Confessions of a Steward with Joel Salatin
I don’t own a horse. I don’t keep a horse. That’s precisely why I’m qualified to address the issue—I don’t have preconceived notions about keeping horses. I have thought and yakked about it quite a bit, though, because one of the most common questions people ask me is about keeping a horse.
Whether for recreation or work, in my experience, some of the worst ecological abuse is in horse lots. Many of my friends keep horses, and I’ve been to many places that keep horses, from full-time equestrian outfits to the honeymoon-is-over-seldom-ridden situations.
More than 30 years ago, Equine News, a leading equestrian magazine, carried a front-page article about deep bedding and horses. In my short history with Plain Values, readers are already familiar with my basic pitch that the only honest way to house animals is on deep bedding. I mean deeper than 12 inches and preferably 24 inches or more.
Furthermore, I’ve already introduced readers to the necessity of animal movement. Not only is that foundational to hygiene and sanitation, but it’s also the only way to keep the ground vegetated with lush, healthy forage. The problem is that almost no one adheres to either of these principles—deep bedding inside; rest and rotation outside—in horse keeping.
Stables use a skiff of sawdust, shavings, or other carbonaceous material in the stalls and use a special fork to clean out the road apples every day. Mucking stalls is the number one labor requirement in conventional stable operations. The bedding is never more than a couple of inches deep, often covering some sort of expensive cushiony mat to keep things softer for the hooves.
Whatever outdoor access the horses have is a denuded lot with a few hardy thistles or other unpalatable weeds. The hard soil does not absorb rain; over time, the paddock resembles a moonscape more than a verdant prairie.
The single biggest problem with horses, compared with all the other livestock species, is that they are harder to crowd into tight outdoor spaces. With an electric fence, you can put 400 cows on an acre for a day, and they’ll be content—I know because I’ve done it. But 400 horses on an acre for a day would not be content. They’d be agitated and hard to keep in with the electric fence. Even 50 would be hard to do.
Remember that nature sanitizes only two ways: rest and sunshine or vibrant decomposition. Please see earlier articles to get the background on this if you need to refresh your memory. In a lightly bedded stable and a denuded exercise yard, neither of these sanitation principles happens. Thin bedding doesn’t offer enough depth to support decomposing microbes, and the outside paddock doesn’t get rested. In fact, it gets pounded every day.
This is a real dilemma for the horse keeper. What can we do to rectify this debilitating situation? The study cited in that old Equine News article focused primarily on hoof health. Next to mucking out stalls, the next biggest horse expense is farrier expense. With deep bedding, according to the study, hooves respond to the microbial and fungal exudates and stay healthier. For hoof health and reduced farrier costs, therefore, deep bedding is the best approach.
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Joel Salatin co-owns, with his family, Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. Four generations of his family currently live and work on the farm, and his farm services more than 5,000 families, 50 restaurants, 10 retail outlets, and a farmers’ market with salad bar beef, pigaerator pork, pastured poultry, and forestry products. When he’s not on the road speaking, he’s at home on the farm, keeping the callouses on his hands and dirt under his fingernails, mentoring young people, inspiring visitors, and promoting local, regenerative food and farming systems. Salatin has published 15 books, and he is the editor of The Stockman Grass Farmer, granddaddy catalyst for the grass farming movement. He passionately defends small farms, local food systems, and the right to opt out of the conventional food paradigm.