How To Be The Perfect Horsekeeper
Perfect Solutions for Everyday Horse-Care Problems
Perfect Upgrades for Outdated Stablecare
By Karen E.N. Hayes, DVM, MS
Excerpts from Chapter 1 - The Perfect Manure Management
One 1100-pound horse passes manure, on average, seven to ten times
per day, adding up to a total daily output of about fifty pounds.
A small operation housing only ten horses accumulates almost seven
tons of manure in just one month. And that’s just the manure.
The muck pile also contains soiled, urine-soaked and wasted stall
bedding, which – depending on what type of bedding you use
– can double or even triple the volume and weight of stuff
that goes onto the pile.
Thanks to years of trial and mostly error, I used to think there
weren’t any alternative manure management systems that delivered
what we need – a way to eliminate the muck pile, without seeding
pasture with parasites and weeds. I was wrong. There’s a foolproof,
earth-friendly, nearly maintenance-free way to manage horse manure,
whether you have two horses or two hundred.
Even if you have only one horse, the pile mounts up to an amazing
degree. Many horse facilities are part of somebody’s home
property. Some are well-appointed and relatively fancy commercial
places where the tack rooms are full of saddles that each probably
cost more than your first car. In either context, the muck pile
is an eyesore that stinks, and it detracts from the esthetics of
the property. So, sheer volume is one factor. The muck pile takes
up premium space, and it does so in an offensive way.
Even a healthy horse passes millions of potential pathogens in
its manure – bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and parasites. As
long as his body maintains a healthy balance between the pathogens
and friendly beneficial organisms, the potential disease-causers
(which I call nasties) don’t make him sick.
But once the manure and the nasties are on the ground, and the
manure begins to accumulate, the nasties start to add up to numbers
that could overwhelm even a healthy immune system. Your horse’s
ability to resist disease was never designed to stand up to such
a concentrated germ load.
Some of the bad pathogens succumb to the heat of summer, the ultraviolet
rays of the sun, and the cold winter. But don’t kid yourself.
Many go into a dormant state and become semi-permanent residents
in the soil, waiting for favorable conditions. The numbers of pathogens
on the property increase with every lift of your horse’s tail,
and with every passing year. As the manure load accumulates on the
property, the health risk goes up for any horses living there.
Each defecation contains millions of a particular category of bacteria
called coliforms. Coliforms are a notorious bacterial family that
includes tetanus as well as other dangerous and often fatal disease-producers
such as Rhodococcus, E. coli, and Salmonella species. The open prairie,
which is the horse’s natural environment, is sparsely dotted
with horse manure that’s easy to sidestep. Not the domestic,
fenced-and-cross-fenced domestic horse facility.
That’s why your risk of tetanus, as well as your horse’s,
is higher if a flesh wound happens when on horse property. With
every year horses inhabit a particular piece of land, the soil becomes
more and more dominated by their natural fecal organisms –
so much so that horse facilities become, over time, high-risk havens
for outbreaks of certain diseases.
At breeding farms, for example, if foals are nearby when the wind
blows over bare patches in the pasture, their risk of a particular
deadly kind of pneumonia skyrockets. That’s because fecal
Rhodococcus equi bacteria have become a major component of the dust,
thanks to years of accumulated manure that dried and disintegrated
there. Outbreaks among the year’s foal crop are more common
in dry years, when there’s more dust kicked up into the air,
which the foals breathe in.
Treatment (of Rhodococcal pneumonia) is months-long, expensive,
fraught with side effects, and even when done exactly right it often
Wild horses in their natural environment wouldn’t dream of
grazing within sniffing distance of a manure pile, and they never
stay in one grazing area long enough for manure to accumulate and
become a health problem for them. In that way, their natural lifestyle
automatically protects them against excessive parasite exposure.
Compare that to modern horse facilities – even high-end ones
with big, beautiful pastures – where horses are confined.
Remember, horses were never designed to stay in one geographic area,
eating and relieving themselves and unable to put meaningful distance
between the two. With every passing year, the amount of parasite-infested
land on the modern horse farm increases, and the amount of pristine
land, free of manure, increasingly disappears.
To make matters worse, there are still lots of horse farm managers
whose method of eliminating the muck pile is to spread it on the
pastures and hayfields. They should be arrested. Many of the parasites
that infect horses can survive in those fields in a dormant state
for up to 40 years, through all kinds of weather. They lie in wait,
locked and loaded, for their next victim to nibble nearby.
Manure is a breeding ground for flies. If you have a typical muck
pile, then every year, your fly population increases, in spite of
diligent use of larvicides, insecticides, and repellents. It starts
up as a nuisance, and escalates to a health issue and a problem
that quite literally ruins the summer days, with you and your horses
swatting and stomping.
