Climate Change and Horse Keeping, Managing the Uncertainty

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Conference: Climate Change & Horse Keeping, Managing the Uncertainty

A little more than a year ago I was invited to travel to Australia to be the keynote speaker at a conference on horses and land management. One of the other speakers at that event presented material that changed some of my thinking on horse care. His presentation was on the link between climate change and infectious disease risk for horses. Dr. Gary Muscatello, a microbiologist and faculty at the University of Sydney Veterinary Science Department, was the presenter. Let me summarize key points from his presentation.

World-wide when there are new disease outbreaks (human or horse) there seems to be a link between climate change and infectious disease risk. General principles of a warmer environment and changing weather patterns influence many factors which encourage disease outbreaks, disease transmission and the emergence of new diseases. Warmer temperatures enable disease-carrying organisms to extend their ranges, have a longer breeding season and generally become more virulent. Animals (both domestic and wild) which are already stressed by changes (less water, hotter temps, less food availability, etc.) are now more susceptible to diseases, particularly to new diseases, moving into the areas. This interaction of stressed animals and new pathogens, along with animals which are immunologically naïve, causes new disease outbreaks in horses.

Connecting the climate change dots with disease

An example in the human world is Lyme disease, which previously did not occur in Canada, but now does. Birds and ticks, the carriers of Lyme disease, never survived in these colder areas but with warmer temperatures they are traveling further North and the pathogens are surviving.

Climate change and equine disease

In Kentucky in 2001 Eastern Tent Caterpillars were found to be the cause of abortions in Thoroughbred mares, called Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome (MRLS). The caterpillars, when accidentally ingested by pregnant mares, produced abortions. These caterpillars are associated with drought conditions, part of the climate change model. COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, associated with poor air quality and air pollution, also a part of climate change model, seems to be on the rise and is expected to continue to increase. Bacterial pneumonia, which has a big impact on foals, lives in soil and is exacerbated by dry, dusty conditions—again associated with climate change. Australia, in particular, has seen huge increases in this disease in their Thoroughbred racing industry, causing economic havoc.

Examples of other types of diseases expected to become more widespread are Pigeon fever, a bacteria spread by midges and biting flies that live and breed in mud, and rain scald or rain rot which is caused by bacteria that thrive in a wet environment, often spread around water tanks or other muddy areas.

Managing the uncertainty

The trending in climate change points to things being much different in the next 10 or 50 years. World-wide we are experiencing extreme weather events which previously were in 100 year cycles. Expectations are for droughts and water limitations, extreme weather patterns like monsoonal rain events, more wind, frequent flooding, cyclonic extremes like super hurricanes and super tornados and generally warmer/dryer temperatures.

These changes mean disease-carrying insects and pathogens will be flung further along by strong winds and have broader ranges that are more habitable for them. It means great impacts on agriculture in general with less availability of hay and grain and the associated increases in costs due to greater diseases affecting crops, etc.

What can be done?

Management is key! First, understand disease risks and what can be done to break connections. More than ever, pasture management is important to reduce bare spots and overgrazing so there’s less dust in the summer and no mud in winter. Implement mud management techniques to reduce habitat for disease carrying organisms such as using footing in confinement areas and gutters and downspouts on buildings. Clean waterers regularly to reduce mosquito and insect habitat. Learn and implement water conservation methods at home and on the farm or ranch. Future-proofing us and our horses means taking action to plan and prepare for changes in our climate.

Learn more by joining Horses for Clean Water and the King Conservation District on Friday April 25, from 8:30am to 4:00 pm, at the Conference on Climate Change and Horse Management at Emerald Downs Race Track in Auburn, WA. This event, the first ever of its kind in North America, is sponsored in part by Lighthoof Equine, Trinity Ranch and Snohomish Conservation District.

The morning session will feature three keynote speakers. Dr. Nick Bond, State Climatologist from the University of Washington, will speak on weather trends and expectations for the Pacific Northwest. Chad Kruger, head of WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, will speak on how these trends are affecting plant and crop species and production. Then Dr. Gary Muscatello, DVM, from the University of Sydney, Australia, who I originally heard speak in Australia, will discuss how climate change is affecting horse health, both in North America as well as worldwide.

