With the growing awareness and concern over climate change, many farmers are turning to more regenerative practices. However, it is not exactly something seen a lot in the equestrian world, which is a shame considering how most equestrians are nature-lovers. Most of the time, the focus is on growing the best pasture with the fewest weeds and somehow managing the manure in the simplest way possible. But what if there was a way we could pay the environment back with our horses?
Grazing Animals and the Soil
Grass and grazing animals are incredible things. Grass can take a huge amount of carbon dioxide from the air and put it into the soil, and grazing animals can help to stimulate growth by defecating on the grass and periodically cutting it back where it has to put effort out again to grow, pulling more CO2 out of the air. Additionally, grasslands can be home to dozens of species of insect and small animal life because of the variety of plants that thrive in grasslands. This makes pastures a ripe opportunity for having a significant impact on the environment, even if on a small scale.
There are three basic areas in which we can do this: 1) herbicides, 2) pesticides, 3) fertilizer. These create a significant environmental impact, affecting soil health, native beneficial insects, and water purity. The degree to which we go to minimize these things is highly flexible and can be simply implemented in a variety of circumstances.
Herbicides are especially a problem. They tend to kill anything that isn’t grass indiscriminately, wiping out not just the weeds toxic to horses but also herbs that are beneficial to horses and other wildlife. Sure, it makes a pretty picture, but it doesn’t really solve the problem. Instead, you have to look at what is growing. Many weeds thrive in areas where the soil is deficient in a nutrient. While it’s quicker to spray herbicide to get rid of weeds toxic to horses, it’s worth looking at them to see what they indicate about the soil. You may not be able to get away from spraying altogether, but you can at least minimize it by treating the soil for what it needs. If the noxious weed load is low, you can spot-treat those areas with agricultural vinegar (which is much stronger than regular vinegar from the grocery) or other weed control methods that work for you.
There are other options too. Other livestock thrive more off broadleaf herbs than they do weeds, goats in particular. The benefits to a partner-species like goats (our personal choice) is that they can also minimize the parasite load, as horse parasites don’t survive in other species and vice versa. You can add a partner species to your pasture in a couple of ways: 1) graze them in the same field with the horses, 2) rotate pastures or fence off a section inside a pasture with a moveable fence. The advantage to option 1 is that it’s relatively straightforward. The disadvantages, however, are that you don’t completely get rid of the parasites (if that’s a goal) and that you have to make sure your horse fence is secure for other species. Goats and sheep can get out of much horse fencing (goats especially), and if you have large horse pastures, that can get expensive fast. Therefore, rotating is usually preferred. However, it means you have to move the animals more frequently. As we develop our new place in the Hickory Nut Gorge, we’re opting for fencing off sections of our pastures with moveable fence so that we can move our goats around in different areas. The horses won’t miss those small chunks of pasture, and the goats are safe from getting stepped on or kicked (or getting into trouble as goats tend to do).
When using partner animals, make sure that the noxious weeds you’re trying to get rid of aren’t harmful to the partner species. Also, there are some nutritional challenges. We went with goats over sheep because horses and goats require higher amounts of copper in their diets, while that can be fatal for a sheep. So if we put out free-choice minerals for the horses or fertilized with chicken litter (high in copper), we’d run the risk of hurting any sheep we’d get! We didn’t have as much luck with partner farming cattle in the past, and we have no experience with camelids (like llamas or alpacas) and aren’t quite ready to embark on that challenge yet.
However, remember that not all “weeds” are bad. Clover can help put nitrogen back in the soil, plantain is good for burns or cuts, purslane is high in omega-3s, and other flowering plants give food to pollinators. A diet consisting of only one species of plant may make your horse miss out on the opportunity to graze on different plants with different nutritional offerings. This is not how horses have grazed in historical pastures or in nature for millennia. The key is to educate yourself on noxious weeds and exactly how toxic they are so you can be comfortable and confident that your pastures have biodiversity but are safe.
The bane of every horse owner is pests, whether they are flies/mosquitos or internal parasites. These can be tricky to deal with. However, many pesticides are indiscriminate killers and can negatively impact aquatic life (pyrethrins, the main ingredient in fly spray and barn fly spray systems, are especially toxic to fish). There are a few ways we can deal with them in a more holistic manner, depending on your situation. The simplest way is to be meticulous about making sure pastures are dragged, no standing water is left in buckets (besides for drinking), and barns are kept clean. This is a very effective method and often is sufficient. Dragging pastures breaks up the manure, which dries out the maggots and parasitic worms. Cleaning the barn and dumping stagnant water makes sure that there’s nowhere for the noxious insects to breed.
