Property improvement. Here are five common changes that can be done at any stage on small and larger budgets to improve or redesign your existing horse property…
When horses become part of your life and you are lucky enough to own one (or a few), the next best thing is to be able to manage them on you own place, preferably in your backyard! For those of us who rode at riding schools or had our horses agisted when we were growing up, there is nothing more appealing than waking up in the morning and wandering out in your pyjamas to feed your horses or watch them graze, while holding a cuppa.
If this sounds like you, you may already have taken the big leap – either bought a block of land or you may be looking for a suitable property that meets your horsy needs and budget!
Properties that are suitable for managing horses are popular around the world, but Australia is quite unique as we have a large landmass, low population density and suitable climate for managing horses outdoors all year round.
While properties around the bigger cities will always be more valuable, in Australia, it is possible to find a suitable property at a reasonable price. This may range from a bare block of land to an established place.
Buying a new block of land and having a blank canvas to design your house and horse facilities would be a dream come true for some horse owners, while others will think it sounds like a lot of work or a costly exercise.
More often, horse owners end up buying (or renting) properties with an already existing layout that will reflect the previous use of the land. It can range from an old dairy farm, to bush land to a horse-breeding stud.
Typically, properties that do not have existing horse facilities are cheaper to buy (bearing in mind other factors, such as location, buildings and view etc.). Just like when you add the word ‘wedding’ to the sign, the word ‘horse’ tends to cause a magical price increase! This is why many horse owners end up buying properties that have either livestock facilities or limited infrastructure and have to invest in some re-designing.
The actual process of re-designing a property depends on the existing infrastructure and how feasible it is to repurpose it for horses.
The shape of the land, its potential and limitations, must all be taken into consideration. If you are intending to manage other animals such as cattle or sheep, you may want to retain any livestock infrastructure such as stockyards and fencing.
There are so many options and layouts that it will never be possible to address them all. Each property is unique and must be assessed separately because what works for one may not work in another climate and landscape.
However, what we can do is focus on the five things that horse owners typically have to prioritise and can be re-designed to suit their and their horses’ needs.
Property Improvement 1. Fencing
The most obvious change you can make to your property is to re-design the fencing. Initially, you focus on the fallen over or deteriorated fences, especially your boundaries, because you do not want your horses or livestock wandering on any public roads or your neighbour’s property!
A boundary or dividing fence is a fence that separates two properties. It usually lies on the common boundary of adjoining pieces of land, though it can lie mainly or completely in one property. A retaining wall is not classed as a dividing fence.
Legally, the dividing fence is the joint property of both property owners, which means anything that one owner does to it affects the other and may require cost sharing. Dividing fences are governed by the Dividing Fences Act 1961 and local government by laws. These fences are the responsibility of the property owners, so if you rent, you need to discuss any boundary issues with your landlord.
If you have to upgrade or fix a dividing fence you have to consult and, preferably, work with your neighbours. The better your relationship with them the easier it will be to encourage them to collaborate. It’s important that you become familiar with the dividing fence standards (such as type of materials/ fence types, height etc.) and that you know your rights and responsibilities when you are potentially dealing with a fence dispute.
Check with your local council and/or state government for more information about compiling a fencing notice and related information.
If you can work together with your neighbours, consider the following:
- Does the fence need replacing or repairing?
- Is the boundary clear? (It may require additional surveying)
- How much is each neighbour contributing?
- Who will be carrying out the work and what materials will be used?
- If neighbours are sharing the work, how will the workload be allocated?
- What is the time frame for the work to be completed?
- Where will the fence be placed?
- Any compensation for the loss of occupation of any land?
- How high does it have to be?
- What materials? What colour?
- How much will it cost?
- How will any existing fence be removed?
- Who will cover any additional or unexpected costs?
If your neighbours are not horse people, they might not want to invest in the additional costs of making fences horse safe. If you are set on a specific type of fencing, you may have to cover those extra costs.
In addition, you may have other requirements for certain sections of the property (for example, sections of the dividing fence around your house that you want to make dog proof).
If you can work out an arrangement to fix and set up your boundary with your neighbours it will significantly reduce your costs and will allow you to allocate more money to other facilities and internal fencing.
Property Improvement 2. Paddock and laneway redesign (internal fencing)
Paddock and laneway re-design will tie in with your boundary and internal fencing. If your dividing fencing is already well-maintained, the next thing to consider from a re-designing point of view is internal fencing.
Even before deciding on the layout for the paddocks, consider whether you want to set up a ‘second’ or internal boundary fence. If your neighbours are not keen on fixing old fences, if they also manage horses on their property and/or you manage stallions, you should consider creating a fenced laneway between your property and your neighbour’s property.
