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The Equicentral System
This system works by utilising the natural grazing and paddock behaviour of horses to benefit your pasture (and ultimately your horses) and the wider environment. It works best on a property where the horses live together as one herd (otherwise you will need to replicate the system for each herd). In this system all the paddocks are linked to a communal yard area by gates and/or laneways. It assumes that you already have good grazing management in place (rotational grazing).
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The diagram shows a property with a combined communal yard/arena but this just one option. You could have these facilities separated (or indeed you may not need an arena) but if you would like to have a riding surface this example is a way of maximising the use of space while saving money by combining these expensive facilities. Remember the smaller the property the more the facilities need to be dual purpose so that you have as much land in use as pasture as possible.
Instead of watering points situated in each paddock there is just one watering point which is situated in the large communal yard. This yard must also have plenty of shade. It can be sand covered or have some other surface (careful consideration of the surface is required especially if it is to be a riding/training surface as well). Bare dirt is not an option as it will be dangerously slippery when wet and dusty when dry. Individual yards (with water) may also be necessary if you plan to feed the horses concentrates. Feeding concentrates causes horses to be competitive so it is not usually safe to feed them to a group of horses yarded together. Any necessary hay can be fed either in the individual yards or in the larger communal yard if the horses get on well enough, generally horses will share hay. Creating a feeding area using large rubber mats can be a good way to feed horses hay on sand if you have a sand surface in the yard/s.
This is an example of how the system works (in this example we will assume you are keeping the horses in the yard at night and out (at pasture) through the day). In the morning you open the yard/arena gate and the horses walk themselves to the paddock that is currently in use for a grazing bout, the gate to this paddock should already be open (the other paddocks have closed gates as they are being rested). During this time the horses are free to return to the large yard for a drink (but they usually won’t bother until they have finished their grazing bout). After a grazing bout (usually lasting 2-3 hours) the horses return to the yard for a drink.
After drinking, the shade and soft surface in the yard encourages the horses to rest (loaf) before returning to the paddock for another grazing bout later in the day. Leaving hay in the large yard can encourage even more time being spent in the yard and less time in the paddock. At the end of the day the horses return from the paddock to the large yard to await you and any supplementary feed that they may be receiving.
The Equicentral System encourages the horses to return, rest and congregate in an area of your choosing. You do not have to go and get them. This is particularly handy if you have to see to your horses in the dark, after work. This system has many other benefits:
The environmental/land management benefits
The Equicentral System complements a rotational grazing system and allows for fine tuning of it thus allowing more effective pasture management and better environmental management. By also using strip grazing you can fine tune your rotational grazing even further. Rotational grazing encourages pasture growth and aids biodiversity (by moving the animals to the next grazing area before they overgraze some of the less persistent plant varieties).
The horses voluntarily reduce their time spent in the paddock. They will mainly spend time grazing in the paddock and will tend to carry out any other behaviours in the large yard – for many reasons. They prefer the surfaced yard area not least because if the yard is situated near your house no self-respecting horse will miss an opportunity to keep watch for you coming out to give them a carrot! The water and shade in the yard also encourage the horses to loaf in this area. If the horses are allowed to come and go night and day they will reduce their grazing pressure on the land by approximately 50%. If you fasten them in the yard overnight (with hay) you will reduce their grazing pressure by approximately another 50% (making a total of about 75%). Grazing pressure a combination of what a horse eats and hoof pressure on the land. This reduction in grazing pressure makes a huge difference to land management as most horse properties are over stocked and/or overgrazed and desperately need a reduction in grazing pressure.
The corresponding compacted/muddy area that surround watering areas and paddock shelters and the tracks that develop too and from them in a paddock are avoided. Bare/muddy/dusty gateways are also a thing of the past as horses are never fastened in a paddock waiting to come in. Don’t forget the idea is to reduce any unnecessary pressure on your valuable pasture and increase movement. The reason horses stand in gateways is because that is usually the nearest point to supplementary food (they are either fed in that area or their owner leads them in to a stable/yard to feed them).
Hay is fed in the yard area rather than the paddocks. This allows for better weed control if you are not sure of its origin.
The horse welfare benefits
This system encourages horses to move more, any movement is good; a grazing horse is a moving horse. A recent (Australian) study showed that a horse in a 0.8 Ha. paddock walks approximately 4.5km per day even if the water is situated in the paddock, so additional movement back to the water in the large yard will increase this figure.
