Stewardship of the Equine Environment

Equestrians have an important role to play in environmental stewardship. A duty of care should be a central focus for all of us, care for the animals whose lives we are responsible for, and care of the land and resources that sustain us all. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized and technology becomes more ingrained in our lives, it’s easy to overlook the importance and value of the natural ecosystem, the services it provides, the roles we and our horses play in it, and the ways in which we impact it. 

I recently completed my 10th course in the Equine Studies Program, Stewardship of the Equine Environment. The course provided a great deal of insight into many aspects of stewardship, from the micro level to the macro, from paddock and pasture management to watershed protection. As a non-horse owning equestrian, I want to be as knowledgeable and prepared as I can be prior to adopting a horse of my own. Even though it is unlikely I will ever manage or own a property, knowing what to look for in a boarding facility will be equally important for the health of my horse and my peace of mind. As someone who strives to minimize their personal environmental impact, it only seems right to be aware of the ways in which horse ownership may alter my environmental footprint. 

There were so many fascinating topics raised throughout the course, with countless examples of how horses can be managed to minimize their environmental impact, as well as many examples of mismanagement and tales of environmental degradation. The latter may arise simply due to a lack of knowledge more so than a lack of care. Sometimes, it isn’t until we step back and look at the bigger picture that we realize how our actions, management methods, et cetera may be impacting the broader ecosystem. When (if) the connections are made, it is up to us as individuals to decide how to proceed. We can choose the path of least resistance and carry on with business as usual, often to our own detriment or the detriment of our horses, or endeavor to learn how things can be done differently to benefit not only ourselves, but the well being of our horses and the broader ecosystem. 

The equine industry has a great opportunity to be at the forefront of change and innovation. There are a number of leaders in the field already, and a number of actions that can be taken at the individual level, from composting manure and collecting rainwater for use around the farm, to retrofitting existing facilities for energy efficiency and greening equestrian events – the opportunities are endless! It has been very encouraging to learn about green design concepts incorporated into equestrian facilities right here in Ontario.

Ontario Equestrian could be a great steward of change in this area by developing a new component for their Provincial Facility Certification program, a program that, as it stands, makes no mention of environmental stewardship or, arguably even more important, equine welfare, beyond the requirement that paddocks be safely enclosed with access to fresh water. Rather, their Facility Accreditation Checklist consists of basic requirements for rider safety and supervision, including adequate lighting, safe arena fencing and footing, storage of feed and medication, manure storage and disposal, trail safety, and emergency preparedness. Furthermore, there is zero information about environmental stewardship on the Equestrian Canada website. 

A first step could be something as simple as Ontario Equestrian and/or Equestrian Canada featuring a couple of articles or blog posts showcasing green design initiatives of various equestrian facilities. Information sessions and workshops could also be organized at riding facilities and events to educate the broader equestrian community and foster dialogue, support for and adoption of green design concepts and environmental stewardship.

What I would like to see is a program similar to the EquuRES program that was launched in Normandy, France in 2014. The first environmental program dedicated to the horse industry, EquuRES was developed by the Lower Normandy Horse Council as a way to foster sustainable development and environmental stewardship while promoting equine welfare. Initiated with the intention of creating a national and international certification process to foster sustainability throughout the equine industry, 57 facilities/businesses across France have been awarded the EquuRES label over the last 5 years. Imagine a program that encourages steps to shift practices at the farm and business level, to educate, inspire change, and achieve sustainability within the equine industry. Is this not what we should all be striving for?

In an ideal world, a course like Stewardship of the Equine Environment would be mandatory for anyone operating an equestrian facility or managing equestrian events. Imagine operating or boarding at a facility that manages pastures and paddocks in a manner that fosters both equine welfare and conserves natural resources, leaving as much land as possible in a natural state to support local wildlife and ecosystem services; or a facility that is designed as efficiently as possible, incorporating green design concepts to reduce operating costs and conserve energy, maximizing solar exposure to provide natural lighting and generate electricity; or a facility that harvests rainwater to reduce water consumption, and both composts manure and converts it into energy to eliminate the need for disposal. All of these things are possible! 

Minimizing waste and environmental impacts, fostering ecosystem health and resilience, prioritizing conservation and equine welfare – that’s my definition of stewardship of the equine environment.