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Grass Farming in the Snowy Mountains

November 2018 by Cristina Wilkins
Cristina is the Editor, owner and publisher of Horses and People Magazine.

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. One such horse owner is Denise Pea, who manages three horses and two bullocks on a picturesque and hilly property in the Snowy Mountains near Cooma, New South Wales. 

In this interview, Denise explains what attracted her to Equiculture and The Equicentral System, the challenges and the journey you go through when you take responsibility for managing horses, land and lifestyle in a sustainable and responsible way.

What attracted you to Equiculture?

I came across the website and bought the books many years ago because at the time, we had taken on two rescue horses from the wonderful charity Heavy Horse Heaven in Yass, New South Wales.

Amy is a grey Irish Sport Horse and Herbie a bay KNP Brumby, and Herbie had suffered laminitis episodes, so what Jane and Stuart Myers were teaching made a lot of sense - keeping them naturally and feeding them as much as possible on native pastures.

I had just purchased a property with my husband to move out of the city and we wanted to try and make it as sustainable as possible. Make it a healthier environment for the horses and the cattle, and make life easier for us as well.

I liked the idea of a central area where horses come to drink and eat and can go back out to the paddock because it is making them move all the time. It avoids them standing around, makes them exercise and do what horses should do in a natural environment.

We also like the idea of moving away from traditional farming practices like ploughing, planting or adding super-phosphate to the pastures. We prefer to keep the environment as natural and sustainable as possible.
The winters are very cold here, it is not unusual to have snow and the native grass goes dormant, so we have to feed the animals over winter. Over summer,  provided we get some rain (which we didn’t this year), the grass is plentiful and we don’t mind sharing it with the native animals in the area.

How many other animals do you manage?

As well as our two rescue horses, I recently bought another Kosciusko Brumby who will be my trail riding horse. We also rescued two bullocks who have their own 15 acre paddock. We do have a lot of wildlife and we are trying to have a balance between our own animals and the native animals.

What are some of the challenges the property presents?

For us, the main challenge is that the property is so hilly and we have so many deep gullies throughout. Our driveway goes right through the centre and splits the pasture areas in half and half the property is off-limits to the animals - too steep and dangerous.

It had no stock on it for a few years before we bought it so it had a fair bit of native grass and quite a few weeds, mainly serrated tussock (Nassella trichotoma). It’s considered a weed, so we used to spray it but then, we realised the horses actually love to eat it and, through grazing, they stop it seeding and they are keeping it under control.

About two years ago the Small Farms Network organised a day’s workshop with Stuart Myers which proved very useful because, although I had read all the books, my husband hadn’t. He came out with an awful lot of information and, more importantly, he could understand what I had been talking about.

So far, we have started an Equicentral System on one side of our driveway and we use hot tape to subdivide the pasture and move the horses around. We can have a central yard with shelter, food and water, and all the paddocks fanning out of that area.

We are yet to decide how we will use the other side, whether we can use a single central area or we have to have two separate systems, one on each side of the driveway. To stick with one area the horses would have to cross a very steep and rocky gully to reach the pastures from the central yard. And moving the horses between the two areas is quite an exercise because our driveway is steep and slippery when it is wet, so I am not sure what is going to work. We’re still trying to figure it all out. 

Using electric fences allows us time to make up our minds on the final layout of all the paddocks. Now that we have a better idea for, at least half of the area, we will gradually start adding permanent fencing. It’s going to be a long process.

Do you feel it is easier to implement the Equicentral System on a small property?

We have the room to create decent sized paddocks and be able to rest others in between for longer periods, but our hilly landscape does make it harder to use the area well - it would be a lot easier if we had flat ground! But then, flat ground is not so good for the horses, so it’s never going to be a perfect situation.

Another aspect which probably is less common and, therefore, not covered in as much detail is the differences in managing native pastures and the more common improved pastures. For example, Stuart’s famous ‘Stubby test’ where you use a beer stubby (or something that size) to check the length and density of the grass plants, so you can decide whether to graze the pasture or rest it a bit longer, doesn’t apply in the same way in our landscape.

Our native grasses never get as dense or as tall as improved species and they are completely dormant during the winter. The state of the pasture has to be interpreted in a different way and the paddocks need long resting periods.

How are you benefiting from the Responsible Horse Owner’s resource?

I had already read all the books, I had been to a workshop and was in the Equicentral Central Facebook group, but the new resource is not expensive and it is worth having access to ongoing resources, to see what they are doing.

It has been really interesting to follow on the Facebook group what other people have done, even in other parts of the world. They may have a different climate and they may have more grass than we do, but it is still interesting to see what they have set up.

Looking at some of the comments from some people might give the impression that it is quite easy to set up, but there’s a lot of planning that goes into the back of it to get it right. You may never get if perfect but with information you can make less mistakes.

It is also useful to see the comments that Jane and Stuart make in response to peoples’ posts and photographs. Some of the questions people ask are sometimes ones I hadn’t even thought of.

It really helps my motivation to see what others have done on their properties. It makes it more real and, if they’ve done it, perhaps I can do it too.

Having access to the resource can only be of benefit and help us decide how we continue to implement the Equiculture teachings on our property.

For more information about the Responsible Horse Owners Resource click here or if you want to buy access with a 15% discount, click here.