Eco-Friendly Horsekeeping

Nobody wants to trash the environment, especially horse people. By definition, horse people have a very special relationship with nature and her livestock. And, thanks to the horses that forge that special relationship, horse people are also chronically checkbook-challenged, so we need practical, affordable solutions to environmental horsekeeping problems.

Nobody wants to trash the environment, especially horse people. By definition, horse people have a very special relationship with nature and her livestock. And, thanks to the horses that forge that special relationship, horse people are also chronically checkbook-challenged, so we need practical, affordable solutions to environmental horsekeeping problems.

Agriculture has taken a lot of blame for environmental pollution over the past 60 years. Food production soared due to a heavy regimen of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, while conventional medicine seemed to discover magic bullet after magic bullet, blasting away at some nasty diseases-both animal and human.

Natural Alternatives

  • Manure management is a major way you can be environmentally friendly by spreading or composting it rather than dumping it in a landfill.
  • Goats can take care of many weeds because they often eat what horses won’t.
  • While feeding natural herbs may sound good, be sure to check with your vet because combinations may cause harmful reactions.
  • Consider using natural, herb-based fly control products and fly predators instead of toxic chemical pesticides.

But some synthetic chemicals proved toxic to the entire food chain. Over-use of antibiotics (and, for horsemen, certain deworming agents) created resistant strains. Such things helped signal a need for everyone with all kinds of interests, horses included, to start looking at the big picture and to find solutions that maintain the health and well-being of everyone and everything occupying our planet.

You may be among the growing number of vocal, concerned skeptics who have begun to reject the chemistry lab. You may be among those who have begun to demand more organic practices in agriculture and are supporting those demands at the cash register. Such organically minded Americans, by the way, are generating $45 billion per year in revenue in the natural food industry alone.

Perhaps you’re among those who are calling for more humane treatment for all animals, creating a market for everything from non-lethal traps to softer bits. You may be among those who are seeking more emotionally satisfying, ecologically friendly methods for keeping yourself and your horses happy, healthy and comfortable.

You’re in luck. Eco-friendly horsekeeping methods do exist. Some 45 years of dedicated research and publicity about natural methods are bearing fruit. Tack shop bug control aisles are providing plenty of choices, with more and more labels trumpeting “Organic,” “Natural,” and variations on “Environmentally Safe.” Shelves full of shiny books discuss natural management, training, healing and herbs for horses. There seem to be products everywhere that contain things you never heard of, but certainly sound “organic-like” and, cripes, is that really a mousetrap?

Pastures and Barns
Manure management generally tops the list of horse farm environmental concerns. Essentially, you can remove it, compost it and/or spread it, depending on where you live and how much pasture you have. Some communities require manure to be loaded into a dumpster and taken away on a regular basis, hopefully to be composted or spread somewhere else because, rather surprisingly, horse manure does not readily break down in landfills. Nor, for that matter, does anything else. (See “biodegradable” in sidebar at right.)

Weed management is not as simple as killing or removing obnoxious plants growing in the wrong place. The best way to reduce weeds is to grow vigorously healthy grass. Overgrazed, over-trampled, under-watered, under-fertilized, eroded or generally stressed pasture is extremely vulnerable to noxious weeds. Some of these are poisonous to horses. All of them are lousy for grazing or hay production.

Non-chemical weed control consists of mechanical, burning, animal impact or a combination of the three. Mechanical methods include plowing, bulldozing and mowing. Simple mowing can be a very effective control for annual weeds if done before seeds set. Burning weeds produces results similar to mowing and brings lush growth, but extreme care is necessary.

What Those “Natural” Terms Really Mean

When it comes to buying environmentally friendly products for your barn, keep in mind that there are no regulations controlling the use of terms such as “natural,” “eco-friendly” or a host of other warm, fuzzy names. In fact, there are some cases where the product label does not actually mean what you might think.

Environmental Protection Agency registration, for instance, is not a government assurance that a substance is harmless. On the other hand, despite what many people seem to believe, something can be natural and still be toxic as heck. Some of the deadliest poisons on the planet can be found in gently nurtured, organic garden flowers blooming by Grandma’s back door.

