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Earth Care, People Care, Horse Care by Design: Part 1

August 2018 by Dr Mariette van den Berg
Mariette van den Berg has a PhD in Equine Nutrition and Foraging Behaviour, is a RAnNutr equine nutritionist, a Certified Permaculture Designer and a dressage rider. She is the founder of MB Equine Services

Throughout the past 30 issues of Horses and People Magazine, Dr Mariette van den Berg has been integrating permaculture principles with other sustainable farming practices as they relate to horse property design, layout and pasture management. In this article, we recap on the basic permaculture principles while we link back to the relevant information and many ways they can be applied to an equine setting to benefit horses, people and the land.

Why permaculture? 

Permaculture is a term that was coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s by joining the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’ in their quest to build a system of agriculture that was as sustainable as the natural ecosystems.

As the years have passed, something has become very clear – managing the environment more sustainably is urgent and essential, and permaculture provides strategies and tools that can be applied to achieve this in any situation.

Permaculture is sustainable because it is founded on the principles “Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share”.

A good start

Understanding the fundamental principles that govern natural systems is the key to becoming more sustainable and is the start of applying permaculture. While some people may be acquainted with permaculture, its concepts and principles, others may be wondering what it all means and how it can be applied to their horse property.

In essence, permaculture is common sense design that can help create a better environment and lifestyle - and who doesn’t want that? 

Permaculture is an approach and a philosophy for managing the earth’s and our social resources. It aims to design sustainable human settlements that preserve and extend the systems found in nature.
Because it is based on a set of ethical principles, permaculture can be applied in an urban, rural or productive farming context at any scale, and can certainly be applied to horse properties, whether large or small.

A large part of permaculture relies on clever design, and this, in turn, relies on understanding and applying the permaculture principles with the aim to create better environments for our horses, something which is especially critical if we are going to manage more horses in small suburban acreages and cope with extreme weather events and climate change.

Useful link: The exclusive 5-Part Equine Permaculture Design series can be found on and includes:

Giving back

As humans we produce, harvest and consume, and as a result, we leave a significant foot print. In addition, when we manage large herbivores such our horses, we exercise even more pressures on our land. We are in a cycle of taking from the land but, often, we fail to support the need to give back enough so the land can replenish itself. 

Natural systems always attempt to restore equilibrium (balance) and, if we mistreat, overload or deflect such life systems and processes, we get a reaction that may have long-lasting consequences.

Common examples of imbalance in horse properties are:

  • Topsoil loss (erosion),
  • compaction and,
  • overgrazing.

They create a cycle of degeneration which leads to more weeds and a lack of resilience during extreme weather events, less pasture availability, water pollution and more.

The typical reaction has been to treat these problems with technology and what is known as ‘prescription farming’ (targeted herbicides, chemical fertilizers, etc.) as well as importing larger quantities of feed to sustain the needs of our horses. This is neither good for the environment nor our pocket!

Link: Practical and permaculture-endorsed strategies to renovate damaged pastures and soils.

Even if you are caught up in the widely accepted loop of importing food and resources, the fact you are reading this article shows you are also searching for better ways of doing things!  
It is heartening to see that more and more horse people are seeing themselves as ‘grass farmers’ and are taking active steps to become better informed and learn to manage their horses as ‘grazers’ and not just pets. 

The more you learn about how your soil, plants and horses interact, the better equipped you will be to make informed decisions on your grazing and pasture management.

Link: A great place to get started on becoming a grass farmer.

Managing pastures can seem confusing because agricultural services typically rely on ‘reductionist’ science – they aim to tackle and control only one element at a time and this is not how natural systems tend to operate.

As an example, science has shown that plant growth can be supported by the addition of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (so-called NPK), but what about the rest of the minerals? If we only focus on NPK fertilisers, we upset the natural balance and reduce the associations the soil and plants make with other minerals and nutrients.

We now know that this type of imbalance makes plants and soils less nutritious and resilient, and, because they thrive in these conditions, it results in more weeds in our pastures! So, the next technological solution is to develop (in the lab), a herbicide product that kills anything that isn’t the pasture or crop of your choice… And so on.

This technology driven approach to pasture problems that only looks at things in the short-term and one element at a time, chains us to a continual loop of buying-in more items. Such a simplistic approach is unsustainable and does not work long-term. It could even be very unhealthy for you and your horses.  

