Best Management Practices for Horse Operations in Suburban Communities

Water Quality
Site Planning
Pasture Management
Animal Waste Management
Nutrient Management
Integrated Pest Management



Water Quality

family gets advice at horse farmWater quality concerns everyone. No matter where you live or what kind of work you do, clean water is vital to sustain life. By implementing practical and economical management techniques, suburban stable operators can reduce nonpoint source (NPS) pollution that threatens the quality of water in our ponds, streams, lakes and rivers. Furthermore, stable operators can save money and create a more aesthetically pleasing environment.

two horses fenced from pondNPS pollution refers to contaminants that do not come from a definite point such as an industrial pipe or a sewage treatment plant. Rather, NPS pollution is the result of sediment, nutrients, bacteria, and organic debris that are washed into streams and rivers primarily by storm water and snow-melt runoff over land surfaces. NPS pollution is responsible for more than 50 percent of the pollution in our nation's surface and ground waters. Reducing NPS pollution is vital to protecting invaluable natural resources such as those found in our neighborhoods and the Chesapeake Bay.

Agricultural Best Management Practices (BMPs) are highly recommended for "backyard" or "small-lot" horse operations. BMPs provide more efficient use of the limited space available. These management techniques provide prolonged periods of pasture for grazing, prevent erosion, and maintain good water quality.

Site Planning

two horses drink from troughSelect the best location for barns, fields, manure storage containers or compost bins, watering systems, and fencing. If the site is not well planned, it becomes more difficult to prevent diseases, control pests, and prevent pollution. It is never too late to rearrange the site for a horse operation if there is a problem with the current setting.

  • Allow for as much vegetated area as possible between the animals or animal wastes and any water body. Locate heavily used areas on higher grounds that will be drier and receive less runoff.

  • Watering systems such as troughs should be strategically located to ensure that the animals can access them from all fields.

  • Situate the paddock or exercise area close to the barn, allowing easy release of animals to get their daily exercise.

  • Separate fields and pastures with gated fences to control animal movement and grazing.

  • Install diversions to control runoff.

Pasture Management

Overgrazing is a common problem when large animals are kept on small lots. No matter how much food supplement is provided, horses will selectively eat all their favorite growing vegetation. Less favored vegetation will eventually die out due to constant trampling and over-compaction of the soil by the weight of the animals. The exposed soil becomes vulnerable to erosion causing pollutants, such as sediments and nutrients, to enter water bodies.

A well-managed pasture not only prevents erosion, it also provides horses and ponies with high quality, nutritious feed at a lower cost.

  • Maintain the fertility level of the soils in pasture areas for optimum yield. Soil tests should be done once every three years to determine how much commercial fertilizer and/or lime is needed.

  • Soil samples must be collected and sent to a soils testing laboratory for analysis. Obtain details for this process from your nearest library or the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District. Soil samples can be collected at any time of the year. If the soil is wet at the time of collection, allow it to dry for proper mixing. Collect ten or more samples from different areas of a field from depths of about four inches below the surface. Thoroughly mix the samples together in a clean plastic pail. From that homogeneous mixture, take a representative sample, and put it into the sampling box (provided) for shipment to the soils testing laboratory.

  • pastures subdivided with cross fencingInstalling a rotational grazing system, dividing a pasture area into smaller fields using gated fences, provides more pasture for the horses. While one field is recovering, the animals can graze in another. This system ensures that overgrazing does not occur. When done properly, the resting period of the fields will allow vegetation to recover with renewed vigor, and the horses will be guaranteed fresh grass for a longer period during the growing season. Divide pastures in such a way that animals can have access to clean water, shade, and salt at any time.

  • Where space is limited, it is nearly impossible to maintain a pasture if the horses are allowed to freely graze the entire area. In this situation, subdivide the plot into two or more lots, using one as an exercise lot (with no pasture) and the others as grazing pastures. Allow the horses into the grazing area only when the grass is three to six inches tall. Proper fertilization and irrigation of this plot will provide a considerable amount of grazing pasture and eventually reduce the feed bill.

  • When pastures are wet and soft, especially after heavy rains, the horses' hooves can cause considerable damage. It is best to keep them out of the pasture until it dries.

  • Interseed your pasture with both warm and cool season grasses to prolong the availability of fresh grass, increase erosion protection, and provide continuous uptake of nutrients that might otherwise contribute to water pollution. When warm season grasses, such as bermudagrass, go into dormancy, cool season grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass will start their growing period; this keeps your pasture green nearly all year round.

  • Weed control is another concern in pastures. A lush pasture of grass and clover (no more than 25 percent) is the best way to keep weeds down. However, if you can't get your pasture dense enough to prevent weed growth, mow the weeds regularly or before they flower to keep them under control. If herbicides are used, identify the weed and determine the most advantageous time to apply the treatment. The ideal time to chemically treat your weeds is when the temperature is about 70° and humidity is low. High temperature and high humidity enhance volatility and reduce effectiveness of herbicides.

Animal Waste Management

manure storage facilityOn a small lot, horse waste accumulates rapidly. Without proper management, the waste can wash off the land into a nearby water body. Plant nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), bacteria, and pathogens in the waste can adversely affect water quality.

A well-built structure can be used as a storage facility. The structure must have adequate capacity to hold the volume of waste generated until it is disposed of or used. It should have a protective cover to keep out rainwater and disease-carrying agents such as flies and rats.

