Grass Farmers: Land Management for Horses

The Equicentral System is Jane and Stuart Myers’ complete approach to property layout, and provides practical solutions for sustainable horse and land management on your property. 

It is a system that works by utilising your horses’ natural cycles of grazing and loafing as an advantage, and is an opportunity to enhance the health and wellbeing of the horses themselves, and the land they live on, as well as the environment at large. 

In previous articles, Jane and Stuart outlined the system, discussed the surfaced, central holding yard and the importance of rotational grazing. In this article, we ask Australian Equicentric Grass Farmers to share and explain their own property layouts, and their top tips to help you start planning what you are going to build.

Time spent in the planning stage will save time and money later on, but even before you start drawing, it is important you learn as much as possible about horse behaviour because your dream could well be your horse’s nightmare.

A good example of a common horse facility that can cause the horse stress if designed and used incorrectly is a stable. Many assume they and their horses need stables when, in reality, stables are built more for human convenience, than the horse’s mental and physical wellbeing. Stables can have uses on a horse property, but they are not essential.

Horses are healthier if they are outside as much as possible. To thrive, they need a stimulating environment, daily turnout and the opportunity to interact with other horses. They also need large amounts (preferably ‘ad-lib’) low energy, fibrous feed, as opposed to small, high energy meals.

When planning a horse property, it is also necessary to accept that, although we cannot provide a fully natural lifestyle for our domesticated horses, we can learn from nature and work with it, rather than against it.

Once we begin to do this, everything becomes easier, more productive and healthier. By learning what our horses actually need, we are better equipped to make informed choices, not only about what we build and how we manage our horses, but also about who we turn to for advice when needed.

The Equicentral System was developed as a practical solution for good horse and good land management because it makes the most of natural cycles and natural horse behaviours.

In the following pages, you will hear from some of the thousands of horse owners we have met along the way and who, armed with the principles and knowledge of the Equicentral System, are creating environments that promote healthier land which, in turn, grows healthier pastures to ensure we have healthier horses.

We have selected from a variety of examples, including smaller and larger properties, and we purposefully included a challenging property that required some compromises to show how the Equicentral System can be adapted and applied to most situations.

A lot more can be learned in our books, workshops and webinars, as well as by joining the ever-growing Facebook page.

Property #1: A low rainfall area

The Howards property (above) is near the Grampians in Victoria. It is just over nine acres, fairly flat, with a very slight slope down towards the bottom of the property, near the dam.

They get run-off from the road, down the left side of the property, then via two slight, natural drains into the dam.

This is a low rainfall area, where native grasses do not grow very high, but the Howards are encouraging more diversity by mulching and composting.

They manage four horses that normally live together as one herd.

The central holding yard wraps around the round yard slightly, and the Howards say before they knew about the Equicentral System, this was wasted space, so it has ended up working very well as a central holding yard.

The yard is approximately 16m x 32m (although the round yard takes up a bit of space) so, at its narrowest, it is 11m. This does not unclude the 3m x 3m and the new  12m x 3m shelters which, including the front overhang, is actually 12m x 4m. Both shelters are three-sided and are plumbed into water tanks.

The Howards say two of their horses will share the 3m x 3m shelter, but the 12m x 3m shelter works much better.

The Howards surfaced the holding yard with crushed concrete, as it was readily available and cheap. They spread a layer around 4cm thick in the yard and a bit less in the laneways, which may not be thick enough because, although it stays dry, it allows some grass to grow through.

The crushed concrete compacts down to look like a dirt road. It held up well in Winter, except where water runs off from the round yard, so they will be installing a drain over Summer to prevent this from happening next Winter.

The Howard’s top tips 

“Even if you can only do one part of the Equicentral System, it will improve your land, but put it all together, and the results will surprise you. And… Don’t be afraid to adapt the system slightly to suit your land, yourself and your horses.”

Property # 2: A small private setup

Samantha Creswell has a five-acre property west of Sydney in New South Wales, which she has set up as an Equicentral System, and where She manages a horse and a pony.

Samantha has divided the area into four paddocks, plus the holding yard and arena, which is at the back fo the property and also fenced off.

The holding yard is 12m x 17m and she plans to add an adjacent shelter, which she hopes will be 8m x 8m. The plan for the building is to make the interior set-up flexible, with moveable walls in case there is a need to make two 4m x 4m stables in future.

The holding yard is surfaced with eucalyptus bark, which she can source for free, but she hopes to one day replace it with crushed sandstone.

Samantha faces the challenge of restoring her land, which was mined for shale 30 years ago, and never compeletly restored and rehabilitated.

Samantha’s top tips

“Just start your journey, do something, even if it is just one small part of Equicentral or even a temporary set-up. I started feeding round bales and using the leftovers for mulch. From there, I used electric fencing to map out my paddocks and see if it was going to function properly. I did that for a year to make sure it worked in all weather conditions on the property. I have learnt to love weeks and stopped spraying poison.

“My passion for the Equicentral System is huge! It not only is a better way of managing my small five acres, but it has allowed me to set up the property, so any non-horsey people I have feeding the horses can feed up without setting foot in a paddock and also check one water trough, not multiple. It’s just so functional and practical.”

Property #3: A future agistment property

Andrew Curran is in the planning stages with his 58-acre property near Ballarat, in Victoria, where he wants to run an agistment business.

Andrew’s land is undulating and, as marked in blue, he has drawn the course of any run-off water to show how it flows through the property. The black lines mark the driveway and elevated, future house site.

Purple marks the site for the arena and round yard, and next to them, a large shed will be built.

