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.

Know your Plants, Protect your Horses

Looking at my backyard last night and all of the different species of plants that have cropped up over the last week or so made me thankful I only have a small space to manage, one where everything is free to grow! This would not be the case if I were managing a horse property.

Effective pasture management is essential to maintaining safe and healthy grazing areas for horses. This can be partially achieved through effective pasture management that includes rotational grazing. Bare patches of overgrazed grass present an ideal opportunity for more opportunistic plant species to grow, in many cases, ones that are toxic to horses. In Canada, the following 10 plants have been identified as being the most toxic to horses. Take some time to learn which are native to your area and how to identify them. Prompt removal of any toxic plants from paddocks or pastures the horses have access to is recommended.

Yew – ornamental, often used in hedges. Yew can be lethal if enough is ingested (0.5 pounds for a 1000 pound horse). Symptoms: muscular tremors, staggering, convulsions, difficulty breathing, collapse, heart failure. 

Water Hemlock – found in ditches and wet areas throughout Canada. Ingestion of just 1 root of Western Hemlock can lead to fatality in just a few hours. Symptoms: salivation, muscle spasms, violent convulsions, coma, asphyxiation. 

Poison Hemlock – found in ditches, streams, wet meadows and along roadsides throughout North America. Poison Hemlock can result in death from respiratory failure within 2 – 3 hours. Symptoms: frothing at the mouth, uneasiness, dilated pupils, weak, rapid pulse, convulsions, clamping of jaws, muscle tremors.

Oak – found throughout Canada. While not fatal, if regularly ingested, Oak can cause gastroenteritis and kidney damage. Symptoms: inappetence, constipation followed by bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, depression, blood in the urine.

Rhododendron – ornamental plant. 2 pounds of Rhododendron per 1000 pound horse can be lethal within a few hours of ingestion. Symptoms: diarrhea, weakness, repeated swallowing, impaired vision, bradycardia, tachycardia, coma.

Cow Cockle – found in pastures, along roadsides, in cultivated fields and waste areas. Cow cockle seeds are toxic with a lethal dose of 2.45 pounds per 1000 pound horse. Symptoms: restlessness, grinding of teeth, salivation, colic, diarrhea, coma.

Cocklebur – found in farmyards, cultivated fields, streambanks and beaches. Cocklebur is not considered lethal but can result in extreme discomfort if ingested. Symptoms: weakness, unsteady gait, twisting of neck muscles, depression, nausea, laboured breathing, rapid/weak pulse.

Jimsonweed – found in cultivated fields and farmyards across most of southern Canada. Lethal at 1 pound per 1000 pound horse, Jimsomweed also has a narcotic effect that may be fatal to livestock. Symptoms: dilation of pupils, impaired vision, rapid/weak pulse, nausea, loss of muscular coordination, violent/aggressive behaviour, trembling. 

Nightshade – found in fencerows, shrubs and wood edges in southern Canada. Nighshade can be fatal at 1 pound per 1000 pound horse. Symptoms: abdominal pain, dilation of pupils, loss of appetite, diarrhea, loss of muscular coordination. 

Oleander – may be grown as an ornamental shrub in Canada

Other plants toxic to horses include:

  • Alsike Clover
  • Arrow Grass
  • Barnyard Grass
  • Bracken Fern
  • Burdock
  • Field Horsetail
  • Johnsongrass
  • Lupine
  • Mikweed
  • Puncture Vine
  • Spear-Leaved Goosefoot
  • Sneezeweed
  • Spurge
  • St. John’s Wort
  • Stinging Nettle
  • Stork’s Bill
  • Tall Buttercups
  • Tansy Ragwort
  • White Snakeroot
  • Witch Grass


Lawseth, A. undated. “Pasture Perils – Plants Toxic to Horses.” Horse Journals Retrieved from

Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “Common Weeds Poisonous to Grazing Livestock.” Retrieved from


Happy Horses Need Happy Homes

I’m back in the saddle so to speak, 5 weeks into an Equine Guelph course after taking a term off. Relevant to this course, Management of the Equine Environment, as well as Behaviour and Welfare, a Q&A style article from The Horse popped up in my Facebook news feed, “Happy and Unhappy Horses at Home”. The person asking the question explains how differently her horse and the horses of friends have behaved when housed at various facilities and questions whether studies have been done on what horses prefer in a housing situation.

While the author, a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, isn’t aware of any such studies, she presents a range of factors that may contribute to a particular horse’s experience at any given facility, things that may be imperceptible to us, like electric currents or noise, subtle changes in diet, social dynamics (of horses and humans), management style, or undetected neglect/abuse, which may also stem from a past experience at a previous facility.

