LINCOLN, Neb. - 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.
The problem appears worse this year based on the number of calls the coalition has received this summer from owners who can't feed their horses, said Ericka Caslin, the group's director. Caslin said her group tries to connect horse owners with shelters, but many are already at capacity.
Tony Pecho, president of the Illinois Horse Rescue near Chicago, began the year excited that land purchases and a sharecropping deal with another horse owner had doubled the property he had available to grow hay. But so far, he said, the 70 acres he has this year produced one-fourth of the hay gathered last year.
Pecho said he's concerned he won't be able to store enough food to get his 15 horses through the winter, when they won't be able to graze at all. Meanwhile, the number of calls to his rescue take in abused and neglected animals has increased from four to 20 per month.
"Horses running down the road. Horses let loose in public hunting areas," he said. "We're get calls from people who have had them as pets for five or 10 years, but now they can't afford them."
Horse owners said the situation has become desperate because those in trouble have few options, especially since some sanctuaries have stopped taking animals.
"There's no place to go with a horse you can't feed," said Iowa Horse Council President Bill Paynter, of New Virginia, Iowa.
Even horse owners who have the money to buy hay may have a tough time finding it. James Noel of Coatesville, Ind., said he harvested enough to feed his six horses this year, but he didn't have enough to sell to others. He worries about what some people will do this winter, as supplies wane.
"If people have hay, they're hanging onto it," said Noel, president of the Indiana Horse Council. "It's taken a toll on all of us, and we're all sure it's going to get a lot worse."