The Effects of Land, Soil & Water on Horses

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How Land, Soil & Water Affect Horses

Land use and horse management practices affect the environment. Effective ecosystem management results in more productive pastures, clean water, fertile soils and better overall health of horses.


Clean water is vital for the health of both people and horses. Land use and horse management practices can influence the quality of water available for everyone. Even if horse owners do not live near a stream or lake, water quality can be affected.


Water initiates from springs, rainfall or snowmelt, and runs downhill or underground until it eventually reaches the ocean. An area of land that catches rain and snow and then drains or seeps into surface waters (i.e. creeks, streams, rivers, lakes or wetlands) or groundwater is called a watershed. Essentially, everyone lives in a watershed, which means everyone has an effect on water quality. Landowners have a responsibility to maintain or improve the quality of the water that leaves their property.

Surface and groundwater can be contaminated if runoff is allowed to run through corrals, riding rings and other areas either where manure is not regularly removed or where manure is stored.

Practices for maintaining water quality downstream include:

  • Installing rain gutters and roof runoff systems on barns and covered arenas.
  • Creating diversion berms to divert storm runoff around corrals and other confinement areas.
  • Creating catch basins for contaminated runoff.

Prevent water pollution by diverting runoff from rain and snowmelt around manure storage areas, corrals, riding rings or other areas manure accumulates.

Information obtained and used with permission from "Manure and Pasture Management for Horse Owners", Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.  


Riparian refers to the land immediately surrounding waterways and other surface water. Riparian areas are defined as the zone of vegetation alongside creeks, streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands.

Riparian areas support high levels of biodiversity. The combination of deep rich soils, water and lush vegetation provides food, shelter and breeding grounds for many plants, animals and aquatic life. In fact, approximately 80 percent of the province’s wildlife use riparian areas for all or part of their life cycle.

Riparian areas are highly diverse and fragile. They can easily be damaged by grazing animals. Use riparian areas for short durations to reduce grazing impact.

Horse management practices such as those below help protect riparian areas:

  • Use alternative watering sources to keep horses away from the water’s edge and reduce trampling of the vegetation.
  • Provide salt, supplemental feed and an alternative water source away from riparian areas. These practices will decrease the amount of time horses spend in the riparian area and will reduce the risk of water contamination.
  • Fence off access to riparian areas with either permanent or temporary fencing. This barrier creates a vegetative buffer zone between the water’s edge and the pasture, which provides a natural filter for contaminated pasture runoff.
  • If horses are allowed to graze riparian areas, turn them out for short periods to prevent overuse and trampling of the area. One option is to include the riparian area in a rotational grazing program.
  • Avoid grazing riparian areas during the spring when the vegetation is more vulnerable to damage.


Plants obtain the nutrients they need for growth from the soil. Therefore, to have a productive pasture, healthy soil needs to be maintained.

Bare patches leave a pasture vulnerable to soil erosion and weeds. Maintaining a healthy vegetative cover in your pasture will protect the soil from both erosion and compaction.

The health of a pasture can also be adversely affected by soil compaction. Soil will often become compacted in high traffic areas, such as near gates, along fence lines, and on paths to and from water sources. There is also a risk of soil compaction in areas where horses loiter throughout the day, such as around feed bunks, water tanks and in shady areas. Overuse of such areas destroys plant cover and compacts the soil, reducing air and water infiltration as well as increasing the risk of soil erosion.


There are a number of land management strategies that can be used to prevent damage to the land and soil:

  • Plant a shelter belt. A shelter belt is a row of trees or tall shrubs that act to capture blowing soil. Trees with a deep root system will bind soil better than shallow-rooted trees.
  • Understand the landscape of your property and be aware of the drainage patterns on your land as well as on neighbouring lands. Protect areas of high runoff with vegetation cover. In some cases, it may be necessary to remove horses from an area entirely if the area is susceptible to water erosion.
  • Do not turn out more horses than a pasture can support (i.e. overstocking) and do not allow horses to graze plants down to the soil (i.e. overgrazing). Overstocking and overgrazing not only compact soil and cause erosion, they also severely reduce pasture productivity.
  • Practise rotational grazing. Season-long grazing can reduce plant vigour and plant cover, resulting in a decline in pasture productivity. Cross-fence large pastures into smaller paddocks and rotate your horses between the paddocks. This type of grazing management gives each pasture a periodic rest from grazing and gives plants a chance to grow.
  • Alter grazing patterns. Change the location of the water source, feed bunks and salt blocks regularly to reduce the formation of dirt trails and to minimize the effect on areas where horses loiter.


Beneficial environmental practices will decrease unwanted odours and pests and will reduce the spread of weed species. By demonstrating responsible agricultural practices with your land and horses, everyone can enjoy the environment.

To maintain good neighbour relations:

  • Maintain healthy pastures and riparian areas
  • Control weed populations
  • Properly store and dispose of manure
  • Properly store and remove garbage.
Information adapted with permission from "Manure and Pasture Management for Horse Owners: The Environmentally Friendly Horse", Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.

What does the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines say about pest and insect control?

“Controlling pests and flying insects is an important component of an overall Health Management Program. Pests and insects can transmit diseases and cause discomfort.”

These recommended practices are provided in the Code of Practice:

  1. Implement procedures to monitor and control pests. The ideal program prevents the entry of wildlife and pests where horses are housed and eliminates sites on the farm that provide shelter and food for pests.
  2. Protect horses from insect burden (e.g., stable horses at sunrise and sunset, the peak insect feeding hours; apply repellant products to the horse; use a fly sheet).
  3. Implement protocols to reduce insect breeding sites (e.g., remove or cover manure piles, mosquito control in water troughs and standing water).
Excerpts obtained and used with permission from the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines (©2013) have been used with permission, Equine Canada and the National Farm Animal Care Council. The process for the development of Codes can be accessed through the National Farm Animal Care Council.

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