The article ends with an anecdote about horses that are surrendered to the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania, explaining how after a couple of weeks the horses are normally in a state of contentment. It is the last line that resonates most for me, and advocates for as natural a method of equine management as possible, which is admittedly a challenge for most, particularly those of us living in areas with snowy winters, as pasture is not available year-round.

No hay, no grain, no supplements, no feeding schedule, no stalls, no indoor arena, no electricity, and often no close human-animal interaction for days. Just good grass, water, natural shade, and shelter.

That is my ideal horse management scenario.

McDonnel, S. 2019. “Happy and Unhappy Horses at Home.” The Horse Jun 6, 2019. Retrieved from

Fostering a Good Quality of Life

My 7th Equine Guelph course, Global Perspectives in Equine Welfare, has recently come to an end. It was a bit different from previous courses in that the discussions were more philosophical, which was a nice contrast to the science-based focus of other courses. It was fascinating to debate ethics and learn about equine welfare issues globally. The first few units presented an opportunity to learn about the wide variety of feral herds and the complexities inherent in decisions regarding their management – greatly increasing my understanding of the issues from a variety of perspectives.

The course significantly broadened my understanding of the differences between animal rights and animal welfare, and the polarity and contradictions inherent in ongoing debates. There was also an opportunity to apply knowledge gained through this course and others in a way that could improve equine welfare through direct action. For example, if there was an onus on all facility operators, rescue and otherwise, to develop science-based protocols around equine care and management, the benefits to the animals would be immense.

Perhaps my biggest take away from this course was an article the instructor shared early on, Moving beyond the ‘Five Freedoms’ by Updating the ‘Five Provisions’ and Introducing Aligned ‘Animal Welfare Aims’ (Mellor, 2016). In it, the author argues that some degree of discomfort – hunger, thirst, fear, pain, etc. – is necessary to trigger the physiological responses that result in an animal eating, drinking, fleeing a potentially dangerous situation, or resting to alleviate pain – that these responses are necessary for the proper biological functioning, health, and survival of an animal. We know this to be true for ourselves.

Rather than focus on eliminating the things the Five Freedoms purports we strive to eliminate (thirst, hunger & malnutrition; physical & thermal discomfort; pain, injury & disease; restrictions on behaviour; fear & distress), which can never truly be eliminated, Mellor proposes an alternative approach, a series of provisions and corresponding welfare aims which together provide for and fulfill the needs and desires of the animals in our care.

Provisions Welfare Aims
Good Feeding – Provide ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour Minimise thirst and hunger and enable eating to be a pleasurable experience
Good Housing – Provide shade/shelter or suitable housing, good air quality and comfortable resting areas Minimise discomfort and exposure and promote thermal, physical and other comforts
Good Health – Prevent or rapidly diagnose and treat disease and injury, and foster good muscle tone, posture, and cardiorespiratory function Minimise breathlessness, nausea, pain and other aversive experiences and promote the pleasures of robustness, vigour, strength and well-coordinated physical activity
Appropriate Behaviour – Provide sufficient space, proper facilities, congenial company, and appropriately varied conditions Minimise threats and unpleasant restrictions on behaviour and promote engagement in rewarding activities
Positive Mental Experiences – Provide safe, species-appropriate opportunities for pleasurable experiences Promote comfort, pleasure, interest, confidence, and a sense of control

Of course, the degree to which these are provided for will vary drastically based on personal knowledge, beliefs, and the degree of empathy one has toward an animal, nonetheless, we should be moving beyond the Five Freedoms and focusing on something more akin to the Five Provisions.

It is not enough to strive to ensure that a horse is free from negative experiences. Rather, it is essential to understand and incorporate the Five Provisions of Animal Welfare into all levels of care and management to support positive experiences around feeding, housing, and health, thereby fostering appropriate behaviour and positive mental experiences. It is also important to understand equine perception, learning abilities, herd dynamics, and common welfare issues.

Good feeding, good housing, good health, appropriate behaviour, and positive mental experiences are all key components of a good life. Doing our best to understand the sometimes quite subtle messages conveyed through equine behaviour and facial expressions will make it easier to identify when something is not right in the horse’s world, and when something is! Just as we can learn to read equine body language indicating negative experiences, we can learn to identify when horses are experiencing or anticipating something positive, such as pleasure or a reward. Likewise, an understanding of perception, learning abilities, and herd dynamics will facilitate species-appropriate interactions. And knowledge of common welfare issues may alert us to an inappropriate aspect of current care and handling.

