As horse owners, we need to consider the impacts we have on our neighbors and the environment. Are we contributing to reduced water quality in our watershed, creating an eyesore and a fly haven? Or is our horse operation pleasing to look at, healthy for our horses, and a home for wildlife? By increasing our awareness of how we impact the environment and taking steps to minimize that impact, we can help preserve the equestrian way of life that we enjoy.
The good news is that what’s good for the environment is also good for you, your horses, your farm or ranch, and your neighborhood. Let’s look at some examples of environmentally friendly horse keeping techniques you can implement:
Create a sacrifice area or paddock to keep pastures from becoming overgrazed, particularly during winter. Sacrifice areas help prevent the damage horses cause by grazing and trampling dormant plants. This area should be on higher ground, away from ditches, creeks, or other bodies of water, and should be surrounded by a grassy buffer such as lawn or pasture to act as a filter for contaminated runoff. Sacrifice areas also confine manure and urine to an area that’s easier to manage. Use a footing such as coarse washed sand or crushed rock will help cut down on mud problems in the winter months and improve chore efficiency.
Cross fence pastures and rotate horses in order to prevent overgrazing and soil compaction. Poor pasture management results in reduced quality and quantity of grass and increased soil erosion, nitrogen runoff (from manure and urine), and weeds. At least three inches of leafy grass is needed for rapid regrowth and for the biofiltration of nutrients, sediments, and chemicals. Pounding hooves compact the soil, which makes water infiltration and root growth difficult, increasing feed costs due to reduced pasture productivity. Because many weeds are toxic to horses, it can also increase your risk of expensive vet bills.
Prevent access to saturated and soaked pastures during irrigation and rainy seasons. When soils are wet, horse hooves act like plungers that loosen fine particles of topsoil. These particles are then washed away by rain or irrigation. Keeping your horses off the pasture during wet periods will help you maintain a healthy pasture.
Install rain gutters and roof runoff systems on all barns, sheds, and outbuildings to divert the clean rainwater away from high traffic areas. Environmentally speaking, the golden rule is to “keep clean rainwater clean.” This reduces the amount of nutrients (from manure and urine) and sediments (from soil) washed off into surface waters. This also has the added benefit of substantially reducing the amount of winter mud created in your sacrifice areas.
Implement a manure management program. Begin by picking up manure on a regular basis in all confinement areas and high traffic sites. Stock pile manure away from ditches or water bodies and consider beginning a composting system. Compost is a rich soil amendment which improves the productivity of pastures, making grasses healthier and better able to hold moisture.
Cover manure storage areas to prevent rainwater from leaching nitrogen into waterways. The material used to cover your manure pile can be as simple as a canvas tarp or plastic sheet. Late spring and/or early fall is a great time to spread manure or compost on your growing grasses.
Keep manure, garbage, lawn clippings, and other contaminants out of ditches, wetlands, and water bodies. These systems serve as natural filters for water moving into lakes or groundwater supply. They cannot function properly when they are clogged with debris and contaminants.
Limit livestock access to ditches, creeks, lakes, wetlands, and water bodies. Not only does direct input of animal waste and sediment into surface water degrade water quality and destroy the aquatic environment, but horses and livestock allowed along the banks or steep slopes of irrigation ditches or other bodies of water can destroy vegetation, causing erosion. Furthermore, trees, shrubs and undergrowth are nature's system for filtering contaminants from runoff. They help prevent soil erosion, provide food and shelter for fish and other aquatic wildlife, and keep the water cool. Cool water is able to carry more oxygen than warm water, which benefits fish and keeps the whole system healthy. When these natural elements are destroyed by grazing livestock, a toxic environment is created for fish and other stream life.
Water efficiently. When possible, water at night or early morning, when evaporation is lower. For maximum efficiency in landscaping, use drip irrigation, micro-sprays or soaker hoses wherever possible. The goal is to apply water directly to the soil with minimal evaporation or runoff.
Install automatic waterers. Automatic watering systems help conserve water because they only use as much water as your horse can drink. Look for systems with moderate-sized water pans—a large one will quickly get dirty and full of algae, requiring frequent dumping and cleaning. Automatic waterers also circulate the water quickly, which means they won’t provide habitat for mosquitoes.
Reduce chemical use. Minimize herbicide use by using mechanical means to remove weeds. When you do decide to use herbicides, be sure to use the right product for the specific weed. Your conservation district, extension agent, or county weed control agency can help with identifying your weed, choosing the appropriate herbicide, and determining the best time of year to apply it. Spot spray following manufacturer directions instead of broadly spraying a large area. Always read and follow directions carefully and avoid spraying on windy days or when it is expected to rain soon.
Add wildlife habitat to your property. More and more wildlife habitat is disappearing as land is subdivided and developed. Even pastures don’t provide good habitat for most wildlife. Horse property owners can help offset this loss of habitat by planting or growing a diversity of vegetation that provides food and cover for wildlife. Consider landscaping with native plants that provide food and shelter for local wildlife. Save snags and downed trees—important non-living materials for the ecosystem—and create brush piles in unused corners of your pasture. Hang bird, bat, and butterfly boxes specific for the native species in your area. Attracting more insect-eating birds and bats will help you manage your mosquito and fly populations without pesticide. Resident owls and hawks will also help keep the rodent population under control.
To ensure horse owners have a place in the future, we need to take steps toward becoming an asset to our communities and not a detriment. Do your part as a responsible horse owner to protect your watershed, the environment, and our equestrian way of life by making your horse property a happier, healthier place for your horses—and you as well!