Managing horses can be a rewarding experience, but it can also be challenging. Horse owners often struggle to balance the needs of their horses with environmental concerns, while remaining within their farm’s budget.
In the United States, farmers must comply with both federal and state regulations concerning agricultural sediment, pathogens, and nutrient pollution to the air and water. Fortunately, researchers have determined a set of best management practices (BMPs) that are the most effective, practical and economical means of reducing and preventing pollution. In addition to the cost-savings of BMPs, these practices typically increase animal welfare and facilitate farm management.
This article provides horse owners with a few best management practices available that can benefit owners, horses and the environment. Usually BMPs are not needed for the entire operation, and installation can be targeted to areas that have the highest potential to pollute the environment, especially those areas that could affect surface or ground water.
Streams and Waterbodies Limiting horse access to streams and riparian areas (land near streams) can greatly reduce pollutant loads to surface and ground water.
- Stream Crossings Implementation of a stream crossing with exclusion fencing will improve water quality, as well as reduce nutrient, sediment, pathogen and organic matter loads to streams. Limiting foot and equipment traffic around these areas also helps reduce farm-wide erosion. Stream crossings can be designed for use with farm equipment and can provide horses with easy access to pastures that are normally difficult to access, thereby improving grazing distribution while reducing the likelihood that horses will be injured while reaching these pastures.
- Riparian Buffer Zones A riparian buffer is the transitional zone between the aquatic ecosystem and upland areas bordering a stream or other body of water. Maintaining and enhancing vegetated riparian buffers provide landowners with the benefits of reduced erosion and flood damage from the slowing of water, increased farm aesthetics from attractive vegetation and shade, water temperature regulation that stops algae growth and improves fish habitat, and naturally filters contaminants from farm runoff. Wider buffers (>160 feet) tend to be more efficient in removing nitrogen from water, but a smaller buffer of 20 feet on each side of a stream bank will at least provide stream-side protection and some filtering of contaminants.
Paddock and Pasture Allowing horses to behave as they would naturally can lead to overgrazing, congregation in sensitive areas, buildup of mud, loss of vegetation, compaction of soils and erosion of pasture areas.
- Grade Stabilization Structure If gully erosion is a problem on your farm, the maintenance of paddock vegetation is the best way to control further erosion. Owners sometimes place roll bales in gullies, hoping to keep soil in place and stop further erosion. However, this practice actually worsens erosion as horses are attracted to the gully to eat the hay. To free up this unusable land and to prevent injuries to horses, the gully can be managed through the construction of a grade stabilization structure. These structures stabilize gullies by controlling the flow of water and absorbing stream energy, but gradually decrease the necessary elevation change between the channel (former gully) and the receiving surface water body to prevent erosion from occurring. A typical structure accomplishes this by using a series of closely placed posts and cattle panels to hold large rocks in place.
- High-Traffic Pads and Dry lots Congregating horses around feeding and watering areas can create mud, increase soil compaction, eliminate desired vegetation and lead to increased weed infestation. To reduce these problems in high-traffic areas, horse owners should install hardened surfaces and use rotational feeding and watering practices to reduce damage to pastures and horse health. When walking in mud, horses require additional energy, thus feed costs are increased. The construction of dry lots and hardened surfaces in high-traffic areas can help maintain forage, decrease mud and erosion, reduce the internal parasite pressure caused by larva hatching from feces, and allow tractors and other farm equipment to be brought into feeding areas without causing rutting and damage to the soil.
- Rotational Grazing Rotational grazing moves horses from one paddock to another fresh area to optimize the foraging diet of horses and to allow forage regrowth. Rotational grazing improves plant diversity and regrowth speed, prevents erosion and filters runoff due to the maintenance of adequate vegetative growth, and can greatly improve the health of your herd compared to continuously grazed systems. With improved forage quality and a reduction of mud creation from constant foot traffic, supplemental feed and medication costs are typically reduced significantly. Periodically move mineral supplements, feeders and shelters to redistribute horses throughout a paddock, thus avoiding troublesome manure accumulation.
- Shade Structures Providing your horses with adequate shade is necessary to prevent sunlight and heat-related illnesses. Horses generally prefer shade from trees rather than constructed structures. Trees are effective at blocking incoming solar radiation, and moisture evaporating from their leaves helps cool surrounding air. If there are not enough trees for the number of horses, they will congregate densely, eroding the soil and exposing the roots, which can damage or kill the trees. Portable, low-cost shade structures can be built with a 70% or greater occluded cloth to be easily moved within and between pastures as part of a rotational grazing system. The ability to move these structures facilitates manure cleanup and lessens soil compaction and/or mud creation underneath. Research indicates that a well-designed portable shade structure can reduce total heat load by 30-50% and should be placed in a north-south orientation to help keep dry the area underneath.
Barn and Work Areas Several facilities management practices can reduce the potential for off-site movement of pollutants.
- Pervious Concrete for bathing and drainage areas Bathing or rinsing a horse is a common practice for individuals who exercise, show and sell horses. Horse owners want bathing areas that are safe for the horse with sufficient traction for horse hooves, but also want to avoid the pathogens, bacteria, detergents, pesticides, urine, manure and other suspended solids from the waste water runoff because they have the potential to pollute surface and ground waters. Pervious concrete may be the best alternative surface material for such horse facilities because it provides infiltration of wash water and reduces the splashing of ponded or puddled water and provides a habitat, within the substrate matrix, for beneficial bacteria to thrive. These bacteria are capable of destroying harmful pathogens found in animal waste. Wash water infiltrating the pad and substrate can be discharged through a vegetative filter strip or other treatment system to further slow and filter the contaminants in the water.
- Composting We all dread the loss of a horse, but it is an unfortunate reality that must be dealt with. There are many options available for the disposal of a beloved horse, but the best way to make good of the situation is through composting. Composting does require time and space, and some specialized equipment may be needed. Composting can provide horse owners with a convenient method for disposing of animal mortalities, while providing a valuable soil amendment if land applications are made. The compost material can also be stored and reused to decompose other mortalities.
- Barns and Housing facilities drainage To keep clean farm runoff clean, diversion practices should be implemented if water enters the facilities from upland sources. Levees, dikes, drainage swales and diversion ditches can be cheaply created to carry the water away to a vegetated filter strip or drainageway. Placing gutters on the sides of buildings diverts clean rain water away from horse handling areas and prevents the pollution of this otherwise clean and usable water.
To prevent polluting the environment, horse owners need to identify the sources of pollution on their farms and implement best management practices.
University of Kentucky Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering faculty members Stephanie Mehlhope, MA, Sarah Wightman, and Steve Higgins, PhD, Director of Animal and Environmental Compliance for the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station, provided this information.