Because we cannot truly know what a horse is thinking or feeling, or what exactly it is trying to communicate, developing as much knowledge and awareness as we possibly can to interpret signs of both positive and negative experiences can go a long way in ensuring a high quality of life for the horse(s) in our care.

A good life is one that is not necessarily free of negative experiences but also filled with positive experiences that contribute to a positive emotional state.


Mellor, D.J. (2016). “Moving beyond the ‘Five Freedoms’ by Updating the ‘Five Provisions’ and Introducing Aligned ‘Animal Welfare Aims’.” Animals, 6(59).


Controversial Techniques: Tail Alterations

This week in Global Perspectives in Equine Welfare we were tasked with researching legislation on controversial practices, a number of which have been covered in previous courses. As per my usual approach, I decided to choose something I had relatively little knowledge about, the tail alteration known as nicking or cutting.

I found myself feeling squeamish while researching this topic and at a loss to comprehend why mutilation is preferred over a naturally set tail. Ugh. Humans.

Tail nicking is a surgical procedure that heightens the tail carriage of a horse and is primarily seen in American Saddlebreds and Tennessee Walking Horses for the sole purpose of showing/cosmetic reasons.

To achieve the higher tail set, the tendons on the underside of the tail are cut and the dock is set in a ‘desirable’ upright position and then placed in a harness-like device (a tail set) to prevent the tendons from reattaching while the tail heals. Even after the incision has healed, a tail set will likely be worn by the horse most of the time to ensure the tail does not settle back into a natural, relaxed position.This controversial procedure, seen by many as harmless, can have devastating consequences for the horse, including loss of the ability to move the tail. More severe complications may include infected incisions which may lead to peritonitis (a severe abdominal infection), and in severe cases, colic resulting from peritonitis.

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association released a position statement opposing tail alterations for cosmetic or competitive purposes in 2013, and the American Association of Equine Practitioners condemned the practice of tail alterations in 2015, urging the establishment and enforcement of guidelines by breed associations and disciplines to eliminate tail alteration practices.

So where do breed associations and disciplines stand on this? Is it addressed in North American legislation?

Nothing was found on the American Saddlebred Horse Association website. However, photos on the website indicate that altered, unnaturally high set tails are prized. A further search revealed a document titled “2016 Points of Emphasis”. In regards to the tail, horses with crooked tails must be penalized. Ironically, crooked or wry tails are commonly a result of nicking. It does specify that horses may be shown with unset tails without penalty, however, there is a glaring absence of any other mention of tail alterations.

A preliminary search didn’t reveal anything related to tail alterations associated with the Canadian or Alberta American Saddlebred Horse Associations or the Tennessee Walking Horse  Breeders & Exhibitors Association.

The NFACC Code of Practice for the care and handling of equines specifies on page 46 that tail nicking and blocking are unacceptable and must not be performed. No such statement was found in the USDA Horse Protection Act.

Further reading

Literature Review on the Welfare Implications of Horse Tail Modifications


The truth about tail blocks


“American Saddlebred” by Jean. Retrieved from


Controversial Techniques: Rollkur

I would be hard-pressed to say which of the controversial equitation techniques I find most appalling, there are many. However, I decided to look at rollkur for an assignment for one of the Equine Behaviour courses I’ve taken. It’s a topic that came up again recently in Global Perspectives in Equine Welfare because of the inherent contradictions of the practice. While to some it is obvious that the horse is in a state of distress, others associate it with grace and beauty. It is a position achieved by force with the application of excessive and prolonged pressure on the mouth to hold the horse’s head down in a hyper-flexed position, as is commonly seen is dressage.

The welfare implications include discomfort, pain, and compromised breathing and vision (McGreevy et al, 2010). It is this impaired vision that is thought to make the horse appear more responsive to the rider, as the horse is more reliant on the rider’s cues than its own senses of vision and proprioception (von Borstel et al., 2009).  

In a study of 15 horses during the conditioning phase of rollkur, a number of behaviours that are significant indicators of stress, discomfort, frustration, and conflict were recorded. The results indicate notable increases in tail-swishing, attempted bucks, crabbing, abnormal oral behaviour, ears fixed back, and head-tossing when in rollkur versus normal poll flexion. 14 of the 15 horses exhibited a distinct preference for regular poll flexion versus rollkur (von Borstel et al., 2009).

Another concern is that inducing any degree of hyperflexion is in violation of the principles of learning theory because it requires two simultaneous responses (neck flexion and deceleration) to one cue (bit pressure) (McGreevy et al., 2009).

