In this article, Jane and Stuart Myers explain natural horse behaviour and how to use it to implement a natural and sustainable management system. The more you learn about what’s natural for horses, the easier it will be for you to customise a sustainable management system that suits your own property and situation.
Jane and Stuart developed The Equicentral System as a complete approach to sustainable horse and land management and today, hundreds of happy horse owners have learnt to use their horses’ natural behaviours as an advantage. As a result, they achieve many things; enhance the health and wellbeing of the horses themselves, the land they live on and the environment at large. They also save time!
This is part of a series of articles especially commissioned to help owners keep horses in more natural, healthier conditions.
Are horses bad for the land?
Horses are generally regarded as being ‘bad’ for the land, but this is actually not true. Like all grazing animals, horses are excellent for the land when they are allowed to carry out their natural behaviours and, for this reason, in many areas of the world, they are being used for conservation grazing.
The more you understand about what naturally-living horses do with their time, when and why they do certain behaviours, and how these behaviours can lead to land degradation in a domestic setting, the more motivated you will become to make positive changes. It will also be easier to find solutions that fit with your particular situation.
The major causes of wear and tear on the land by horses results from a combination of the following:
- Over-grazing the pasture
- Standing around behaviour (loafing)
- Tracking behaviour
- Horses damage the land when they are allowed to over-graze the pastures – either by having too many horses in a given area or by keeping them on a given area for too long (set-stocking).
You must adapt your property layout and grazing management in ways that minimise the impact horses have on the land, while allowing them to express their natural behaviours. To do this, let’s look at what is healthy and natural for horses.
Horses have one of the longest daily grazing periods of all the plant eating herbivores because they do not ruminate (regurgitate and re-chew their food). The food they are meant to eat is high in fibre, low in calories and takes a long time to collect, chew and digest.
Naturally-living horses have access to fibre most, if not all the time (even when this fibre is very poor quality and low in energy, such as leaves and twigs). Fibrous foods increase chewing time and saliva production, and help buffer the stomach acid that horses continually produce, which causes ulcers on empty stomachs.
A horse’s need for fibre (and associated chewing time) is so great they will eat anything available, such as poisonous plants, bark, wood shavings, etc., if they don’t have enough.
You may already know it is natural for horses to graze between 12 and 16 hours out of 24, but what you also need to consider is that horses graze in ‘bouts’ of between one and a half to three hours long, and that each grazing bout is interspersed with time spent socialising, sleeping and loafing.
The length of each grazing bout is partly determined by how fibrous (filling) the pasture is. Older grasses that are more fibrous and bulky make the horse ‘feel fuller’ sooner, so the grazing bouts will tend to be shorter and more frequent. On younger, less fibrous pasture, the grazing bouts are longer and less frequent. This means that time spent grazing will vary through the year depending on how the season and climate conditions are affecting the plants they eat.
Naturally-living horses self-regulate their daily time budget according to the conditions – making good decisions of when to graze, how long to graze for, and when to rest and sleep. Domestic horses can also self-regulate if we encourage a natural variation in condition through the Winter, and we provide them with a more natural environment, plenty of exercise and healthy pastures.
Variety is the spice of life
Grass is a horse’s main staple, but horses will readily eat other plants including certain bushes, trees, berries and other fruits. Naturally-living horses are thought to eat as many as 100 different plant species throughout the year. Their diet is not balanced daily, but it becomes balanced throughout the year as different plants are available to them.
Horses like to forage for variety (this also keeps them moving as they graze), and this aspect is why you should aim to increase the variety of species in your pasture and, certainly, ensure that your pasture is not a mono-culture.
A good pasture for horses contains legumes, herb, sedges, etc., as well as several species of grass.
You can promote biodiversity by seeding more species, but to maintain it, you will have to develop your ‘grass farming’ skills and use strategies like rotation, cross grazing, learn when to graze and rest, and when to allow the plants to set seed, as well as improving your soil. This sounds complicated and it is probably harder than sitting on the couch, but it is no different to tending a garden.
Like many other grazing herbivores, horses avoid grazing near any dung piles from their own species, but will graze near that of other species. This is thought to be an innate parasitic worm avoidance strategy. In addition, horses will ‘group’ their dung in areas within a pasture (the ‘roughs’), and graze in others (the ‘lawns’), which leads to a situation known as ‘horse-sick’ pasture.
Horse-sick pastures progressively encroach on the grazing areas and disrupt the nutrient balance. They increase the number of parasitic worms, result in monocultures of short, stressed grass in the lawns, and weeds in the roughs, and make your property unsightly.
In a naturally-living situation, horses have a very large home range and they are not forced to graze over their own manure. Horse-sick pastures are common on small properties and set-stocking situations, unless the manure is cleaned up daily.
Resting the pasture by subdividing the available land into more paddocks, slashing and harrowing the resting paddocks, cross grazing with other animals like cows and sheep, and encouraging dung beetles, are some of the ways of maintaining a healthy pasture.
In an Equicentral System, you can actually tap into the horses’ natural tendency to dung in the same spot and set up a designated toiletting area. Horses will readily urinate and dung on a thick layer of woodchips, old hay or straw, which can then be maintained as a ‘deep litter bed’ where you can remove some of the manure and wet materials, leave some and add fresh materials on top as necessary. You can even set this up in your holding yard to keep the mess to one place – it’s also easier to clean up.
From a land management perspective, we need to pay attention to what horses do when they are not grazing – the 4 to 12 hours they spend socialising, standing around, sleeping or ‘tracking’ to get to and from the pasture.
