Put native plants and animals to work on your horse property

Did you know that there are a great many wonderful ways that plants and animals can actually work for you on a horse property? Douglas fir trees, willows, and dogwoods can sop up a wet area. Violet green swallows can do bug patrol, eating several thousand flies, moths, mosquitoes, and other bugs each day-more than any bug-zapper! Bats will conduct nightly bug raids, racking up thousands of more bug deaths. Native roses in a hedgerow along your driveway can welcome visitors with their sweet smell.

Native plants and animals can serve both utilitarian and delightful aesthetic functions on horse properties-all the while saving you time and money, and reducing your impact on the environment.

Why Go Native?
Native plants are the ones that grow in your area naturally. They have lots of advantages over their non-native cousins when it comes to landscaping. They’re better adapted to local climate and soil conditions and are more insect- and disease-

resistant than non-natives-a bonus for you because you’re less likely to need pesticides or fertilizers to help them along.

We don’t have to look hard to see that exposure to pesticides is being linked daily to such frightening disorders as nerve damage in adults and cancer in children. Chemicals used outdoors often end up in our surface waters, where they can harm fish and other aquatic wildlife or become a human health issue. The bottom line is simple: any way we can reduce chemical use in our lives and around our horses is a good thing for everyone and everything.

After the first few years of a little extra watering, native plants are ready to go “on their own,” requiring only a minimal amount of care and no special watering, except perhaps under unusual circumstances like drought. Going native is an important water conservation technique-and a time and money saver for you! Native plants generally cost less to buy than non-native landscaping plants and are equally attractive.

Bountiful Benefits

  • Eliminate boggy areas with strategic planting.
  • Create dust, wind, and visual screens using hardy natives.
  • Shade barns and paddocks with deciduous trees that let the sun shine through in winter.
  • Provide habitat for beneficial insect- and rodent-eating birds and animals.
  • Control soil erosion and prevent run-off.

All living things need a place to live, find food, and reproduce. When we take away natural vegetation for our own use, we take away those areas for other living creatures. Native plants offer food and shelter, called “habitat,” to a variety of native animals.

Habitat loss is the greatest threat to wildlife and we are losing wildlife habitat at an alarming rate. According to the Biodiversity Project in Madison, Wisconsin, one million acres of open space is being lost to urban sprawl each year. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Office of Migratory Bird Management reports that in the contiguous United States, 99% of the original eastern United States forests have been cut, 95% of tall grass prairies have been permanently destroyed, and more than 50% of all wetlands have been drained or filled.

So what can horse owners do about loss of wildlife habitat?

Every little bit helps. By using native plants, the ones that animals are adapted to living in and getting food from, we give some habitat back to animals. At the same time, we can put some of those critters to work for us-chasing bugs and rodents, or providing us with entertainment and enjoyment.

Let’s examine some things horse owners can do to put both plants and animals to work, and how we can help each other.

Minimize Mud
Native plants and trees can help dry up an annoying wet area or be the first line of defense in intercepting run-off from the hillside behind your property. Many trees use quite a lot of water each day. For example, a mature Douglas fir can use from 125 to 150 gallons a day. Other types of water-loving plants include willow, dogwood, cottonwood, aspen, and cedar. Check with one of the sources for native plants listed with this article for specific recommendations on plants suitable for your area and soils.

Other ideas for using water-loving natives include vegetated swales that channel away surface water or, if placed down slope from your horse paddock, they can pick up excess water and nutrient run-off.

Dust Barriers, Screens & Buffers
If you want to be a good neighbor, use native plants to help cut down on blowing dust from your arena polluting your neighbor’s property. Check with one of the agencies listed with this article for recommendations on species of plants to use for your buffer. Those same agencies can also help you with your buffer design. To help cut down on blowing dust, generally a buffer of at least 20 feet deep is recommended. It should include evergreens, deciduous trees, and shrubs.

A row of evergreens also makes a nice privacy screen between you and your neighbor, who may not enjoy viewing your horse paddocks as much as you do.

Summer Shade & Winter Sun
Well-placed deciduous trees and shrubs around your barn and paddocks can provide cooling shade in the summer, while the bare branches in the winter allow the warming rays from the sun to reach through to your horses.

