How Green is Your Horse Farm?

These simple and environmentally-friendly horsekeeping practices can bring you and your horses into harmony with the land. By Alayne Blickle for EQUUS magazine.
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I'm up before dawn, because it'll be a big day here on our 10-acre horse property in Maple Valley, Wash. In a few short hours 50 or more vehicles will come up my driveway full of horse owners eager to learn about the environmental practices of my farm.

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This is what I do for a living: As the creator and director of Horses for Clean Water, I teach people how to manage horses in a way that works for them, their animals, their neighborhood and the environment. In other words, I promote ways to manage horses that minimize our impact on the world around us.

Implementing green practices on a horse farm needn't be difficult or expensive. Many of the topics I teach about are interconnected. For example, controlling water pollution improves the health of nearby streams and rivers, which in turn improves their suitability as wildlife habitat, which increases natural insect predators and decreases your populations of flies and mosquitoes. So, in fact, once you've established your new Earth-friendly systems, you may well find that you are saving time and money and doing less work in the long run.

At my open houses, I've introduced hundreds of people to environmentally friendly methods of horsekeeping. But I also encourage everyone to get in touch with local conservation districts, extension offices, environmental groups and other resources. A wealth of information is out there for anyone who wants to learn about how these strategies can best be applied in their area. Here's how you can get started.

Reduce Water Runoff

One of my main topics is nonpoint source pollution--contaminants that reach natural waterways via runoff over land or through the ground. Originating from precipitation as well as irrigation, leaky hoses and other man-made sources, waters that drain through livestock manure have a big impact on streams and wetlands: Sediments cloud the water, nutrients cause unbalanced vegetation growth and bacteria contaminate shellfish beds. Even if you don't have a stream or pond on your property, tainted runoff can damage local lakes or groundwater.

In our paddocks we use automatic waterers, which use only as much water as our horses can drink. Our insulated, geothermal system helps keep water cool during the summer and prevents freezing in the winter. Another advantage to an automatic waterer is that since water is circulating and not stagnant, it won't provide habitat for mosquitoes.

Here are other methods for conserving water and reducing the amount of polluted runoff from your farm:

  • If the water from your wash stall runs off onto the ground, plant grass or other vegetation to absorb it, filter out contaminants and break down soaps and chemicals.
  • Make sure hoses, faucets and sprayer heads don't leak.
  • Pick up manure in high-density turnout areas frequently.
  • Follow instructions when applying commercial fertilizers and pesticides, and do not use more than is necessary.
  • Plant "rain gardens," consisting of native plants clustered in shallow depressions with good drainage, to capture runoff from driveways, downspouts and other areas where water flows after storms.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers fact sheets, management tips and other information on nonpoint source pollution at www.epa.gov/owow/nps. Suggestions for reducing storm-water runoff, such as green roofs and permeable pavements, are described at cfpub.epa.gov/npdes/greeninfrastructure/technology.cfm.

Even a small horsekeeping operation generates tons of manure per year, which if handled improperly can cause problems with odors, flies and runoff.

Some horse owners store manure then spread it on pastures in its raw form. Manure is a good fertilizer, but raw feces may harbor parasite eggs and pathogens, so it's best not to spread it on fields that horses are grazing.

We promote composting as an excellent manure-management alternative. The breakdown of organic waste by microorganisms in a controlled environment, composting creates a nutrient-rich humus that bears no resemblance to its original ingredients. Although composting requires a little more attention, it offers several advantages over storing and spreading raw manure:

  • The heat generated by composting kills most parasite eggs and pathogens.
  • Fly populations decline with lost breeding grounds and the death of their eggs and larvae.
  • Composting eliminates foul odors and reduces the volume of waste materials you have to move.
  • Compost improves the condition and productivity of soil by returning beneficial microorganisms to it, improving its moisture-holding capacity and supplying nitrogen in a form accessible to plants.

If you can't compost for yourself, consider "outsourcing" the task to the community. Public landfills or commercial topsoil or garden facilities may accept your manure, but some may charge a special handling fee. Local gardeners, organic farmers and landscapers often seek out sources for horse manure: Post a "free manure" notice in a local garden center or on an Internet bulletin board, and you may find people willing to come haul it away.

Maintain Healthy Pastures

The ideal pasture for horses is full of healthy, nutritious grasses with few weeds. Unhealthy, overgrazed pasture doesn't provide as much nutrition and is also more vulnerable to erosion and provides less of a filter for runoff.

