Saddled with soaring costs

The high cost of taking care of horses, such as these at Half Pass Farm and Stables in Ravenel on Thursday, is being felt across the Lowcountry.

Eating like a horse isn't just a cliche moms use to describe their family food bill.

Adequately feeding a stable-kept horse can cost $200 per month per animal under a strict, twice-a-day schedule of grains and hay. And there has to be lots of it.

Most caretakers say a proper horse diet means consuming 1 percent to 2 percent of their body weight every day, depending on their size and work duties. Belgian draft horses favored by Charleston carriage companies, for example, feed at the higher end.

From there, the monthly bills include regular veterinarian visits, worm treatments and dental checkups, adding many more hundreds of dollars to their upkeep.

"The cost of feeding is just the tip of the iceberg," said Jenny Wellington, co-owner of Half Pass Farm and Stables south of Charleston.

With South Carolina experiencing a growing number of horse cruelty cases, horse professionals say the slumping economy and a neglectful mind-set that horses can survive only on pasture grasses are working against the animals.

For starters, many farm pastures aren't particularly abundant sources of food. Inconstant rains and continual eating patterns mean meal sources dry up fast or get trampled under hoof. Also, Southern grasses aren't necessarily the best nutrient supplies for many horses, most of which need supplements to their diets.

A pasture-grass-only food source is "like us (humans) eating a loaf of bread a day," said Laura Macon-Winslette, of Half Pass Farm.

Another factor hurting the horse in South Carolina is the high cost of feed.

Some stables say their grain and alfalfa costs have doubled and even tripled in the past year, as fuel prices have fluctuated and worldwide competition for all sorts of grains has increased, while crop space has decreased.

The effects are being felt everywhere. Katie McGauley, co-owner of Old Towne Carriage in downtown Charleston, said the food bill for her nine Belgian draft horses easily runs about $1,400 a month, which bites into profits at a time when tourism travel is suffering.

Though her animals follow a strict diet plan, she is worried about the future of other horse herds left to fend in pastures, sometimes turning skinny and weak.

"Certain times of the year they are green and lush," she said, "but other times, there's nothing there."

Macon-Winslette said she'd been approached several times recently by people who have found it too expensive to keep a horse, even offering to turn the animal over for free as long as she promises to take care of it and provide a stable home.

Her response? "There is no free horse," she said, pointing to the bills, upkeep and attention that horses require. "There's no such thing."