Useful link: During 2018 we published the 5-Part series All About Soils, where you can learn more, particularly in Part 5 there are practical and permaculture-endorsed strategies to improve your soils.

Complex, adaptive systems

In nature, living organisms do not lend themselves to strict scientific definitions because they are the opposite of the reductionist approach that scientific experimentation is based on – living organisms are complex, adaptive systems that are always in a state of change.

Living organisms (and that includes us too!) are part of a ‘whole within a bigger whole’ – they don’t exist without the system to which they belong.

Indeed, the earth can be seen as a kind of super organism that is self-sustaining and self-regulating. This means that all our local actions can lead to reactions on a global scale due to the natural feedback mechanisms. We need to view all the parts (w)holistically and be aware there are action-reaction connections everywhere.

An example of a (w)holistic approach is that we cannot feed pasture plants directly. Plants feed through a process of breaking down organic matter, a process which is undertaken by many soil-organisms - the bacteria and fungi in the soil that have a symbiotic relationship with plants and exchange many nutrients, even water, with them.

Useful link: The soil-food-web

We can still use science to study the individual parts, but we clearly need to regularly step back to also observe the system as its whole - and in its even bigger whole whenever possible!

This type of integrative and interdisciplinary science can be difficult to get your head around and, indeed, some researchers may be of the opinion that it is almost unmanageable but, still, by studying both - the parts and the whole systems - we gain a better understanding and this, in turn, allows us to apply management tools much more efficiently than is currently being done.

This may all sound very complicated, but the good news is that permaculture is not rocket science! It’s common sense and provides tools that emphasise self-reliance, responsibility and the functions of natural living things.

Using energy

One of the founding principles when working with natural systems is that we need to think in terms of energy. Everything around us contains energy; organisms, populations and ecosystems. This energy may be stored or transferred from one form to another, but it cannot disappear or be destroyed, nor created (this is known as the first law of thermodynamics).

  • On a global scale, the energy can be the rain that is collected in the mountain rivers that run all the way to the sea.
  • On a local scale, in a horse property, our soils collect rainwater and, with the sun’s energy, we grow the food (pasture) that keeps our horses warm, alive and mobile.

What we consider useful energy storages are degraded into forms that are less useful to us until they no longer serve our system (known as entropy or gradual decline). By understanding this cycle, we can then ask ourselves: How can I best use energy before it passes and leaves my own property?

Our strategy should be to store as much as we can, ‘from source to sink’. To capture as much water in our rooves (into tanks), in our hills (into dams and swales) and in our soils (by improving its capacity to hold water) as a tool to drought-proof our farms and increase plant growth (capturing the sun’s energy) for food and soil building.

Useful link: Managing water on your horse property

Life systems constantly organise and create complex energy storages from diffuse energy and materials, accumulating, decomposing, building and transforming them for further use. We can find ways to use this in our property management and design processes.
Take manure, for example. Horses are fibre-processing machines, turning grass and hay into nutrient-rich manure 24/7.

One approach is to leave horse manure on the paddocks and harrow it to help it break down and return nutrients to the soil. While this may be a productive use, it achieves just one function and, it is only a good practice if you can also remove the horses for a period to reduce the parasite burden. 

On the other hand, composting the manure can create humus-like material that you can spread on both your pasture and gardens.
If you do it the correct way (aerobic hot turning), you can turn the compost into compost tea and spray it directly on the pasture. The compost tea acts as a gentle tonic for the plants, encourages microbial activity in the soil – the tireless workers that help break down organic matter and release nutrients for plants.

Useful link: The complete permaculture-endorsed article on composting horse manure

It’s a matter of perspective

Designing horse properties and managing horse pastures involves work whichever way you look at it. The permaculture management and design perspective, looks at how the resources and energy consumed can be best used to conserve and regenerate renewable energy in living systems.

This style of thinking led to the establishment of a set of permaculture design principles which can be applied in any context, from the city to your own horse property.

The permaculture principles

Armed with these principles you too will be able to create better environments for your horses, your family, your land and the wider community.

1. Work with nature, rather than against it

Learning to recognise natural systems and patterns will help you become more efficient, save time and money.
When looking at the layout or design of a horse property, look for the natural patterns, such as how the water flows, where the winds blow and the sun angle.

These patterns dictate the best and most energy efficient location for a dam, house site, access road or horse shelter.

