjoying all that desert sunshine!