Make plans for disposal or transfer of manure to ensure that when it is moved, it does not become a source of pollution at the new site. While in its raw state, stored waste can be spread on fields, lawns, or gardens. Considering the possibility of parasite infestation, and the presence of weed seeds, you should compost all waste spread on fields grazed by horses.


Composting is an aerobic (oxygen requiring) process in which microorganisms break down complex organic components of animal waste and bedding into simple organic soil-like material. A simple and relatively inexpensive composting method involves using a composting bin on a level, impervious surface. This is ideal for horse operations with five or fewer horses. The bin should be easily accessible from the stall and paddock areas. For an operation with one to three horses, a two-bin system installed on an impervious surface is adequate. A four to five horse operation may need a three-bin composting system.

Illustration of two-bin compost unitInstall the composting bins on a non-porous (impervious) surface. Stack all materials to be composted in one bin until it is full. Then allow the waste heap to go through the composting process while the second bin is being filled up.

Composting duration varies considerably depending on the organic materials being composted and other conditions. An ideal composting system may take 8 to 12 weeks to complete. This progresses to a curing period which lasts for another four weeks. During this time, the pile cools down, and recolonization of other soil microorganisms takes place. Certain conditions are necessary for timely completion of composting:

  • Organic materials to be composted must have the appropriate carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio that supports growth and activity of the microorganisms that carry out composting. These bugs use up carbon for energy and growth and nitrogen for protein to build up their bodies and reproduce.

  • Typical compost piles from horse operations consisting of manure and bedding materials and have a high C:N ratio. This combination composts well by itself, especially if the bedding material is straw. If the bedding material is sawdust, it may take a longer time to compost. The composting process can be increased if materials with higher nitrogen content, such as grass clippings or urea, are added occasionally to the pile.

  • Oxygen is needed by the microorganisms during respiration while breaking down the materials. Aerobic composting requires a lot of oxygen, particularly at the initial stage. A tremendous amount of energy in the form of heat is given off, creating an ideal environment for the microorganisms. They operate best in temperatures between 110°F and 150°F. At 140°F or higher, pathogens, weed seeds, and fly larvae in the composting materials are destroyed. However, at temperatures above 160°F, the microorganisms will die. Therefore, it is essential to regulate the oxygen and temperature levels by regularly turning the compost pile over about three times a month. Ideally, monitor the temperature using a long-stemmed thermometer.

  • Moisture is necessary to permit biological activities and the supporting chemical processes. Moisture should be about 50 percent of the content. Estimate the moisture content by squeezing a handful of composted material. It should feel like a damp sponge after water has been wrung out of it-damp, but not dripping. Moisture is continuously lost due to the high temperature. Therefore, regularly wet the materials without waterlogging them.

The end product of a composting process is a simple, inert organic material called compost, which consists mainly of humus, plant nutrients, carbon, and microorganisms. It is a friable dark brown material that can be used in lawns, pastures, or gardens, or bagged for sale.

Composting has many benefits:

  • It reduces environmental and health risks by controlling parasite re-infestation of horses, eliminating a potential breeding site for flies, and reducing the amount of raw manure-polluted runoff that reaches surface and ground water.

  • It provides an efficient manure handling process by reducing the volume and odor potential.

  • It enhances soil tilth and fertility for the yard, garden, pasture, or even a "horse-less" neighbor.

Nutrient Management

Proper nutrient management means applying the required amount of plant nutrients to maximize yield. Excessive nutrient application is discouraged because the traditional belief of "more-is-better" has been proven wrong.

Excess nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizer applications are major components of NPS pollution. Without proper management practices, these nutrients can wash off into nearby creeks, ponds, or wetland areas, and ultimately into the Chesapeake Bay. An overabundance of nutrients causes eutrophication (nutrient enrichment) of water bodies, supporting excessive growth of algae and other aquatic weeds. This uncontrolled growth shades out and kills other sub-aquatic vegetation. At the end of their life cycle, the algae and weeds decompose, causing depletion of dissolved oxygen. Oxygen depletion, in turn, leads to odor problems and harms the aquatic life.

Nutrient management is also important to our ground water. Though out of sight, ground water is still vulnerable to NPS pollution. Ground water pollution is evident in wells that are shallow, improperly cased, or located down hill from a poorly managed animal waste deposit site. Polluted ground water can contain high levels of nitrate, which is particularly harmful to babies (causing Blue Baby Syndrome), or bacteria, which can cause severe stomach upset even among adults.

Nutrient management planning is site specific and is part of the Soil and Water Quality Conservation Plan required by the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act. Your local soil and water conservation district office can help you prepare your plan.

Integrated Pest Management

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) combines appropriate chemical, cultural, and biological pest control techniques into a single plan to reduce pest population and keep damage at an acceptable level.

To reduce the dependency on chemicals, implement environmentally sound biological control techniques. One such technique involves releasing fly parasites (which are harmless to animals and humans) near barns, stables, manure piles, or any other area of expected fly concentration. The parasites lay their eggs inside immature fly pupae. The eggs of the parasite then hatch into larvae and feed on the inside of the pupae. One fly parasite can destroy as many as 50 fly pupae. For best results, release the parasites in spring before the fly population becomes a problem.

Ideally, the manure pile should be about 200 feet away from your stable. Simply keeping the pile covered will control pests.

To comply with the City of Calabasas Municipal Code Chapter 8.28, all equestrian and stable facilities -even a single horse stabled in a backyard-should have a Site Specific Urban Stormwater Mitigation Plan (SUSMP) with implementable BMPs.


City of Calabasas 2018