This is of particular importance during the planning and design stages of a horse property, but if you have an already established property, you may still want to consider re-designing certain aspects to increase efficiency and capacity, aesthetics and to improve the physical and mental health of your horses.

Useful link: The 7-step action plan for realising your horse property layout

To show that you can also apply the ‘working with nature’ principle at the smallest scale, let’s look at weeds in a pasture. Using herbicides on a long-term basis to control them goes against nature because such chemicals are linked to soil degradation and plants developing resistance (which, in turn, leads us to develop new chemicals to deal with the resistance problem).

A different, permaculture perspective is to view weeds as ‘pioneer species’ that grow in soils that other pasture plants are not able to occupy yet. Viewed like this and, provided our horses have plenty of other, healthy plants to graze on, weeds can be useful.

  • They inform us there’s a problem with our soil (often the problem is compaction and associated loss of grass cover).
  • Many weeds have deep, thick tap-roots that can go deep into compacted soils.
  • Once slashed, the weed roots die off and help with decompaction, plus the mulched plant returns organic matter high in minerals that can restore balance in the soil and prevents moisture evaporation.

There you have it... three benefits that are not so easy to provide artificially. 

Useful link: Your Pasture Pharmacy provides a fascinating look into toxicity in plants and the complex interaction between herbivores and plants

2. The problem is the solution

The same example above serves to explain that, while weeds are a problem they can also be ‘used’ to create the solution - healthier soils!

After all, the difference between something being advantageous or not is only in our perception - how we see it. Therefore, if you have something on your property that is a problem, try to look at from a different angle and find a way to turn it into the solution.
Another example could be if you have a rocky area in your pasture that refuses to grow grass.

Could you incorporate that area into a track or turn it into a loafing yard for your horses? Because such ground will help keep your horses’ feet dry, aid hoof wear and hoof health.

Or what about manure? You can view it as a parasite-promoting problem that also leads to horse-sick pastures, but you can also see it as valuable organic matter and food for the wonderful soil workers - dung beetles.

Can you promote the conditions that enable manure to break down and feed the soil faster? Either by encouraging dung beetles to break it down on site as well as harrowing, or by collecting and composting it to feed it back to your pastures and your own vegie garden?

Useful link: The amazing dung beetles

3. Make the least change to the greatest possible effect

A good example of applying this principles on any rural property is choosing a dam site by selecting the area where you get the most water for the least of amount of earth moved.

Another example is to use portable, rather than permanent fencing to set up laneways, paddocks or a central point system to move horses and keep them off the pasture as a means to reduce over-trampling and overgrazing, and to aid the soil’s recovery.

4. The yield of a system, in theory, is unlimited

The only limit on the number of uses of each resource within a system is in the limit of the information and creativity of the designer. Turn this around to mean there is always an opportunity to find more uses for parts of your system or to add to any system.

For example, when planting trees and shrubs to create a shelter belt, why not plant specific edible fodder trees for your horses and/or nut or fruit trees for your own consumption?

While many horse owners will always focus on meeting the needs of their horses, they may forget their property could also be used to produce food for both the horses and their own family!

5. Everything gardens

Everything has an effect on its environment and nothing in nature works on its own – including us. Even when we can’t see it, there are many connections. Instead of trying to control everything in our gardens or pastures, we can get better results if we sit back and let other organisms do some of the work for us.

Taking the example of weeds and soil building again. If you know this, you can ensure that your effect is a positive one. For example, by pasture planning (cell grazing) or rotational grazing management of your horses you are gardening - allowing recovery and plants to regrow.

Useful link: Rotating pastures

Above all... maintain a questioning approach

Permaculture is best skilled using what’s known as the Socratic questioning technique because most people already know what Permaculture is but, initially, they don’t always realise they do.

Socratic questioning and teaching is the oldest but still the most powerful teaching tactic for fostering independent, critical thinking, because it focuses on giving students questions, not answers. It models an inquiring mind by continually probing into the subject with questions.

Permaculture is common sense. It’s a lot of intuition and a goodly portion of counter intuition. Permaculture appeals because deep down, people know that permaculture is our duty, our destiny, the basis of all wealth and human survival. It is also the way forward for the horse industry to create better environments for horses and people, especially if we are going to manage horses more and more on smaller acreages around the cities.

In addition to being fun to apply, permaculture is the embodiment of progress in the context of any flailing civilization and, when we think of the upcoming struggles of our future generations, permaculture is an act of thoughtfulness.