A Healthy Ecosystem for Horses
Do you remember learning about ecosystems in middle school science class? I don’t, necessarily, but I do remember teaching about them. Life science was one of my favorite subjects to teach. And in case you’re wondering, the technical definition of an ecosystem is, “A biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.”
Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how we can foster a healthy ecosystem for our horses. After all, horses don’t live in a bubble–they interact with everything which surrounds them in some way. More often than not, we inadvertently create problems which hinder a healthy ecosystem, but there are some simple solutions to many of these issues.
A healthy environment can go a long ways in creating healthy horses. So with that in mind, here are some things to consider:
Reduce/ Eliminate the Use of Harmful Chemicals
Using chemical fly sprays on your horse, premise sprays, or weed killers can harm more than what they’re intended to target. Aside from some of their known cancer-causing effects in mammals, harmful chemicals can end up in the soil, groundwater, and eventually streams and ponds where fish and other small organisms are negatively impacted. Reducing their use, or finding alternatives which don’t use harmful chemicals can make a big difference. Do your research to know which ones are problematic.
Incorporate Natural Fly/ Mosquito Predators
We all know that flies can be a problem when you have livestock of any kind, but did you know there are natural ways to effectively deal with them? When many of us think of fly predators, we think of the tiny non-stinging wasps which feed on fly larvae. While these insects can be great, there are other types of fly predators which can be just as helpful. Chickens for example. Since turning my flock of nine out to free-range full time, I’ve noticed a huge decrease in flies. The chickens love to hang out around the horses. They eat whatever flies they can catch (chickens are surprisingly quick!) and they also dig through manure piles for pieces of grain or bugs. Once the manure piles are scattered, flies are less likely to lay eggs in them. The chickens may very well be eating fly and parasite eggs in the manure as well.
If you’d rather not deal with chickens, barn swallows, tree swallows, and bats also like to feast on horse flies and mosquitos. By building bird or bat houses near your barn or pasture, you can encourage them to hang around and help you out.
Many people tend to overgraze their horse pastures, which also leads to an unhealthy ecosystem. Healthy plant species are important not only to our horses, but to many other creatures as well. By strip grazing, reducing the number of horses per pasture, or using pasture rotation, you can help keep your grass healthy, and in turn help create a healthier ecosystem.
If your horses only have a small acreage on which to roam, managing manure is also important. Horses naturally don’t like to graze near their manure piles and these areas often become scraggly with weeds. By keeping manure picked up, you will not only give your horses more grazing space, but keep your pasture healthier.
Make sure to compost or or haul your manure off site. Water runoff from collected manure piles can also create a problem when it moves on to streams and ponds.
Encourage Dung Beetles and Other Beneficial Insects
Spiders get a bad reputation. Sure, they look a little creepy, but they are very beneficial when it comes to eating nuisance insects. If I see a spider web in my barn (or on my front porch), I leave it. Call me weird, but I rather like watching spiders do their thing. I find them fascinating (as long as they aren’t on me!)
Dung beetles and dung flies are two more beneficial insects we should do our best not to harm.Dung beetles make tiny tunnels in the soil and come out when they smell fresh manure. They help to break up manure piles and make small round balls of dung, which they take back into their tunnels. Dung (as well as the fly and parasite larvae within it) is the major food source for the dung beetle. The tunnels built by the dung beetles also promote healthy pasture by allowing water and air to permeate the soil.
Dung flies are golden, bee-like insects which hang out around manure piles as well. They prey on pest flies and other adult insects, so it’s best to leave them alone!
So these are just a few of the ways you can promote a healthy and more sustainable ecosystem for your horses. As this article by Jane and Stuart Myers of Equiculture states:
A sustainable horse property has minimal impact on the surrounding environment and any impact should aim to enhance rather than be detrimental to the environment as a whole.
This means protecting waterways and grassland flora and fauna, increasing biodiversity (increasing flora and fauna species) and in particular providing or encouraging habitat for native wildlife.
If we keep the above tips in mind and maybe look for other ways to support a healthy ecosystem, we’ll be doing both our horses and the environment a big favor.
Sources and Further Reading