When you think of animals to add to a homestead, horses are not usually the first thing that comes to mind. Horses are too often referred to as “hay burners” and seen as a waste of resources instead of a benefit. I would love to change that mentality! Here are some of the many benefits you may find by having horses on your homestead.
Intensive Grazing Pastures
One of the best ways to regenerate your land is through intensive grazing. This can be done with any species of grazing animal, though some are better suited for certain areas and stages of pasture health than others. For now we will just focus on how horses will play a role in intensive grazing practices.
Intensive grazing is a great way to rotate pastures with horses. When left to graze a large area, horses are picky and will eat some areas down to the ground while leaving weeds to overgrow in others. By cross fencing small sections of pasture, the horses are forced to eat more uniformly. When intensive grazing, you want every plant in the area to be affected either by being eaten down or walked on. The horses are also fertilizing the area as they drop manure. You will need to move the horses to another small area once the whole area has been effectively worked. The time this takes depends on the size of the area and how many horses are on it. You won’t put the horses back onto this area until it has had sufficient time to recover and regrow. Intensive grazing not only helps rebuild soil health, but it helps with parasite cycles as well since the grazing animals are moved around, reducing the parasite load.
A Note of Caution About Grazing Horses
One thing to be careful about when utilizing horses for intensive grazing is whether or not your horses are best suited for consuming their energy through fresh pasture. Horses deemed “easy keepers” or any that seem to stay fat with very little feed, ponies and miniature horses, and small donkeys are not best suited for pasture grazing. The fresh grass is simply too high energy and high sugar and can cause them metabolic distress. If horses are your only grazing animals to utilize for intensive grazing, horses with high energy requirements or “hard keepers” would be best. If you have other grazing animals, you can incorporate any horses into a multi-species rotational grazing system. Then even easy keeper horses could have a short turn on the pasture but the bulk of the grazing work would be done by your other grazing species.
Where there are horses there is manure and this readily available resource can either make or break your homestead workload. Manure is a great fertilizer for your garden but can be too “hot” for plants when used fresh. Composting manure is the best way to optimize manure to put it to use on your homestead. Any hay, straw, or wood shavings mixed into the manure will also break down and provide nutrients when composted. You can apply horse manure directly to the garden without composting in the fall since it will have time to compost in place over the winter.
There are a few different ways to manage manure. We have a gravel dry lot where the horses spend most of their time in the winter eating from a round bale. In the past I would use the tractor bucket to scrape this pen clean about once a week. Lately I have been cleaning out the pen with a pitchfork and wheelbarrow every morning. I have found this to actually be the most efficient way to keep this area clean, even though it is more physical work. As for piles in the pastures, we either go around to scoop these up with the wheelbarrow, pull a drag harrow with the four wheeler, or my favorite, let the chickens do the work for us! We feed the horses some oats which only partially digest. This leaves a hull in their manure which the chickens love! They go around to each pile in the pasture and scratch them apart into nothing. We used to be able to see piles dotted around the pasture; now we don’t see any piles at all! The chickens also help to turn the compost pile, picking out any left over grains and any bugs.
Horses can help protect your smaller animals just through their sheer size. Some horses will go as far as chasing predators out of the pasture. The best herd protectors are donkeys and mules. They have an instinct against four legged predators, and will chase dogs, coyotes, and foxes out of pastures. Donkeys and mules come in many sizes so you could even add a miniature to a herd of goats or sheep for added herd protection. Even though they don’t naturally like dogs, they can live in harmony with any livestock guardian dogs you have once they build a trusting relationship with them.
Horses can help you do many tasks on the homestead with proper training. The most obvious use is riding. You can ride your horses to check fence lines, back pastures, woods, or any areas you would otherwise have to walk or drive to access. The higher viewpoint from horseback can help you spot things you might not have seen at your normal height viewpoint. Train your horses to be comfortable carrying things like saddlebags and tools. Training them to drag things attached by a rope on your western saddle horn is another great skill. For example, you may use your horses to drag fence posts into a tight area where equipment would not fit.
The other great way to utilize horse power is through driving. Horses trained to drive can pull carts, wagons, and sleds to move equipment, tools, feed, and supplies anywhere on your homestead. If you need to regularly move things like fence posts and cut trees, horses are more comfortable and powerful pulling these with a harness than they would be under saddle. Any breed or size of horse, donkey, or mule can be trained to drive! Draft horses are your most powerful for heavy loads and frequent work. Standard size horses can handle most common jobs on a homestead. Even minis can pull carts to move things around the property!
Even if your horses don’t do any “work” on your homestead, they still add a level of enjoyment you won’t find with other species. Horses are so intuitive and connected to the present moment. Being around them is meditative and healing on a soul level. We will certainly always have horses at Steel Spoon Farm.