Holistic Management for Horse Properties – Part 2

Four Key Insights & Forming a Holistic Goal

Published in the Horses & People Magazine & Hoofbeats Magazine

By Mariette van den Berg, BAppSc. (Hons), MSc. (Equine Nutrition)

To be able to make effective decisions in our life and for our horses and properties, we need to consider the four key insights that, when taken together, prove to be critical to the development of the Holistic Management model.(1,2)

■ The first insight, which is that a holistic perspective is essential in management, was derived from the work of South African statesman-scholar Jan Smuts, who coined the word ‘holism’ in 1926.1

‘The world functions in wholes,’ he said, ‘whose qualities cannot be predicted by studying any aspect in isolation; one has to see the whole first. For example, we would know very little about water if we had studied hydrogen or oxygen only, for every molecule of water is composed of both. Likewise, we could never manage a piece of land in isolation from the people who work it or the economy in which both the land and the people are enmeshed.’ This insight enables us to see that our current decision-making processes lack an organising framework.

The next three insights contradict long-held beliefs about the causes of land deterioration in different parts of the world, and enable us to complete the new framework.

■ There are two broad categories of environment that we have not recognised before, which evolve in different ways and respond differently to the same influences. In brittle environments, rainfall and humidity are distributed erratically throughout the year, and dead vegetation breaks down slowly. In non-brittle environments, rainfall and humidity are perennial and dead vegetation breaks down rapidly. Resting land restores vegetation in non-brittle environments, but damages it in brittle environments (figure 1).

■ In brittle environments, relatively high numbers of large, herding animals concentrate and move as they naturally do in the presence of pack-hunting predators, which is vital to maintaining the health of the lands that we previously thought they destroyed.(1)

■ Much of the land deterioration that has occurred in the brittle environments of the world (which encompass two-thirds of earth’s land surface) was initiated by humans when they severed the vital relationship between herding animals and their pack-hunting predators.1 In any environment, over-grazing and damage from trampling bear little relationship to the number of animals, but rather to the amount of time that plants and soil are exposed to the animals.

Armed with this new knowledge, we can more accurately predict how any piece of land might respond to our management. In turn, this influences the decisions that we make in determining which actions to take.

Figure 1: Humidity and brittleness scale. Humidity is high over a great portion of the year the closer an environment is to the non-brittle end of the scale (adapted from Holistic Management; A new framework for decision making).

What are you managing?

Defining the whole

Defining the boundaries of the whole that your management encompasses is critical, because, in doing so, you are identifying who forms the holistic goal and what they are responsible for managing.(3) For example, private horse owners can define their whole as their household and the property (including facilities and animals); for horse businesses, this may also include the equestrian centre, agistment, or breeding stud. Even if you don’t own a horse business, you should still include your other business, because it generates money for your property at home. When you define a whole, you acknowledge that any whole you define includes lesser wholes and also lies within greater wholes, both of which influence your management.

At a minimum, a whole must include the following criteria:

The Decision-Makers Involved

These are the people who form the holistic goal. They include anyone making day-to-day decisions in the family, business, corporate division, or whatever entity your whole is based on.

The Resource Base

This includes the major physical resources from which you generate revenue or derive support in achieving your holistic goal: the land, the factory and its machinery, the office building, your home, or whatever is relevant in your case. These resources need not be owned; they need merely to be available to you. They also include all the people you can think of who will and can influence, or be influenced by, the management decisions you make, but do not have the power to veto or alter them. Examples of such people are clients, suppliers, advisors, neighbours, and family members.

The Money Available

This might include cash on hand, money in a savings account, or money available from relatives, shareholders, or a line of credit at the bank. This almost always includes money that can be generated from the physical resources listed in your resource base. In defining your whole, try to keep your lists and notes brief. Great detail is not needed at this stage, only big-picture clarity.

The result, no matter how rough, should be adequate to enable you to get on with forming your holistic goal.

Wholes Within Wholes

Those who run a large (horse) business and include a large group of people in the first part may need to define smaller, more manageable, wholes within the greater whole. By doing this, you are giving the people within these smaller wholes the opportunity to form a holistic goal that relates to their specific management needs and the resources available to them. Each of these smaller wholes has to meet the minimum whole requirements (i.e. include people who are directly responsible for making management decisions at that level and include an identifiable resource base and money available or that can be generated from that resource base).

Forming a Holistic Goal – What is it that you really want?

Having defined the ‘whole’ under management, you are now ready to form a holistic goal. The next step is to develop a statement of purpose (if one is required).

Statement of purpose

If you run a business or organisation, you should define your statement of purpose. The statement should reflect, in very few words, what you have decided to do. The statement of purpose is reflected in your holistic goal, specifically in the quality of life statement, where you refer to the outcomes that correspond to your purpose, and in the forms of production, where you specify what you must produce in order to create those outcomes.(1-4)

Quality of life

This section of your holistic goal expresses the rationale for your actions, what you are about, and what you want to become. It is a reflection of what motivates you. It speaks of needs you want to satisfy now, but also of the mission you seek to accomplish in the long run. It is your collective sense of what is important and why.