When it comes to consumer protection, “organic” is a strictly defined, federally regulated term. Anything advertised as organic has been produced from government-inspected farms that have not used chemical pesticides, fertilizers made from synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge, bio-engineering, or ionizing radiation for at least three years. Any companies that handle or process the product must be certified as well. Anyone selling or labeling a product as “organic” when they know it does not meet USDA standards can be fined up to $10,000 for each violation.

Natural, ecologically friendly, earth friendly, farm friendly and an ever-increasing host of other “eco-labels” are not legally defined terms. A product may be excellent, effective, functionally or “nearly” organic, pesticide-free, synthetic chemical-free and/or free-range and still not be allowed “organic” labeling. On the other hand, there are some very attractively deceptive logos out there gracing products that ooze synthetic and sometimes toxic chemicals.

EPA registration of products reassures many people, but it is a red flag to the natural/organic community. EPA registration is not a government seal of approval, endorsement of natural purity, or guarantee of safety.

A product is required to be registered with the EPA if it claims to be effective as a preservative, pest repellant, or whatever and contains chemicals that are already known to be hazardous. Registration is granted if test results provided by the parent company demonstrate some level of effectiveness and an “acceptable” degree of environmental and/or health risk. This is based on an average person’s exposure when using the product according to label recommendations. EPA-registered products are often completely appropriate for most uses for most people, but their use is not permitted on organic farms.

“Biodegradable” is a misused and misunderstood word. Given dirt, micro-organisms, water, oxygen and time, Mother Nature can break down anything she has made. “Biodegradable soap” breaks down in six months or less if the proper environmental conditions apply. All soap biodegrades eventually, but no soap biodegrades immediately. So all soap should be kept away from fresh water sources.

Even easily biodegradable products do not save landfill space. Since 1991, landfills have been required by law to use liners or packed clay to prevent possibly toxic seepage from coming into contact with soil and to keep air and moisture out as well. This slows decomposition to the point that even paper and food may take decades to decompose. Plastic does not biodegrade because there are no natural micro-organisms to do the work.

“Animal impact” usually means goats or sheep. Contrary to popular belief, some weeds are toxic to goats, but by and large they can eat many plants that will poison horses. Goats will happily munch on sumac, poison ivy, kudzu, ragweed, leafy spurge and a host of other problem plants, transforming weeds into milk, wool or meat.

Goats require fencing and supervision. They do not actually eat tin cans, but can easily devastate gardens.

If you have no desire to keep your own goats, commercial providers will rent goats. Caprine Restoration Services in Bend, Oregon (800-898-4628,, or Ewe4ic Ecological Services in Alpine, Wyoming (, are two options.

Herbal/Natural Products
The facts behind cash register bar codes on commercial products are not always what they seem. Herbal/natural products exist in a regulatory Never-Never Land. Since they are neither food nor drugs, they can slip under the radar screen of government supervision. Knowledge and prudence can be even more important when dealing with herbs and “green” products than when dealing with synthetically produced drugs and chemicals.

Medicinal herbs should be used with the same care you give to powerful drugs -because that is exactly what some of them are. Dosages can be tricky, and a substance that is harmless or beneficial at one level can be toxic or deadly at another.

The safest course is to get advice from a qualified herbalist and talk with your vet about everything you administer to your horse. Keep in mind that combinations of different herbs, or combinations of herbs and prescription drugs, can produce unexpectedly nasty reactions.

Horses are foraging plant eaters, so nutrients in some herbs could be necessary for maintaining or restoring their health. However, check carefully before feeding garden or wayside plants to your horse. Horses will munch on toxic plants, and some plants can be both nutritious and toxic depending on what part is ingested -leaf, flower, fruit, stem or root. Like people, horses can also develop individual allergies.

Commercially available herbal treats and supplements are generally trustworthy, useful and really appreciated by horses. Googling “organic horse treats” can be the beginning of a fascinating voyage.

Can herbs calm horses? There is a thriving market for herbal and/or flower essences that claim to relax horses. The use of the herb valerian has become so common that most national and international show organizations forbid it by name and duly test for it and other herbal aids.

