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Healthy land = Healthy horses

This article first appeared in Equestrian Life. You can find out what is in our latest issue here.

property photo by steve williams

© Steve Williams


By Jane O'Connor

As the rural urban ‘lifestyle property’ interface grows and increasing amounts of farmland are sub-divided into smaller properties, so too does the pressure on horse owners to rethink the impact they have as part of the wider community. Now, the move to educate small landholders about sustainable horse keeping is gaining momentum.

Stop for a moment and add up every small property in Australia where horses are kept. Many lie on urban fringes, whether major metropolitan or regional centres. Now, add up the collective outcome – compacted soil, weed infestation, chronic water run off, polluted waterways, fire hazards, depleted pasture and a growing bill to keep those equines happy. Then there’s the neighbours. They don’t like the look of that electric tape flapping in the breeze, aren’t keen on the flies either and feel affronted when any deluge sends a torrent onto their land. But, a growing movement towards sustainable horsekeeping and well informed property planning to not only mitigate a raft of issues specific to horse properties, but to produce healthier horse outcomes is spreading nationwide.

The education now available is an important resource for property owners that can lead to better long-term economic outcomes and produce healthier horses and when practiced collectively has an enormous impact on the entire community. 

The movement towards sustainable horsekeeping is relatively new at the community level. State agricultural departments, conservation and environment departments, catchment management authorities and local governments offer vast amounts of information to help property owners set up a healthy, sustainable property. But spreading that information to such a diverse range of owners is a time consuming task and one that requires a change of mindsets. On the surface of it, if you asked most owners whether they would want to learn more about ways to deal with the most challenging issues inherent on a horse property and at the same time produce a wider community outcome, then they would actively pursue it.  Whether we like it or not, a key driver is the fact that we now have a specific demographic group that has opted for a few lifestyle hectares on those urban fringes. They have bought the horses for themselves and the children, most are leisure riders, pony club members or social riders. Many  have little or no prior knowledge of the local land topography, soil types or general agricultural practices. Our fenced off hectares are our ‘castle’. But, that piece of paradise doesn’t stand alone. How many of us know where water catchments are in our area and how they are affected by run off? What are the main causes of erosion, how will the seasons affect weed infestation and what is the pasture going to do to our horses’ health?

The majority of small horse holdings range from two to four hectares. Many owners fall into the leisure riding market and take advantage of the proximity to pony clubs and adult riding groups. Unless they go on to further competition, then it is this availability of a sought after leisure pursuit that ices the 'lifestyle' property cake. But, there is growing pressure from planning authorities to ensure such properties co-exist as an integral part of the community. Complacency, or ignorance, can often lead to enforced regulation rather than this sector being an integral part of the planning process.   

The situation is encapsulated in a current research project being conducted by HorseSA that not only points to sensibly addressing the impact of horse properties as part of the community, but also to some growing pressures on how we use land for horse sport and recreation. (see breakout). It may come as a surprise to learn that keeping horses in South Australia requires a permit, with enforceable conditions attached. The competition for recreational land use and the public perception of its preservation – from pony clubs to bush trails and competition venues - means the equine community has to ensure it is a good custodian and user and can adopt sustainable practices as part of the community.

As Queensland faced the formidable threat from the Hendra virus, that not only impacts equine health, but poses a serious human threat, how horse keeping properties operate came into sharp focus. This has ranged from the type of trees on or near such properties that could harbour the bats that spread the virus to levels of horse-related pollution reaching waterways.  Forward thinking organisations have begun to work closely with local government and other authorities to find the best way forward. They are organising and conducting regular seminars and impart educational material via websites and associated groups. 

Another hurdle to be crossed is the perception that sustainability is somehow being forcibly imposed by the 'greenie' lobby, as opposed to being a natural extension of policies surrounding land use and now adopted across the board rather than confined to one cause. But, even environmentally-based groups have a realistic approach regarding the diverse nature of the horse-owning public and what is likely to resonate with them and bring about change. 

