Socially and environmentally responsible. In order to support horses and provide the food they are designed to eat, we must take care of our land. To create healthy pastures and adequate food for our horses (and for ourselves) we must ensure that our decisions are socially and environmentally sound.

In the first 3 parts of this series we have been concentrating on the framework that guides holistic decision making:

The definition of the whole to be managed, for example your household, lifestyle horse property, and/or (horse) business).

The formation of the holistic goal (e.g. spending more quality time with your horses or build a sustainable horse property),  The four ecosystem processes that serve as the foundation on which the holistic goal rests (water & mineral cycle, community dynamics and energy flow), the tools for managing ecosystem processes (human creativity, money & labour, fire, rest, grazing, animal impact, living organism and technology), and the different effects some of these tools produce in brittle and non-brittle environments.

Now we can put holistic decision making into practice.

In this article we will review the seven guidelines for testing to ensure that our decisions are economically, socially and environmentally sound and will take you towards your personal, property and horse goals.

THE SEVEN Testing questions

Decision-making can be complex particularly in group situations such as family or if you run a (horse) business the employees. The seven tests supplement all the factors that are normally considered when making a decision: conventional research, peer pressure, gut feel, legal concerns, cash flow, intuition, etc.

Having seven tests that address both thinking questions and feeling questions, as well as short-term consequences and long-term consequences, helps to make sure the decision is a sound one and addresses the complexity effectively.

Testing also tends to bring up questions that may have been missed in the first round of exploring a decision or plan. You can play with the order of how you ask the questions, but try to move quickly through the tests and not get mired. If you do get stuck, you probably need to do more research. Always save the society and culture test for last, as it is the one feeling question that brings the decision back to your gut or heart.

 1. Cause and Effect

Does this action address the root cause of the problem?

This question forces you to define the problem and the root cause. Be sure you’ve defined the problem correctly. If it’s a resource issue, try to figure out which of the ecosystem processes is most affected, although in most cases it will involve more than one – e.g. erosion/compaction in your paddocks probably points to a problem with the

water cycle (run off, mud), mineral cycle (lack of healthy top soil) and community dynamics (loss of ground cover). If it’s a human issue, look towards the structure, design and management of your property.

2. Weakest Link

In testing the weak links, we will have to look at the social, biological and financial implications.

a. Social: Have you considered and/or addressed any confusion, anger, or opposition this action could create with people whose support you will need in the near or distant future?

It doesn’t matter if your decision is right when you don’t have support from others, or cause conflict.

This question helps you figure out how to make sure you don’t make any enemies or create misunderstanding. For example – you decide not to use herbicides to control your weeds, but rather use other tools. This view may not be shared with your neighbours who are conventional farmers and want to “safeguard” the improved pastures for their livestock. You should acknowledge this fact, not necessarily be put off by it, but in order to see if there are ways to successfully address your neighbours concerns.

b. Biological: Does this action address the weakest point in the life cycle of this organism?

By determining the weakest link in the life cycle you increase your ability to effectively improve the ability of the organism to either survive or reduce its numbers if it is a “problem” organism. For example: with this testing question you can research if the ‘biological’ methods for reducing weeds can be successful.

c. Financial: Does this action strengthen the weakest link in the chain of production?

This test is done in conjunction with financial planning when you determine the weak link in your household, lifestyle property and/or business.

The chain of production has three links to which human creativity is applied:

Resource Conversion: If it’s an issue of having insufficient ability to convert sunlight into raw resources (growing pasture and conserved forages for your horses) and/or not having sufficient raw resources (including money, capacity, talent, etc.), then it is a resource conversion weak link.

Product Conversion: This applies much more to the situation when you are trying to make money from your animals (e.g. livestock farming). However, horse businesses that breed horses and sell them, may encounter issues with product conversion. If your raw resources are plentiful, but you lack the capacity to convert them to a marketable form, you have a product conversion weak link (e.g., if you have more than enough forage, but lack enough animals (e.g. broodmares) to capitalise on).

Marketing (Money) Conversion: If you can’t sell the products or services you have produced, then you have a marketing conversion weak link.

 3. Marginal Reaction

(Comparing two or more actions):

Which action provides the greatest return, in terms of my/our holistic goal for the time and money spent?

It helps you prioritize your efforts and expenditures so you can maximize progress toward your holistic goal. For example, if your goal is to have a more sustainable property (better environment for your horses), that over time can reduce inputs, you may have to review the decision to redesign your current property or sell your property and buy another property with greater options to make it more sustainable over time. Or you can review your tools or management strategies for reducing weeds or compaction in your paddocks.

4. Gross Profit Analysis

(Comparing two or more enterprises)

Which enterprises contribute the most to covering the overheads of the business?

This is applies largely to those that run horse businesses or other businesses that you derive income from. This test is used to select those products or services from which you derive your income that, after associated costs and risks have been factored in, produce the most income.

Lets say you run a horse business with a number of services. By reviewing the different areas of your business you will have better idea of which one derives the most income. It may mean that you have to decide to focus more on one area and reduce the services that are costing you money or time. Financial planning for horse businesses and household or lifestyle properties will be discussed in more detail in a future article.

5. Energy/Money, Source & Use

Is the energy or money to be used in this action derived from the most appropriate source in terms of your holistic goal? Will the way in which the energy or money is to be used lead toward your holistic goal?

You want to favour renewable or environmentally benign sources of energy and avoid non-renewable or environmentally damaging sources whenever possible. Money derived internally, that is generated by your (horse) business, salary or savings, usually leaves you better off than money derived externally (from a lender).

Energy and money used to build infrastructure are preferable, as are uses for a one-time investment that will then sustain itself. What you want to avoid are consumptive uses of energy or money that achieve no lasting effect, or worse, uses that become addictive in that, once initiated, you risk an undesirable dependence.

6. Sustainability

If you take this action, will it lead you toward or away from the future resource base described in your holistic goal?

This question helps you keep in mind the long-term consequences of your actions in the context of your holistic goal. For example – your decision to use biological tools and methods versus chemical products to reduce weeds.

 7. Society & Culture

How do you feel about this action now?

This is the feeling question that processes all the information you have analysed in the other six tests bearing in mind the quality of life you’ve described in your holistic goal.

We have now covered all of the testing guidelines that will help you evaluating any action you plan to take. Although some of these questions appear to apply much more to a situation when you run a (horse) business, it still will have useful applications for your household and/or lifestyle property. By going over these questions it will help you preventing costly and unsound decisions. Ideally, all actions should pass all tests, but in reality it won’t always have that outcome. However, those questions/actions that test almost all certainly will give economically, ecologically and socially sound results. Any action that might fail this year may pass later as your management takes effect and affect the whole situations.

Remember to move quickly through the tests and not get mired. If you do get stuck, you probably need to do more research. And always test towards your (holistic) goals otherwise the tests become meaningless.

Even if your decision passes all the tests it could still prove wrong, so you will have to monitor what you have planned. In the next edition we will go into more detail about the feedback loop and provide you with some management guidelines.


Adams, A & Butterfield, J. 2004. The Essence of Holistic Management. In Practice.

Butterfield, J. 2000. Tools to manage ecosystems processes. In Holistic Management International – Getting Started with Holistic Management. (

Savory, A & Butterfield, J. 1999. Holistic Management – A New Framework for Decision Making. 2nd edition, Island Press, Washington, DC. (

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