If you are thinking of trying herbal relaxants, remember that any substance that can change emotions in a half-ton of horseflesh is probably packing quite a wallop on the rest of the body. Do some research, be careful and check with your vet.

Whether the flower essences actually work or not is a controversial and emotional topic. In fact, as soon as this article appears, the author intends to go into hiding because we will undoubtedly get interesting letters from both sides about this little paragraph. Some people swear by flower essences. Others swear at what they see as placebo-by-proxy, saying the horse relaxes because his rider is more relaxed, believing the herbs worked. There seems to be no unbiased, rock-solid scientific research available on either side.

Pest Control
Fly prevention requires a multi-pronged battle plan: prevent, repel and destroy. Reducing breeding conditions by removing manure and soiled bedding promptly is still the primary factor in fly control, but there are other weapons in the arsenal.

Fly parasites are tiny wasps that do not bite, sting or harm humans or animals. They kill immature flies by laying their eggs inside the baby fly, which then becomes dinner for the baby wasps. The recommended start-up time is early spring, three to four weeks before normal fly season, continuing every two to four weeks until the first frost in fall.

A similar strategy involves beneficial nematodes, microscopic, non-segmented worms that feed on fly larvae. Mixed with water, they are sprayed or sprinkled on soil or on manure piles.

Diatomaceous earth is a powder composed of shells of very small sea creatures called diatoms. Scattered on manure piles or stall floors, it slices and dices insects and/or their larvae that crawl through it. It is also used in some feed-through products. Be careful about composting manure with DE in it for the garden because it also eviscerates our friend the earthworm.

Let’s admit that most of us have used our horse’s fly spray on ourselves when the bugs are bad. DON’T. That fine print on the label is legally required to be there for reasons that can be pretty scary.

DEET is EPA approved for use on human skin outdoors, but should be used with care and washed off once you are indoors. Permethrin, found in many equine fly sprays, is a synthetic version of a substance (pyrethrin) found in some chrysanthemum flowers. Note that the simple fact that a substance is derived from a pretty flower does not necessarily make it harmless.

Permethrin has not been in commercial use long enough to obtain extended risk data, but both the EPA and the World Health Organization classify it as a possible human carcinogen. The USDA, the Institute for Environmental Toxicology, and at least five major universities note that permethrin is extremely toxic to honey bees and all aquatic animals. The EPA approved it for use on clothing and animals as long as label directions are strictly followed (which includes much washing afterward), but says it should not be applied to human faces, hands, etc.

Natural Bug Spray Recipe

Courtesy of Horse Herbs (

Herbs and essential oils with insect-repelling properties include basil, lemon thyme, lavender, lemongrass, cloves, cedarwood, tea tree oil, peppermint, rosemary, sage and yarrow. Always do a skin test to make sure your horse does not have a reaction. Also, most of these herbs may produce a positive drug test if you are showing your horse.

To make with fresh herbs:

  • Use a handful each of basil, lemon thyme, lavender, peppermint, cloves and rosemary or combinations of some of the herbs listed above.
  • Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil.
  • Remove from heat.
  • Add herbs.
  • Stir. Cover. Let set until cool.
  • Strain and put in a spray bottle.

Bacteria sets in fast when herbs are mixed with water, so this must be kept refrigerated and used within two to three days. Alcohol can be added as a preservative.

You can also make repellants using essential oils that can be found in most health food stores. Pure essential oils can be toxic, so you must dilute them with a “carrier.”

2 quarts water or one quart water and one quart apple cider vinegar

For an oil-based product that seems to work better and last longer, add ¼ cup mineral oil.

  • 2 teaspoons lavender oil
  • 2 teaspoons basil oil
  • 2 teaspoons lemon thyme
  • 1 teaspoon cedarwood or clove
  • Mix with the water (or vinegar/oil/water combination).
  • Put in spray bottle.
  • Shake each time before using.

You can try various combinations of the herbs listed above. The total of all essential oils should be 8 teaspoons per 2 quarts of carrier.

