Horses, Soil, Health and Performance
Is there a link between horse health and performance and the pasture that they eat? The obvious answer to this question is yes, however the complexity of the relationship leaves room for many different interpretations. Over the last 100 years profound changes have occurred in not only the food that horses are fed but even more in the way we manage pasture and the soil on which it grows.
Food pellets, based on grain and fortified with numerous supplements have been the greatest change to horse feeding. Also the management of pastures has seen the use of chemical-salt based fertilisers become widespread. This approach has changed the character of grass as it encourages fast leafy growth with low nutrient density. The number of species of plants that make up pasture has declined dramatically also and many equestrian properties practice monoculture or something close to it.
Another consequence of applying chemical fertilisers is that these encourage weed proliferation and this has led to the massive use of herbicides. When you apply any chemical to the soil with the intent of killing something, in other words herbicide, fungicide, insecticide or nematicide, without exception you kill off a disproportionate array of soil biology.
Chemical-salt based fertilisers also have a massive effect on soil biology, however it is to rev it up so it draws carbon from the long term soil carbon bank called humus.
Most of the changes in soil management in the last 100 years have contributed to the depletion of soil carbon. Examples of this include ploughing which opens up the soil and leads to oxidation of the carbon into atmospheric carbon dioxide. Another is just leaving soil bare where once again carbon is oxidised. Wind or water erosion also results in huge losses of topsoil where most carbon is stored.
So the question arises - can you lift the health and performance of your horse by changing the way you look after the soil which grows the pasture that is the primary source of your horse’s nutrition? Many studies now indicates that this is the case. How do you go about it?
True fertility in soil is measured by the levels of soil carbon. Western Australia has naturally low carbon soils with the so-called “Bassendean sands” classified as the least fertile on the planet.
Reducing the amount of chemical fertilisers by part substitution with mature composts is a good start. Applying a thin layer of high humus compost sets up a positive feedback loop bringing more carbon into the soil, year after year.
Cell grazing can also contribute to building soil carbon as well as increasing the biodiversity of the pasture. This concept means that horses are moved every few days to relatively small yards where they eat all parts of the pasture rather than binging on their favourite grasses, for example. This increases the fibre consumption on one hand and maintains the breadth of pasture species, on the other. Short spells reduce compaction of the soil and the manure and urine are spread around more evenly to add nutrient to the soil.
A quote from Australian Peter Andrews inventor of Natural Sequencing Farming techniques also has a message.
“Peter is an avid horseman. When he was a young man he went to England to study the land management techniques of champion horse breeders. Like many people he thought the solution to breeding champions was lush green pastures. He asked an old breeder with many grand national winners to his credit how much chemical super-phosphate he applied to his field. The old man said none. Occasionally he applied a bit of Kelp. The solution the old man said was to have as many different weeds on your property for the horses to nibble on. Any less than 50 weeds was considered a pasture in decline. Peter always remembered that lesson in plant diversity.”
It’s interesting to reflect on the direction that horse health and performance appears to be taking. In many ways it is a return to pasture management methods used nearly a century ago before synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, food pellets and supplements. For me its transfixing to realise that the same sort of revolution is taking place in food growing for humans as well, as the “organic” revolution sweeps through farms world-wide.
Underpinning all is the need to grow the biology in soil, principally by managing soil carbon. This is the great challenge for our future.