Horse Owner Help During COVID-19

I’ve been curious—even a bit anxious—about how COVID-19 closures and cancellations will directly impact horse owners and their horses. As people are laid off from their jobs or must shutter their businesses in the face of decreased profits or inability to operate, they must find a way to cover their living expenses, as well as their horses’.

Spring hasn’t hit most pastures yet, so horse owners are still feeding a lot of hay … it’s simply a more expensive time of year to keep horses. It’s also tax season, and some owners owe the IRS.

“The timing is awful,” said emergency planning expert Rebecca Gimenez-Husted, PhD, who is based in Georgia. “There’s very little grass yet, and spring grass is so dangerous for laminitis risks.”

As I am already seeing businesses close here in Central Kentucky—either temporarily or permanently—I wonder who among their staff has a horse relying on their paycheck, and what their situation looks like. Besides drawing on emergency funds/savings and applying for unemployment, what are their options? Where can they turn? Options vary state to state and region to region, of course.

“Some states have an animal response team that has resources,” said Gimenez-Husted. “Almost every state should have someone sitting in an emergency operations center (EOC) that deals with animal issues for disasters. I am sure by now all the states have activated their EOC and staffed it.

“Of course, since (COVID-19 has had) global impact, I am not sure how they will be responding,” she added. “Probably, ‘You should have had a plan for feeding your horses … why haven’t you been thinking about this before now?’ which is actually way too true, but we all know there are tons of people that have horses that can barely afford them, and this may push them over the edge.”

There are some other places you can look for assistance. Here in our commonwealth, the Kentucky Horse Council (KHC) has its Save Our Horses Fund. I joined the board of the KHC this year and serve on the health and welfare committee. One of the things this committee does is help the executive director review Equine Safety Net applications from horse owners requesting assistance feeding horses in the face of a job loss. The fund has also helped county officials feeding horses that have been seized in cases of neglect. (We also offer gelding and euthanasia vouchers to veterinarians in cases where their clients need financial assistance with either of those procedures.)

The Coalition of State Horse Council website lists 33 member organizations. Their missions and operating structures vary widely (some are wholly legislation- or events-focused, for example, or are volunteer-run vs. operated by paid staff). I have clicked through to check them all, and it appears you can apply for a hay and feed assistance program in Maryland via the Maryland Fund for Horses. Additionally, the North Carolina Horse Council has broadened its Safety Net Grant to not only provide hay and feed but also help cover boarding, veterinary, and other costs necessary to maintain the health of North Carolina horses during this time.

Some animal welfare organizations also have safety-net funds. Animal Protection of New Mexico, for instance, is offering equine emergency feed assistance for horse owners in the state affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

Ashley Harkins, director of The United Horse Coalition (UHC), based in Washington, D.C., says the organization is in the process of creating a searchable database of all known resources and safety net programs. “While that is being worked on, we have compiled some resources on our website until it is complete,” she said. Find that information here.

“I encourage people to reach out to us even if they do not see a program listed in their area,” she added. “It may be that one exists, but we have not reached out to them yet or done a search. We also just put up a page dedicated to COVID-19 Resources for the Equine Industry so that we have one centrally located place to share all of this great information.”

Gimenez-Husted pointed out that many large horse rescues have hay banks or temporary assistance after job loss, “but those were created with specific situations in mind, not trying to carry hundreds or thousands of people along.”

If you’re a state horse council or have a 501(c)(3) specifically devoted to hay and feed assistance and I’ve missed you, please let me know.

Plug Into Your Local Horse Industry

Consider reaching out to local equine welfare organizations to see if they can offer any advice or assistance as you navigate your new normal. If you are a member of a local riding association or club, let members know about your situation—they may have suggestions for where to get help.

I also reached out to Dr. Becky McConnico, a longtime source whom I met in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. She is now a professor of agricultural sciences/animal science and veterinarian at Louisiana Tech University, Ruston.

“I suspect that the equine community will need to plug in locally,” she said. “Local community resilience will probably be the most effective way for people to weather this ‘storm.’”

Further, she recommended looking at the Disaster Philanthropy Group’s playbook, which isn’t equine-specific but offers “a compilation of philanthropic strategies, promising practices, and lessons learned that help communities be better prepared when a disaster strikes their community,” says its website. “In particular, it is aimed at helping philanthropic organizations and individual donors be more strategic with their investments and recognize the importance of supporting long-term recovery for vulnerable populations.”

Also, importantly, remember horses can survive on quality hay and clean water out in a paddock or pasture. “My advice to folks has been if they have to make hard decisions with their money, it is better to spend it on hay and forget about feed and mucking stalls,” said Gimenez-Husted.

Horses are happier when they’re outside and moving around and socializing with other horses, so there’s really no downside. And if you end up sick and can’t manage your usual barn duties, leaving the horses outside in the field “would be much preferable to leaving them to suffer in stalls,” she adds. “Long term, I wonder how many people will finally realize that their horses prefer being out?”

How to Help

If your employment hasn’t been impacted by the COVID-19 situation, there are some things you can do to prepare for worst-case scenarios and to help other horse owners and their horses:

  • Know exactly what it costs to feed your horses. If you don’t have a budget already, create one (find a form to use here and an article about tips and tricks here). Figure out how far your emergency fund will get you in the event of a financial crisis. If you don’t have an emergency fund, begin setting aside money now. Know where you can easily trim your horse budget so you can keep meeting your horse’s nutrient requirements (find some suggestions here). It will also help you know your specific needs if you end up seeking help later.
  • Help other horse owners who might be struggling right now. Support funds like KHC’s Equine Safety Net or Maryland’s Fund for Horses. You can donate to The American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Foundation for The Horse—health disasters are included in its “Disaster Relief” description.
  • Support local horse welfare organizations that might be having to take on more horses because of job losses. There are too many to name, but just check to be sure the organization is reputable and will use your donation responsibly (here are some best practices reputable rescues follow). Some organizations will also accept donations in kind—so, if you have extra hay and want to share.
  • Connect with your local horse community virtually. Put your heads together—at a safe social distance on Facebook and other platforms—to help each other.