I’ve been fortunate enough to be around horses for 30 years now, and very early on, decided that horses would be my career.  I’m ashamed to say that it is only now that I am getting to grips with pasture management. From a permaculture point of view, horses seem to have been largely viewed as an unnecessary burden, unless they are working horses, and even then, only as a last resort.

This I feel is not only wrong, it is unfair. Horses have been our domesticated companions for thousands of years, and without them we wouldn’t have got terribly far.  True, it is not easy to create a closed system of management on a small amount of land if you are going to stable them, shoe them and feed them fodder, but we can mitigate some of these, and live with others.

Thankfully there are some who have dealt with the issue of horses in permaculture, and applying permaculture principles to my horse care has really allowed me to look at things in a very different way.

First the pasture management. Horse owners are frequently (and rightly) criticised for the way they mistreat grassland. Overgrazed horse lawns, covered in weeds and dung are a frequent sight.  The cause is usually a combination of too many horses, not enough land, and constant grazing in the same place, year in, year out. Once there is nothing left alive, then usually the horses are moved, and a bit of NPK fertiliser spread on whatever is left in a bid to coax it back to life.

The answer? Mimic the way that horses graze in the wild. They move constantly, so they aren’t forced to eat where they have dunged, and the plant life isn’t eaten so close to the ground that it cannot easily recover.  This is known as Holistic Planned Grazing. Our paddocks are subdivided into smaller areas using electric fencing, and the horses spend two days in each area, before being moved onto the next. Droppings are removed daily. This gives each section twelve days in between grazings, allowing new growth to come through, and preventing over grazing.

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Subdivided field – this area will be grazed by the two horses for two days before they are moved to the next section.

Having smaller areas also makes it easier to manage unwanted growth, and check the spread of things such as docks and dandelions, which should, under the new regime, become less widespread anyway.

As well as this grazing pattern, we have to begin to introduce a wider variety of grasses and herbs – ones that are lower in sugar, that are palatable to the horses.  We will also concentrate on the hedgerows, creating an edible shelter from the wind, and as a shade area when (if) the sun shines.

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This field is only just recovering from being over grazed last year, and now that the rushes have been topped and the field rolled, we will begin to divide it. Note that there is a large patch of buttercups that will need to be cut.

Another step we are taking is the introduction of a pair of sheep, who will follow the horses around, a couple of blocks behind, eating, we hope, the things that the horses aren’t so keen on.  Initially we hope to borrow a couple, and then have some milking sheep of our own. We will also encourage our hens to run on the ground too.

Our next step is to work out the best way to introduce nitrogen onto the ground without recourse to synthetic NPK fertiliser – something I don’t have the answer to yet.

So that is the grazing side of things. The other is how the horses fit into our systems here on the farm.  Permaculturally, everything has many uses –

Labour – Rain is to be trained as a draught horse, and will be harrowing and rolling the fields, moving things about the place, pulling logs from the woods, and generally being the farm tractor. Mel primarily is here to provide recreation and transport.

Sanity – Being around horses is relaxing, and keeps me sane. Literally.  I need their company. This is maybe the best reason for having them here.

Manure – our straw manure is fantastic stuff, and we have enough for all our needs.

They are both rescue horses, so we are giving them a home they wouldn’t otherwise have, and potentially saving them from early death. Each of them has 20+ years ahead of them, with any luck.

So they are fantastic animals. The issues we have are with fodder, which we buy in, in the form of hay or haylage, and straw bedding.  Ideally, neither will come very far, being made on adjacent farms, but we realise that these are inputs that in an ideal world we would produce ourselves.  This year we cut rushes on the farm for bedding which worked well, but which will only ever provide a tenth of our annual bedding needs.

Hopefully with time and lots of advice we will be able to come up with a properly sustainable system involving the horses that encourages not only their own good health, but that of the land too. I’ll do some more specific stuff about making use of the land we have, and the types of grasses and herbs we hope to encourage, soon. Until then –

Useful links –

Permaculture for horses at Penhros Isaf – Chris and Lyn Dixon

Horse power in Ireland

Hollys Horse Haven – rescue and rehabilitation