Control Erosion & Run-off
Trees and shrubs perform an important function of holding valuable topsoil in place, keeping it from getting washed away by rain or wind and potentially causing a surface or ground water problem. If you are raising pasture grass, protecting valuable topsoil is paramount. Plants need soil and nutrients to be healthy, so put those native plants to work as a filter strip to catch nutrients and hold topsoil in place. In addition, maintaining a healthy pasture is a great erosion control and nutrient management tool.

Native plants have an important and useful role around streams, ponds, wetlands, and other water bodies. Trees and undergrowth are nature’s system for filtering run-off contaminants, such as nutrients from manure and sediment from mud.

Another crucial function vegetation serves is to help prevent soil erosion and to supply food and shelter for fish and other aquatic life. The overhead canopy trees keep water cool. When these natural elements are destroyed, a toxic environment is created for fish and other stream life since cool water is able to carry more oxygen than warm water, which benefits fish.

Banish Bugs & Rodents
As horse owners, we often wrongly believe we are destined to put up with flies and insects. Encouraging insect-eating birds to move into your yard and barn area by providing habitat is an excellent means for reducing the flying insect population. Swallows, for example, can be a tremendous asset to horse places-one swallow consumes thousands of insects per day. During the spring and summer, violet green, cliff, and barn swallows can be seen and heard diving, darting, and chirping on horse properties throughout much of the United States. These happy birds will use horse and dog hair set out in tufts for making their nests. Nesting boxes specific to the type of swallows in your area can be built or purchased and placed according to recommendations. Consult the source list for bird nest boxes in this article for more information. Other types of insect-eating birds include many other types of swallows, bluebirds, and purple martins.

Reduce the nocturnal insect population by encouraging bats to take up residence nearby. Bats play an important part in every healthy environment and will eat the nocturnal flying insects that plague our horses (and us) at night, such as mosquitoes. One bat can eat hundreds of mosquitoes in an hour. They also eat other agricultural pests, such as corn borers, cutworm moths, potato beetles, and grasshoppers.

In Europe, bats are highly valued for their insect control capabilities and are reported to have been protected for more than 60 years. Europeans build and display bat houses much the way we build purple martin houses in the Midwest.

Bat houses can be placed on a barn, pole, tree, or the side of a house. The best habitat for bats is within a half-mile of a stream, lake, or wetland. Bat houses need to be placed by early April and it can take up to two years for a bat colony to find your house. Contrary to popular belief, most bats do not carry rabies. You have a better chance of winning your state lottery than getting bitten by a bat with rabies, according to the Organization for Bat Conservation website,

Encourage larger birds, such as owls, hawks, and falcons, which prey on problem rodents, by protecting large trees and snags that provide housing for these predators. Some of these birds will also do well in nest boxes, which again are easy to buy or build-check the resource lists in this article for specifics. The primary method for protecting trees is to plant outside of confinement areas and pastures to keep trees away from livestock teeth and hooves. Trees inside these areas should be protected to the end of their “drip zone,” or the tips of their branches. Protection around trees can be constructed in several creative ways, including fencing and physical barriers of large rocks or logs.

Some plants, including natives, can be toxic to horses. Here are a few resources on this important subject.

• Weeds of the West by Tom D. Whitson
• Horse Owner’s Field Guide to Toxic Plants by Sandra Burger
• Cornell University maintains an excellent website that lists toxic plants: http://
• Most counties have a noxious weed control department. These departments can usually identify toxic and non-native plants, as well as recommend control techniques. Also try contacting your local conservation district or cooperative extension service office.

Go Native for Beauty & Fun
Native plants can provide attractive landscaping while sheltering and providing food for wildlife that serenade and entertain us. Watching wildlife in action can be fun and relaxing for everyone. Your habitat may attract beautiful songbirds, butterflies, frogs, and other interesting wildlife for viewing-right outside your barn door. The addition of a simple watering point, such as a stock tank with “steps,” will further encourage birds and wildlife.

All this just might increase your property value, too. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Office of Migratory Bird Management reports that homes in neighborhoods with large trees for birds are worth more than similar homes in neighborhoods without trees.

So make a plan to “go native” and see how native plants and animals can become beneficial workers on your horse property today!

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