Fifty shades of graze: Horse owners put new twist on pasture management

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The researchers were alerted to a range of creative land management strategies being used to mitigate equine issues such as obesity, lack of exercise, pasture quality, worm resistance, and a lack of social contact.
Image by rihaij

Some British horse owners, believing that traditional equid management is no longer suited to animal health, are pursuing alternative strategies with some success, researchers report.

Their efforts are also driven by environmental concerns, Tamzin Furtado and her fellow researchers reported in the journal Animals.

The researchers, in a just-published study, set out to explore environmentally sustainable practices associated with these alternative grazing management systems being used by those caring for horses, ponies, donkeys and mules in the United Kingdom.

The study team said the precise amount of land given over to equid use in Britain is entirely unknown. However, given that Britain is home to at least 847,000 horses and ponies, and up to 27,500 donkeys, it is likely to be a significant acreage. More than 90% of Britain’s horses are turned out in a field at some point each day.

The researchers said that while land for equestrian-related activity has been largely overlooked in environmental and farming policy and research, the practices used to manage it could affect Britain’s move towards overall “greener” practices, both in relation to climate change and conservation of native plant and animal life.

The authors said there is a lack of scientific evidence on the health of equid pastures in Britain. Indeed, in one study, only 32.4% of respondents in one study considered the grass cover in their fields to be “good”.

A United States study found that horse owners were aware of the options for pasture management, but did not follow recommended stocking densities and management practices. “UK equid-keepers’ awareness of grazing management best practices remains unexplored, but it seems possible that the result might be similar, as reflected in popular opinion.”

Researchers in the University of Liverpool study conducted their online survey on alternative grazing systems during the summer of 2020. In all, 758 responses were incorporated into their analysis.

The survey arose because, during their investigations into weight management, the researchers were alerted to a range of creative land management strategies being used to mitigate equine issues such as obesity, lack of exercise, pasture quality, worm resistance, and a lack of social contact.

The most popular system used were tracks (56.5%), a system known as Equicentral (19%), those classified as “other” (for example, non-grass turnout) (12.5%); rewilding (7.5%); and turnout on either moorland (0.7%) or woodland (2.5%).

The track system involves the creation of a track around the outside of the field. The animals are placed on the track rather than in the central area. Shelter, water and hay are placed in different areas of the track to encourage movement. The logic behind the system is that horses are evolved to travel long distances each day and the track system aims to replicate this.

The Equcentral system involves the establishment of one central area known as the “loafing area”, where the animals find all their resources (shelter, hay, water etc). They have access to the fields according to permaculture/mob grazing practices. Fields are very lightly grazed and never below 5cm. This is purported to encourage the growth of mature-native grasses and to protect the soil, hence providing a host of environmental benefits, including the development of ecosystems for native plants and animals.

Under wilding/rewilding or conservation grazing, equids are usually kept on large areas of diverse land, which may include areas of scrub, marsh, woodland and pastureland, and their role is to eat, wander and defecate as a part of the process of recreating diverse ecosystems. The premise is that human management of land disrupts the biodiverse ecosystems which should be present on land, and equids can be an integral part of recreating those diverse ecosystems.

"For example, across all three systems, the respondents described aiming to reduce or eliminate stabling, which, in turn, reduces the need for commercial bedding products which are required in stables.
Image by Pete Linforth

The survey analysis highlighted that equid keepers across the alternative grazing systems were highly engaged in exploring sustainable practices. Their approaches varied according to each system, yet all aimed to fulfill practices in three major categories: Supporting diverse plant life, supporting wildlife, and sustainably managing droppings and parasite burdens.

Proponents of the Equicentral systems declared to be aiming to support soil health.

The researchers said the results showed that respondents were engaged in balancing the needs of equids with maintaining a sustainable and ecologically health environment.

“Given the amount of land managed by equid keepers, encouraging environmentally minded equine care and grazing management is extremely important,” the study team said.

Across all systems, the practices described by the respondents were generally in line with agricultural research around improving soil and pasture health, the researchers said.

“In all three systems, varied species and mature grasses were considered ideal for developing a biodiverse local ecosystem, which would support the retention of carbon in soil, nitrogen fixation and provision of habitats for local fauna.”

The respondents showed an awareness that mature plant cover and light grazing could reduce compaction and soil erosion and understood that “horse-sick” pastures were an environmental concern and a result of pasture misuse or overuse.

Proponents of these systems described a preference for organic pastures and, when fertiliser use was described, it was usually with care, for example, alongside soil analysis and, often, of the more environmentally friendly variety (for example, low-nitrogen; seaweed meal).

The environmentally favourable behaviours described by the survey participants overlooked some potential benefits of the systems, the authors said. “For example, across all three systems, the respondents described aiming to reduce or eliminate stabling, which, in turn, reduces the need for commercial bedding products which are required in stables.

“Given that horses are frequently bedded on imported wood shavings, often pine, there is a carbon cost associated with bedding use. Additionally, shavings do not compost as efficiently as other bedding types, such as straw.”

The researchers said the study provides the basis for further work on exploring, communicating and encouraging sustainable practice in the equestrian community in Britain and beyond.

The study team comprised Furtado, Mollie King, Elizabeth Perkins, Catherine McGowan and Gina Pinchbeck, all with the University of Liverpool; Samantha Chubbock, with the charity World Horse Welfare; Emmeline Hannelly, with the British Horse Society; and Jan Rogers, with The Horse Trust.

Furtado, T.; King, M.; Perkins, E.; McGowan, C.; Chubbock, S.; Hannelly, E.; Rogers, J.; Pinchbeck, G. An Exploration of Environmentally Sustainable Practices Associated with Alternative Grazing Management System Use for Horses, Ponies, Donkeys and Mules in the UK. Animals 2022, 12, 151. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12020151

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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One thought on “Fifty shades of graze: Horse owners put new twist on pasture management

  • January 10, 2022 at 9:51 pm
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    Great to see The Equicentral System mentioned in this article. We developed it many years ago in Australia when we lived there and now we are back in the UK it is rapidly gaining momentum here too (as well as the US, NZ etc.). Climate Change is in everyones thoughts and people are increasingly wanting to do the right thing by the environment and The Equicentral System allows horse owners to do just that.

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