Growing Horses and Soil Quality

Whether you currently own a farm or are in the process of looking for one, the land itself is a consideration beyond location, outbuildings, acreage, and price. The vegetation, soil, water, and bedrock that are the foundation of the top layer of the ground all affect the health and strength of your horses. But where do you start to make sure that your horses are getting the most benefit from the land they live on?

First, take a soil sample. This is a test that can run from no charge (as in the state of Georgia) to $25 for each sample, depending on how many facets of your soil you would like analyzed and how many different samples you take. Be sure to tell whoever is analyzing the soil its intended use so the applicable levels will be reported. Soil samples can be run through your County Cooperative Extension service, a university soil testing lab, or extension agents can recommend private labs or consultants who can give further assistance.

After the sample or samples are analyzed, you will receive a computer printout detailing the levels of nutrients present in your soil, including phosphorus, calcium, sulfur, the pH or measure of acidity, and potassium. If your farm has been pieced together from an older farm and additional land that might not have been used previously for livestock, take samples from different portions of the farm.

"This keeps you from spending money on fertilizers you don't need on the parts of the farm already blessed with minerals," said Dr. John Grove, an associate professor of agronomy at the University of Kentucky.

He also suggested that once you have the initial soil test done, you should continue to monitor the nutrient levels every three to four years, and on land managed for hay, every two years.

Horses, just like humans, need basic levels of certain minerals and vitamins on a daily basis for good health. When horses graze, they are getting some of those nutrients from the soil via the grasses they are eating.

"A good horseman has to be aware of two nutrient requirements," said Kenneth Wells, PhD, professor and extension soil specialist with the University of Kentucky, "one being the nutrient requirements of the crop, one being the nutrient requirements of the horse. The two are not always the same."

Once you have the soil sample results, you might need to add phosphorus, potassium, or other nutrients either to the soil, a horse's diet, or both.

"You may need to adjust for legumes, red clover, alfalfa, or change from weeds to better-quality grasses," said Grove. "Change your chemical management first. A change in physical management is more challenging."

The chemical management and additives to the grasses are far from the only option that should be considered.

"Some people think you can balance the horse's ration by feeding the grass," said Wells. "That's not necessarily true. The soil is like a real stingy banker. It won't give the grass 100% of everything put on the soil, and it's not economically efficient. If the soil is already rich enough to support good growth, you're wasting your money putting more nutrients on the soil. Don't delude yourself to think that if the crop needs x and you put out 2x, you're doing your horse a favor. You can self-impose an imbalance on the soil which can affect the crop, and in turn, affect the horse. Supplement the horse's ration with other additives instead."

If you've worked with your soil and the crops being produced are adequate, yet your horses are still lacking nutrients, Wells suggested you do an analysis on the hay or pasture and find out what the horses are eating. You also should make sure you're familiar with the nutrition information on any packaged feeds.

Beyond Sampling

Joe and Mike Riddell of Riddell Realty in Lexington, Ky., agree that samples are the first step, but they have gone a few steps beyond soil and nutrients to try and help their clients produce the strongest horses possible. The brothers have made a business of not only selling property intended to be used for raising horses, but working with their clients on every aspect of development of those properties as well.

Joe comes from a farm management background, while Mike is an agricultural engineer. Together, the two preach a "work with the land" sermon, combined with the knowledge that not every piece of property is ideal for raising horses.

"If you understand your farm and understand your nutrients, you can raise a good horse anywhere if you know the contents of your grass, hay, and what you're feeding them," said Joe. "I just like to have Mother Nature helping."

To that end, Joe and Mike capitalize on the good land Mother Nature has given Central Kentucky while helping their clients find "horse land." This includes not only what can be seen by the naked eye, but everything from barns to bedrock. The area surrounding Lexington is part of the Cincinnati arch, an area of raised phosphorus-rich limestone that historically has produced strong-boned horses of many breeds, particularly Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds. While exploring a piece of land for their clients, the brothers research and label topographical maps detailing the types and depths of limestone under the surface, water and drainage patterns, prevalence of sink holes, and other factors that could affect the equine athlete.

They talk of things like Maury silt loam, a type of well-draining soil named after a county in Tennessee. Other soil types include McAfee silt loam and its rich minerals, and Tanglewood, the original phosphatic limestone base that over the years dissolves, but leaves all-important phosphorus behind in the form of the mineral apatite which is "mined" by the roots of trees and grasses. While Maury and McAfee aren't even seen by the horses that run over the top of it or the owners who put up beautiful barns above it, the effect the Riddells feel the nutrient-rich basis has on horses--young foals in particular--is enormous. "If you raise horses on high phosphoric soils, it is the recipe for success," said Joe.

When evaluating a possible aquisition, the Riddells start simply by looking at the lay of the land. Folklore has it that big trees equal good land for raising horses. Joe said that's not too far from the truth because trees also benefit from high phosphorus levels in soil. Beyond trees, sinkholes indicate the presence of caverns that are made of mineral-rich rock. The presence of natural springs is also a tip-off. Limestone bedrock forces water to travel across its layers, collecting minerals as it moves. When it does reach the surface, often in the form of natural springs, the result is clear, rich water. Too much water either sitting in a creek bed or retained in soil is bad, as wet hooves are not strong hooves. But water that feeds the soil, then drains well, can only enhance an already-fruitful equation.

While the Riddells are high on the blessings heaped upon these select areas in Kentucky, Ocala, Fla., and Shelbyville, Tenn., that have a high phosphatic limestone base, they also are quick to point out that while having the elements occurring naturally is preferred, knowledge of the necessary elements is the key. Joe uses a farm he managed for Canadian Thoroughbred owner Frank Stronach as an example.

While Stronach was breeding horses with the bloodlines to become outstanding racehorses, the results were somewhat underwhelming at the track. Riddell said that by understanding the amount of calcium and phosphorus needed to lay down strong bones in horses (about 1.2 or 1.3 to 1), particularly in the first 15 months of their life, he could supplement the horse's feed to achieve the same results that Stronach's new Adena Springs yearling nursery near Versailles, Ky., (which produced champion Basqueian in its first crop to race) could produce naturally.

Lay of the Land

But everyone can't be lucky enough to find, buy, or be sitting on the perfect land.

"What it's fairer to say, if you decide to grow horses on your particular farm, you should understand what the limitations are and make the soil more favored for the plants you're going to produce," said UK's Grove. "Work to try and create a physical surface that's a little more desirable for animals to be treading. One of the things you've got to realize is that between the soil and the animal, there is a plant community."

Grove acknowledged that at some farms, the plants exists only for erosion prevention, but when they are for a large amount of forage, the soil is often fine-tuned to create a desirable plant community.

"Soil is a manageable resource," said Grove. "You don't want steep hillsides or boggy bottoms, but anything in between can be managed for suitable horse production. I don't feel that the majority of the limitations live within the soil. The limitations that are imposed deal more with the logistics of the site, its size, and slopes."

For additional help with the content of your soil, or advice on its management, talk to your local extension agent, Wells advises.

"They are thoroughly knowledgeable about the county in which they work, and are backed up with the research base of the land grant university in the state," he said. "They have access to the best, most unbiased information that is available, and should be capable of focusing that on an individual horse owner, wherever they may be."

About the Author

Kristin Ingwell Goode

Kristin Ingwell Goode was a staff writer for The Blood-Horse, a weekly Thoroughbred news magazine and a sister publication to The Horse.

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