One person who has become a national educator on the subject is Mariette van den Berg, an equine nutrition expert, Dressage rider, coach and judge. Her education business, MB Equine Services, integrates equine nutrition, horse property design and pasture management. Mariette extended her nutrition expertise to property because the two were inextricably linked. Healthy properties are producing healthier, happier horses, whether for maximum performance or leisure and pleasure.  Put simply, Mariette says that the small hectare property sector is a specific case in need of great attention and the  subject of lack of good land management sheets back to a general lack of understanding. But, pressure from adjoining properties and other land users can only get louder.  This is even the case where we may regard an area as 'a horse enclave'. A few neighbours out of kilter with the rest can make for conflict. "Horse owners need to become involved with being better custodians of the land. Not only that, but a lot of the health issues our horses are suffering from - laminitis and fungal infections, for instance - are related to a lack of pasture management," she says. "How to manage horses on smaller properties has become a very specific niche. But, when you add up all those small properties, we are looking at a very extensive amount of land with a big collective impact."


Tim Boland's Property copyright Equestrian Life/Roger Fitzhardinge

Tim Boland's property.

© Equestrian Life/Roger Fitzhardinge


Mariette says that such property owners are keen to be involved and make improvements, but it often boils down to economic considerations. Often, she says, the thinking stops at the cost consideration, without taking into account the social and environmental aspects. The first question is where people can get the information and education needed to do what is right for their property within their budget, time permitting and with the least resistance.

A major sticking point has been how to categorise such smaller landholders. Currently they are lumped into the general ‘agricultural’ sector. But, messages aimed at ‘farmers’,  ‘the rural sector’, ‘livestock producers’ or ‘graziers’ don’t resonate with this niche group. And, while overarching concepts such as water and general land use may strike a chord, the end result of that land use doesn’t. 

But, one grassroots groundswell is beginning to have an impact and to form a model that can be spread nationwide. The national not-for-profit Landcare movement is well known for its environmental education and regeneration work at community level. Such local groups understand and operate around the local environmental conditions, so actions are tailored to that specific eco-system. Now, the first specific equestrian Landcare group has been formed in Victoria's Yarra Valley. This noted winery and tourism area is also defined by valuable and sought after lifestyle properties and one of the highest concentrations of horses per hectare in Victoria. Spokeswoman for the Yarra Valley Equestrian Landcare Group, Anna-Lisa, says that after only a year and a half of attracting members, spreading the word and appealing to like-minded property owners, the group is now receiving local government and state water authority funding to conduct seminars and field days. They mainly concentrate on small horse farm management. "There are a lot of Landcare groups around the country, but until now, none of them focused on horses." Anna-Lisa agrees that it is usually a lack of knowledge by the new rural dweller that leads to little understanding of how to set up or maintain such a property for the healthiest outcomes. Many simply have no prior knowledge of larger, less urban land.

This group also fully appreciates that there are different philosophies and ways of doing things, new emerging techniques and knowledge and the need to change old, entrenched mindsets. "One side says you should harrow in manure, for instance, another says it is better to compost it. Some want an organic approach and others want to know the best way to use chemical controls for weeds or pests. What we are seeking to do is provide the information and show the examples and then individuals can choose what suits their circumstances the best," Anna-Lisa says.

They too are on a learning curve. One property in the Yarra Valley has adopted a system that is spreading rapidly in the United States and is known as 'Paddock Paradise'. (see breakout). A field day on this property was held recently. And, in the Australian context, they are disseminating information around issues such as the belief that keeping grass very short will eliminate founder. Rather, it will help greatly with fire prevention, but not founder. Even slashing larger paddocks very low may be great over summer, but not so great for erosion or water run-off issues. "We are all on a learning curve, but it is the sharing of this knowledge and enabling owners to see what they can achieve that is important," she says. "It all comes down to knowledge, but yes, all these small holdings of horsekeeping land add up to a big chunk." 

Mariette also points to this sustainability movement becoming far more mainstream, rather than being lumped into some particular cause. At the ground level, understanding how soil types affect pasture and what type of pasture horses should be on and how this impacts their health outcomes is as much about equine health scientific common-sense as it is about wider environmental impact. And, the education associated with it must be specific for horse owners. "The reality is that unless we brand the educational material with the horse, then it will be dismissed as being for other agricultural purposes." But, in commercial livestock operations, the bottom line is to produce the best animals for the market and to get that condition on them as quickly as possible. The likes of 'starvation' paddocks or strip grazing, rotational grazing and room to move don't apply. Much of the pasture to be found on small holdings that were previously larger farming concerns has been improved for other livestock and is not a pasture mix suitable for horses. In 2013, Mariette will conduct around 10 seminars and workshops, mainly in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia where she says there is a high level of interest and backing from councils, horse councils, departments of agriculture and groups such as Landcare. "It is about us encouraging all of these owners to start working with nature rather than against it. And, to achieve the right outcomes collaboration between all the interested groups is the key," she says.

