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Earth Care, People Care, Horse Care by Design: Part 2

October 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

In this, two-part series, we are revisiting the basic permaculture principles and how to put them into practice on your own horse property. Whether you are starting with a blank canvas or you want to make gradual changes to an existing setup, this article provides action steps and links to further, useful information to help you realise your property layout.

From theory to practice

Anyone who owns or wants to own land with the main purpose of keeping horses will have to consider the layout of all facilities and their design.

Some will have bought a property with an existing layout and facilities, while others may deal with a blank canvas. Even if you already decided and have your horse property laid out, you may still want to consider re-designing certain aspects to increase its efficiency and capacity, for aesthetic reasons or to promote better animal behaviour and health.

The aim of permaculture has always been to provide a design toolkit for human habitation. This toolkit helps the designer and landowner to model a final design based on an observation of how ecosystems, animals and humans interact, with the aim to create more efficiency and sustainability on any property.

A property design is composed of concepts, materials, techniques and strategies. As a design system, permaculture attempts to integrate fabricated, natural, spatial, temporal, social and ethical components to achieve a whole.

To do so, we need to not see these components as separate, but rather study the relationships between them and how they function to assist each other.

Every component of a design should function in many ways (so-called stacking functions). When every essential function is supported by many components, it also creates resilience. A simple example of this is placing a road or access way on-contour in a way in which the same structure could also be used for water harvesting by incorporating a swale alongside it.

In terms of efficiency, think also about a previous article of the Equine Permaculture Design Series on zoning a property (which you can find if you click here), which describes that the things we use most often and the things we have to pay the most attention to are placed closest to the house in the design, such as the kitchen garden or chicken coop. 

In this article, we will discuss the seven main action steps to consider when realising the layout and functionality of a horse property.

Step 1: Observation

The key to permaculture is observation, but using all of your senses. Observation first allows you to see how the site functions within itself - to gain an understanding of its initial relationships.

Aim to record your observations systematically, using your property’s sector analysis (see the article on energy flow that is part of the Equine Permaculture Design Series), to illustrate all the elements (sun, wind, water, fire, etc.) that enter and flow through the property.

A camera and notebook (digital or conventional) are great aids to observation, allowing you to re-examine the information when necessary. They are also a great tool to show the before and after results! Nowadays, we can use drones to capture photos and videos to provide large and impressive views of the property and landscape.

Try to observe your property over the four seasons and in different weather, especially extreme weather - frost, heavy rain, very warm, etc. 

  • What grass species or weeds grow in your pastures?
  • Where does it stay green, wet or boggy the longest?
  • Where do horses have the most impact on the pasture?
  • What is the wind like and where does it come from, including in the Winter and in the Summer?
  • Where does frost collect?
  • What is the soil like and does it vary within the site?
  • How much rainfall do you tend to get per season?
  • What wildlife is around?

The list of questions-observations will be as large as your interest is in improving your property!

During this observation period, you can bring in all factors into the design, such as lay of the land, natural flora and so forth. Some people recommend a year-long observation of a site before anything permanent is built or planted.

Step 2: Visioning

When we mention vision, most people typically think first about their personal goals for the property but, in the permaculture approach, we must give the land the highest priority.

We first need to address what the land and landscape need to be more productive and resilient. This will dictate where we may place components, such as pastures for our horses, laneways, vegetation, dams, swales, roads, arena, round yards, washing bays, sheds and even our house.

A systematic approach to the placement of these elements is well summarised in the Yeoman’s Relative Permanence Scale and Keyline Planning (download the article to see the image by clicking on the article's image, top right).

Following these guidelines will help you avoid mistakes, such as placing your horse shelter or central point first only to realise that you did it right in the spot where you could have collected water or where you could have grown fodder trees as a wind break!

The second part of visioning is listing your needs, your skills, time, money, boundaries, resources, likes and dislikes. This can be a very long list!

We all have our own personal goals and needs but, as horse owners, we also have some goals in common. Regardless if you just have horses for pleasure or you are running a horse business, we all aim to safeguard the wellbeing of our horses and, for that, we must create an environment where horses can express their natural behaviour.

