Holistic Management for Horse Properties – Holistic Management is a new approach to decision-making and management that can be successfully incorporated in horse management. In this series of articles, Mariette van den Berg introduces the concept and goes on to discuss in more detail how we can apply this to horse property management.

Since the late 20th century the number of horses kept for professional sport as well as the pure pleasure of riding and keeping horses has grown considerably.

Many of us are able to afford horses and prefer to keep them on our own property or agist them at commercial equine facilities. The attractiveness of this way of caring for horses caused an increased demand for properties suitable for managing horses. This entails a new kind of farming that is generally different from the conventional agriculture and animal system management.

Horses are not cattle

For many years we have been managing horses in similar systems as livestock, but our purposes of keeping horses are generally different from those seen in livestock production. Horses require a different housing system and feeding management than livestock. Like cattle, horses are large herbivores that have adapted to grassland life, but they evolved different feeding strategies and digestive physiology than cattle.

The horse’s feeding strategy is to consume large quantities of poor quality forages (low energy and high fibre), whereas, cattle do better on medium/high quality forages that are relatively low in fibre.

Pasture Management

Pasture management for horses presents a number of challenges, which are different from those observed in conventional agriculture. Generally the main objectives are to provide sufficient amounts of good quality grass to meet the dietary needs of horses while grazing, and to grow adequate quantity of grass for conserved forage.

However, you may want to avoid over lush grass which is high in non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) and leads to ineffective use of pasture and the risk of development of digestive and metabolic disorders such as acidosis and laminitis.

In addition, you should maintain grass cover to provide cushioning for horses to exercise on and prevent problems with concussion, particular for young horses. All this depends on your establishment, goals, acreage and management.

Horse Sick Pastures

When horses graze they are very selective. They can eat down some areas until it’s almost bare, whilst leaving other areas in which they dung and urinate untouched. If these paddocks and pastures are not managed properly you can get over-grazing and “horse-sick” pastures with poor quality grasses, accumulation of weeds, compacted and eroded soils and populations of parasites. Horse-sick pastures may be more evident when there is insufficient land, but also larger horse properties can have these problems.

These horse-sick pastures not only affect the health of your horse, but also negatively influence the shape of the land and can reduce the value of your property or land to which it is attached.

A new approach is needed

The need for a new approach to these challenges of horse keeping is getting more  of a foot hold in the equine community and sport industry. To be able to make horse keeping more economically viable and productive we must develop a sustainable horse property and pasture management plan that caters for immediate and long-term needs, your own personal goals (social, economical), your horse’s well-being and the environment.

To be able to make new changes and improve the way we manage our horses today we must have a closer look at our goals and the decisions we make.

Decision making & Holistic Management

Our decision-making drives everything we do, from the simplest decisions made almost unconsciously, to the bigger decisions we ponder deeply. Every time we choose, or choose not, to do anything, it affects the world around us. And since our actions and behaviours are usually the result of our decisions, Holistic Management focuses first on decision-making – from a holistic point of view.

Holistic Management is a new approach to decision-making and management which was developed by Allan Savory. Holistic Management entails the use of a new decision-making framework that enables you to make decisions that satisfy immediate needs without putting at risk your future well-being, or the well-being of future generations.

One of the first things that need to be defined is the entity that you manage in terms of the people responsible for its management and the resources availableto you. So for example, if you own a life-style property and manage horses for pleasure then your household is your entity but if you own a horse business (e.g. breeding stud, equestrian centre etc) than your household and the horse business must be defined as your entity, which may include people that work in your horse business and you may even have partners/investors to consider as well. However, it may be that you have a life-style property and manage horses but own a business that has nothing to do with horses; even then you will include this business in your entity as it will be your resource to manage your property at home.

So once you established your entity, you then form what we refer to as a holistic goal which describes the quality of life you collectively seek (e.g. you, your household, employers or business partners), what you have to produce to create that quality of life, and a description of the resource base you depend upon as it will have to be, far into the future, to sustain what you must produce to create the quality of life you envision. For example: your income from your job, profits of your (horse) business or savings.

All the decisions you make in planning how to reach the holistic goal, or in addressing problems or opportunities that arise along the way, need to be evaluated to determine if the decisions you make in your household and/or business are economic, environmental, and social sound relative to the holistic goal you formed. In Holistic Management this is done by going over seven questions that will help you with the decision-making process.

In other words, any action taken to deal with a problem, to reach an objective, or to meet a basic need, should enhance progress toward your holistic goal. To ensure this happens, a feedback loop is established in Holistic Management, so that if monitoring shows the decision is not taking you where you want to go, you can act immediately and correct it.

A practical way forward

Holistic Management provides a practical way for individuals and organisations to develop a clear, focused vision for their future. This feedback system to decision making is common with many successful management approaches in leading edge corporations. However in Holistic Management the new decision-making framework originated from a drive to restore deteriorating environments, rather than to enhance the corporate bottom line alone.

However, Allan Savory soon found that it was impossible to make any real progress on the land unless we consistently examined the financial and social consequences of any decision, just as corporations increasingly find that black ink turns red when they don’t consider the environmental and social consequences of their decisions.

Horse owners who care about—and are deeply committed to—preserving or enhancing the environment of their properties are finding that Holistic Management provides them with a unique and practical means to account for and work with the complexity of nature, in balance with human needs and desires, and economic realities. However, those who are looking for the way to solve the ever escalating problems we face, won’t find it in Holistic Management.

There is no one way, and no one answer, to any problem, and never can be. There are millions of answers and potential solutions, and these have to be worked out case by case, situation by situation, by people who are driven by a desire for something better. Holistic Management merely empowers people to identify and achieve what is best for them.

Holistic Management for Horse Properties

The Holistic Management framework can successfully be incorporated in horse management, and in the next months we will discuss it in more detail and how we can apply this information for the management of our horse properties.

We will review the four key insights that proved to be critical to the development of the Holistic Management model. Second we have to define our whole; so what are we managing (e.g. life-style property/household, (horse) business), and we also need to form a holistic goal – so what is it that you really want (e.g. these are your aspirations and as horse owners will include for sure our wonderful animals).

All this goes beyond the management of your horse property. You will have to look at your whole life’s goal which will include your family and if your run a (horse) business also your staff, managers, and business partners.

To be able to make economically, environmentally and socially sound decisions we must have a look at the ecosystem that sustains us and the tools we have to use to manage our ecosystems.

Finally we will discuss the planning of three procedures which include holistic financial planning, holistic land planning and holistic grazing planning. In particular, we will focus on grass development, leaf area management and holistic grazing planning for horses.



Horst, S & Butterfield, J. 2000. Changing the way we make decisions – An Introduction to Holistic Management. In Holistic Management International – Getting Started with Holistic Management. (http://www.holisticmanagement.org)

Savory, A & Butterfield, J. 1999. Holistic Management – A New Framework for Decision Making. 2nd edition, Island Press, Washington, DC. (http://www.savory.global)

Van den Berg, M & Huggins, N.L. 2011. Equine Permaculture; Regenerative Horse Property Design & Pasture Management. A Collection of Articles. MB Equine Services, Australia.

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