Horse farm management in suburbia: A tour of Two Horse Ranch
To better understand the seemingly daunting task of achieving sustainability in the equine industry, we can learn from others who have already successfully implemented some environmentally friendly equine management practices. Two Horse Ranch, a five-acre horse property in the busy Seattle suburb of Redmond, Washington — home of Microsoft, Nintendo and 65,000 residents — has implemented several sustainable day-to-day barn management practices in an effort to be a more environmentally conscious horse farm.
On farms with small acreage, everything in the horse farm management system needs to fit together neatly and efficiently — especially with respect to the farm’s neighbors and the ecosystem. Join us on this horse property tour as we look at the land management practices these horse owners are using to reduce mud, manage manure, increase pasture productivity and operate in a way that makes their farm as horse-healthy and eco-friendly as possible.
1. Streamside riparian area. Two Horse Ranch is located on the salmon-spawning stream of Bear Creek. As a result, landowners Rita and Mark Hampson have chosen not to use herbicides or pesticides; chemical runoff, as well as runoff from mismanaged manure piles or muddy paddocks, can adversely affect water quality as well as plant and animal life in the corridor along the stream, called a “riparian area.” Instead, Two Horse Ranch is carefully managed to keep horses well away from the stream banks. Additionally, native trees and shrubs — nature's biocontrol for filtering out dirty runoff — have been planted all along the stream corridor. Vegetation also helps prevent soil erosion and provides food and shelter for fish and other aquatic life. The overhead canopy of trees and tall shrubs shades the water, keeping it cool in the summer, which fish like. Large, woody debris in the stream slows the current, provides habitat diversity and shelters aquatic creatures. These landowners enjoy looking at the beautiful native plants along the water, as well as beavers, river otters, eagles, ospreys, cormorants, herons, mergansers, the occasional deer, bobcats, bears and, of course, rabbits. The center-stage stars of the show are the wild salmon, which return in the fall and migrate upstream to spawn.
2. Paddocks. Using a confinement area as the horses’ outdoor living quarters keeps horses from over-using and subsequently destroying pastures. Paddocks can be designed to be mud-free and still contain “enrichment,” or stimulating opportunities for these highly intelligent animals, helping them avoid getting bored or developing bad habits like wood-chewing or pacing. Rita and Mark have designed large, mud-free dry-lots for their horses that are situated on a portion of their property with well-draining soils. Removing manure daily reduces the potential for mud, and they also use gravel footing (5/8-inch crushed rock mixed with pea gravel) in high-traffic areas to prevent erosion and mud build-up. Occasionally, they also add a pile of sand for the horses to roll and play in as well. They have re-shaped the slope slightly to allow for improved drainage and to reduce the likelihood of water pooling. Surface water runoff is directed toward grassy areas, which provide biofiltration for any potential sediment or nutrients (from manure or urine) so that dirty runoff never reaches Bear Creek.
3. Protecting drinking water. Like many rural landowners, the Hampsons have their own well and septic system. They know that taking care of both systems saves them money in the long run, and it’s also important for water quality, as a failed septic system can cause waste to leak into the groundwater or streams like Bear Creek. Their septic system is located well away from confinement areas and from the creek. The well head for this property is protected with a small well house (pictured here) and is located about 25 feet from the paddock. Daily manure pick-up and efficient drainage of the paddock are essential to protecting the well. Ideally, the well head would be further away from any livestock activity, but small-acreage horse farm owners must often work within their unique constraints to puzzle things together as best possible.
4. Tree buffers. Along the perimeter of the paddock are native trees, fenced off from the horses, that act as a visual buffer for neighbors (to the right) and as a shelter for birds and small wildlife. Native plants work best for wildlife habitats, as they have evolved over thousands of years in a particular region to provide habitat for a variety of native wildlife species, such as songbirds and butterflies.
5. Shelters. These individual 14’ x 14’ shelters were designed to provide horses with protection from extreme weather conditions while still offering excellent ventilation and a clean, dry place to feed. The floors are made of rubber stall mats placed over six inches of packed, level gravel. The shelters’ openness allows the horses to see each other and feel comfortable despite being further apart.
