Clean water is a resource that is required of all living things, including humans and horses alike. With increased land use -- everything from urban development to the increasing number of small acreage horse farms near the urban/rural interface -- there is potential for increased water pollution.
While there are many sources of water pollution, one commonly associated with horse properties is the use of fertilizer, which contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. Increased levels of these two elements can result in a range of environmental effects, including algal blooms that can cause fish kills, and in extreme causes can make our drinking water toxic. Horse manure is another potential source of these nutrients. Additionally, manure can contain harmful bacteria and parasites that can negatively impact water quality.
It can be tempting to say, “It’s not just my horses doing this, what about all the wildlife that deposits waste in streams and water ways?” Indeed, there are many pollutant inputs from a range of sources, including wildlife inputs. However, these two scenarios are not completely comparable. In a natural setting, many different species are moving across the landscape, unconfined and unhindered. This results in waste being deposited across a large area, on the order of square miles, with a greater amount of land available to utilize and process this waste. Livestock farming is typically the opposite, with one or two species in large numbers being confined to the same area of land. For example, a horse will produce an average of 35 to 50 pounds of manure a day, whereas a deer only produces 1.7 pounds. This means that a single horse produces the equivalent amount of manure as roughly 25 deer. The larger the horse herd, the larger the waste input, A herd of 10 horses, for example, is the equivalent to having 250 deer confined to an area of land much smaller than deer would normally use.
Hence, land used for livestock is under constant pressure to utilize the waste inputs of a much larger population of animals, and this results in the potential for water to be overwhelmed with these pollutants. This impact can be even greater if a single stream is the only water source in a pasture. The horses will spend a greater amount of time near the water, resulting in erosion and sediment pollution entering the water, in addition to any waste the animals deposit while spending more time in the area.
The good news is that there are natural methods of reducing water pollution from our horse farms. One of the most effective of these methods is the use of well-designed and maintained riparian buffers. Riparian buffers, defined generally, are vegetated areas near waterways that protect water quality while providing bank stabilization and habitat for aquatic and terrestrial species. These riparian buffers work in several different ways to reduce pollutant runoff.
The vegetation in a riparian buffer works to first slow down the flow of surface water. This gives time for any sediment and other particles to settle out of the flowing water before they reach the stream. Additionally, the plants utilize the nutrients and water for their own growth, absorbing nitrogen and phosphorus before they enter water sources, instead becoming a part of the plant.
Soil bacteria are another incredibly important component to riparian buffers. Certain soil bacteria utilize nitrogen as their energy source, transforming it into an inert nitrogen gas that leaves the soil for the atmosphere, thereby leaving the water. Once planted, riparian buffers need little maintenance—you simply let nature take its course.
Careful considerations must be made to ensure that a riparian buffer will be effective before one is placed on the landscape. Several questions that arise include:
The overall effectiveness of a riparian buffer is tied to hydrology, or how water moves across the landscape. Riparian buffers should be located adjacent to any surface waters where they can intercept water flowing off of pastures or manure piles. The flow of water must be slowed enough to allow sediments to settle out. and prevent channels from being formed. Channels will effectively act as pipes that let the water pass through the buffer without being treated, so steps must be taken to prevent their formation. Be aware that most nitrogen reaches surface waters from water that has infiltrated the soil. become groundwater, and then enters streams. Hence, the plants used in a riparian buffer must have deep roots to utilize nitrogen below the ground.
Width is the most important controllable variable that is considered when designing a buffer. While the slope of the land and existing vegetation are already dictated, width can be adjusted. In general, the wider the buffer, the more effective the buffer will be at removing pollutants. Wider buffers allow more time for water to travel through it, slow down, and allow sediments to fall out of it; one source suggests buffers could be anywhere from 98 to 328 feet wide depending on the soil, slope, and nutrient input levels. The buffer width should increase if other factors are present that impact buffer effectiveness, including:
In a comprehensive review of riparian buffer studies, some general guidelines on width have been established and can be used to help plan a riparian buffer on your horse property. The most common suggestion is the use of a 3-zone buffer system, with specific plants and minimum widths. Zone 1, closest to the stream, should be undisturbed native trees to help stabilize the lake or stream bank, and it should ideally be at least 15 feet wide. Trees have the benefit of a deep root system, which bring carbon down to bacteria, stimulating the bacteria that will be necessary to remove nitrogen. Trees also provide long-term storage of nitrogen, since trees have longer lifespans than grasses. Zone 2, should be a combination of native trees and shrubs, which can be harvested occasionally to remove nitrogen, and should be the widest of the three zones. Zone 3 should be grass, at least 20 feet wide, to filter and slow water. Ideally, this grass zone should be fenced out of the pastures.
On many small-acreage horse farms, a large buffer area might not be feasible, However, just because a buffer might be smaller does not mean it is ineffective. Indeed, a balance must be found between the amount of property available for the horses and for the buffer, the number of horses on the property, the landscape (slope, ecosystem, closeness to water), and costs of implementing a buffer.
When selecting plants to include in a riparian buffer, choose species that 1) are native to the area to prevent the introduction of invasive species, 2) are not toxic to horses, and 3) are not nitrogen-fixing species, such as clover. Nitrogen-fixing plants have bacteria in their roots that provide nitrogen to the plant, so they are less likely to remove nitrogen from the environment.
While horses can be an enjoyable part of the landscape, it is important to realize and account for the impacts that they have on that landscape. With water quality impaired in many places across the U.S., reducing the impact of one’s animals can assist in making waters cleaner on both your property and to downstream users and aquatic habitats. Riparian buffers provide a natural, effective solution to the question of horse-related nutrient pollution, and with a little planning, they can be implemented on many properties as a cost-effective best management practice.
Where to find more help?
Your local Natural Resource Conservation Service office or Soil Conservation District office can help with riparian buffer guidelines and practical advice specific to your area, and can help determine if your farm is eligible for grant funds to help offset the costs of riparian buffer restoration. They can also assist you, should your particular state have any laws regarding riparian buffers that need to be met, as such laws are becoming more prevalent across the U.S.