If you manage a property and horses, you would most likely have encountered pasture and land problems. While issues such as overgrazing, erosion, compaction, no grass growth, weeds and waterlogging are likely to be seen on smaller properties with high stocking rates, larger acreage properties are not exempted! 

The severity of the problems will also depend on your geographical location, climate, shape of the land (flat vs hilly), as well as current and previous  management. No matter what the land problem or its severity, it all comes back to taking care of our soil! 

Permaculture is concerned with the restoration of soil as a priority, because healthy soil produces healthy plants and grasses — which result in healthy horses!  

Within an ecosystem, a number of fundamental processes play a role in the recycling of nutrients: the water cycle, the mineral/nutrient cycle, the community dynamics (i.e. the relationship between the organisms in the ecosystem), and the energy flow. 

In a natural system, many species of plants and animals play a role in these processes. However, on horse properties, the manager (yes, that means you!) is responsible for overseeing the animals and returning waste, in the way of compost or mulch, to the soil and plants. Actively creating soil in pastures becomes the property owner’s role, whereas in nature many other processes and species carry out that function. 

Maintaining healthy and productive soils requires a holistic approach to land management. It requires an understanding of how a soil environment can be created, where the physical, chemical and biological components work together to sustain plant growth with minimal impact on the surrounding environment. Factors which contribute to healthy and productive soils, include the levels of soil organic carbon (e.g. plant and animal materials in the soil at various stages of decay), nutrient availability, water cycle, soil dwelling organisms, grazing and pasture management. 

While most horse and land owners are quite aware of their soil’s nutrient component and typically add minerals and/or fertilizer to aid pasture growth (sometimes based on soil tests), not many are aware of the importance of soil carbon, as without a good medium –organic matter – nothing will grow (or not to its full potential). 

What if there was a way to take everything that a property or equestrian centre could provide naturally and turn it into a potent fertiliser that can build organic matter, add nutrients and promote soil dwelling organisms at the same time? 

Not only is this possible, but it can also be implemented in a short period of time, and can drastically reduce costs by bypassing expensive soil improvement products that may not safeguard or promote soil biology.  It’s called compost!

What is compost?

Compost is made using the waste products of our animals’ manure, stable bedding, weeds from paddocks, lawn clippings, and other household waste such as food scraps and paper. Anything that was once living can be composted. 

Making compost requires a balance of waste materials and other inputs. Some of our waste can be categorised as ‘browns’ the carbon (C) part, which are typically woody type of materials, straw and dead leaves. The other waste is categorised as ‘greens’ the nitrogen (N) part, which can be grass clippings, manure and food scraps. 

To get good quality compost we need a larger volume of carbon than nitrogen – typically 25 or 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen – the so-called C:N ratio. 

If the C:N ratio is too high (excess carbon), decomposition slows down. If the C:N ratio is too low (excess nitrogen) you will end up ‘burning’ the pile (and creating a sticky pile). 

Brown + Green = Black 

When you put browns and greens in the correct ratio you get your end product compost! But it’s the organisms such as worms, insects, fungi and bacteria that do all the work. 

Those organisms use carbon for energy and nitrogen for protein but, for them to thrive in your compost heap they require water and oxygen. This means that if you want good quality compost that is healthy, the ingredients need to be properly managed. 

Composting without aeration and too much water will create an anaerobic situation which can result in the proliferation of pathogenic microbes. 

Many horse owners tell me, “I just leave my manure pile in a certain area of the property or pasture… isn’t that compositing?” My answer is yes and no at the same time. Left alone, horse manure will decompose over a long period of time, but true composting is about managing the decomposition process. 

On its own, horse manure typically is about 18:1 ratio of C:N. While this is not very far of the desired 25:1, if the fresh manure pile is not aerated and moisture is not controlled, it will become an anaerobic environment. You will be able to smell this! The smell of ammonia is an indicator that nitrogen is in excess, and carbon/energy is limited. 

Ammonia losses are common when composting high nitrogen materials such as fresh grass clippings and/or manure, and are often accompanied by other nitrogen losses that either run off or infiltrate the soil. 

At large horse facilities these nitrogen losses could threaten surface (creeks, dams) or groundwater quality. The excess nitrogen will also cause the pile to ‘burn’ (reduce in volume). 

Composting techniques

A number of methods are available for composting organic waste, such as passive composting and hot (turning) composting. Both systems have advantages and disadvantages. 

Passive composting

Passive composting involves stacking the materials into piles and leaving them to decompose over a long period of time with little disturbance and management. 