The Conference afternoon session will give attendees tools to “future proof” their land and horses including new twists on pasture management, innovative approaches to water conservation and more. In addition, the Conference will be videotaped, streamed live and available worldwide afterwards.

Cost is $20 for horse owners/general public and $35 for agency participants and includes coffee and fruit at sign-in, sandwich bar lunch, vender display, tram tour of Emerald Downs horse facilities plus a free ticket to the races redeemable any 2014 race day!

Registration and more information is via the King CD web site or contact e-mail or call 425-282-1949. Or contact Alayne at

Horsekeeping Climate Change Poster

Dealing with Winter Drainage Issues: Slow the Flow

It’s that time of the year when it rains and rains and RAINS! Even here at Sweet Pepper Ranch in the dry desert of Southwestern Idaho it is raining. That is a good thing here as we have had very little precipitation over the last six months. Everyone in Treasure Valley had their irrigation water turned off early and all reservoirs ran dry. Without good rains in the valley and snow in the mountains this winter we’ll be in big trouble next summer.

But mud in our horse paddocks is definitely a problem—for any of us, no matter where we live.

Mud creates an unhealthy environment for horses

Mud harbors bacteria, fungal organisms and other pathogens that cause abscesses, scratches, rain scald and thrush. The effects of repeated wet/dry conditions are damaging to hoof structure. Mud is a breeding ground for insects, such as cullicoides (“no-see-ums”), filth flies and mosquitoes. Insects are not only annoying; they can carry diseases and can cause allergic reactions for our horses. When fed on muddy ground, horses can ingest dirt or sand particles with hay, leading to sand colic, a very serious digestive order. Plus mud creates a slick, unsafe footing, increasing the risk of injury (for horses and humans).

Every horse person knows that mud is inconvenient and unpleasant. Mud makes everyday chores difficult. Odors, flies and appearance of mud lowers the desirability of a property for you, your neighbors and your customers—if you run your place as a business.

Muddy waters

Once soil and manure has mixed with water to make mud, it can easily be carried into nearby streams or lakes. Sediment can smother trout and salmon eggs, destroy habitat for insects (a food source for fish) and cover prime spawning areas. Many pollutants, like the nutrients and bacteria from manure, are likely to attach to soil particles and be carried into the water.

What You Can Do – Slow the Flow and Redirect

When tackling drainage think “slow the flow.” The best and easiest way to reduce surface water is to slow it down. Many times just slowing water down will allow it to infiltrate back into the ground—perhaps that will be all that’s needed to solve a drainage issue. This also helps recharge the natural hydrology of your property including ground water. If you already have gutters and downspouts on barns and out-buildings and footing in confinement areas but rain is still flowing into confinement areas you may need to consider installing some type of drainage system to redirect surface water flowing towards your barn.

Each of these techniques can be useful for keeping clean rainwater out of your barn area and reducing mud—at Sweet Pepper Ranch we’ve used several of these:

  • French drain lines (trench filled with drain rock and perforated pipe that redirects surface and groundwater away from an area)
  • Water bars (like a speed bump for water runoff)
  • Grassy swales (gently sloping depressions or grass-lined waterways)
  • Dry wells (deep hole filled with round rock—only works in a dry area)
  • Trees and shrubs (planted to slow down and soak up water)
  • Rain garden (stay tuned for more info on this!)
  • Divert the clean surface water away from your high traffic areas to someplace else on your property where it can soak back into the ground. Places to divert to include an unused corner of your pasture, well-vegetated woods, grassy lawn or other well-vegetated areas.

Never divert to an existing water body as the amount of added water can drastically and unnaturally change water levels. When water levels go up quickly, that increases turbidity and important fish habitat is often ruined or destroyed.

Be sure to check out the Educational Materials section on the HCW website. We have lots of free resource materials available to help you with projects, as well as like DVDs and inexpensive Tip Sheets to give you guidance on things like footing choices, building an arena, pasture improvement, and more! Shopping for Christmas gifts at If so, please consider using this link to go to Amazon. That way Amazon will make a small donation to HCW which helps with running our website.

