These days, there is lots of talk about being environmentally sensitive. Maybe you conserve farm water, are driving less and walking more, composting manure, and using a worm bin. Perhaps you use cloth bags at the store, have installed compact fluorescent light bulbs in your home and barn, and recycle everything from bailing twine to paper feed sacks. But there are more ways we horse owners can help the earth. By conserving farm water we help keep watersheds clean.
Consider the watershed in which you live. Picture it as a big mixing bowl. Each watershed has a system of creeks, streams, rivers, and depressions that the water drains through on its path to an ocean or underground aquifer.
No matter where we live or what we do, the runoff we produce affects water quality. Runoff from homes, streets, parking lots, forests, farms, and ranches contributes to what scientists refer to as “non-point pollution.” Activities like logging, home building, road construction, traffic, industry and agriculture, washing your horse, and sprinkling your lawn have an impact. All runoff-whether it contains oils, chemicals, sediments, septic tank wastes, or animal waste-has the potential to reach surface waters through storm drains, streams, and waterways. The pollutants can become a permanent fixture in the watershed (or mixing bowl) in which you live.
H2O Pure & Simple
- Prevent runoff and erosion.
- Conserve farm water every way you can.
- Reduce the use and impact of chemicals at home, in the barn, and around your farm.
- Choose biodegradable, non-toxic, earth-friendly products.
- Cover and compost manure.
- Protect vegetation, trails, and streambeds from the impact of horses.
As horse owners, we should be aware that runoff from manure can cause a heavy impact if it reaches streams and wetlands. Sediments cloud the water. Nutrients upset the natural balance of plant growth, thereby reducing oxygen and creating a poor environment for fish and other aquatic life. Bacteria from manure can contaminate water, making it unsafe for recreation and rendering marine life hazardous for human consumption. Even if you don’t have a stream or body of water on your property, contaminated runoff from manure or chemicals can still make its way into a local lake, creek, or groundwater.
Pollution to surface water is only one concern. Up to 60% of us rely on groundwater (the huge expanses of underground aquifers) for our drinking water. This natural resource, a remnant of the Ice Age, is limited just like oil. Some accounts say our groundwater aquifers will be tapped out within a hundred years. Clean, safe drinking water is the most valuable resource on earth.
What we do on our horse properties and with our horses can reduce non-point pollution, conserve water, reduce mud, make our pastures more productive, and make our horse lives easier to manage.
On the Farm
1. Create a winter paddock. Keep your pastures from becoming overgrazed when grass goes dormant by creating a “sacrifice area.” This area should be on high ground and away from creeks, wetlands, ponds, or other water bodies. The paddock should be surrounded by a grassy buffer to confine waste and act as a filter for contaminated runoff. Using a footing such as hogfuel (wood chips), crushed rock, or coarse sand in a paddock will help cut down on mud. Hogfuel has the added benefit of helping to break down the nitrogen in the horse’s urine and manure.
2. Keep clean rainwater clean. Install rain gutters and roof runoff systems on all barns, sheds, and outbuildings. Divert the clean rainwater away from high traffic areas (around barns, paddocks, walkways, feeding areas, etc.) to well-vegetated areas that will soak up excess water.
3. Collect rainwater from your roof in rain barrels. Use it for watering horses, pets, flowerbeds, and gardens. You’ll need a system for diverting downspout water into the barrel (usually plastic), and an overflow that returns to the downspout or diverts water safely away from the barn where it can percolate into the soil. If you have a large enough roof, you may be able to store rainwater in a tank (often called a cistern) and use it as part of an irrigation system or for fire protection. (Note: only metal or fiberglass roofs are recommended when using roof runoff to water animals or food gardens.)
4. Cross-fence and rotate pastures to prevent overgrazing and soil compaction. At least three inches of leafy material is needed for rapid regrowth of plants and to act as a natural filtration system for the nutrients in manure and urine. Soil compaction inhibits plant growth and natural filtration and increases runoff and weeds. Improved pastures will save you money in feed bills and make your horses happier, too.
5. Keep horses off saturated and rain-soaked soils and dormant or frozen pastures. This is critical if you want to have a healthy pasture next summer. Soggy soils and dormant plants simply cannot survive continuous grazing and trampling in winter. Pounding hooves compact the soil and suffocate plant roots. In addition, when the soils are wet, horse hooves act like plungers by loosening fine particles of topsoil that are then washed away by the rain, possibly contaminating surface waters.
6. Cover manure piles to prevent rain from leaching nitrogen into waterways. A simple tarp or sheet of plastic will do.
7. Keep fill, especially manure, out of wetlands and wet meadows. These areas serve as natural filters for water moving from the surface into our groundwater, recharging aquifers. They cannot function properly when clogged with debris. Contaminants in these areas can actually reach groundwater-and once groundwater is polluted, it is extremely difficult, and often impossible, to purify.
8. Fence off streams, lakes, ponds, and wetlands, limiting livestock access. The direct input of animal waste and sediment into streams and water bodies degrades water quality and destroys the aquatic environment. Horses and other livestock tend to trample streamside vegetation. Trees and undergrowth are nature’s system for filtering contaminants from runoff. They also help prevent soil erosion and provide food and shelter for fish and other aquatic life. The overhead canopy that trees provide keeps the water cool, which is necessary for fish. (Cool water carries more oxygen than warm water.)
