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A Grass Farmers Best Kept Secret: The Equicentral System

October 2018 by Jane and Stuart Myers
Jane and Stuart Myers are the dynamic duo behind www.equiculture.net - an educational movement informing on responsible, sustainable and ethical horse-keeping. Together, they have co-authored several books and recently launched an online course bringing Horse Management into the 21st Century.
Jane and Stuart Myers image by Linda Zupanc

If you still think managing your horses and your land responsibly is difficult and expensive hard work, think again! All over the world, more and more horse owners are embracing the principles taught by Jane and Stuart Myers through their Equiculture Responsible Horse Owners Resource, successfully implementing them in their own properties and situations.

In fact, as one grass farmer says: “My biggest surprise is that we can have an arrangement that makes feeding, etc., super easy for the humans who have full time day jobs (the horses come to us!), while at the same time it is the best thing for our land! Doesn’t get better than that!”

Their secret to success is ‘The Equicentral System’, which works by using the horses’ natural cycles of grazing and loafing as an advantage, and an opportunity to enhance the health and wellbeing of the horses themselves, the land they live on, and the environment at large.

Here is how it works:

Harnessing natural behaviour

The Equicentral System uses the natural and domestic behaviour of horses, combined with good land management practices to create a healthy and sustainable environment for your horses, the land they live in on your property and the wider environment.

This approach, which fosters health and wellbeing, has a proven record in many parts of the world, including in small, medium and large horse properties, because it benefits you, your horses, your family and your community.

The Equicentral System works best on a property where the horses live together as one herd; however, there are many successful examples of larger properties, such as studs and agistment centres, which replicate the system for each group of horses.

Central to the Equicentral System is rotational grazing, which involves moving the animals around the land as one herd - grazing one paddock at a time - rather than allowing them access to the whole property at once (set-stocking). This allows pastures and soil to rest and recover between periods of grazing.

It takes into account that naturally-living horses travel large distances on a daily basis and they are not migratory animals. They travel from feed to water and back again in what is known as their ‘home range’ - an area that contains the resources the horses need.

The Equicentral System factors in the understanding that horses naturally spend around 12 to 18 hours a day grazing, and the other 6 to 12 hours loafing (standing around, resting, playing or allo-grooming, etc.).
By providing a central ‘holding area’ where they can find water, shelter and a good surface to rest on, the horses will choose to loaf there instead of standing around compacting and eroding your precious pastures

The Equicentral System can be summed up as follows:

The main facilities, water, shade/shelter, hay and supplementary feeding are positioned in a surfaced holding yard, so the horses can always get back to them from the pasture they are currently grazing.
The watering points are only situated in the surfaced holding yard, instead of the usual model where there being one trough in each paddock.

If possible, all the paddocks are linked directly to this surfaced holding yard area, although only one paddock is in use at any one time.

The gate to the paddock that is in use is always open, so the horses can always get themselves back to the water, shade and shelter.

Occasionally, the horses may be locked up or held in the surfaced holding yard (with hay), but this is usually to prevent damage to the land (for example, during extremes such as drought or wet conditions), and to increase healthy pasture production.

Apart from trees or shrubs situated in and/or around the paddocks, the only shade or shelter is in the surfaced holding yard. The shade or shelter provided should be large enough for the whole herd to benefit from it at the same time.

Benefits of the Equicentral System

The Equicentral System encourages movement; a grazing horse is a moving horse. One Australian study showed horses in a 1.5 acre paddock walked approximately 4.5km per day, even when the water was in the paddock. Walking to and from the surfaced holding yard further increases movement.

It aims to avoid food restriction, which is a cause of stress in many domestic horses. Horses with special dietary requirements can be supplemented in separate but, preferably adjoining, yards. Horses that are on a restricted diet can also be confined in the surfaced holding yard (with continuous access to low energy hay) for periods of time as they transition to a normal grazing pattern.

It helps manage and maintain pasture and soil health. Horses can be confined to the surfaced holding yard (with hay) when the weather is very dry or very wet, maintaining ground cover and preventing damage to the soil. A healthy soil and biodiverse pasture recovers faster, and can withstand more grazing.

It provides improved comfort. The horses will soon learn the surfaced holding yard is a good place to be so, when it is necessary to fasten them in there, (due to bad weather, for health reasons etc), they will feel secure and not stressed.

The horses can choose as a herd whether to graze, walk to the ‘water hole’, snooze in the shade, and so on… Instead of having us decide when they should and shouldn’t eat, and when and where they should be at any one time.

The Equicentral System saves time minimising any carting of feed around the property. The horses come to the feed. It is very easy to train horses to come to the central point when called if there’s a treat in it for them. This makes it easier to check them daily. One single water point is also easier to check daily as is cleaning up manure in the surfaced yard only, instead of multiple paddocks.

The Equicentral System saves costs in many ways. Centralising all the infrastructure is an obvious saving compared to having multiple shelters and watering points. It will also pay off long-term with improved health, including your horse’s and your pastures. 

Many horse properties already have the facilities required to implement the Equicentral System. Often the required infrastructure either already exists on a horse property or the property needs only minimal changes.

Have a look at the traditional layout of the property pictured on pages 20 & 21. There is potential for the built horse barn area to become the central point shelter, and work in with the round yard or arena. This can be achieved by deciding how to best divide the paddocks, so they fan out from the central point and allow rotation,  and adding gates, so the horses can access the paddock in use directly from the holding area.

Why a surfaced yard?

Surfacing the central yard may seem costly at first, but it will be money well spent because it provides horses with a comfortable and dry surface, and it will be used every day of the year for at least 12 hours a day.
Compare this to the cost of building a riding arena, which may only get an hour of use per day and sometimes only a few times a week! In fact, some people have arranged their properties in a way where their surfaced holding yard doubles up as a riding arena.

These are just a few of the benefits of setting up an Equicentral System in your horse property. In future articles, we will expand on the various aspects and show some of the practical solutions to the many everyday challenges of owning a horse property.

There are so many benefits to keeping horses off the land when they are not actually grazing. These include:

  • Better mud management; in fact, mud should become a thing of the past.
  • Better dust management. Dust is related to mud - no mud, no dust.
  • Fewer or even no instances of skin conditions caused by mud - like greasy heel (mud fever).
  • Better weed seed management by confining weed seeds from hay fed in the yard - something that is especially important if that hay is bought in, rather than made on the property.
  • Better manure management. Manure is easier to pick up from surfaced areas, and this collected manure can be composted and put back on the land to increase the organic matter of your soil.
  • More pasture over time. By holding your horses at the right time, the pasture gets in front of the horses, rather than lagging behind the horses. You will, therefore, have healthier, ‘happier’ plants.
  • Increased biodiversity. By removing horses before they overgraze the plants, the less robust plants get the chance to set seed and thrive.
  • Increased opportunity for cross-grazing and all the benefits that this provides, such as better weed management, better parasite management, a reduction in pasture plant wastage due to the roughs and lawns that are created when only horses graze a pasture.

And this is just the beginning. Whether you live in the northern or southern hemisphere, in a Winter rainfall or Summer rainfall area, a surfaced holding yard will become invaluable all year round, and especially during extreme weather events. 

To find out more go to: www.equiculture.net and check out the Facebook group: Equicentral Central.