California and the challenges of keeping horses in arid climates

California and the challenges of keeping horses in arid climates

Written by: Becky James MSc
On a recent trip I visited California for the first time and was surprised at the extent horse culture is nestled within the cities often without a blade of grass in sight! We visited equestrian centres where 20 trainers from all types of disciplines with 10-15 horses in training or boarding meant there would be 300+ horses on one site with little to no pasture.

This was a new concept to me and left me pondering, on the one hand I think it’s wonderful that horses are such an integral part of the city. They range from horses in people’s backyards in Norco (I saw a horse literally peering in through a window of a house) to large high-end training and competition facilities along with miles and miles of trail riding in the foothills of LA. On the other hand, the city exposes them to unusually high air pollution in addition to the already challenging dry dusty conditions symptomatic of the climate and they are stabled for most of the time.

This very different environment must pose a diverse set of challenges for horse owners in California and other arid areas compared to most horse owners, certainly those of us in the UK.

Grass management

While we dread the rain (and resulting mud) it’s what gives Britain its green, green grass. In contrast, California and the like may only see rain at the beginning of the year meaning the majority of time is spent with sun-baked soil and parched vegetation.

For those yard owners lucky enough to have areas of pasture it must be a constant battle to manage so that horses have grass to eat.

Irrigation is an everyday routine with systems varying from above ground sprinklers to underground water carrying tapes. They are usually on timers and so come on routinely, usually at night. I noticed as dusk falls in California so does the sprinkling of water!

Overgrazing is known to compromise grass health and encourage weed growth and when grass is not actively growing it is unable to survive continuous grazing and trampling so inevitably there will be times when pasture should be rested to protect it.

All hail the hay cube…or maybe not?

Hay is the obvious main source of forage. We know the importance of long-stemmed forage in the horse’s diet to satisfy their innate need to chew for up to 12 hours a day which in turn provides saliva; a buffer against stomach acid which is only produced when the horse is physically chewing. Trickle feeding especially long-stemmed forage keeps the stomach 2/3rds full which helps support the natural stomach physiology to prevent the occurrence of health issues such as gastric ulcers. Hay in California is notoriously dusty and good quality hay can be expensive when bought in from further afield. It appears a lot of horse owners have turned to hay cubes for either part or all of the forage part of the diet. While hay cubes are useful to supplement part of the diet, they are convenient to feed and dust free I don’t believe they should completely replace hay/pasture.

One solution to California’s dry, dusty hay would be to steam it at high temperatures to reduce the respirable dust, kill mould and bacteria and re-hydrate it.


Intense heat can quickly compromise a horse’s hydration so an adequate supply of fresh, clean water should be available at all times. Automatic water systems are preferable because the water circulates rather than standing stagnant, which avoids providing a breeding area for mosquitoes that can carry West Nile virus and other pathogens.

Sand colic

Californian soil is predominantly sand based. Feeding on sandy ground, can lead to horses ingesting dirt and sand along with their hay, which can cause sand colic, a form of impaction colic. The granules then settle to the bottom of the intestines, specifically in the large colon, where their grittiness can irritate the intestinal lining.

Mild sand colic, which is often accompanied by diarrhoea, may be transient, but eventually enough sand can accumulate to result in severe, ongoing discomfort. In the worst cases, the intestines may become twisted or displaced or even rupture.

Preventing sand ingestion is vital and is it would be worth considering using a hay feeder to help keeping the hay off the floor.


A shelter will allow horses to control their own body temperature and protect them from harmful UV rays, which can cause sunburn or, worse, cancer. In addition, UV-blocking fly masks and masks with extended noses or baby sunscreen can be used to protect the more vulnerable pink skinned noses.


When the sun has baked the vegetation to a crisp, wild fires are a real and regular risk. We drove past one off one of the major highways which was being dowsed in water from helicopters and fireman’s hoses as everyone casually drove past and carried on with their daily lives. Every horse owner needs an evacuation plan and must be very careful in how they store and handle everyday items like hay, bedding and grain. As well as how they manage the vegetation on their property. For example, clear weeds from the fence lines to prevent them acting like a wick.

When a wild fire takes place its not just the fire itself that is of concern to horses in the surrounding area but the effects of the unhealthy air containing smoke and particulates on horse’s respiratory health. These particulates air can build up in the respiratory system, causing a number of health problems including burning eyes, runny noses and illnesses such as bronchitis.

UC Davis equine specialists have published guidelines for horse owners and trainers to help keep horses healthy during such times:

  1. Limit exercise when smoke is visible. Activities that increase the airflow in and out of the lungs can trigger bronchoconstriction (narrowing of the small airways in the lungs).
  2. Provide plenty of fresh water. Water keeps the airways moist and facilitates clearance of inhaled particulate matter. This means the windpipe (trachea), large airways (bronchi), and small airways (bronchioles) can move the particulate material breathed in with the smoke. Dry airways make particulate matter stay in the lung and air passages.
  3. Limit dust exposure by feeding dust-free hay. This reduces the particles in the dust such as mould, fungi, pollens and bacteria that may have difficulty being cleared from the lungs. You can’t control the smoke but you can control exposure to dust from other sources.
  4. Horse’s with a history of having heaves or recurrent airway problems, have a greater risk of secondary problems such as bacterial pneumonia.
  5. Airway damage resulting from wildfire smoke takes 4-6 weeks to heal and horse owners are advised to give effected horses this time off. Attempting exercise may aggravate the condition, delay the healing process, and compromise the horse’s performance for many weeks or months.

Air quality

The Los Angeles metropolitan area is one of the most polluted in the U.S, according to the American Lung Association’s report “State of the Air 2018”. This will undoubtedly impact the horses in the city and will be further compounded by the dry, dusty atmosphere of the climate. In addition to the environment, horse barns are notorious for exposure to mould, fungal spores and bacteria predominantly from bedding and forage. This exposure can be reduced by using the Comfortstall sealed, padded rubber flooring system so that just a minimal amount low-dust bedding is needed and then steaming the hay with a Haygain.

Of course, horse owners can’t control the naturally dusty environment “alfresco” and in some cases poor city air quality but there are some things you can. You can make sure the horse is fully equipped to deal with the conditionsaccess to water, shelter and good quality, long stemmed forage.

Take home message – take control of what you can, embrace the rest!


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