While Andrew plans to encourage agistees to keep horses in pairs and larger groups, he also wants to allow for individual housing for those who choose that, as well as for biosecurity and quarantine periods for new arrivals.

The left side of the property (see orange fencing lines) will, therefore, have a more traditional, small paddock design with a laneway for access.

The right side of the property will be divided into three paddocks (see yellow fencing lines) that lead to a very large central holding yard (possibly 100m x 60m) and will have different surfaces for different purposes, such as sand areas for rolling and resting, and granite sand or plastic grid around water troughs and gates to prevent compaction.

Andrew’s top tips 

“It will be important to limit the numbers of horses on the property to make sure we can rotate and rest pastures, and to allow us to apply all the Equicentral System tools and methods to improve the soil and grass, and – hopefully – the horses’ physical and mental wellbeing.”

Property #4: A difficult compromise

Here, we have a compromise situation – a difficult site that has required a very thoughtful layout.

This 5.7-acre property in Tasmania is owned by Laurel Gordon (we featured Laurel’s impressive pasture improvements in the September issue of Horses and People Magazine).

The property presents difficulties because the dam and low-lying, swampy areas split the land right through the middle. As a result, setting up a ‘standard’ Equicentral System layout was not possible. However, when you look at the property carefully, the same land and horse management principles do apply.

Laurel now manages two horses who live together. The pasture areas have been divided into five paddocks to allow rotation and rest, but access to all areas has required fencing a laneway that surround the riparian areas – namely, the dam and swamp.

The Equicentral System recommends minimising laneways because they take up space that could otherwise be used for grazing. They also require extra fencing and they concentrate hoof activity so, unless they are properly surfaced, they create land degradation (i.e. mud, dust, soil erosion and weeds).

While the Gordon’s laneway is longer than ideal, it fulils the Equicentral principle of allowing the horses to move themselves between the pasture that is in use and the surfaced yard.

The surfaced holding yard is also smaller than ideal, but made bigger by incorporating part of the laneway – all the way to the top righthand corner of the dam, where there is a gate. This gate remains closed whenever paddocks one, two or three are in use.

The open horse shelter is 6m x 3m and there’s a separate, large shed for storing hay. Next on the list of improvements is laying down a good gravel surface along its entire length. This improvement will take place during Summer.

In Winter, the Gordon’s feed hay in a designated sacrifice paddock in order to improve the soil with mulch. This year, it has been paddock two. In Summer, they use any waste hay and manure from the shelter and yard to mulch trees.

Laurel’s top tips 

“I hope people understand that our set-up is a departure from the ideal. As Jane and Stuart say, it’s a compromise for a particular situation and not a ‘track system’ in the usual sense. It really is an access laneway.

“It is important to surface the laneway as currently, it allows the horses too much access to short, stressed grass (courtesy of the wallabies) but, hopefully, we can mitigate that by adding more gravel.”

Grass Farming in Australia: November

Wet and Warm Means Grass!

Provided your paddocks are not waterlogged, they should be growing plenty of grass! Protect very wet areas by fencing your horses out of them because heavy hoof prints will damage the grass roots and compact the soil, preventing the grass from thriving when the ground dries out.

In the same way, keep your horses off any areas that you made the effort to mulch, and give the seeds and soil the opportunity to do their jobs.

Make sure you remain flexible with your rotation plan as conditions tend to change from week to week. The general rule for paddock rotation decisions is fast growth – fast moves.

Winter Rainfall Areas

This is the time of year when you want to see warm season grasses springing into action. Make sure you allow them to establish and gain sufficient leaf length before grazing.

Use a simple ruler to check the average length is at least 15cm and there is good groundcover (aiming for at least 70%).

With more grass available, you may be able to subdivide your paddocks further using temporary electric fencing.

If your horses are sensitive to sugars, remember plant sugars tend to be lower in the leaves during the elongation period – when the plant is using energy to grow leaves. Later on, the plant will send sugars into the stem and store it in the seeds.

In practical terms, this means the best period to graze grass is when it is increasing its leaf area – meaning it is higher than the magic 15cm in height, but it hasn’t started seed production.

Under good growing conditions, it is possible to lengthen the plants’ elongation period, and delay seed setting by regularly slashing or topping the plants to a height of 15cm. This forces them to put their energy (sugars) into growing more leaves again.

On the other hand, cool season grasses should be the ones seeding and drying off now, so letting the seeds drop before slashing will ensure the seeds are viable and germinate next Winter.

With the dry Summer just around the corner, you may want to start planning any property improvements that will require earthworks, such as topping up your holding yard surface, adding drainage or diverting water run-off.

Summer Rainfall Areas

Early and substantial rainfall along most of the north-east coast of Australia has changed the landscape from golden to vibrant green in a matter of days!

Make sure your Summer active grasses have enough length before you let the horses out to graze, but as explained in the Winter rainfall areas section, if your horses are not keeping up with the grazing and the plants are looking like setting seed early, set your mower or slasher to a height no lower than 15cm, and top the plants as regularly as needed.

There’s still time to plant warm season species – provided you can rest the pastures as long as the plants need to become well-established and vigorous. You may want to use soil tests to see if they would benefit from fertilising.

Protect your native pastures, which are likely to be most sensitive to overgrazing by resting them and allowing them to set seed. You could keep them untouched and use them as standing hay pastures during the drier months.

Your surfaced, central holding yard comes into its own during the warmer, wetter months. Watch how it copes and take notes of any repairs or improvements you may need to make during the next dry.

Read more about Jane and Stuart Myers … Jane and Stuart Myers It starts with knowledge