If you’ve spent much time at horse facilities, you know that
the use of fly killers and repellents is an act of desperation,
and an exercise in futility. They actually make the fly problem
worse thanks to collateral damage: They kill the beneficial insects
that naturally prey on flies. What locks you and your horses in
fly purgatory is the fact that fly predators – the good bugs
– take longer than flies do to replenish their populations
after being devastated by insecticides. So, when you use insecticides,
you give the pest fly population the upper hand. The more you use
them, the more you feel the need to use them, and the problem gets
worse and worse.
There are two ways to look at the environmental issue. One is,
even if the esthetics and the fly problems and the heightened risk
of disease don’t bother you, the horse facility that doesn’t
deal responsibly with its muck pile is vulnerable to being sued
for contaminating ground water and surface water. This was a small
risk 20 years ago. Today it’s inevitable.
Another way to look at it is, our horses suffer from being made
to live among filth. It threatens the health of their gastrointestinal
tract, their respiratory tract, their skin, their nervous system,
their eyes, their hooves, their offspring and their quality of life.
Horse facilities are part of the environmental problem, and the
classy and ethical response is to do the right thing because it’s
the right thing to do, not because somebody is making us do it.
The Trouble with Composting
“Trouble” is precisely what composting has been for
me. In theory, it’s the perfect solution for the manure management
problem. But in my hands, despite my strange and inexplicable fascination
with it, composting has been frustrating and unsatisfying. Part
of the problem is, I’ve been looking not only for a solution
I can maintain on my own horse facility, but one I can recommend
to horse owners everywhere, and be reasonably confident they’ll
actually do it. That means it has to be practical and adaptable
to everybody’s individual abilities, conditions, requirements
and willingness to commit to the rules that determine whether or
not a pile “cooks” properly.
Despite a fistful of college degrees and 35 years of on-again,
off-again earnest effort at the art and science of composting, with
and without expert consultation, I failed to compost the facility’s
horse manure reliably. I never felt confident enough about even
my best batches to spread them in the fields, because there were
always parts of the heap that didn’t seem to decompose, and
I feared that what I’d be spreading would be a devilish mix
of things that would not be good for a horse property. Still, I
had this enduring love for the idea of compost. It could be such
a perfect solution, if someone could make it a practical process.
And, I finally found the person who did just that.
The Perfect Solution: From the Top of the Heap
The king of the manure mountain is an engineer named Peter Moon.
In addition to degrees in geology and geotechnical engineering,
Moon’s got experience, enthusiasm, and a nose for a good compost
pile. More than any so-called expert I’ve ever consulted,
he “gets” compost and is anxious to spread the word.
His environmental consulting firm, O2Compost, specializes in designing
and setting up compost facilities to process agricultural, corporate,
and municipal organic waste on a very big scale, with efficient,
EPA-approved, profitable methods. Notice I didn’t say affordable,
I said profitable.
Aeration without Turning
It all comes down to oxygen. That’s the key to successful
composting. The bacteria in the compost heap need to be able to
depend on a steady supply of it. That’s why traditional composting
practices require that you turn the heap. Moon’s work has
shown that within about 30 minutes after turning the heap and raising
the oxygen levels, the levels quickly plummet – often to levels
as low as 1 percent, even lower than they were before turning.
The Perfect Horse Manure Composting System
The foolproof O2Compost system is based on the aerated static pile
principle. Although from the outside it appears to be the usual
series of three composting bins, Moon’s magic is in the behind-the-scenes
details. Ordinary compost bins are nothing more than a designated,
contained place to stack stall muck to the proper depth. Moon’s
design provides the missing link – air – by designing
the floor and walls to admit just enough air for good passive ventilation
and adding a network of ventilation holes and pipes underneath the
floor, connected to an electric blower that’s controlled by
a timer. When the timer triggers the blower, the blower breathes
air into the heap, evenly infusing every corner and pocket with
The beauty of the system is that it’ll work for a one-horse
enclosed bin operation as well as it’ll work for a 2,000 horse
mega facility’s mountain of manure. All it takes is the engineering
know-how to design the aeration system specifically for horses.
Thanks to Peter Moon, there’s a growing number of horse facilities
drawing great assets from what used to be a costly liability.
To obtain a bound copy or an e-copy of Karen Hayes’ book:
"How to Be The Perfect Horsekeeper"
I encourage you to visit her web site: www.theperfectstall.com
For more information about horse health and related topics, also
visit her educational forum: www.integralhorse.com
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