For the reasons explained earlier, if you are going to rely on passive composting, you need to prevent creating an anaerobic situation. 

You can do this by adding some old straw or dry hay to your fresh manure pile to improve the C:N ratio. It will also help maintain its volume. Particularly if you want to spread the compost on your pastures, you want to stay as close to the ideal 25:1 ratio as possible, because it creates a bacteria dominated environment. If you will be using your compost for tree planting, you want an even higher carbon component (a fungi dominated environment) that is closer to the 30:1 ratio.

See the box on the opposite page, which explains how you obtain this ratio without too many calculations. 

Passive composting can certainly work for small horse properties (from one to five horses) that, either don’t have a front-end loader to turn the piles, or where you are not able to manually turn the pile on a regular basis, but they only work provided you add enough carbon material in between the layers of fresh manure (straw, sawdust, dry leaves and/or old hay). 

Work with small piles measuring between 1.5 and 2 m at the base and to a height of about 1 m. Each time you tip your manure on the pile, add a thin layer of carbon (like layering a cake), until you reach the height. Once completed, leave it mostly undisturbed until the matter has decomposed into a stabilised product. 

The small piles can take some advantage of natural air movement but there are different techniques that promote aerobic composting through passive aeration. For example, you can place punctured PVC tubes in the middle of the pile so that air can move through to the centre. Some people even connect a small air pump (such as those used in septic systems) to force air into the plastic tubes. 

Hot (turning) composting

Good quality compost that is free of pathogens is more likely to result from hot and turning (aerobic) composting techniques, because they use temperature measurements to monitor the process. 

Hot composting also fast-tracks the breaking down of organic matter. For example, the Berkeley Method of hot composting (developed at the University of Berkeley in the United States), can work in as little as 18 days! 

It is based on turning the compost pile regularly to encourage aerobic processes and heating the pile with a mixture of high nitrogen items (such as lawn clippings or manures), balanced with carbon (straw or paper).

  • The requirements for hot composting using the Berkley method are as follows:
  • Compost temperature is maintained between 55-65 degrees Celsius. 
  • The C:N (carbon:nitrogen) balance in the composting materials is approximately 25-30:1. 
  • The compost heap needs to be roughly 1 to 1.5m at base and 1 to 1.5m high. 
  • If composting material is high in carbon, such as tree branches, they need to be chipped (with a mulcher). 
  • Compost is turned from outside to inside and vice versa to mix it thoroughly.

With the 18-day Berkley method, the procedure is quite straightforward:

  1. Build compost heap 
  2. Four days – no turning 
  3. Then turn every second day for the next 14 days 

To get the dimensions of the pile and easily add layers of browns and greenS, you can use plastic garden or chicken/ goat mesh fencing to create a cylinder type structure (typically these are 1-1.25 m in height) so you can add layers inside and, once finished, remove the wires. The piles are made like a cake. 

You can also choose a 50:50 ratio to make richer compost and to make the most of your manure! It will work. Just pile alternating thin layers of browns and greens until you end up with a compost heap that is 1 metre square and a bit taller than that. 

There’s no real need to get caught up in the mathematics of precise C:N ratios. It’s more a matter of trying it out – you can always improve it the next time around! 

Start watering your compost heap while alternating the layers. Once finished you will need to cover it with a tarp to control the temperature and moisture, and to protect it from the rain.  

The biology present heats up the pile, then eats and breaks down organic matter, bringing the temperature to an ideal range of 55 to 65 degrees Celsius. This temperature kills any detrimental pathogens contained in the animal manures and also weed seeds. 

Temperature can be measured using a compost, soil or cake thermometer probe (prices online vary between $30 and $50). 

Temperature and moisture are critical in this process. By regularly watering and turning the pile when it reaches 65 degrees Celsius, it is possible to generate highly fertile soil-building compost that is rich and abundant with every element required by the plants to grow, replete with soil microbes and fungi – in fewer than 20 days.

Composting and storage locations

Before you start, it’s important to consider the location for your manure, bedding and compost storage. 

A location that is close to the stables and/or paddocks is ideal, so you can easily manage and collect it for spreading. 

You must avoid any run-off seeping into creeks and dams, so think about the surface, slope and distance to your waterways. 

Make sure that you have enough space around the pile to work around it when you turn it. Alternatively, if you choose for passive composting, make sure the bays are not too large. Smaller heaps will break down quicker. 

