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.

Horse Power

Even with all of the anthropological studies and discoveries that have been made throughout history, many details of horse domestication remain unknown. One of the most fascinating aspects about the domestication of the horse for me is the mystery surrounding exactly when, where, and how it first happened. It would have been a very challenging process with a lot of unknowns and surprises. For example, it is really difficult to imagine being the person who decided to milk a horse. How did they tame the “beast” to enable such close contact and intimate handling?

Deciding to climb onto the horse would have been a whole other challenge and brave feat. We can be almost certain that there were a great many injuries involved, for the humans naturally, and quite possibly for the horses as well.  

How was the horse controlled? What did the very first halters/bridles actually look like? Were such things even used in the very beginning? Or was a rope simply placed along the front of the horse’s neck to provide something for the rider to hold onto, hoping for the best? When was it decided that a “bit” should be placed into the horse’s mouth and that that would provide a greater degree of control?

How was the horse tamed enough to let a human onto its back? It must have been a wild ride!

We’ve come a long way

Not to downplay the status of the dog as “man’s best friend”, companion, guide, et cetera, but given its adaptability to a wide range of functions in the fields of technology, transportation, and warfare, it’s historical prominence in religious ceremonies, and it’s modern-day role as companion, athlete, and therapy animal, the horse may arguably be the most successful human-animal relationship in history (Olsen, 2017).

It is truly fascinating to think about all of the ways horses influenced the industrialization of modern society and the roles it played in agriculture and city-building, as well as to consider how numerous breeds of draft horses nearly went extinct when they were displaced by the invention of the steam-engine and other fuel-powered technologies. 

In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence of the use of drafts horse for agricultural labour. The magazine Modern Farmer dedicated its December 2015 issue to the renaissance of “equined-fueled agriculture” profiling horses that harvest seaweed in Prince Edward Island, comparing “Horsepower” to “Horse Power” and so much more!

When James Watt patented his low-pressure steam engine in 1775, one of his acts of genius was to create a measure known as a “horse-power,” and to define it as precisely 33,000 foot-pounds of work per minute. He had derived this figure by experimenting with “strong” dray horses. He developed this measure, still the standard for estimating power, because his engines often replaced horses as prime movers in manufacturing processes. One of his first customers was a Nottingham cotton manufacturer who wanted a Watt engine to replace the 8 to 10 horses that powered his mill. London brewers who used horses as power sources in their breweries also adopted Watt’s steam engine. Consumers like these needed to know how many horses an engine would replace in order to judge its economic value (Tarr & McShane, 2008).

In the documentary, Martin Clunes: Heavy Horsepower, the actor decides it’s time for his young Clydesdales to begin their training to learn how to pull a carriage. He documents the progress of Ronnie and Bruce and takes the viewer on a journey to see how working horses are used around the world today.

One can’t help but wonder, with rising fuel costs, an increasing transition to alternative energy sources, and an increased demand and need for more sustainable farming systems, will we see a larger scale return to horse-powered agriculture in the near future?

Of course, using horses in agriculture won’t be practical in all instances. There are local bylaws and space restrictions to consider, as well as the costs of maintaining the horses. But if conditions permit, using horses for even just some tasks could be beneficial on many levels, environmental, psychological, and, according to Andrew Amelinckx (2015) in article in Modern Farmer, economical as well.

The initial costs are in favor of the draft horse. According to farmer Stephen Leslie, who is the author of The New Horse-Powered Farm and Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century, you will often see a team of trained grade, or even purebred, draft horses being sold in the range of $2,000 to $3,000. The average price for newer used four-wheel drive tractors, ranging from 40 to 99 horsepower on, was $28,506… Although it’s not an easy side-by-side comparison to make, the per-hour cost also seems to be in favor of the horse (Amelinckx, 2015).

Transitioning back to horse-powered farm operations on a large scale would have a number of challenges, which is why this is most likely to gain momentum on a smaller scale, whether for financial benefit or a desire to return to a more natural, sustainable way of farming.


Martin Clunes, Ronnie & Bruce
Martin Clunes, Ronnie & Bruce. Photographer unknown. Source: Buffalo Pictures.



Amelinkx, A. (2015). Horsepower VS. Horse Power: Which Wins? Modern Farmer. Issue 10. Winter 2015-16.

Olsen, S. (2017, Febuary 17). Group 1 – Question 5 [Online discussion]. Message posted to

Sibley, A. (Director). (2013). Martin Clunes: Heavy Horsepower [Video file]. Retrieved from

Tarr, J.A. & McShane, C. (2008). The Horse as an Urban Technology. Journal of Urban Technology, 15(1), 5-17.