So, where do property owners go to find such information? When Mariette began her quest, she attended many workshops on subjects such as drought, flood and fireproofing properties as well as regenerative farming workshops. From those she took the most important issues for horse owners and began simplifying it for the greatest ease of understanding. "It is a bit of a jungle out there," she says, but we are now starting to see this distilled knowledge filtering through to the community level. Contact with local Landcare groups and seeking whatever information they have on the subject or whether they are aware of any workshops or field days is a good start. If there isn't an active group in your area, then consider putting that proposition forward and looking at the Yarra Valley model. Mariette says that funding is often available from catchment authorities to set up such groups as it is in their interests to bring horse property owners into the sustainability fold. Check with federal and state primary industry departments and state horse councils as to what they offer by way of seminars and educational material. Conservation and environment departments offer valuable material (see breakout on impact of horses). There is also a range of alternative farming groups and annual expos that have a smaller holding focus. Perhaps it is worthy of discussion at a pony club, adult rider or social riding group gathering.  

Proper planning

Whether starting from scratch or wanting to redesign an existing property with the right sustainability elements, a planning checklist is a must. Daniel Ash from Equestrian Architecture in Victoria, says that with many new horse properties being established, it is a lack of planning that can cause untold and expensive future problems. But, you can achieve the sort of outcome that ensures you never have that summer dustbowl or winter mud. And,he says, one of the least understood areas can be the local government process. The notion that you can just build whatever infra-structure you like because you have acreage is a thing of the past, particularly in urban/rural interface areas. “We have had people who have spent over two years getting a stable block through the permit process,” he says. Such delays often hinge on lack of knowledge of requirements, but such delays can be a major blow to someone trying to set up an agistment business or even for their own equestrian use. In some local government areas permits are required for certain numbers of horses on a property and this is not just confined to South Australia. Daniel’s initial recommended checklist is:

List your goals

- Create a safe environment in which to keep and train horses

- Create an environment conducive to happy, healthy horses

- Construct user friendly facilities and layouts

- Positively impact the quality of the land

- Positively contribute to the aesthetic of the site and its surrounds 

Understand your site

- make a plan of the existing features (trees, waterways, roadways, existing buildings, access points)

- understand the implications of the site’s orientation

- understand the climate of the area

- locate the view and vistas to and from the site

- map the topography (having a professional site survey completed will show exactly the slope of the land)

- check your soil and research what improvements can be made

- check the local planning and authority restrictions

Write a plan

- start with a wish list. If you could have everything you need or want what would it include?

- prioritise your needs (and your wants)

- set a budget

- based on your budgetary and time constraints propose a schedule of works Masterplanning 

Draw up a masterplan locating the proposed works and improvements remembering that the masterplan should represent the end state of the property and assist in working out how to get there.  

Our tips

- position buildings and landscape elements to create natural protection from prevailing weather 

- place gates and roadways on higher ground  to avoid muddy gateways

- consider a concentric arrangement with the most used facilities located centrally surrounded by smaller paddocks and again by larger paddocks to reduce accessways, time spent travelling around which in turn decreases your impact on the land

- arrange paddocks to enable easy cross-grazing and rotation. Using a mixed cross-grazing team, which can easily be rotated through paddocks, will greatly increase the productivity and general condition of the property

- maintain a safe separation between horses and people. If possible separate the areas and facilities used by family or members of the general public from horse areas

- provide multiple gateways between main roads and paddocks

- check the connection of services and their associated costs prior to locating and facilities and consider alternate services

- locate facilities requiring large scale earthworks aligning with the contours of the land, not against

- provide more than one access point to the property if possible, especially in bushfire areas

- plan for the future. Future proof the design as much as possible


- choose a style which is appropriate for your site, climate, environment and aesthetic taste

- choose between custom designed buildings tendered to a number of contractors or use Design+Construct contractors

- choose a designer you feel comfortable working with and has the right knowledge for your site and works

Plan the works

Consider the natural progression of works and how later works may be impacted by other works

- complete major earthworks, pasture improvements and services connections before fencing

- group earthworks together to avoid having contractors return

- make sure you work backwards from a grand plan to avoid repeating or undoing work at a later date

- consider including preparatory works for later additions (ie running underground cables for arena lighting prior to installing the lights)

Further information www.equestrianarchitecture.com.au





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