At our farm, the compost we apply to our four acres of pasture keeps them so productive that even in drought years we rarely irrigate, and we have more grass than our six horses can graze. Amend a field well enough with your own compost alone, and you'll spend that much less on commercial fertilizers and supplemental hay during the grazing seasons. Here are some more tips for keeping your pastures naturally healthy:

  • Mow or, if your pastures are small, hand-pull weeds before the plants produce seeds.
  • Pick up manure in paddocks, arenas and other high-traffic areas. Also consider harrowing your pastures, which breaks up manure so that the grass plants can utilize the organic material and nutrients. Harrowing also helps destroy fly habitat, but it does not kill parasites, so it is important to maintain a regular deworming program.
  • Employ rotational grazing. Move horses into a different turnout area, or erect temporary fencing to restrict access to "forbidden" areas, to give the grass an opportunity to recover after a period of grazing.
  • Find alternative grazers. Llamas and goats eat brush and shrubs, and sheep seek out blossoms and seedy plants, all of which are considered weeds in horse pastures. Occasionally adding other types of livestock to your pasture will help to keep those plants under control. If you don't care to purchase a menagerie of your own, you may be able to borrow animals from others in your community.
  • Clear fallen trees and other debris, such as unused farm equipment, from your pastures. Aside from the danger of injury these hazards pose, they can also provide a safe harbor that allows weeds and invasive plants to take hold.

In my part of the country--the Pacific Northwest--winter is particularly challenging for horse owners who have to face the daily sight of horses standing in mud up to their hocks. Aside from the messiness, living in mud is unhealthy for horses because it harbors parasites, bacteria and fungal pathogens.

At our farm, we create a sacrifice area, more commonly known as a paddock, to keep pastures from becoming overgrazed and ruined. This paddock becomes the horses' outdoor living quarters during the mud season.

To further reduce the mess, we pick up the manure regularly and install rain gutters on all the barns and outbuildings to divert clean rainwater away from the livestock areas. This step also serves to reduce the amount of nutrients and sediments washed into surface waters.

Native Plant Vegetation

I also encourage people to plant native trees, shrubs and wildflowers. More and more wildlife habitat is lost each year as land is subdivided and developed, and farm owners can help offset this loss by landscaping with native plants on non-pasture portions of their farms.

Not only do these plants provide shelter to birds that will help keep your insects under control, they also offer important benefits as timber crops, windbreaks, privacy buffers and firewood. The right plants also help stabilize eroding soils.

And many are worthwhile simply for their beauty. Thoughtful landscaping doesn't have to require a lot of work, but it can enhance the value of your property. As a bonus, you'll save the time and gasoline you would have spent mowing the areas you turn over to native species.

It's important to select plants that are native to your region. Local species will be best suited for your climate and conditions and will need less maintenance once they're established; also, they are less likely to become invasive, and they will provide food and shelter that is compatible with local wildlife. Even if you don't have acres to spare, there are many ways to tuck native plantings into your property:

  • Plant hedgerows instead of installing ornamental fencing. They act as wind barriers as well as an attractive visual boundary.
  • Surround confinement areas with nontoxic plants to absorb water and reduce mud.
  • Place buffer zones of native plants along the banks of streams, ponds and marshes to filter runoff and reduce erosion.
  • Replace all or part of your lawn with wildflowers, decorative shrubs and grasses that don't require mowing.
  • Line the driveway with decorative native shrubs and groundcovers to capture runoff.

A critical consideration when purchasing new plants for the landscape is to avoid species that are toxic to horses. Yews and oleanders, for example, are commonly sold for their ornamental value, but even small amounts can be deadly when ingested by horses. See "The 10 Most Dangerous Plants for Horses" (EQUUS 320). For more on incorporating trees into the landscape of a horse farm, see "It's Easy Being Green" (EQUUS 281).

Encourage Natural Pest Control
Where there are horses and manure, there will be flies. Repellents and insecticides provide quick and effective relief, but in high quantities they can harm fish, birds and beneficial insects. However, a variety of green strategies can help you close the breeding grounds and reduce the adult populations naturally, so you can accomplish more with less fly spray. Here are just a few things you can do:

  • Repair leaking faucets, pipes and waterers. The dampness and persistent puddles provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes and flies. Also pick up old tires and any other debris that can collect rainwater.
  • Move manure and household trash, especially food waste, into the compost pile or off of your property.
  • Supplement your efforts with natural predators. Purchase fly predators--nematodes and parasitic wasps--to release in manure piles and other breeding areas where they will feed on fly larvae and pupae. Also use plantings to encourage insect-eating birds, such as swallows, chickadees, purple martins and warblers, to stay on your property.

