Hens and Horses
The following is a re-print of an article I wrote which was originally featured on Horse Network.
Chances are that if you have horses, you own at least one other species of animal (and probably more). Let’s face it—horse people are really just animal people. And the more, the merrier, right? But what many folks may not know is that some animals are actually beneficial to keep around horses. One such creature comes in a small, feathered package—the chicken.
When we bought several hens a few years ago, the last thing on my mind was how they would help my horses. I just wanted fresh, organic eggs and cheap entertainment. (Yes, chickens are quite entertaining—at least for the easily amused.)
My original idea was to keep the chickens in a small enclosure, a moveable chicken pen with an attached coop. And this was the only way I could keep my hens at first because, at the time, I had a bird-killing Labrador Retriever. But a year or two later, after this dog passed away, I decided to see how my hens would do free-ranging.
Let me just say, if you’ve never seen free-ranging chickens, this is where the entertainment factor comes in. Chickens love to be out and about. I guess, I can’t say I blame them. But last summer, I really started paying attention when I would frequently find the hens hanging out in the horse pasture.
Ah, how cute, I thought.
The chickens are making friends with the horses. But upon closer inspection, I realized it was actually more than just friendship. It was almost like that kind of relationship you learned in Life Science class—symbiosis. In other words, a mutually beneficial relationship.
The chickens would scratch through manure, eating insects and flies, and disintegrate a manure pile in minutes. I figured that even if they weren’t eating the bugs, just spreading the manure is helpful because this would help kill worm larvae (people use manure spreaders for the same purpose).
The chickens also tended to stick close to the horses because that’s where flies were hanging out as well, and what chicken doesn’t like a tasty fly?
Fun fact: I once watched one of my chickens catch a horse fly in midair and gulp it down. I cheered. Another fun fact: I also watched a chicken swallow a small garter snake whole once. I gagged.
Aside from the bug-eating benefits, here are a few other reasons why you might want to consider keeping hens with your horses:
- Chickens will eat the tiniest piece of grain or other feed dropped on the ground. Not only does this help prevent flies and rodents (who also like to feast on these droppings), it also keeps your horse from trying to scrounge around on the stall floor, inadvertently ingesting dirt or sand.
- Chickens can help acclimate your horse to weird things on the trail. Their frequent flapping and squawking is a great desensitizer for any green horse.
- Not only do chickens spread manure piles, which will dry the manure out and kill worm larvae, they also eat some of this larvae, which can further reduce your horse’s chance for re-infestation.
- Chicken manure makes great fertilizer for your lawn and horse pasture.
And of course, we can’t forget about the obvious benefit of having chickens for us: laying eggs!
If you do decide to get a few free-ranging chickens, there are a few things you need to keep in mind though.
Number one: Chickens can carry salmonella (though this can be found in soil anyway). It’s important to keep your chickens out of your horse feed and hay. Another thing to keep in mind is that even though chickens can eat horse feed, commercial chicken feed can be poisonous to horses. Make sure your horses never have access to chicken feed.
Also, a precaution for your chickens: equine chemical paste dewormers are poisonous to birds so you’ll need to clean up and dispose of manure for several days after deworming your horses.
But don’t let these precautions scare you away—the benefits of keeping hens with horses can be worth it! Mine have been happily co-existing for over a year now.