Your property: planning ahead

Environmental consultant Sally Linton looks at early spring strategies for equine good farming practice – and how planning ahead now will improve next winter at your place

Spring is a time of looking forward to longer days and the season ahead. If you compete, you have probably already planned your season, pored over the calendars and chosen your key events. If you’re more of a leisure rider, you’re probably already thinking eagerly about what you are going to do with your equine friends on the long summer evenings.

Early spring is also a great time to reflect on how your winter has gone. Have you spent it knee-deep in mud, with gumboots full of water, and horses with abscesses and mud fever? 

Those of you with lighter, free-draining soils will have had a relatively easy time of it, but if like many of us, you live in a region with heavier and poor-draining soils, even with a relatively dry winter there is likely to be mud. 

The other issue with having a muddy property is that you will have sediment, nutrients and faecal bacteria from dung washed into your nearest drain, river or stream. Not only does this impact on the health of our rivers and streams, but you are losing the precious soil and nutrients necessary to grow good grass for your horses. 

If you think horses and winter always equals mud, it actually doesn’t have to. However, it does require planning and management to prevent mud, and now is the time to plan for next winter. 

There are two key factors that exacerbate mud: lack of grass cover and soil compaction or ‘pugging’, which causes water to pond on the surface rather than draining away. 

The greater the number of horses per hectare of land, there is likely to be less grass and greater soil compaction. Of course, owning a property for your horses is both a huge investment and a lifelong dream for many, and it is tempting to squeeze on as many horses as you can. However, the greater the intensity of stocking, the greater the need for good management – not only for the health and wellbeing of your horses and the environment, but also for your sanity and your bank account. 

How many is too many?

The easiest way to deal with mud and sediment loss issues – either have fewer horses on your property, or have more land! But this is probably not practical for many of us, especially if you are caring for beloved steeds in their retirement.

However, if downsizing your number of horses is an option for you, then consider it. Perhaps you can free lease or lend a horse out as a paddock mate or gentle schoolmaster?

Alternatively, can you increase your available land? This doesn’t necessarily mean purchasing more acreage, but could be leasing a block, or finding alternative winter grazing for retired or turned-out horses. 

Keep horses off wet paddocks

If fewer horses or more land is not an option, then how to manage your property to maintain grass cover and minimise soil compaction?  The aim should be to keep horses off paddocks prone to pugging during periods of wet weather. Stables or yards are an obvious choice, but a laneway with a firm surface or a paddock on higher ground that is not prone to pugging may suffice. 

Maintaining pasture cover will minimise pugging and compaction, as the pasture protects from soil loss, and a strong root systems keeps the soil pores open to enhance drainage. Ideally, grass should not be grazed lower than 10cm, and allowed to grow to at least 15cm before grazing again. Manage grass growth by having smaller paddocks or using temporary electric fences. Fencing off areas that have been grazed (back fencing) will also help prevent pasture damage.  

The dreaded pugging

Soil is compacted when horses trample wet soil, the soil aggregates are broken down, and spaces (pores) in the soil are reduced. This called pugging when done by animals. 

Severe pugging and compaction leads to more topsoil and contaminant runoff to waterways.

Pugging leads to: 

  • poor drainage – the soil will stay softer and wetter, making it more susceptible to further pugging
  • poor plant growth – a reduction in pasture yield
  • increased fertiliser requirements
  • more topsoil and contaminant runoff to waterways.

Minimise pugging and compaction:

  • Graze wetter paddocks before the wetter part of the season.
  • Good pasture cover gives better protection against pugging – pastures should not be grazed shorter than 10cm
  • Avoid having horses on paddocks when waterlogged.

Benefits of preventing pugging and compaction

  • Better grass growth
  • Less fertiliser required
  • Less time horses will need to be kept off paddocks during wet periods
  • Lower risk of mud fever and abscesses.

Fixing pugged soils 

The easiest way to fix soils that have become pugged or compacted is to let them lie fallow, and not graze them, to allow the soil to relax and generate a grass cover. Bare areas may need re-grassing. This will take time, perhaps up to six months or even a year, and on smaller blocks that are intensively managed, it may not be an option.

For highly-compacted soils, noticeable by lack of grass growth and ponding even after light rain, mechanical intervention by subsoiling or aerating may be required. Aerators are designed to disrupt the soil and loosen any soil compaction in the upper soil surface, allowing water to infiltrate the soil rather than run off. This needs to be done when soil is neither too dry nor too wet, so is best done last spring or in autumn, though this will depend tremendously on the weather. 

Conclusion: If your property gets wet and muddy, spend some time now identifying the causes of the problem, and find a solution that suits you and your property. You then have the whole summer to action your plan so you can have a mud-free winter next year ,whatever the weather throws at you. Remember, as Benjamin Franklin said: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail”.