Sustainable Horse Management
By Christina Manian
As a horse lover, how can your animals better fit into the larger ecosystem they are a part of? In a world where the climate is rapidly changing, it’s important to recognize the negative impacts traditional horse caretaking can have on the environment (more on this later). However, understanding the positive benefits regenerative and ecologically sound horse management can have on the land is a meaningful way to transform your passion into something that serves a greater purpose. What a radical way to practice climate action.
These four-legged foragers can be detrimental to land and one way to see this is through feral horse populations in the west. Chad Boyd, a scientist and research leader at the Agricultural Research Service in Burns, Oregon shared his findings from observation of habitats occupied by an overpopulation of feral horses. “The biggest impact that we saw was an increase in bare ground. I think it was mainly through hoof action as opposed to the actual grazing of the plants.” He continued, “We also saw a fairly dramatic change in habitat structure with reduced ground cover, having an influence on sage grouse and other types of birds that nest in these types of systems.”
Horses are unique from other grazers and foragers in that their dentition allows them to clip food much closer to the ground. Additionally, from an evolutionary perspective, they’re designed to have an almost constant stream of food coming in, resulting in foraging behavior for the majority of the 24 hours in a day, when left to their own devices. Think college students during finals week.
These realities affect the environment of domestic horses in many ways. One major way is that, if unmanaged, horses will quickly eat a pasture down when in a confined area. “When you have an overgrazed pasture, you don't have the plants functioning as a system in the way they should to hold soil in place,” said Alayne Blickle, creator and director of Horses for Clean Water, an internationally acclaimed environmental education program for horse owners.
She explained, “You get soil erosion, you get runoff of nutrients, from manure and urine, and then you even get climate change impacts because bare ground is dark and it's going to draw more heat. It's going to get hotter and drier. You don't have the grass there to hold in soil moisture or to sequester carbon.”
These impacts have a detrimental effect not only on climate change but also on water quality, as runoff from improperly managed pastures and paddocks can contaminate water sources. This, again, can negatively impact wildlife habitat for other species like birds, insects, and deer.
But there are solutions—beginning with regenerative grazing where stewards allow their animals to graze the land to help meet their dietary needs while giving the foraged plants enough space and time to recover. Clark Harshbarger, director of stewardship at Mad Agriculture, an organization supporting regenerative shifts in farming, added, “We're not taking more than what the plant can offer.”
Harshbarger also emphasized the importance of considering other wildlife. “It’s not just about the animal and the livestock pastoralist, but also the butterfly kingdoms and the other wildlife that may need that [plant] resource to thrive. It's really understanding all of that interconnectedness.”
He explained that regenerative grazing needs to be done in a setting where there is enough acreage and forage for the anticipated herd size. This is a large roadblock for many people wanting to walk a more ecological path, especially horse owners. The conventional, less than ideal, norm of keeping horses in stalls was born out of scenarios where handlers just did not have enough space for their animals.
Whether you are stewarding small, overgrazed, or barren acreage, there is so much you can do to integrate regenerative or environmentally sound practices into your land management. This helps to foster interconnectedness with the surrounding ecosystem.
One key component to regenerative animal management is to incorporate a rotational grazing system. This means that your animals are, ideally, not grazing down the forage below three or four inches before moving to the next pasture or section of pasture. If you have limited space, section out your pastures with easy-to-move electric fences to help you manage this and maintain healthy growth. When done correctly, this practice can even reinvigorate your land, making it more productive than ever through the stimulation of the plant (by the way of removing older growth) and the addition of moisture and nitrogen through properly managed manure distribution.
When dealing with smaller spaces, Harshbarger explained, “You have to have places to go when the land is saturated. You have to have holding areas because it's healthier for the land and for the animal.” This can look like a dry lot where hay is fed, or a more complex system like a paddock paradise. Paddock paradise is a natural horse boarding concept created by Jaime Jackson, a feral horse researcher. It consists of a large track where horses live outside 24/7 in herds with access to shelter, water, and forage 24 hours a day. It’s intended to mimic the migration patterns and behavioral environments of wild horses.
Beyond land management, there are other ways to make your horse operation more beneficial to the surrounding ecosystems. Many of these focus on keeping fresh water clean and minimizing contaminated runoff entering into communal waterways. When asked what horse owners should change if they could only integrate one new solution, Bickle replied, “Implement a manure management plan. It makes a huge difference for mud, for dust, for odors, for runoff, for parasite re-infestation, for aesthetics, and then it will help benefit the pastures.”
Manure management means more than just scooping your poop and dumping it in a pile. Composting is the gold standard for manure management amongst those invested in more ecologically sound horse practices. This requires close attention, as air needs to be integrated into the system and the compost needs to be used, not just continually piled up for months on end. This can be most easily managed through a three-bin composting system. With this system, fresh manure goes into the first bin, where it is moved into the second bin once full, integrating air. Once the second bin is full, its contents are moved to the third bin, which should soon be ready to enrich a garden or pasture, fill holes, sell to farmers, trudge onto your carpet…the list goes on.
Depending on the climate in which you live, you should start catching your rainwater catchment or diverting it. This will help to reduce the mud in paddocks while helping to lower your water consumption. Automatic watering systems are also great ways to save water (and money!).
Finally, it’s important to protect your nearest natural waterway from the runoff generated by horse operations. This is best done through manure management but can also be achieved by introducing buffer plants to the riparian area (the interface between your land and the nearest water source) or adjusting how your land closest to the waterway is used. This might look like moving manure piles or paddocks or reconsidering what chemicals your operation uses. Look at your riparian area management as an opportunity to increase the interconnectedness between your horses and the wildlife surrounding them as opposed to a damage control zone.
While there are many other sustainable swaps that can be made throughout your operation, especially in the barn, here are some ways that you can start to manage the land on your horse property in a more ethical way. This helps to better integrate your space into the greater environment. You can improve the health of your land and nearby water sources through regenerative grazing practices, manure management, and responsible water decision making. By embracing environmentally sustainable practices around your barn or ranch, you can feel even better about your business and your passion by knowing you’re adding benefit to your local ecosystem instead of detriment.