A cover is needed for hot composting to manage the temperature and moisture, but it is also a good idea for passive compost to avoid runoff after rain. 

Some areas have specific legislation or policies directing how you should store animal manure and the minimum distances away from waterways. For example in the Netherlands, if you have five or more horses or a commercial equestrian facility, you are require to build concrete bays which contain drains that redirect the moisture. In the United States they have similar requirements but these vary from state to state. 

In Australia this may also differ per council and state. For example, in Queensland, under the Environmental Protection Act 1994, it is an offence to allow contaminants (e.g. waste, sawdust and manure) to enter stormwater drains, roadside gutters and waterways. 

Don’t forget your neighbours! They may not really appreciate the views of your steaming manure pile. Plan ahead to get the location right.

Composting horse manure ratios

Composting is about managing the natural process of decomposition of materials.

Some important points:

  • Locate your compost heap in an area protected from too much sun or heavy rain, to prevent the compost from drying out or becoming waterlogged which slows down the composting process.
  • Space required for your heap should be about 2 x 2 metres, with enough space around it to work when turning the compost.
  • Water each layer until it is moist as you build the heap. After three or four days, give the compost some air by mixing and turning it over, then turn every three days until the compost is ready – usually between 14 and 21 days. Remember, frequent turning and aeration is the secret to successful composting.
  • Turn the compost using a garden fork, or even better, a long-handled pitchfork. In cold or wet weather, you can cover the compost heap with a tarp or plastic sheet to prevent the rain cooling it down – rainwater will penetrate into the core of the compost pile.
  • In cold temperatures the air will cool the surface but not the core of the compost heap. By covering it you prevent some heat loss from the surface to cooler outside air and retain the heat within the compost heap better.


Composting is nature’s way of recycling and building healthy soils. Horse manure is relatively easy to compost but involves more than piling the waste! 

To manage a compost pile you just need to consider the following factors: 

  • carbon to nitrogen ratio,
  • oxygen, 
  • moisture and, 
  • temperature.
  • Correct composting can virtually eliminate odour, flies, weed seeds and internal parasites found in horse manure, and creates a valuable soil amendment for resale or for pasture application. Compost microorganisms can produce antibiotics, which suppress plant diseases and can also degrade toxic chemicals.

Hot (turning) compost schedule:

Day 1 

Mix together ingredients by laying then in alternating thin layers of “browns” and “greens”. Wet the compost heap down very well so it is dripping water out of the bottom and is saturated.

TIP: You can place an ‘activator’ in the middle of your compost heap to kick-start the composting process. Activators include comfrey, nettles, yarrow, animal and fish-derived products, urine (!) or old compost. 

Day 5 

Turn the compost heap over – outside to inside and inside to outside. This means that, when turning the compost, you move the outside of the pile to a spot next to it and keep moving material from the outside to the new pile. When you’re done, all the material that was inside will be outside and vice-versa.

Ensure the moisture stays consistent. With gloves on,  squeeze a handful of the compost materials. They should only release one drop of water or just drip a drop.

TIP: If the compost is too wet, spread it out or open a hole about one metre wide with the handle of the pitchfork, or place some sticks as a base before turning the pile on to them, to aid with drainage. 

Day 7 & day 9 

The compost heap should reach its maximum temperature on these days. As a simple guideline. if you can put your arm into the compost up to your elbow it is not at 50 degrees Celsius! And is, therefore, not hot enough. Probably best to use a compost or cake thermometer! 

You need an optimum temperature of 55-65 degrees Celsius. At temperatures over 65 degrees Celsius, a white ‘mould’ spreads through the compost. This is actually some kind of anaerobic thermophilic composting bacteria often incorrectly referred to as ‘fire blight’. It appears when the compost gets too hot – over 65 degrees Celsius – and short of oxygen. It disappears when the temperature drops and aerobic composting bacteria take over. 

Temperature peaks at 6-8 days and gradually cools down by day 18.

Turn the compost heap over every second day (on day 6 and again on day 8).

  • If the compost pile starts reducing in size quickly, there is too much nitrogen in the compost. 
  • To heat the compost up faster, you can add some fresh manure with your pitchfork when turning it. 
  • If it gets too hot and smelly and goes down in size, it has too much nitrogen. You need to slow it down, throw in a handful of sawdust per pitchfork when turning. 

Day 11 to day 17 

Continue to turn the compost every second day. 

Day 18 

Just warm, dark brown, smells good.

When earthworms move into the compost, you know it is finished and ready, because it has now cooled down and is full of nutrients!