On the advice of a former riding instructor, I purchased the book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage: A search for a classical alternative by Philippe Karl (2014). In it, Karl presents the physical impacts of rollkur by muscle group. Here’s a brief summary:

  • The cervical ligaments undergo extreme and prolonged stretching that may lead to tearing, separation, and inflammation
  • The parotid glands are compressed and may become distorted, resulting in very painful inflammation and a loss of elasticity
  • The brachio-cephalic muscles, which connect the head to the forelegs, are extremely shortened and contracted, overloading and blocking the movement of the shoulders

Furthermore, the horse’s vision is negatively affected, with limited monocular vision to the sides and a very limited range of binocular vision at its feet. The horse is essentially moving blindly, unable to attain a full field of vision. The horse’s sense of gravity is also thought to be affected by the fixed head position.

The inability of the horse to properly sense its position through the normal tactile, visual and gravitational senses may result in balance disorders akin to seasickness. At least that’s a theory presented in this book.

Karl states “overbending, an unnatural attitude obtained by hands that are pulled backwards by various restraining devices, is a vulgar approach…and arises from a serious lack of knowledge of the horse…It is an authoritarian and brutal approach to domination that significantly deprives the horse of its capacities and places ‘man’s noblest conquest’ in the position of a slave restrained in shackles” (p. 27).

The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) has effectively banned rollkur from competition and training, however, it still permits sustained flexion of the horses’ neck as long as the nose remains in front of the vertical.  It is also still acceptable to maintain a horse’s head and neck carriage in a sustained or fixed position for up to 10 minutes during training exercises (, 2010).

Imagine what it would feel like to have your head held in a fixed position by 5 kilograms of force – the mean rein tension recorded in dressage to maintain a horse’s head and neck posture (International Society for Equitation Science, undated). Can any degree of forced, sustained flexion be considered ethical?

This is in direct contradiction of the main teaching of negative reinforcement training – that correct, welfare-appropriate training is achieved when pressure is released as soon as the desired response is performed. The “ability of the horse to maintain a particular head and neck posture that is appropriate for the stage of training without continuous or high rein tension, is fundamental to maintaining welfare” (International Society for Equitation Science, undated).

To do otherwise should be correctly labeled as excessive force and punishment.


References (2010). “Rollkur: FEI offers hyperflexion guidelines.” Retrieved from

International Society for Equitation Science. (undated). ISES position statement on alterations of the horses’ head and neck posture in equitation. Retrieved from

Karl, Philippe. (2014). Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage: A search for a classical alternative. (5th ed.). Richmond, UK: Cadmos Publishing Limited

McGreevy, P.D., Harman, A., McLean, A. & L. Hawson. (2010). “Over-flexing the horse’s neck: A modern equestrian obsession.” Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research. 5(4) 180-186

Von Borstel, U.U., Heatly Duncan, I.J., Shoveller, A.K., Merkies, K., Keeling, L.J., and S.T. Millman. (2009). “Impact of riding in a coercively obtained Rollkur posture on welfare and fear of performance horses.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 116(2-4) 228-236


By Oliver Abels

Wild, Feral, Free-roaming: The Sable Island & Konik Horses

Two units in Global Perspectives in Equine Welfare have been dedicated to issues surrounding the management of wild/feral and free-roaming horse herds. The first unit was focused on the 2013 US government shutdown and how that impacted the herds managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The most recent unit has taken a broader perspective, looking at how herds are managed in other countries.

The management of these populations is an incredibly complex topic which demands the consideration of numerous, site-, herd- specific factors. The issues are further muddied by the varying opinions of well-intentioned wild horse advocates, the general public, scientists, veterinarians, and government bodies charged with the actual management of the animals, some of which I may tackle in a future post. But for now, I’ll keep things light and share a couple of example of free-roaming and feral horses, one from Canada and one from England.

Sable Island Horses: Life in “the Graveyard of the Atlantic” 
Image 1. Roberto Dutesco by Ingrid Bulmer

I am absolutely in awe of the Sable Island horses, of which I first became aware in 2008 through the documentary Chasing Wild Horses. The film follows photographer Roberto Dutesco on his second visit to the island to photograph the horses, in 2004. You can watch it here. And if you’re ever in NYC, be sure to visit his gallery. The larger than life photographs are incredible!

Sable Island is a 42 km (26 mi) long, 1.5 km (0.93 mi) wide sandbar located 160 km (99 mi) southeast of Nova Scotia, Canada, where the arctic stream and gulf stream meet, shaping the land. Covered in fog for about 200 days a year, it is a fragile, primitive landscape populated by over 400 feral horses, along with seals, birds, terrestrial insects, and the aquatic life in a small freshwater lake. It is estimated that 30 to 40% of Sable Island will eventually be lost to sea level rise, a projection based on a 3-metre rise.