This also works if you are setting up your property as an agistment centre and you want to keep horses in individual paddocks or away from each other for quarantine purposes.
Another benefit of a ‘double boundary’ is that you can be less concerned with a dividing fence that is of a rural or livestock standard (e.g. barbed wire) and allocate more of your budget on ensuring your internal fencing is horse-safe.
Paddock layout and fencing
The redesign and building of internal fences is more flexible and can be achieved on a smaller budget. For example, to reduce cost you can opt for using electric fencing throughout your internal paddocks – either temporarily or as a permanent solution.
Before we discuss the type of fencing, consider the existing layout and try to visualise what your proposed paddock divisions will look like.
If you bought a property set up for livestock that has a few large paddocks, you can subdivide them into multiple paddocks to allow you to rotate and rest pastures more often.
If you bought a property already divided into many smaller paddocks, you might want to open them up into larger pasture areas for housing groups of horses.
The first thing to consider is access, i.e., driveways, laneways and gateways. Redesigning the paddock and laneway layout should be part of your larger property plan and drawings.
For example, if you are building a new stable block, you need to work out how you will connect the stable block with your main driveway and all your paddocks. Many horse owners are now interested in setting up a central loafing area, with centralised services and easy connections to all paddocks either directly or via laneways.
Even if you are not yet able to either fix or build all the proposed internal fences for your paddocks or laneways – you must set time aside to consider the bigger picture. When time and money allows you then zoom-in on particular sections of your design.
Nothing on a property stands alone, everything connects in one way or another due to the shape of the land and other elements such as how water flows through the landscape.
In addition, your design ideas may not actually work in practice due to other limitations, such as hills and gullies, vegetation or areas with high erosion.
Allow yourself time to observe and identify these so you can adjust your layout before you start investing in permanent internal fencing.
If you require more help with property design, consult with a land planning consultant that understands horse requirements.
When you have worked out your design you will be itching to upgrade or build new fencing. To make it easier on your budget, consider doing this in stages or sections. This allows you to keep horses contained in one area while you work on upgrading another. If you are on a smaller property and this is not possible, consider agisting the horses while you complete your fencing project.
Deciding on type of fencing
Have a look around at other horse properties in the area and make a list of possible fence types. Often, decisions will be made on cost (of materials and installation) and aesthetics and, while these aspects are important, your decision-making process should begin on the other side of the equation: What are your and your horses’ specific needs?
Different types of fencing suit different horse-care situations. For example, two older horses in a large pasture can be safely confined with fencing that might be entirely inappropriate for a large group of young horses in a smaller enclosure.
This means that if you manage a variety of horses, you might have to be flexible with materials and may end up using different types of fencing.
Consider first the aspects such as group dynamics (herd behaviour), grazing availability (area size), level of containment (any fence jumpers?), and keeping other animals out (such as dogs).
You should also account for your own specific needs such as having a house paddock that doubles up as pasture and riding area which may require a different style of fencing (for human safety).
Once you have a picture of your and your horses’ needs look at the installation components, i.e., the overall costs (including fence materials), construction time and/or labour.
Remember to include gates and ongoing maintenance costs when deciding on fence type.
Lastly, decide on the aesthetics and whether you want to compromise, build in stages or have a mixture of materials for different paddocks. The importance of aesthetics may be higher if you want to run a commercial business and you will have clients and other people visiting your property.
Once you established your main priorities, do your homework to check prices (including labour) and weigh your priorities against each other to determine which one ranks higher.
For example, you may want to consider the strength of the fence against safety (i.e. ability of horses bouncing of fences) and fencing costs or aesthetics against maintenance input.
Traditional looking post and rail white wooden fences require a lot of maintenance when compared with other products such as high-tensile electric fences or PVC rails with UV inhibitors.
PVC rails are more flexible/safer then high tensile electric fences as horses can bounce of them when running into them. But these poly products may be more expensive than a wooden post and rail and certainly more expensive than high tensile electric fences.
There are many types and brands so you will need to go through a selection process to way up all the factors that are important to you. (In an upcoming edition we will focus a bit more on fences and types available for horse properties.)
Property Improvement 3. Riparian and dam areas
A riparian zone is the land around creeks, streams, gullies, rivers and wetlands. These areas are unique and diverse and are often the most fertile parts of the landscape.
In a natural or well managed state, riparian areas are important for many reasons. They can support diverse vegetation, help maintain bank stability, and increase ecological and economic productivity. These conditions support cleaner water, reduce disease and pests, and retain important nutrients and soil.
Not all horse properties have waterways or have to manage riparian zones, however, most have man-made dams, and it is just as important to manage the land around them to avoid erosion and keep water clean.
