Go green with your farm to make your horses healthier, the environment cleaner, and even improve the neighbors' opinion of your place.

There's a lot of buzz about "going green" these days. From installing energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs to carrying reusable grocery bags, we've made steps in our households toward impacting the environment less and improving the global climate. Managing horses is generally not forgiving to the environment (visualize brownish streams coming down the hillside from the manure pile in the rain, and fly spray chemicals rinsing down the wash stall drain). In this article we offer ways we can adjust our management to be more environmentally friendly.

Water Quality

Alayne Blickle, program director for Horses for Clean Water, says reducing nonpoint source pollution should be horse owners' first goal when they go green. Nonpoint source pollution is caused by runoff during rainfall or snowmelt that picks up and carries away natural (urine and manure, for example) and human-made (i.e., pesticides) pollutants, depositing them into natural bodies of water and ground water.

"The bottom line is protecting water quality," she says. "Drinking water and surface water really are our number one issue in the world today."

Through Horses for Clean Water, which is based in Maple Valley, Wash., Blickle and her husband have helped hundreds of horse owners move toward more environmentally friendly farm management methods through farm tours, seminars, and e-newsletters.

"For horse owners, protecting the water supply means reducing any runoff that might be from mud and manure, it means keeping rainwater clean, and it means conserving water, particularly for some parts of the country," Blickle says. "Some of the things people can do are creating a sacrifice area or a paddock ... this helps keep pastures from becoming overgrazed in the summer and muddy and compacted in the winter. And the reason why having good pasture is important for water quality is the grass holds the soil in place. Soil is very valuable, and if it gets washed off, it can produce a potential surface water issue."

Joyce Harman, DVM, who runs Harmany Equine Clinic in Flint Hill, Va., a holistic practice, went "green" with her stable and clinic many years ago. "You really need to look for a local building contractor, people who build riding arenas, and if they do a good job, they should be very clued in on how to make the land work--where to put ditches, etc.," she says. "Local county extension offices can be a good resource as well, because they're accustomed to giving advice on farmland to improve it."

Harman says the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP, a USDA-subsidized program that helps people improve the drainage to prevent erosion problems on farms (www.fsa.usda.gov/FSA/webapp?area=home&subject=copr&topic=cep), is also ready to help farm owners figure out where they can fence off consistently wet and flood plain areas. "They pay you for taking some of your land out of production," she explains. "People have creek crossings that are all torn up, and if you fence off the creeks, they will build you a creek crossing. There are quite a few resources out there to try and help people with conserving water quality."

Soil Quality

Soil quality goes hand in hand with water quality, since water moves and is filtered through soil. The cause of a soil pollution problem can be from runoff from neighboring properties, or it could be linked to streams that flow through agricultural-use land before running through your farm. According to Blickle, toxic elements such as arsenic naturally occur in the soil. Contaminated or unhealthy soil can make it difficult to grow nutritive grass, and it can cause health problems in your horses that eat the grass.

Blickle and Harman recommend testing your soil. Once you see what organic matter and good bacteria are in it, you'll have a better idea of your soil health and what you can do to improve it. Contact your county extension or conservation district offices for soil testing advice, or look to www.acresusa.com for more holistic soil information.

Also, consider what the land was used for prior to your ownership. If it was used to grow apples, oranges, peaches, grapes, or other crops, there could be toxins in the soil. "If your soil has had that sort of thing happen to it in the past, then get some of these holistic soil guys to help," advises Harman. Those businesses devoted to "cleaning up" soil for farm owners, and, according to Harman, their treatments can be quite effective.

She says soil quality has been the source of problems at several farms where horses showed a variety of clinical signs that didn't improve with treatment. Describing a recent farm she visited, Harman says the horses "were not well" and there was no consistent diagnosis or cause, "We did some hair analysis on the horses, determined what they had picked up from the soil (the land had been treated with sludge fertilizer), then we did the detoxification, and (ultimately) they moved away from the farm," says Harman. "Every one of the horses is fine now."

Erosion, Grass Quality

"When you have horses and you have pastures," Blickle says, "really what you are is a grass farmer, and as a grass farmer, your soil is paramount to the productivity of your place and the success of your operation. We don't want to see it get washed off the property; it's very difficult to recreate, and if you don't have it, you can't grow grass."

Erosion problems on horse farms are tremendous. We discussed erosion in the May issue of The Horse, but we again underscore the importance of optimizing grass growth to prevent the problem. Besides being kinder to the environment and making your property more aesthetically pleasing, optimizing your pastures can significantly reduce feed bills and improve the health of your horses, says Harman.

Healthy and healthful grass doesn't equal a perfectly green, lawnlike pasture that's fantastically fertilized and free of weeds, says Harman. "Horses by nature eat a variety of plants; they don't eat just grass. So what we want is to have a field of greens; they can be grasses, some dandelions, and all kinds of little weeds and plants," she says. "The variety of plants keeps the soil together."


"Manure management is a huge nonpoint pollution issue, and a pretty easy one to manage," says Blickle. "Because the nutrients and sediments from manure can wash into waterways and leech into ground water, and since many people in rural areas are on wells, it can easily get into the ground water and contaminate drinking water. But you can turn it from a liability to an asset."

The solution is composting. "The former technique (at my farm) was to stockpile it in the back of the pasture," explains Blickle. "But now we compost out by the barn, and spread the finished compost twice a year on the pastures. There's only enough to do one-third of our pastures at any time--and that's with from five to eight horses on three to four acres in pasture. With that many horses and those few acres, we still don't have enough compost.

"The pile reduces in volume about 50% during the composting process, so you end up with only half the problem you started with--a 5-foot-tall pile of manure instead of a 10-foot one--it's so much more manageable," she continues. "We jealously guard it. Sometimes people ask us for some and, quite frankly, we don't give it away, we need it. It's like black gold."

Even though you're essentially storing excrement, the compost pile need not be offensive. "A healthy manure pile has no odor," Harman says. "It's very pleasant. Smells kind of like earth." She notes that in some areas of the country, due to low humidity and high temperature, composting isn't an option. See article #6631 at TheHorse.com for more on composting.

Something that will render your compost worthless as a fertilizer for gardens and can actually harm the environment is feeding your horses hay from fields that have been treated with the herbicide Grazon (containing clopyralid). Manure from horses that have eaten this hay (or grass) still contains the chemical--it will persist in the organic material for five years--and if you compost this manure and put it on an ornamental or vegetable garden, it will kill all broad-leaved plants. If you are unable to find out if your hay sources use Grazon on their pastures, you can try to grow a test plot of vegetables using composted manure from your horses. "Veggies tend to start out fine and grow up to a certain point, then they shrivel up," Harman says.

Take-Home Message

Blickle says her farm now is aesthetically pleasing, and the neighbors like it, too. She says their pastures are more productive. "It's healthier for the horses--they are getting a high-quality diet, they're not eating a lot of weeds, and they're not standing in mud so they're not getting exposed to the parasites and pathogens and fungal organisms that live and breed in mud," she says. "Our vet bills have even been reduced."

Harman adds, "I think it's extremely important we be good stewards of the land, and horse farms usually have quite a bit of land associated with them, and that makes it all the more important. Going green contributes to the long-term health of not only the land, but the animals and the people who live on it."

There are additional measures you can take in your own barn to be friendlier to the environment, even beyond caring for water, soil, grass, and managing waste. See "Getting Greener" above for suggestions.

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More