Known exclusively as “The Sable Island Horses”, like the feral herds across the US, they cannot be classified as a breed. Rather, their origin is nearly impossible to link to any specific breed(s), as they are thought to be descendants of a wide variety of horses that arrived on the island, some possibly by shipwreck, of which there have been nearly 500 since the 16th century. The more popular theory, however, is that they were introduced to the island in the mid-1700’s, along with cows, sheep, goats and hogs when the British seized animals from the Acadians and expelled them from Nova Scotia. The idea was to let the horses fend for themselves and periodically harvest and sell them for a profit. Through the 1800’s the horses were used to patrol the shores of Sable Island for shipwrecks.

By 1950, biologists working on the island proposed they be removed. Being an introduced/invasive species, they were said to be damaging the ecologically sensitive land. The Canadian government formulated a plan to have the horses shipped to the mainland to either work in coal mines or be slaughtered for pet food. In the wake of this decision, schoolchildren across the country initiated a letter-writing campaign to the Prime Minister, urging him to spare the horses. In response, Prime Minister Diefenbaker declared full protection of the horses and amended the Canada Shipping Act to restrict access to Sable Island.

Today, the horses are the only terrestrial mammals on the island and they continue to be lawfully protected from any human interference. While other feral herds generally experience population increases of up to 20% per year, doubling every four or five years, growth on Sable Island is slower and more or less kept in balance by the severity of the winters and sparseness of the landscape.

The Konik Horse: Free-roaming ecological restoration
Konik Ponies ay Oare Marsh Nature Reserve.
Image 2: Konik Ponies at Oare Marsh Nature Reserve by Smudge 9000

Descendants of the Tarpan, Konik horses are being used across both continental Europe and the UK in ecological restoration efforts to manage and rewild a variety of landscapes. One example is Wicken Fen, a national nature reserve in the UK.

Launched in 1999, the Wicken Fen Vision aims to expand the reserve fifteen-fold over a 100-year period using a natural, sustainable management approach that will be flexible and adaptive in response to changes in the environment. As part of their regeneration efforts, Konik horses and Highland cattle have been introduced as key players in the restoration and ongoing management of the land. Their foraging and feeding behaviours, although they may consume the same types of vegetation, are different enough to facilitate the growth of wetland and grassland plants and create subtly different habitats across the landscape.

The animals are currently free to roam over a  247-acre (100-hectare) area, a range which will expand as new, adequately vegetated areas of approximately the same size become available and connected. A hardy, self-reliant, naturally free-roaming breed, Konik horses are well-suited for life on the fen and thrive on the available forage – grasses, sedges, rushes, scrub, brambles, thistles, docks, and nettles. Their temperament is such that they do well with minimal human intervention, yet are seemingly indifferent to the presence of humans in their vicinity. These particular horses were moved to the fen from a similarly managed nature reserve in the Netherlands.

How exactly do grazing animals affect restoration in their environment?

That depends on their density and feeding habits. Naturally, some areas will be grazed more than others, and conversely, there will be taller and denser patches of vegetation throughout. Grazing pressures will naturally fluctuate in response to population growth, however, as previously mentioned, new land will continually be added to the reserve, thereby dispersing the population over a larger area of land. Other ways in which the animals alter and influence the landscape are through the creation of well-trodden paths, dusty patches where they roll, and microhabitats of water-filled footprints and dung piles. These dung piles provide habitat for a variety of invertebrates and micro-fauna.

How are the herds managed?

Though primarily hands-off, a Grazing Warden oversees herd management with the assistance of volunteers and an on-call veterinarian. Animals are regularly inspected for internal parasites and signs of condition loss. Wicken Fen follows the Five Freedoms of animal welfare and the Grazing Warden monitors and records herd reproduction, deaths, and their impact on vegetation.


CBC News. (2014, Sep 4). In Depth|Sable Island: The wild horses’ history and future. Last updated Sep 10, 2014. Retrieved from 

Dutesco Art. (undated). The Wild Horses of Sable Island. Retrieved from

Harris, J. (2008). Chasing Wild Horses [Documentary]. Canada: Arcadia Entertainment.

National Trust. (2011). “Wicken Fen Vision: The Grazing Programme explained.” Retrieved from


Feature Image: Sable Island Horses “Love Bite” by Roberto Dutesco. Retrieved from

Image 1: “New York photographer Roberto Dutesco stands next to an image from his Wild Horses of Sable Island exhibit, at the Museum of Natural History in Halifax to Oct. 13” by Ingrid Bulmer. Retrieved from

Image 2: “Konik Ponies at Oare Marsh Nature Reserve” by Smudge 9000. Retrieved from