9. Compost. During the growing season, when the ground is no longer soggy, apply composted manure to your grass, garden, and landscape. Your plants will be better prepared for dry weather. Soil that has been amended with compost absorbs water easily, drains well, and retains moisture.
On the Trail
10. When trail riding, pick up manure in parking lots and at trail heads. Take home everything-manure, old hay, spilled bedding-and add it to your compost pile. Don’t leave it behind where it can possibly wash off into surface waters.
11. Avoid widening the trail. Teach and encourage your horse to ride through mud and puddles. Riding around them widens the trail, destroying more of the vegetation that soaks up water and filters out nutrients.
12. Stay on marked trails and do not cut new trails, switchbacks, or corners. Never go off a trail into a sensitive area, such as a wetlands, bog, or marshy meadow.
13. Cross creeks, waterways, or other sensitive areas in designated locations and single file. Crossing points have been chosen and designed to reduce impact on waterways. Crossing in other areas potentially increases erosion and sediment loading, as well as nutrients and bacteria (from manure and urine), resulting in increased water pollution and possible trail closures. Cross single file so as to not widen areas and impact them further.
Around the Barn & Home
14. Conserve water in the wash rack. For outdoor wash racks, use pervious surfaces instead of concrete to allow runoff to filter into the ground more naturally. Gravel footing is better than dirt, which can erode. Cement increases runoff, while gravel slows the flow and reduces erosion. Landscaping pavers work well as wash rack footing, allowing water to percolate into the ground. Grass, moss, or other vegetation can grow in the spaces between the pavers, helping to further absorb water, filter out contaminants, and break down soaps and chemicals. A number of geogrid products (often made from recycled plastic) are available in the landscaping market and may be easier to handle and install.
15. Turn off water when you’re not using it. Fit your hose with a sprayer head that doesn’t leak and has a flow switch you can turn off when you’re not using the water, as when scrubbing. You’ll conserve a lot of water that way.
16. Use biodegradable soaps and grooming products. Many good biodegradable shampoos and soap products are available now, such as types made from citrus products.
17. Install automatic waterers. They are an excellent water-conserving option because they use only as much water as your horse can drink. Look for a system with a moderate-size water pan-a large one will get dirty and full of algae, requiring you to clean it frequently (thereby dumping and wasting water). Another advantage is that since water is circulating and not stagnant, it won’t provide habitat for mosquitoes. Choose a system that doesn’t require energy to run. Many types are also insulated to help keep water cooler during the summer and prevent freezing in the winter.
18. Add pervious surfaces to driveways, parking lots, and walkways. Wherever you can, instead of paving, think about footing options, such as gravel or pavers, that allow surface runoff to percolate into the soil.
19. Install water-saving devices. Upgrade toilets with efficient dual-flush models (this can save up to 17,000 gallons of water per year for a family of four). Do a “waterwise” assessment. Get ideas on the Internet and from your local utilities for ways to reduce water use.
20. Fix that leaky faucet. Faucet repair can save up to 300 gallons a month. Use timers when filling water tanks to prevent overflows.
21. Landscape with drought-tolerant plants and use mulch. Native trees and shrubs are more tolerant of the growing conditions in your area. They require less watering and fewer chemicals or fertilizers. Using mulch significantly reduces evaporation on the soil surface, and you will be amazed at how much moisture a good layer of mulch will retain.
22. Irrigate wisely. Adjust sprinklers so only your lawn or pasture is watered-not the house, barn, paddocks, or driveway! Water pastures in the morning or evening when temperatures are cooler to minimize evaporation. Also check for leaks, as these systems are notorious for leaking. Proper irrigation conserves water and promotes deeper root growth.
Horses for Clean Water
Horses for Clean Water, an award-winning program now in its 11th year, offers ways to care for horses that benefit the horse, the property, the owner, the community, and the environment. Maple Valley, Washington resident Alayne Blickle is a lifelong equestrian and creator/director of Horses for Clean Water. She shares techniques such as mud management, composting manure, and natural insect control too. As an environmental educator and media producer, Alayne works with natural resource agencies, horse groups, and individuals across the country. She is well known for her enthusiastic, down-to-earth approaches to horsekeeping. For more information on HCW, visit the website at www.HorsesforCleanWater.com.
23. Reduce herbicide, pesticide, and other chemical use. Think carefully before you choose a chemical that may end up in a waterway. Consider the least toxic options for weed removal and pest controls. Many pesticides, quick-release fertilizers, and weed-and-feed products may result in health risks and may actually kill beneficial soil organisms.
24. Dispose of hazardous waste at county-run approved locations. These facilities can treat waste properly to slow or stop its travel to the aquifer. Contact your county for specific information on disposal options.
25. Refuel farm and yard equipment on a cement pad. That way, if a spill occurs, it can evaporate or you can clean it up properly. Don’t refuel equipment directly over soil or fields where contaminants can leach into water systems.
26. Think about what you flush or pour down the drain. It is on a direct path to the water cycle!
The changes we make, both small and large, do make a difference. The better we understand where our water comes from and just how precious a resource it is, the likelier we are to protect it.