I flung myself into the world of horses, first by riding and grooming a rubber Hippity Hop Mickey Mouse bouncy toy. With Mickey quietly hitched to the dresser pull in my bedroom, I lovingly groomed him between rides with a nail brush I stole from my mom's manicure kit. A few years later, I finally was the proud owner of a $500 pony.
By contrast, I stumbled backward into to the field of natural resource conservation 12 years ago. After walking around my parent's five-acre horse property with a conservation specialist, I told her I thought she had a pretty cool job, talking with horse people all day about mud, manure, and pasture management. She then told me about a conservation specialist employment opportunity in a neighboring county and encouraged me to apply. After a successful interview with the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District, I was hired--my employers promised to teach me all about conservation if I could unravel for them the mysteries of horse people.
Over the next few years I learned about natural resource conservation without stepping into a classroom. My co-workers and area farmers became my teachers. In my journey to learn more about how horse farms could impact ponds, streams, and the nearby Chesapeake Bay, I drew upon my knowledge of horses and stable management from a typical horse person background. Those years between receiving my first pony and my new role as a conservationist had been filled with Pony Club, a bachelor’s degree in horsemanship, and various positions as a vet tech, groom, instructor, trainer, and barn manager--a foundation that still keeps me looking at conservation from a horse owner's perspective.
Norris installed a sacrifice area and sectioned off fields for pasture rotation on her own farm.
What I learned is that, simply put, it's all about the rain. Management practices we can use to reduce mud, manage manure, and keep our pastures healthy can lessen the likelihood that rainwater will carry soil, fertilizers, manure, pesticides, and other contaminants across our properties and into our streams and groundwater.
A current horse owner myself, I quickly recognized that getting other owners to adopt the land management practices I was learning about wasn't going to be a difficult sell. The management techniques I discovered were economical, good for the horses, made barn chores more efficient, made the farm look great, and yes, were good for the environment.
Some of the eco-friendly farm techniques weren't new to me--they just had fancy new names. For instance, the dirt paddock we used for turning out easy keepers was reborn to me as a "sacrifice area."
Other information was new: I learned how to use lime and fertilizer to grow and maintain healthy pasture and that having multiple pastures means you can create a rotational grazing system. I learned how composting manure can create a valuable soil amendment and reduce fly and parasite populations. I learned that simple soil and manure tests can tell you exactly what your soil needs and what your compost can supply, and I learned how to use my mower for pesticide-free weed control.
Now, in my typical 5:00 a.m. routine at my farm, I let the horses into their stalls to eat their grain while I quickly scoop manure from the paddock, place it in the composter, and check the water trough. I make a decision based on the horses' weights, the pasture condition, and the weather forecast to either open a gate from the paddock to a pasture or fill the horses’ slow-feeding haynets and leave the horses in the paddock until I return from work. In about 20 minutes I’ve prevented mud, managed manure, cared for my pastures, fed my horses, and turned them back out in a clean paddock or green pasture.
It’s nice that my pastures are eco-friendly, but I really enjoy the chore-efficiency and horse health benefits. My husband, a non-horse person, appreciates that the property looks great.
Whatever your motivation is to create healthy pastures, reduce mud, or employ thoughtful manure management, you'll find that you can keep your horses' health and happiness your top priority while enjoying the many other benefits of an eco-friendly farm. Conserving natural resources is just a positive side effect of smart horsekeeping.
Kate Norris is district manager at the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District, where she has worked since 1999. Kate lives with her husband, Pete, on a small, environmentally friendly horse property in Gainesville, Va., with her Thoroughbred/Welsh pony Oliver, three pugs, and three barn cats.