Bennie Lynn Clawson has been around horses all her life. She runs a consulting business to help owners find horses and has been raising painthorses near Rock Hill.
But Clawson said business has been grim this year.
Not as many people are willing to buy horses, she said. And those who already have them are worried about how they'll feed their animals through the winter because the severe drought has cut hay production across the state and sent the prices of available grains soaring.
Local horse rescue agencies say they've been flooded with calls from people seeking advice or who want the groups to take in their animals.
Some horse owners are even offering to give away their pets for free or sell them for dramatically less than in the past.
"What we fear the most is ... that people will begin to abandon or neglect the horses and we're going to see an abuse situation ever increasing as we move into January," said Sue Gray, executive director of the N.C. Horse Council.
Clawson has sold or given away 10 of her horses.
"I've made a good life with horses," she said. "But this is about the saddest thing I've ever seen."
The hay shortage is affecting more than just horse owners. Those with cattle and other pasture animals also have struggled to find grains and other feed this year.
A square bale of hay used to sell for a few dollars. Now, some are going for at least $7.50. Meanwhile, larger, round bales that could go for $20 to 30 can go for twice that amount if not more, plus per-mile shipping costs to bring it in from out-of-state.
The summer's hot, dry temperatures also killed off grass that many animals normally would graze on until October or November. That meant some farms began turning to hay as early as July.
Farmers and agricultural experts say horse owners face different challenges than those with other animals.
For example, they said while cattle farmers can sell their animals at market to help recoup some of their costs, there aren't many similar avenues for horses.
Horse slaughter has been banned in the United States, though some markets still exist in Canada and Mexico.
And many are holding off on buying horses because of the rising hay costs. "I'm sure there's probably going to be some reluctance on the part of other buyers because your feeding problem becomes that person's feeding problem," said Brian Long, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
Another issue -- though cattle can eat several types of feed -- even moldy hay -- horses have more delicate stomachs.
Feeding horses the wrong type of hay or switching their food too quickly can cause colic, a potentially deadly condition affecting their intestines, said Darlene Kindle, regional director for the Southern Piedmont chapter of the U.S. Equine Rescue League.
"It scares the death out of me," Kindle said of this year's hay shortage.
Kindle currently is taking care of 10 horses, including some who will go to foster homes. But she's worried the higher costs might turn away people who may want to adopt or take in foster horses.