Sustainable land, healthy horse — Part 1

A sustainable approach to your lifestyle will not only benefit your horse but many other aspects of your life.

Did you know you can use equine behavior to produce a healthy sustainable lifestyle? It will have benefits for you, your horses, your pasture and your pocket. It will also save you time and create a healthy environment for your horses while taking care of the wider environment. By using some of the natural and domesticated behaviors and characteristics of the horse to work for you rather than against you, your whole property management system becomes more efficient.

Understanding grazing behavior

A horse is a mono-gastric (single stomached) herbivore, unlike most herbivores, like cattle and sheep, which are ruminants. They have several chambers to their stomachs that thoroughly process their food. A horse has a different grazing strategy from that of ruminants in that he gets fewer nutrients out of each mouthful, but grazes for longer periods. In fact, the whole physiology of the horse has evolved to ideally have fiber passing through the stomach for a minimum of 12 hours a day.

The horse has evolved to eat a diet consisting mainly of high fiber, low sugar, and low protein grasses or forage, but he will also browse on leaves, twigs, herbs, berries and bushes. Horses naturally survive on this low calorie, high fiber diet, yet at the same time they have lots of demands on their energy. Wild and feral horses cover many miles to gather their food. Seasonal variations in temperature and resource quality, and factors such as breeding and raising foals, all use up some of this stored energy.

The daily routine

Many animal species have been studied in their natural habitats to find out what their daily “time budget” is. An understanding of how horses naturally use their time helps with grazing management, and therefore land management.

• The behavior that takes up most of a horse’s day is grazing. Horses graze in what are termed “bouts”, which typically last around three hours at a time. They usually carry out their grazing bouts throughout the day and night, with periods of sleeping and loafing (being social) in between. When feed is plentiful, horses will spend less total time grazing (approximately 12 to 14 hours a day) and more time sleeping and loafing. In harsher conditions when the pasture is “poor” quality, horses will spend up to 20 hours a day grazing/browsing, if necessary. In this case, social behavior becomes a low priority and they do little more than sleep and eat in order to survive.

• The next most important behavior is sleeping. Adult horses sleep/snooze about four hours a day. This total time is split into bouts of around 15 minutes at a time throughout the day and night.

Herd living

Horses are herd animals. They never live alone by choice because they rely on each other for various important functions. Despite this, many horse owners still separate their horses. This can lead to land degradation problems because a separated horse will usually walk (or run) the fence lines in an attempt to get to other horses. Quieter horses will just stand next to each other on either side of a fence, or play together over the fence, but all these scenarios lead to an increased risk of fence injuries. Some horses that are kept alone may appear to accept the situation, but remember that they have no choice and may develop a condition called “learned helplessness” – in order to reduce their stress, their brains learn they have no choice but to accept the situation.

Keeping horses in herds acknowledges their natural behavior, reduces the risk of fence injuries, and enables better pasture management. Horses can be moved around the property as a herd, paddocks can be rested between grazing periods, and pastures allowed time to regrow. This results in more biodiversity (a larger variety of plants), more pasture over time, better parasitic “worm” management, and many other benefits that will be explained later in this series. This is also important for when we talk about management systems in our next article because whatever system you use, it has to be replicated for each group of horses; so if you can reduce the number of herds you have, your land management will become much easier.

Grazing pressures

Other facts to be acknowledged is that horses have two sets of very sharp incisor teeth, and are able to graze pasture plants extremely short. If horses are allowed to continuously graze an area, they can eat the plants out completely. Horses are also very selective grazers, which means they will choose certain plants and ignore others. This results in areas of paddock becoming even more overgrazed if the horses are not regularly moved to other areas. A combination of the above facts coupled with your horses’ hard hooves means they are able to exert a high level of “grazing pressure” on land. As you’ve already seen, the natural and domesticated behavior of horses can have a huge impact on your property if it’s poorly managed. But with some basic knowledge of your horse’s relationship with his pasture, and some simple systems in place, everything can become self-sustaining, creating healthy horses and healthy land.

Traffic control

Another important equine behavior that only occurs in domestic situations is when horses hang around in high traffic areas, such as gates. This behavior happens for one reason – because we feed them. Feeding is often necessary in a domestic situation, but as soon as we feed our horses we create this behavior. Horses very quickly learn where and when the feed is coming from, and stand in a position closest to where this occurs. This causes wear and erosion around gateways and other access points.

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Jane Myers, MSc (Equine) and Stuart Myers have been involved in the horse industry for over 30 years and are the authors of a number of books: Managing Horses on Small Properties, Horse Safe and a series Sustainable Horse Keeping and more recently published three more books, The Equicentral System series. Jane is also co-author of Horse Sense. Their business, Equiculture, promotes responsible horse ownership through education and workshops.