Riparian and dam areas are vulnerable and easily degraded. Damage can be caused by uncontrolled stock access, clearing for agriculture or urban development, invasion by pests and feral animals such as rabbits, weeds such as privet, or from overuse by recreational activities.
Waste from horses, cows and sheep can contribute pollution, and trampling can destroy vegetation, soil structure, and result in loss of valuable soil and land.
The importance of managing riparian land well is increasingly being recognised, and protection, rehabilitation and restoration work is being undertaken across catchments in Australia – often supported by funding from Landcare and catchment organisations.
Landowners have legal rights and responsibilities for managing riparian areas. For example, landowners are entitled to take water from a river or creek, which fronts their land for domestic use and stock watering without the need for a water management licence. However, if you wish to undertake activities that may disturb vegetation, soil or water then it is best to consult with your council and local Landcare/catchment organisations.
Protecting water catchments
- Use fencing to control or prevent horses and stock access to waterways and riparian areas.
- Use water troughs to water animals.
- Encourage the regeneration of native plants or assist growth by planting natives and controlling weeds.
- Allow layers of different vegetation to grow: groundcovers, understory and canopy.
- Seek professional advice about erosion control, or about unique problems associated with crossings or bridges.
The benefits of well-managed riparian areas include: increased bank stability, improved water quality, easier stock management, and improved productivity.
The first and easiest way to avoid any damage to a water area is to fence it off from horses and livestock.
While we all like the idea of horses having free access to creeks or dams, over time this may significantly damage the waterway or dam banks. Not to mention the extra costs involved when banks break through and the potential danger of horses getting trapped in mud!
If you have riparian zones and or dams that require some repairs, you may have to bring in contractors to reshape some of the banks if these have been destroyed by either animals or water that may have forced its way out.
In case of riparian areas, it is advised to ask your local Landcare or catchment organisation for advice. Through such groups, you may be able to access funding or restoration assistance.
Another way to restore and manage your waterways is by re-vegetation.
By planting trees, shrubs and even water plants you can stabilise soil and/or banks which at the same time works as filters to keep your water clean. It will also help with outcompeting any major weed problems you have.
There are five main areas to consider when you’re planning revegetation activities:
- Species selection
- Planting techniques
You will have to do some soil area prepping and homework regarding which plant species are more appropriate for your area – what you may place in the riparian zone may not be good option around dams.
Connect with your local Landcare or catchment organisation for more information about restoration plans and potential funding options for restoration, re-vegetation and even fencing! This will all significantly reduce some of your property input costs.
Property Improvement 4. Planting shade trees in paddocks
Horses and livestock will appreciate a nice shady place to escape from the heat of the sun. Yes, you can build a shade shelter for this purpose, but why not plant a tree that can also add beauty to your property, too? Planting trees is the easiest (cheapest) way to make a big change on your property (although it takes a few years to see the results).
The trick is to manage the timing, species and placing of shade trees. Remember…
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now!
Some large shade trees may take up to 10 to 30 years to mature so, you may want to consider more fast-growing species that are nitrogen fixing and even fire retardant. Ideally, you should plant a combination of fast-growing and larger, slower-growing trees so that the fast-growing trees shelter and fix the slower growing/taller trees.
Connect with your local nurseries and Landcare organisation to discuss suitable trees for your area. This will give you an idea of the availability and cost.
You may also want to consider trees that double up as fodder for horses. This is a great way to offer variety, enrichment and an extra fibre source during drought times. We will discuss fodder trees and suitable species in our upcoming editions.
Some things to consider when deciding on planting shade trees, are:
- Budget – set up a budget for your shade tree planting project (which includes buying seedlings, prep material and, if required, labour).
- Species – choose both, slow and fast growing species that are safe for horses (i.e., avoid recognized poisonous trees and declared weeds).
- Location – away from structures and flooded areas (unless trees have preference for waterlogged areas)
- Number of trees– consider your grazing area and how much space you want to allocate for shade trees. You may opt for a combination of shade trees in some paddocks and man-made shelters in others.
- Spacing in paddock – ideally, you want to establish clusters of trees – decide how many and in what type of arrangement.
- Preparation of the soil – any compaction must be managed before planting. Grass will have to be removed, as it will compete with young seedlings.
- Booster – before planting seedlings you can prep roots with a tonic and mycorrhizal fungi to support growth.
- Watering – young trees will need watering to get established.
- Protection – protect young trees from horses and other predators such as rabbits, kangaroos etc. Add mulching and weed mats to grass and weeds away from young trees.
- Maintenance – such as the removal of overgrowth of grass/weeds and changing size of guards as your trees grow and mature.
