Keeping horses on small properties

Page last updated: Monday, 3 December 2018 - 12:09pm

Please note: This content may be out of date and is currently under review.

Many small landholders with horses are often interested in knowing how they can best manage their property in a way that reduces impacts, yet maximises the benefits and their enjoyment.

If land is used beyond its capability it becomes degraded and this can have economic, social and legislative consequences.

When deciding to own horses you must consider paddock, pasture and manure management, stocking rates, weeds and livestock identification and movement.

Keys to successful land management

As a horse manager or owner, the keys to successful land management include determining the most appropriate stocking rate for your property and developing integrated weed control and manure management strategies.

As a horse owner you should develop a property plan which reflects your overall vision for the property and select an approved horse management system, such as:

  • low input (extensive grazing)
  • medium input (horses grazing as well as stabled at times)
  • high input (horses stabled and hand fed).

You need to determine the appropriate stocking rate for your property and follow an effective pasture management program, which includes:

  • graze paddocks in rotation (graze at 12cm, rest at 5cm)
  • soil test to determine lime and fertiliser requirements
  • manage lush spring pasture growth by slashing, hay cutting or grazing with other livestock
  • maintain 70% groundcover at all times (minimum height 3cm)
  • seek advice on suitable pasture mixes, management and renovation.

You also need to develop an integrated weed control strategy:

  • eradicate toxic weeds (such as Paterson’s curse and cape tulip)
  • eliminate problem weeds
  • maintain soil fertility
  • graze paddocks in rotation
  • improve pastures
  • use selective sprays
  • control weeds entering the property (check hay for weed seeds and find out if it has been tested for annual rye grass toxicity (ARGT))
  • quarantine new horses for three days to prevent weed seeds spreading — this will also reduce the risk of exposing your animals to any disease the new addition might be carrying
  • avoid grazing areas bare which encourages weeds.

An integrated manure management strategy should also be developed, which may include:

  • collecting and selling manure
  • harrowing manure in paddocks
  • encouraging dung beetles by limiting harmful sprays.

Tips to remember include:

  • Hand feed hay only on compacted rubble or grassed areas — not on sand.
  • Vary feeding spots to reduce overgrazing and muddy areas.
  • Consider electric fencing to protect overgrazed and muddy areas from further damage.
  • Continuously set-grazing small paddocks is a recipe for environmental and equine health problems.

Horses and legislation

To protect the natural resources of Western Australia and its landscapes, and to ensure land is used within its capability, all landowners and land managers have responsibilities. Horse owners and managers need to be aware of the following Acts:

  • Under the Soil and Land Conservation Regulations 1992 owners and managers are deemed to owe a duty of care to the land and native vegetation.
  • The Environmental Protection Act 1986 regulates against pollution and environmental degradation.
  • The Local Government Act 1995 provides local government authorities (LGA) with powers and to have their own zoning regulations. It is advisable to check with your LGA before embarking on a horse-keeping venture or intensifying the use of land where horses are currently kept.

Natural resource legislation exists to ensure that land is used sustainably. LGAs will be able to advise you of your rights and obligations as a horse keeper and about the processes and time involved in getting approval to run horses.

Identification and movement

Western Australia has a comprehensive, mandatory livestock identification and ownership system. All livestock owners must be registered and their stock identified in accordance with the Biosecurity and Agriculture Management (Identification and Movement of Stock and Apiaries) Regulations 2013 (BAM (IMSA) Regulations).

To register as an owner you need to complete a form available from the website or the Brands Office of the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development.  See Livestock ownership, identification and movement in Western Australia for more information. After the Brands Office receives the form it will register you as an owner and allocate your registered identifiers and a Property Identification Code (PIC).

The prescribed method of identification for horses is a freeze or fire brand on the horse’s left shoulder. If you purchase a horse that is already branded, you do not have to re-brand it however you must have documentation to show ownership.

If owners wish to brand newly acquired stock, the registered brand must be applied immediately below the existing brand on the left shoulder.

Alternative identification such as a microchip can be used under specific conditions as an approved identifier in place of a brand.

Land and horse keeping

When planning for horse keeping, there are broadly three types of land that need to be recognised to match the carrying capacity with the best management system:

  • All year access areas are gentle to moderate slopes and winter dry sandy loam soils. They provide ongoing access for horses except when surface vegetative cover becomes too sparse.
  • Restricted access areas include areas which become waterlogged in winter, steep slopes, highly erodible sandy, shallow or poorly structured soils.
  • Prohibited access areas are extreme slopes, areas affected by gullying or salinity, creek lines, or areas of native vegetation.

These three classifications need to be considered when assessing stocking rates and compatible management systems.

How many horses?

How many horses can you run on a given area of land? Obviously the answer to this is related to the classification of land type, the rainfall and also to the improvements on the land, fences, watering points, stabling and yard facilities, and your financial and physical capability to be able to feed your horses if it is required.

What does DSE mean?

DSE is a stocking rate system related to ‘dry sheep equivalents’ or how many dry (non-lactating) sheep can be kept year round on the land without soil degradation, weight loss and with only minimum handfeeding.

As a landowner, it is advisable to understand DSEs.

It has been calculated that:

1 light horse = 10 dry sheep

1 pony = 5 dry sheep

1 draught horse = 20 dry sheep

Example dry sheep equivalent (DSE) calculation

Let’s say you have 8 hectares (ha) of land rated at 8DSE/ha.

To calculate how many horses you can run consider the following:

  • area of property = 8ha
  • minus area of bush/buildings = 2ha
  • area available for pasture = 6ha
  • area with restricted access for six months = 2ha (4 DSE/ha)
  • area with all year access = 4ha (rated at 8DSE/ha).

With this information you can calculate the stocking rate as:

Total = (2ha x 4DSE) + (4ha x 8DSE) = 40 DSE

Therefore the area is sufficient for four light horses or two draught horses (based on the DSE ratios listed above).

Such figures provide only a general guide and careful observation is still required to ensure paddocks are not degraded.

Soil and pasture management

The aim is to have a pasture that is nutritional for horses and is hard wearing. With quality pasture and savvy grazing management, groundcover can be kept to at least 70% which will ensure erosion and weed infestations are minimised.

Grazing management is a real skill. Good managers ensure:

  • paddocks are fertilised correctly
  • pastures are not eaten down too far
  • weeds and insects are monitored and controlled
  • only adequate feed is available in spring to avoid founder
  • the most appropriate grasses and legumes are sown
  • soil pH (acidity) is managed.

Horse ownership can be a rewarding experience and one of the most enjoyable parts of living on the land. However, the welfare of your horses and the preservation of your land need to be your top priorities. By following the information outlined, you will be well on your way to responsible horse husbandry.