However, sometimes this isn’t enough or completely practical. For example, you may have a neighbor who lives close and doesn’t dump their water or has other livestock and practices no control. You may also live in a wet area with a lot of natural standing water. You may not have the time or people to make sure everything is meticulously cleaned. This is when you have to be creative. Fly traps can be very effective at catching flies, and there are many options out there that don’t use poisons (my personal favorites are the Pop! traps from Tractor Supply; they’re refillable and very effective). Fly predators can also help with naturally eliminating fly eggs and larvae before they grow up to be big. Something as simple as adding a $10-$15 solar fountain from Amazon can stir up stagnant water and disrupt the life cycle of mosquitos (as well as slow down the cleaning frequency of horse troughs while making the water more palatable).
Partner animals can also be very helpful, even wild ones. Poultry are very effective at eating parasites out of manure (and even hunting and catching flies midair) as well as breaking up the manure so it can dry out for the parasites they don’t eat. We’ve used guineas, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese for insect control, and frankly, ducks came out on top in our experience. They can be voracious foragers and active bug hunters, and pastures they frequented were often much lower in parasites than the others. Guineas are helpful, but they’re very noisy and harder to gather eggs from. Chickens are great for scratching manure, but we found they didn’t actively hunt flies quite like the ducks. Geese are great companions to the ducks to keep them safe, and they’re very entertaining. Turkeys we found to be feathered puppies, following us everywhere (perhaps more concerned with being with people than with foraging for bugs…). This is our experience, so others may have different experiences and preferences.
Wild animals such as wild birds and bats are also wonderful parasite hunters. Many birds, including hummingbirds, eat flies, and others love to get into horse manure to dig around for treasures. It’s worth installing bird houses around the pastures for a variety of bird species so that you have a rich array of wildlife eating flies. Keeping bird houses outside helps prevent having too many bird nests (and droppings) inside the barn. Bats are their creepier cousins that eat an insane amount of mosquitos in one night.
For localized areas, you can get geraniol spray concentrates that you can dilute and spray around the barn or arena to deter flies. This spray does have to be reapplied regularly, but it’s worth it for those spots. Planting insect-repelling plants is also surprisingly effective; we kept lavender, lemongrass, lemon balm, lemon thyme, and mountain mint around our old arenas and are slowly planting those at our new arena. We noticed a huge difference after we planted those, and they also made for attractive arena markers, delicious teas, and just a happy environment. Other plants are also effective; those were just the ones we ended up with at the time.
For internal fly control, we’ve had mixed results. Feed-through garlic can be hit or miss, as you really need the entire barn to be on it to be effective (not ideal in boarding situations). Feed-through fly poisons can have a negative impact on local water supplies, and we and others noticed that they were not reliably effective year-to-year. Diatomaceous earth is also not as effective in our experience. Others swear by it, but we did not have as good of luck with it.
This is where horses shine for helping the environment: their poop! Using conventional fertilizers, while effective in the short-term, can actually negatively impact the soil’s micronutrients and microbiome, creating an imbalance and resulting in a greater need for fertilizer each year. The run-off also can create algae blooms, which are deadly to aquatic life. Instead, horse poop is wonderful fertilizer, if you use it correctly. The easiest way to use it is to spread it over the fields. This actually can create a carbon sink in the soil as it decomposes into rich organic matter. However, raw manure still has parasite eggs and can be a bit strong on the pasture, killing grass instead of nourishing it. Therefore, the best way to fertilize with horse manure is by composting it first. In an ideal world, you’d clean out the pastures, compost the manure, and spread it back out. This would kill off parasites (including fly eggs/larvae) with the composting process, grow beneficial bacteria, and unlock nutrients so they’re more usable by the grass. It also kills off weed seeds so that you’re not spreading those back out on the fields. However, that’s not always feasible. Dragging pastures is a good second-best, and composting stall pickings before spreading is often straightforward to do. We usually have gone the slow route and left our compost piles for six months to a year and then spread them, but regular turning or even adding forced-air systems can speed up the process significantly. We allow our poultry to scratch around on the compost pile so that they churn the surface a bit and get some tasty bugs in the process. Composting can be an art in itself, so it’s worth reading into how to optimize your compost so it’s the best “black gold” you can put on your pastures.
You can also add other additives to the soil if it needs more support. You can purchase microbes that you dilute and spray onto the fields, which help to restore the natural bacteria that make the soil alive and healthy. We have also been fortunate enough to get free compost materials from others, such as tree trimmings from the power company when they’re trimming branches (watching out for toxic trees like cherry and walnut), old shavings, and even old hay. We’ve even composted spoiled feed that a feed store was throwing away!
While the biggest impact of the compost is on the pastures, it also can really improve a garden. When we’ve had extra compost, we put it on gardens so that we’re optimizing every inch of the land.
There’s much more to applying regenerative agriculture ideas to an equestrian facility, but this is a good start that is feasible for most people. While it takes a different approach, it is not impossible to implement at least some of the principles to minimize a negative impact and start creating a positive environmental impact. You may find that it becomes a much more enriching environment for yourself and your horses while making you feel good about the positive impact you’re having on the environment. If you’d like to learn more about what might specifically help your situation, please reach out to us, and we’d be happy to share what has worked for us and what might work for you!