Property Improvement 5. Shelter re-design
Some properties have existing sheds and potential animal shelters. If you are lucky, they will be of reasonable dimensions and located in the right place! In that case, with minor modifications you can turn them into horse shelters.
On a bare block you have the option to design or place a horse shelter specifically for your paddocks and horse needs.
All horses and ponies benefit from shelter that is clean, dry, and protects them from the weather. Horses can stay warm on their own even when it is very cold as long as the weather is still and dry. It’s when frigid wind blows or their coats become wet that they feel chilled. It is also unhealthy for their feet to be continually wet.
Some people like to stable their horses, others prefer to leave them outdoors. There are advantages to both methods of housing. Walk-in shelters provide shade and some relief from biting insects. Even if you do put your horse in a stable for periods of time, it can still be a good idea to have a walk-in shelter structure in your paddock or better still as part of a central loafing area.
No matter if you are redesigning your shelter or building a new one, you will need to consider the following aspects:
- Budget – how much money are you able to allocate to your shelter project
- Number of shelters – where possible you want to encourage group shelters and avoid individual shelter structures. Even if you run an agistment you may want to consider having both, group and individual shelter structures. Also take in consideration any natural shade areas that you have or are creating.
- Location – place your shed in an area that will not flood! You won’t want your horse standing in the wet, and the shelter will be more susceptible to rot. It will also be more difficult to keep the walk-in footing clean. Keep in mind the elements such as wind and sun when placing. Position the shelter so it is well away from gates or fences. This makes cleaning easier and there will be plenty of room for horses to get in and out. This will also be safer, as horses won’t crowd and bump into fences, or lean on gates.
- Design – keep in mind the behavioural needs of horses when designing or re-designing your horse shelter. Shelters with solid walls are not always useful if horses can’t scan the environment or see other horses. Consider how you can achieve a more open wall panel design. In addition, be aware that horses tend to hang out together along fence lines and, if your shelter is not well-designed, they may ignore it. You can also design shelters in a group arrangement, to facilitate views and herd behaviour.
- Dimensions – your shelter has to be large enough to allow all the horses to stand and lie down comfortably inside at the same time. It should not be possible for bossy horses to completely ban the underdogs from entering the shelter. A recommended size is about 4 x 3.5 m per average sized riding horse – about the same size as a stable, but this is just a guide – if you can provide a larger space, do. Dominant horses may make it difficult for others to stay in the shelter if there is limited space. Be sure the ceiling is high enough, ideally eight feet or higher.
- Materials and costs – there are numerous materials you can use to construct shelters, such as aluminium, steel, Colourbond, wood, polyester and rubber. Just like fencing, you have to weigh the pros and cons of costs, safety, durability and maintenance.
- Footing – a shelter area should be surfaced with a suitable material to prevent soil being washed out (and for trampling). There are different types to consider such as river sand, pea rock, crusher dust or erosion tiles or mats. Your choice may also depend on whether you would like this area to serve as a loafing area. Consider the comfort level of the footing for hoof health and encouraging horses to lie down and rest.
- Construction – you may have the time and skill to do the repairs or modifications on your shelters yourself or with some help. Alternatively, consider hiring a contractor to get your shelter modified or constructed. Always have a design drawing available.
Consider making the shelter portable so it can be dragged to different locations. This helps with hygiene, and when flooding becomes a problem, just make sure it’s secure.
While we all dream of having an unlimited budget to do all the 5 things highlighted above at once, there are also many benefits to breaking the process into more digestible chunks.
Start by deciding your list of priorities. Dividing or boundary fences must be dealt with first as wandering horses and livestock on public roads is something nobody wants! Fencing dams, then paddocks and building shelters may be your next projects in line. The best solution will result from juggling between your horses’ needs and your budget.
Setting up temporary electric fencing is an excellent way to see how the paddock division works before you invest in permanent fencing. Mobile fencing also allows you to remove barriers for maintenance and soil/pasture development.
To start designing or redesigning, get a map of your property and identify any areas that need work. Use coloured markers to highlight what needs to be repaired and what needs to be built as a total new structure.
Using transparent overlays over your property map you can start drawing new paddock layouts and filter out those that may not work. You can draw your riparian zones and proposed shade tree clusters in paddocks.
If you find this process difficult or manage a larger property with commercial purpose it can also be very useful to work with land planning consultants and architects provided they understand horse requirements.
Finally, once you have established your action plan, it’s time to implement!
No matter what stage you are at with your property, whether you have owned it for years or just bought it, the above 5 changes can be accomplished on both, small or large budgets.
This article was published in Horses and People November-December 2018 magazine.