Citronella oil is derived from dried, cultivated grasses. It has a distinctive odor, which repels certain animals and insects. It is commonly used in lotions, gels, sprays and towelette wipes. Obviously, citronella candles are not appropriate around barns. The Pest Management Regulatory Agency of Canada has proposed a phase out of citronella-based personal insect repellants, largely because citronella oil needs to be reapplied frequently and contains substances that may be linked to cancer and reproductive, developmental and fetal problems at high dose levels.

Garlic seems to repel more than vampires. It can be sprayed or fed, with the goal of making the horse’s sweat unattractive to flies. It can affect the taste of a nursing mare’s milk, so be careful of timing in that situation. There is abundant research data showing that garlic can kill some drug-resistant strains of bacteria. Like any antibiotic, this same action can also sometimes harm beneficial gut bacteria.

Experiments in extending drug effects in AIDS patients suggest garlic might keep various drugs at a testable level long after they would normally have cleared the system, so upper-level competitors might want to keep that possibility in mind.

Studies at Ontario Veterinary College show that supplementing with too much garlic can cause dangerously severe anemia in horses, but your horse would probably smell pretty rank before he reaches that point.

Some natural “contact” spray insecticides use plant-based essential oils. Commercial fly traps are widely available, or you can make your own by filling a jar with sugar water or soda pop and punching some holes in the lid. Tapes and glue strips work, but they also catch dust, so need frequent replacement. Bug zappers sizzle in a satisfying manner, but also zap beneficial bugs.

For fire safety, check zapper plugs and grounding, and make sure the zapper can’t be knocked over. Also, watch the body count build-up because dead flies are extremely flammable.

A stunning example of way too many people not checking original sources is the seriously-off-base claim that a single brown bat will eat anywhere from 600 to 1,000 or more mosquitoes in an hour. This misinformation is cited as absolute fact in an extraordinary number of books and articles. (Google pulled up 243,000 of them before it stopped, panting in exhaustion.)

A classic, groundbreaking university experiment in the 1950s locked bats in a darkened room with mosquitoes to prove bats used a form of sonar (echolocation) to maneuver at night. As a complete side point, researchers noted that the hungry bats, locked in a concentrated space with no other bugs present to feed on, could eat up to 10 mosquitoes a minute.

If you calculate 10 mosquitoes per minute x 60 minutes in an hour, you get a very theoretical 600 mosquitoes that a bat could possibly eat if confined in a small space long enough with nothing else available. More recent, even larger numbers seem to be based on the idea that if a bat actually did eat 10 mosquitoes in a minute then it probably could eat even more if it concentrated hard enough.

Bats do eat bugs. They eat lots of different kinds of bugs. They do not eat 600 mosquitoes in an hour, nor can they single-handedly wipe out huge colonies of mosquitoes. Putting up bat houses is a neat and environmentally responsible thing to do, but don’t consider them to be key to your mosquito control.

Mother Nature is not always gentle with her own “natural” methods. Rodent control around stables is traditionally and effectively supplied by a cat. If a cat is unavailable, conventional mousetraps snap with reasonable efficiency. You can get glue traps that glue a mouse’s feet in place, after which you (gingerly) dispose of the mouse and trap. Other traps deliver an electrical shock or capture a crowd, holding up to 30 mice at a time-an image not to imagine at dinnertime.

There are several “humane” mouse traps that allow live capture and release. One is shaped like a little green house that has a saltine cracker both as bait and as a door for the mouse to chew through to release itself. The manufacturer recommends that you check the trap frequently so that you don’t starve the mouse, since your goal is to catch and release him.

Then there is the question of where to release captured mice. Please do not let any loose near my farm, thank you very much. But there is a “natural area” on the other side of town where the coyotes would probably thank you for bringing them snacks.

Coyotes can be very good at catching rodents, but they also have a taste for barn cats. So our most effective mouse control was a six-foot bullsnake named Boris, who took up residence in our tack room one summer. Even ecologically sensitive family and friends tended to take one look at the final foot or so of Boris disappearing behind a tack trunk and not return until winter. They seemed to think that our tack room was getting a little too eco-friendly. There’s just no pleasing some people.

Personally, I grew quite fond of Boris and miss him to this day.

He got eaten by a hawk.

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