Be aware of the common mistakes we can make when defining our quality of life.(5) Three of the most common mistakes people make when describing the quality of life in their holistic goal are:

  1. Not expressing an underlying value or purpose, but describing the ‘stuff’ that reflects the value or purpose. To discern the value or purpose that underlies the desire, ask yourself questions about what the desired object will do to enhance the quality of a person’s life. Those answers, in one form or another, create the holistic goal.
  2. Not being specific enough in describing the quality of life desired. Instead of saying: ‘We want leisure time,’ you can reformulate the statement into something more precise: ‘We want to take time to do other things beside work,’ or even, ‘We want to take a family holiday every year.’ If you want to live in an aesthetic environment, describe exactly what you mean by ‘aesthetic’.
  3. Not revising this aspect of the holistic goal. Because humans are dynamic and ever-changing beings, their values change over time. To allow for change, you should re-evaluate the quality of life aspect of your holistic goal at least once every year. When someone new becomes involved in the whole that you are managing, you will need to re-evaluate again.

Forms of production

The things that you have to produce to create the quality of life you envision can take many forms, and so we refer to this second part of the holistic goal process as ‘forms of production’.(1-4) Many of these ‘products’ are derived from the resource base defined in your whole, as well as from the money you have or can generate. Others are derived solely from the creativity and skills of the decision makers.

You need to figure out the basic ways in which you will produce your quality of life (and meet your purpose). These statements should address all of your quality of life statements. This is the stage at which many of us are tempted to include specific how tos. Keep these statements as open as possible now so that you do not pigeonhole yourself later.

Future resource base

In describing your future resource base, you must consider what it will be like many years from now if it is to sustain what you have to produce to create the quality of life you want on your property. Later, when you make decisions that deal with some of the immediate needs described in the first two parts of your holistic goal, you must also weigh them against the long-term vision.(1,4)

There are several different elements to consider in describing your future resource base. Two that should always be addressed are the people you included in the resource base when defining your whole and the land — even if you did not make reference to it when defining your whole, and even when you operate a business that has no direct connection to the land.(1,6) Other elements that you should consider, if they are not already listed in your resource base, are the community that you live or work in and the services available in that community. You are likely to identify more elements depending on your circumstances and the whole that you defined.

Horse owner’s goals

We each have our own personal goals, but as horse owners or managers, we have certain goals in common. Regardless of whether we keep horses for pleasure or whether we run a horse business or stud, we all must aim to safeguard the well-being of our horses and to create an environment where horses can express their natural behaviours.

We are all connected with the land, especially if we own and manage grazing animals. Therefore, we need to incorporate the management of our animals and pastures into our holistic goal, providing a detailed description of what the land must look like far into the future and how the fundamental processes at work in any environment (water and mineral cycles, energy flow, and community dynamics) will have to function to provide for ourselves and our horses. This is part of the future base description.

As we have stated before, every time that we choose or choose not to do anything, it affects the world around us. If we do not review the way that we make decisions and manage our land, we may continue to grapple with horse-sick paddocks and large expenses from vet bills, horse feeds, and mechanical and chemical pasture improvement.

The information provided in this chapter may sound farfetched to many horse owners, because they do not view their household or horse property establishment as an entity. However, this is not true or helpful: we can all benefit from assessing where we stand in life and how we can reach our goals without depleting the environment. By using Holistic Management principles, you are on your way to being able to create a better world for yourself, your family, your horses, and other life forms on this planet.

In the next section, we describe in more detail the four basic ecosystem processes: the water cycle, the mineral cycle, energy flow, and community dynamics (the relationship between organisms in an ecosystem). We also discuss the eight tools for managing these ecosystem processes.


  1. Savory, A & Butterfield, J. 1999. Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making. 2nd edition, Island Press, Washington, DC.
  2. Horst, S & Butterfield, J. 2000. Changing the Way we Make Decisions: An Introduction to Holistic Management. In Holistic Management International:Getting Started with Holistic Management. Holistic Management International (HMI), Albuquerque, USA.
  3. Butterfield, J. 2000. Prior to Forming Your Holistic Goal: Defining the Whole. In Holistic Management International: Getting Started with Holistic Management. (http://www.holisticmanagement.org)
  4. Adams, A & Butterfield, J. 2004. The Essence of Holistic Management. In Practice. Holistic Management International (HMI), Albuquerque, USA.
  5. McNaughton, N. 2000. Defining Quality of Life. In Holistic Management International: Getting Started with Holistic Management. Holistic Management International (HMI), Albuquerque, USA.
  6. Butterfield, J. 2000. Forming a Holistic Goal: Describing the Future Resource Base. In Holistic Management International: Getting Started with Holistic Management. Holistic Management International (HMI), Albuquerque, USA.

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