Horses will often have a favourite ‘hang out’ area, such as somewhere that is shady/sheltered, near resources such as water, a high, level area with good views or near a gateway (where they can see you coming!).
You can easily spot their favourite ‘hang out’ spot by looking for the areas that have become bare of grass. Standing around in one area begins a vicious cycle of land degradation – loss of grass cover and compaction (where the soil turns to dust when dry, and mud when wet and is lost through erosion).
Factors that increase the amount of time horses spend loafing are:
- Over-grazed pasture – Grazing and walking are linked behaviours, so if there is no pasture to eat, the horses will simply stand around when they’ve burned off excess energy.
- Monoculture – When there are only one or two types of plant to eat, the horses will reduce the time spent foraging (seeking variety) and increase the time spent loafing.
- Supplementary feed – Horses that are fed will stand around near the gateway long before feed time, in anticipation of the feed coming. This is why gateways in horse properties are always bare, and turn to dust when dry and mud when wet.
In a domestic situation, we can either allow the standing behaviours to become a problem and degrade the land in each paddock, or we can adapt our system and use them to our advantage.
Luxury loafing facilities
Why not create a surfaced yard where the horses can carry out their loafing behaviour and receive their supplementary feed and water?
Place it in a position that is logical for the horse – which is usually the first place they see you coming with food. Observing where your horses hang out or where they are trying to get to, makes choosing the position easy. Make the yard accessible from all your paddocks, and leave the gate open from the pasture they are currently grazing, to allow them free access from the pasture to the yard.
Remember that, in this system, horses are never locked in a paddock but they are sometimes locked out.
Make this their favourite place by providing what they value – shade, shelter (from wind and driving or heavy rain), views (which either helps them feel safe or helps them keep an eye on you), water and an all-weather, dry, level surface to rest on – preferably one they will readily want to lie down on.
As well as loafing essentials, you can add some luxuries like grass hay, which ensures they always have fibre and encourages them to stay there longer, further reducing grazing pressure. This is essential in smaller properties.
Supplementary feeding can also be done in the loafing area and will definitely make it their favourite spot! You can also build separate yards within the holding yard to feed them individually.
The more of these valued resources your holding yard provides, the more likely your horses will voluntarily remove themselves from the pasture after each feeding bout, the longer they will stay there and the less pressure on your grazing land.
Horses create tracks in areas they frequently travel. In addition to the land management issues outlined above, these tracks cause erosion because they provide a pathway in which water is able to move faster. This faster moving water causes erosion, which then creates a vicious circle of events as it removes more soil, creates a deeper channel and so on.
Horses create these tracks in the following situations:
- A separated horse will walk a fence line to try and get to other horses. In this case, this behaviour could also eventually undermine a fence as the ever deepening track cuts into the soil that is holding the fence posts in the ground. Separated stallions in particular will carry out this behaviour.
- Keeping your horses in cohesive, stable groups will help. If this is not possible (e.g. with a stallion or if a horse has to be separated for other reasons), you can design your paddocks and shelter so that separated horses can ‘hang out’ together in adjoining loafing yards and enjoy some social contact.
- Horses will create tracks between areas that they frequent such as the water trough and a shade/shelter or favourite loafing area.
- When moving around the home-range, the horses often move in single file to make it easier to travel over the terrain, however, once they begin grazing, the band spreads itself out, searching for and selecting a wide variety of plants.
An Equicentral System where the pasture in use has direct access to the surfaced holding/loafing yard will minimise the tracking behaviour and associated land degradation issues.
In the Equicentral System we aim to reduce or, preferably, eliminate the use of laneways and track systems because of the land degradation issues mentioned.
In some situations though, laneways are necessary, such as in the case of a long narrow property, or when having to get horses through a gully, or around a dam, but the aim should be not to have them.
Responsible horse ownership
As horse owners we need to understand that, by restricting natural behaviours, we are creating stress in horses.
Horses do not show outward signs of stress in the same way other animals do, because as a prey animal, a horse does not want to signal that they are in pain for fear that they will be seen as vulnerable and, therefore, more likely to be singled out by a predator.
We can, however, learn to recognise some of the subtle signs of stress and pain in horses, and advances such as the description of the ‘Equine Pain Face’ and the ‘Discomfort Ethogram’, can really help. But the more we facilitate what is natural- allow horses to socialise with other horses, forage whilst moving, rest and sleep, and feel safe – the healthier and happier they will be.
This article summarises information that you can find in more detail in Jane and Stuart Myers’ new and free access video series. Sign up on the Equiculture website for a free mini-course where you will start to learn more about this subject.
The Equicentral System Basics
The main facilities, water, shade and shelter, hay and supplementary feeding are positioned in a central, surfaced holding yard, so the horses can always return to them from the pasture they are grazing.
All the paddocks are linked directly to this surfaced holding yard area, although only one paddock is in use at any time.
The gate to the paddock that is in use is always open, so the horses can always get themselves back to the water, shade and shelter.
The only watering points are in the surfaced holding yard, instead of there being one trough in each paddock.
Occasionally, the horses may be locked-up or held in the surfaced holding yard with hay, but this is usually to prevent damage to the land (for example, during extremes, such as drought or wet conditions), to control pasture intake by overweight horses and to increase healthy pasture production.
Apart from the trees or shrubs situated in and around the paddocks, the only shade or shelter is in the surfaced holding yard. The shade or shelter provided should be large enough for the whole herd to benefit from it at the same time.