We are all connected with the land and particularly so if we own and manage grazing animals. This is why it makes sense to integrate the management of our animals and pastures/property into our personal goals, providing a fairly detailed description of what that land must look like far into the future and how the fundamental processes (i.e. water, soil food web, nutrient cycle) will work in our environment.

Read the All About Soils Series

To make changes to our property, we need time, skills and/or money. This is why it makes sense to define a time and money budget for your property on a yearly basis.

Working with smaller sections at a time can make the process more manageable, so, define what your boundaries are going to be - the actual boundaries of the land you want to work on and actively manage. These could be just a portion or all of your actual property.

Step 3: Resources

We already mentioned them in the previous step (which is part of your visioning), but it is important that you focus on this section separately by listing the resources that are available to you.

  • Financial resources: How much money is available to invest in the project? Is it available in a lump sum or in small amounts over many months? Is funding available from outside bodies? (Some Landcare and catchment organisations have access to grants for fencing and tree planting to protect riparian areas so, check with your local groups.)
  • Skills and labour resources: What skills sets do you have and what skills are there around you that you can draw upon? It could be a neighbour or friend that may be able to assist you with your design; you may want to attend a property design workshop, or employ a consultant or designer. Later on, you may need a hand or two and, for example, you could organise a tree-planting session with friends and family, and follow it up with a nice meal!
  • Other resources: What plant, structures, machinery or other resources are available? What natural resources are there? You can, for example, capture the sun’s energy and use it to generate power or heat water.

Of course, you may not need to own certain resources, such as farm or earthworks machinery. Some resources can be hired, e.g. to build a dam, make hay or spread compost, etc. Just keep in mind that there are many resourses aside from money... You might have to be creative!

Step 4: Evaluation and maps

The next action step is to analyse what you have and how those elements interact in your property. In order to do this analysis, you will need to gather data (including our observations) and source good site maps. These could include satellite images, aerial photos, cadastral and topographical maps.

Maps are valuable to see clearly where to place many elements, such as water, access and structures. They also allow you to identify clearing zones, geology, soil type, fire danger, weather impact, etc. This is where you can implement the zone and sector analysis explained in previous articles.

Step 5: Development and design

In this step, you get the chance to play with your texters and colouring pencils!

A base map of what exists can be overlayed with tracing paper or transparencies, and you can start to look at how different aspects of the design might look.

There are many design techniques out there and most are relatively easy to use.

You can later expand to digital formats that use design software. Throughout this process, keep in mind property design is a dynamic process and you may want to make many changes before you create your final master plan. Remember also the components that you want to connect to each other (so-called stacking functions), these will need to be visualised as well.

Step 6: Implementation

Consider how your plan will be realised - the timing and phasing of the project. Create a plan of action and ensure everyone knows what the plan is. Hopefully, your people have been involved right from the start, because if it doesn’t reflect what they want to happen, it won’t!

In broad terms, the order of implementation is water, then access, then buildings and built infrastructure. The ground-breaking part of the process (literally!) is digging and shaping of the land. Take care of any major earthworks - clearing, levelling, digging ponds and swales, hardscaping, sheet mulching, trees, shrubs, plant covers, etc. before you think about fencing and structures.

Step 7: Maintenance

Part of the design process also involves estimating the maintenance that will be required to keep the site at a healthy optimum. There is no point creating a system that will require three days a week to maintain if you only have two days available.

Good design will preclude the need for any major adjustments in this area.


The success of any design depends on how it is accepted and used by the people on the ground, and how the land, vegetation and animals respond to the layout of the infrastructure, pastures, paddocks, laneways and/or central point systems.

Permaculture design techniques may start with a thorough planning process that takes into consideration all known intervening factors - all those we have mentioned above and perhaps more. But, in the end, it comes down to our own management flexibility and ability to steer a path, based on the results of trial and error.

It is up to us to be willing to ‘learn as we go’ and act on new information, to continue to observe and remain open minded with the methods we use.

Happy designing!