PITTSBURGH - Pamela Vivirito knows that a horse with low weight might not have enough fat to endure a winter.
And as hay prices have nearly doubled amid seemingly endless requests for help, she's not sure her rescue effort has enough financial padding to make it through the season, either.
"It's kind of become a crisis here," she said as she walked through the Equine Angels Rescue barn she rents in Cabot near Pittsburgh. "We just took in three more horses last week because there are so many surrenders."
Vivirito said part of the reason her organization is stressed is due to a lack of regulation in the county.
The Butler County Humane Society lost its paid humane officer at least three years ago when funding for the position was cut by the Pennsylvania SPCA, said executive director Lynette Vybiral.
Without a humane officer, the society no longer handles cases involving livestock. Instead the agency passes many of the reports onto Equine Angels Rescue, which does the work without the same authority and without payment.
Vivirito believes cases of neglect have risen in the county because there is no authority to oversee it.
The lifelong horse lover left the hair-salon business after 20 years to start the rescue facility three years ago. It hosts a 200- by 200-foot outdoor arena and 100- by 200-foot indoor arena for training and rehabilitation.
Every three months she makes routine checks on each horse she adopted out to ensure it is receiving the care the owners promised.
Initially, Vivirito hoped to use the entire barn to house rescues. She quickly learned that she could not get by with donations alone. By offering to board other horses, she was able to earn enough money and bring enough horses into the barn to allow bulk purchases of hay and feed.
But even intelligent use of funds is no match for a drought season, where quality hay for a horse's diet is more scarce and prices are high.
James Dunn, a professor of agriculture economics at Pennsylvania State University, said hay quality is easily spoiled by rain or a lack thereof.
"One of the challenges with hay is the nutritional value of it really depends on getting it at a certain time," he said. "If it gets too tall, it's not as nutritious. By the same token, if it lies on the ground and doesn't dry, it's not as good."
A wet spring made it difficult for the hay to dry and farmers to get it out of the field before it spoiled. A dry July would have made hay easy to bale, but there was none growing, he said.
Even in decent growth years for the region, hay is often shipped elsewhere and lowers the inventory for the coming year.
"Where normally you can buy hay as you go, with the hay so short, we're trying to secure as much as we can," said Vivirito, who has seen prices jump from around $4 a bale to $8 this year. Her horses go through about 15 bales a day.
Ag Market News, which aggregates prices of hay sold at auction around the state, reported premium alfalfa prices as high as $385 a ton, or around $8.50 a bale, last week. Good alfalfa went for as much as $330 a ton, or $7.33 a bale.
Regardless of the prices or dwindling donations, Vivirito said she would forge on because the number of horses in need continues to grow.
She receives at least one phone call and several Facebook messages a week about horses in need. Over the weekend she added six horses, including a baby that needed intravenous transfusion to survive, to her already overflowing 27-stall barn. Three of them alone carried a veterinarian bill of more than $600.
"I just love making a difference to animals that have no voice," she said. "We're their voice, we're their help. They can't cry out and say they are starving."