Similar tactics will work against the mice who lurk in your hayloft and come after your grains and sweet feeds:

  • Barn cats are fixtures in stables all over the country, but creatures such as owls and black snakes are also effective predators of the small rodents. Rock piles left in out-of-the-way locations provide cover for lizards and snakes that prey on bugs and rodents.
  • Store feeds in sealed containers, and clean up any spills promptly.
  • Periodically pull trunks and furniture away from interior walls in the feed room to look for telltale gnawed holes. Plug any you find with steel wool or wire. Also block off entry points such as the holes around pipes.

Use Products That Are Biodegradable

Have you considered how many chemicals you put into the environment? Add up all those fly sprays, the shampoos and conditioners that get washed into the yard, the liniments and topical skin treatments that wear off in the pasture, and any insecticides, fertilizers and other substances you use to keep your farm going, and you may have quite a list. Many chemicals contained in products like these can be harmful to fish and other wildlife when they reach the waterways in large quantities.

When you're using these substances, follow label instructions to make sure you're applying them properly and using the minimal amount necessary. Also, whenever it's feasible, switch to products labeled as biodegradable. These contain ingredients that can be broken down relatively rapidly in the natural environment.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Once, every farm in the country had its own dump: a spot some distance from the house and outbuildings, often in a natural hollow, where all the trash was thrown. Nowadays, most of us are sending our garbage through a municipal waste disposal system. But landfills everywhere are rapidly filling their finite spaces, and it''s becoming more important to separate items that can be recycled or reused.

Recycling newspapers, bottles and cans is already a well-established habit. In 2006, about 8,660 curbside recycling programs had been established in this country, and as of 2005 about 500 facilities had been established to process the collected materials, according to the EPA; 52 percent of all paper, 31 percent of all plastic soft-drink bottles, 45 percent of all aluminum beer and soft-drink cans, 63 percent of all steel packaging and 67 percent of all major appliances are now recycled. In total, the country now recycles 32.5 percent of its waste.

But we can do better. Take a close look at your daily practices with an eye toward what environmentalists call the "three Rs":

  • Reduce the amount of waste you discard. That means bringing in less by buying only what you need and choosing durable items that will last longer. Carry reusable cloth bags with you to avoid picking up that endless tide of plastic bags from every store. Select items with less packaging, and buy materials you use frequently in economy sizes or refillable containers.
  • Reuse items that are still functional in some way. Save glass bottles and jars for storing leftovers. Worn clothing and bedding can be cut into cleaning rags, torn into strips for scarecrows, or incorporated into leg bandages for horses. Donate serviceable clothes and furniture to thrift stores or charities. Many communities have "swap centers" where people can drop off or pick up unused cans of paint, building materials and other useful leftovers from home projects. New homes can be found for tons of stuff advertised through websites like Craigslist.org or Freecycle.org.
  • Recycle what you can. If you haven't already, put a recycling bin in your barn to collect small glass, metal and plastic items. Also look into other materials that can be recycled in your area. Many municipalities now have facilities to recycle electronics, used oil, tires, batteries and other hazardous wastes.

Two hours fly by and we are done with the tour. We've looked at simple, effective systems and methods all over our farm, and inspired horse owners are heading down the driveway with materials and resource lists in hand. A few are hanging around the paddocks swapping horse stories.

Suddenly, a wonderful sight rewards my morning's work: Two large birds soar out of the neighboring Douglas fir trees and across our paddocks. As they head across the front pasture, we squint to identify them. Bright white heads and tails give them away: Two bald eagles offer the grand finale at today's Horses for Clean Water farm tour.

What can top that? That's easy. My husband Matt and I saddle up our horses to head for the trails.

Further Resources

An important component of my work is to hook folks up with the resources and agencies available to them to help with implementing environmentally friendly choices for managing their land. Conservation districts are nonregulatory agencies that provide landowners with free education and technical assistance on a whole variety of natural resource issues.

To find your local conservation district, go to the website of the National Association of Conservation Districts (www.nacdnet.org) and click on "State Directories" under "NACD home."

Alayne Blickle, a lifelong equestrian and reining competitor, is the creator/director of Horses for Clean Water, an educational program that promotes environmentally sound horsekeeping.

This article originally appeared in EQUUS 371, August 2008. Find 75 ways to reduce, reuse and recycle on the farm in EQUUS 389, February 2010. Call 301-977-3900 to order back issues.