Good luck and here’s to a mud-free, chore-efficient winter for us all!


Build an Outdoor Wash Rack

Matt sizing up our outdoor washrack with Bob's help. The railroad ties will be attached and used to hold gravel in place. Non-slick mats will be placed on top of the gravel.

Matt sizing up our outdoor washrack with Bob’s help. The railroad ties will be attached and used to hold gravel in place. Non-slick mats will be placed on top of the gravel.

Our guest ranch and horse motel, Sweet Pepper Ranch, has a lot of traffic especially in the summer months. During the warm season when a lot of people are riding things can get pretty backed up around our single indoor wash rack. As a result, we recently began putting in a well-draining outdoor wash rack—a great way to hose off or bath a horse while allowing water to recharge the natural system and not create a muddy eyesore.

If you’d like to build one yourself here are a few key points to keep in mind for setting up your outdoor washrack.

  • Soil type: Outdoor wash racks require well-drained soils in order for them not to turn into a quagmire. Chose a spot with well-drained soil otherwise repeated use will quickly turn wet or organic soils into mud.
  • Location: Choose a higher area (versus a low spot which will collect water and turn into a bathtub) away from creeks, ditches, wetlands or other water bodies as well as away from manure storage areas (so that water runoff doesn’t collect in manure storage.)
  • Chore efficiency: Your wash rack should be convenient to your barn or shelter area, as well as close to a faucet/water source.
  • Size: Can vary from that of slightly larger than the footprint of a horse (approximately 10 feet x 4 feet, like a tie stall) to that of a generous box stall (16 feet x 16 feet)—or larger if you plan for bathing multiple horses at once.
  • Footing: Crushed rock footing (no larger than 5/8 inch) 3 to 6 inches deep, improves drainage. Stall mats can be placed on top. You may wish to frame in the washrack area to hold footing and mats in place. Budget-wise tip: use recycled conveyor belting as mats.
  • Cross ties: I prefer having rails on sides so that horses are boxed in. This prevents horses from moving away from me when I spray them plus I don’t want my horses to think they can turn around in the cross ties—a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Materials: Crossties and rails can be made from any strong, sturdy, water-proof material such as railroad ties, treated lumber or welded pipe. Be sure corners are safe and there are no protruding objects where a horse can get hurt like bolt ends, nails, boards or the tops of metal posts. Watch out for sharp corners and bottom edges.
  • Buffer: Surround outdoor wash rack with vegetated areas. Healthy soil and plants break down contaminants and help prevent runoff.
  • Optional: You might consider a shelf or basket along one side to hold shampoos, sweat scrapers or other grooming tools.

Choose the products you use in your washrack carefully. With any wash rack it is important to avoid allowing soapy, dirty water running directly into nearby water bodies such as a ditch, stream or wetlands. Look for organic products or shampoos made from biodegradable ingredients. Avoid chemicals, insecticides or anything else that could soak in and potentially contaminate the ground water.

If you’d like more information and ideas on building outdoor wash racks, rain gardens, plastic feeders or other ideas on chore efficient horse keeping check out our HCW Educational Events and plan to join an upcoming HCW event.

Happy outdoor bathing!

Back from The Land Down Under

Done with the Holidays—Time for a New Year!

Alayne and her friend Sheri Clevenger, who traveled with her, at Living Legends in Melbourne, Australia. Living Legends is a retirement home for Thoroughbred racehorse geldings.

Alayne and her friend Sheri Clevenger, who traveled with her, at Living Legends in Melbourne, Australia. Living Legends is a retirement home for Thoroughbred racehorse geldings.

I had an awesome time in Australia. When people ask what impressed me most I say two things, the people and the animals. It was so fun and interesting meeting people there. Everyone was so friendly and helpful—we loved their accents and the new words for things like “chooks” for chickens or “mozzies” for mosquitoes. So many people in Australia are from other countries and were wonderful to meet and learn about their travel adventures.