6. Chore efficiency. Keeping the proper tools of the trade on hand is important on any horse property — especially on those with small acreage. Keep chore time equipment stored in a handy spot that offers some weather protection. A pass-through provides quick access into and out of paddocks for chores or feeding.
7. Mud control. Both of the shelters on this farm have rain gutters and downspouts, which drain into a simple underground drain field. Diverting this water away from the horses’ living areas reduces mud, helps keep the rainwater clean and recharges the ground water.
8. Urine management. Odor control is accomplished with help from a “potty spot” of wood chips. For horses that tend to urinate in the same location, wood chips made from woods like cedar or fir — evergreens resist decomposition longer than deciduous trees; be sure to choose something nontoxic — bind with the nitrogen in the urine to help reduce odors. Once a year, the Hampsons refresh this area with more chips, and the old chips are composted.
9. Daily manure management. Manure management is done in yard-waste composting barrels, a type of barrel that is often used for small-scale backyard composting. Eight barrels are used for the two horses, with each barrel holding about four days’ worth of manure. Manure “cooks” in the barrels, generating heat of up to 160 degrees, for about eight days. The temperature slowly drops to about 60 degrees over the course of a few weeks. When more space is needed, the oldest barrel contents are cleared out and stockpiled under tarps to “cure.” The finished compost is spread during the growing season. Compost is a rich soil amendment that improves the productivity of pastures, making grasses healthier and better able to hold moisture. Covering compost piles and/or manure storage areas helps prevent rainwater from leaching nitrogen from the manure or compost and seeping into waterways.
10. Outdoor wash rack. This three-season outdoor wash rack features a geo-grid product as its base to stabilize the gravel footing, allow for better drainage and reduce mud. Three inches of 5/8-inch crushed rock is used under the geo-grid and two inches of pea gravel is placed on top of the grid for better footing. Horses are tied to one of the posts for bath time or to tack up.
11. Pasture. Approximately two acres of pasture are managed via rotational grazing and are only used during the growing season (i.e., from late spring through the fall). To prevent overgrazing and compaction, grasses are never grazed below around three to four inches and horses are never put on soggy soils. A minimum of three inches of leafy grass is needed for rapid regrowth and the biofiltration of nutrients, sediments and chemicals. During the growing season, the Hampsons’ two horses get 25–30% of their feed from the pasture, grazing two to three hours per day. As grass growth slows in the late fall, pasture time doesn't provide a lot of nutrition but is great for giving horses time to just "be horses,” which is imperative for maintaining their health. Improved horse pasture production decreases feed bills — and may even help you avoid vet bills, since there’s little room for toxic weeds in a healthy pasture.
12. Spreading compost. A small, ground-driven manure spreader is used to spread compost during the growing season, from late spring through early fall. Composting manure reduces parasite re-infestation, as well as flies, weeds and odors — and it serves as a free, easy and valuable soil amendment. During the growing season, composted manure is often spread directly from the composting bins, thereby minimizing any handling and storage requirements.
13. Equipment. A variety of small farm equipment makes land management possible on small acreage, including a pasture mower used with a tractor and PTO (power takeoff), a walk-behind string mower for trimming edges or mowing slopes, and a tine harrow for dragging arenas or spreading manure in pastures.
14. Arena. When the Hampsons can’t get out on the trails due to inclement weather or time constraints, this 70’ x 110’ arena is useful for riding or just to exercise their horses. This arena was constructed on a base of native soil mixed with an inexpensive sand/gravel pit-run material that was leveled and compacted. That mixture was subsequently topped with an inch and a half of granulithic sand.
Reducing mud, properly managing manure and making their pastures more productive keeps the Hampsons’ suburban horse property not only visually pleasing but healthier for their horses and chore-efficient for them as owners, all while minimizing the environmental impact of their horses and protecting the local ecosystem.