Horses move around a paddock in a natural fashion, choosing what they eat. Rotational grazing increases the diversity of plants in a pasture therefore horses get the benefit of access to a larger variety of plants. This means that your horses eat a more natural (varied) diet. In addition healthier plants are safer to graze than stressed overgrazed plants (more fibre and less sugar per mouthful).
Less risk of parasitic worm infestation (see The manure/parasitic worm management benefits below).
The time management benefits
The horses are waiting for you close to the house when you need them or if they are currently grazing you simply call them, horses soon learn to come to call for a reward.
You do not need to cart feed around the property (or keep a vehicle especially for the job) because the horses come to the large yard for feed.
The horses move themselves around the property, taking themselves out to the paddock that they are currently grazing and bringing themselves back for water and hay/concentrates.
The single water trough in the yard/s is all that you have to check each morning and night (saving you having to go out to a paddock and check the water).
Any time that you save can be spent on other horse pursuits such as exercising/training them!
The cost saving benefits
Money spent on the larger surfaced yard is well spent as this area is used daily even if you are not riding. Having a surfaced yard means no more thrush (in the hooves) or skin conditions such as greasy heel. This area can also double up as a riding area if you like (the other horses can be placed in the smaller individual yards while you use the larger yard for riding).
The expense of installing water troughs to individual paddocks is spared.
The expense of installing individual paddock shelters is avoided. One large shade/shelter can be erected over the large surfaced yard (which means you may have a partially covered riding area!) and this shade/shelter will be in use every day of the year (unlike individual paddock shelters which are only in use when a paddock is in use).
Laneways can be kept to a minimum depending on the layout of your property requiring minimal surfacing, however any money spent on surfacing laneways is well utilised as the laneways will be used by the horses several times a day.
Better land management means more pasture to use for grazing and more opportunities for making hay resulting in less money spent on bought in feed.
You do not need to buy and maintain a vehicle for ‘feeding out’; the horses come to you for feed rather than you having to take it to them.
The human/horse safety benefits
Horses move themselves around the property therefore there is less unnecessary contact between humans and horses. This is an important point if you have (usually less experienced) family/friends taking care of your horses when you are away.
This large yard/arena can be a firebreak (for your home) and a relatively safe refuge in times of fire/storm/flood for your horses. The layout of the property may result in the horses being pushed (by rising water) back towards the yard in a flood. This can save lives (assuming the yard is built on higher ground)! By training the horses to always come on a call you can also get them into the yard quickly in an emergency situation.
In areas that Hendra Virus is an issue feeding and watering horses under a roof is recommended to reduce the chances of contamination by Fruit Bat fluids/spats.
The manure/parasitic worm management benefits
More manure is dropped in the yard and much less in the paddocks (as much as 75% if you fasten the horses in the large yard at night with hay). This allows for much better manure management. It is easier to pick up manure from the yard and this can then be composted (which also reduces parasites on your property as thorough composting can kill parasitic worm eggs and larvae). The manure, along with the horses, comes to you. Better manure management means less parasitic worms on the land. It also means less reliance on worming chemicals.
Rotational grazing also aids in parasitic worm management by increasing the time that a given area of pasture is resting which means that some of the parasitic worm larvae dry out and die (as they wait (in vain!) for a horse to eat the plant they are attached to).
This system results in healthier horses, better land/environmental management, better manure/parasitic worm management and at the same time saves a horse owner time and money.
If you already have water troughs situated in paddocks these can be turned off. If you are planning on cross grazing (using other animal species to help with pasture management/worm management), the troughs in paddocks can be used when these other animals are in the paddock (for example if cattle follow the horses they can then be fastened in the paddock with water).
This system can usually be implemented without making major structural changes to your property. Likewise if you sell the property the next owner can choose to set up a more traditional system by putting water and shelter in every paddock.
The Equicentral System uses good environmental pasture management and natural horse behaviour to reduce time, money and effort for a horse owner/manager. Quite simply without good environmental management any system will eventually fall down. Clean waterways, land for wildlife, reducing soil loss and increasing biodiversity are all issues that land managers must prioritise. For more information about how you can improve your land management look out for an Equiculture workshop in your area
The Equicentral System can be implemented on most horse properties, its overall design is flexible and can be adapted to suit many situations, for example layouts see the website gallery Equicentral gallery or our Facebook page Equicentral system.