Australian animals were amazing and unique—so many marsupials!! Kangaroos are everywhere in the rural areas like deer are in some places in North America. We saw a little echidna, kinda like a hedgehog (which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen here in the wild, either) with the big exception that the Aussie version is an egg-laying mammal, thought to live up to 45 years! There were beautiful trees sporting gorgeous bright flowers covered with flocks of brightly colored parrots. And speaking of flying things—giant bats! Flying Foxes which are fruit bats. Many thousands in some cities like Cairns, happily coexisting with people. Some had a wingspan of 1.5 meters (4 to 5 feet!!!) It was crazy at night, they were everywhere. I’d look up and think “Yup, I’m definitely not in Kansas!” I really loved it there and can’t wait to go back—next time to see the outback!

I’ll post a few photos here but also be sure to check out my Facebook fan page which has many more Aussie photos on it. And my Smart Horse Keeping post on, Horse Keeping Observations from Australia.

On to things in North America. Here at Horses for Clean Water we have lots of upcoming events that we are excited about. I’ll get you up to speed on a few of them, but be sure to keep your eye on the HCW website or listserv for updated details.

Firewise Education

I am currently developing educational materials on this topic for horse and livestock owners. This rural audience is overlooked and horse owners often aren’t aware of the potential dangers of wildfire nor prepared with an evacuation plan. Horses for Clean Water is developing two firewise education take-home check-lists for horse owners, one on reducing firewise risks and the other on emergency evacuation planning. Once materials are completed we will make them publically available on different websites. Also I will conduct Firewise and Emergency Evacuation presentations to different horse and livestock groups, the first will be 7 pm March 13, in Meridian, Idaho for the Southwest Idaho Trail and Distance Riders. Contact Alayne for details.

Snohomish Horses for Clean Water

HCW was awarded a Rose Foundation Grant with the Snohomish Conservation District to offer four workshops this coming year. Topics will be on new and improved innovations in horse keeping and the first date is Saturday, March 16, in Monroe, WA. Details are coming!

King Conservation District Farm Tours

KCD is planning to offer farm tours and their Land and Water Stewardship Workshops this coming year and Horses for Clean Water will be a part of them. Tentatively, the workshop series of four evening classes will be held on Thursday evenings, beginning March 14. The first farm tour is tentatively planned for Sunday afternoon, March 17. Stay tuned!

Lastly, don’t forget to check out Sweet Pepper Ranch, our guest ranch and horse motel in southwestern Idaho. We’ve got a lot going on this year and are excited to share it with you! We are ready and waiting for your stop here when you and your horse are on the road with our B and B and horse motel. We’ll make you and your horse comfortable and relaxed by offering you both comfy overnight accommodations, and a ranch breakfast for you! If you are looking for an affordable cowgirl vacation getaway, we’ve got you covered there, too. We’ve got some of the nicest guest horses who will show you a fun, safe time on trail rides or working cows, whatever you desire. We are close to a large selection of other fun activities and outdoor events as well. Take a look at the website—we’ve updated it with lots of happy photos from last year’s guests (scroll all the way down!)

New additions this year: work/study opportunities offer a chance to learn about green horse keeping. Different one-day study tracks are available:

  • Paddocks and mud/dust/drainage control
  • Composting and manure management
  • Pasture management, rotational grazing and haying
  • Wildlife enhancement and naturescaping
  • Firewise and defensible space planning

We also offer on-site pony parties for special events—for kids or adult birthdays or other celebrations. Contact Alayne for more details on any of this.

We’re off to a good year and we certainly hope all of you are as well. See you soon!

Thousands of fruit bats, Flying Foxes, coexist with the population in downtown Cairns.

Thousands of fruit bats, Flying Foxes, coexist with the population in downtown Cairns.

Mom and joey at Living Legends in Melbourne.

Mom and joey at Living Legends in Melbourne.

Early morning in Melbourne.

Early morning in Melbourne.

An echidna, one of two species of an egg-laying mammals in Australia.

An echidna, one of two species of an egg-laying mammals in Australia.

Kangaroos also at Living Legends.

Kangaroos also at Living Legends.

Flowering trees in a Sydney neighborhood.

Flowering trees in a Sydney neighborhood.