Holistic Management for Horse Properties (Part 1)

Published in the Horses and People Magazine & Hoofbeats Magazine

An introduction to Holistic Management

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

Managing horses

Since the late 20th century the number of horses kept for professional sport as well as the pure pleasure of riding and keeping horses has grown considerably.

Many of us are able to afford horses and prefer to keep them on our own property or agist them at commercial equine facilities. The attractiveness of this way of caring for horses caused an increased demand for properties suitable for managing horses. This entails a new kind of farming that is generally different from the conventional agriculture and animal system management.

Horses are not cattle

For many years, we have managed horses in similar systems to livestock; however, our purposes for keeping horses are generally different from those seen in livestock production. In particular, horses require different housing and feeding management systems from livestock. Horses, like cattle, are large herbivores that have adapted to grassland life, but they have evolved different feeding strategies and digestive physiology from cattle. Horses have developed a feeding strategy whereby they consume large quantities of poor quality foraged vegetation, which is low in energy and high in fibber. Cattle do better on medium- to high-quality foraged vegetation that is relatively low in fibber. Because of the symbiotic relationship between microorganisms in their digestive tracts, herbivores are generally able to gain energy indirectly from fibrous plant materials. Horses, however, are non-ruminant herbivores: continual microbial fermentation takes place within their hindgut (caecum and colon). Due to this digestive adaptation and their related feeding behaviours, horses therefore need different feeding and pasture management from their livestock counterparts.

Pasture Management

Pasture management for horses presents a number of challenges, which, again, are different from those observed in conventional agriculture. The two primary objectives in managing grass for horses is to provide sufficient amounts of good quality grass to meet the dietary needs of horses while grazing and to grow an adequate quantity of grass for conserved forage. Optimal pasture management maintains grass cover to provide cushioning for horses to exercise on and to prevent concussions — particularly for young horses. On the other hand, over-lush grass poses a risk in that it is high in non-structural carbohydrate (NSC), which can lead to ineffective use of pasture and increase the risk of horses suffering digestive and metabolic disorders such as colic and laminitis. Managing these various factors depends not only on pasture management, but also on our horse establishment, acreage, and other goals and management.

Horse Sick Pastures

When horses graze, they are very selective. They can eat down some areas until they are almost bare, while leaving other areas untouched in which they defecate and urinate. If these paddocks and pastures are not properly managed, they become overgrazed, which can lead to ‘horse-sick’ pastures: poor quality grasses containing weeds; compacted, eroded, and salinised soils; and manure build-up with parasite pollution. Moreover, even if horses graze in a rotational system, paddocks that are damaged by over-grazing and are rested without management can suffer from soil oxidisation, which eventually leads to soil erosion. Over-grazing — as well as over-resting pastures without proper grazing planning and management — both can result in horse-sick pastures. Horse-sick pastures may be obvious where there is insufficient land; however, larger horse properties can also have these problems. In most cases, they are the result of a lack of knowledge leading to poor pasture management. These horse-sick pastures not only affect the health of our horses, but also negatively influence the shape of the land and can reduce the value of the property or land to which they are attached.

A new approach is needed

The need for a new approach to these challenges for horse keeping is gaining traction in the equine community and sport industry. To be able to make horse keeping more economically viable and productive, we must develop sustainable horse properties and pasture management plans that cater to our immediate and long-term needs, fulfil our own personal (social or economical) goals, result in our horses’ well-being, and are beneficial to the environment. To be able to make new changes and improve the way that we manage our horses today, we must take a closer look at our goals and the decisions that we make.

Decision making & Holistic Management

Decision making drives everything we do, from the simplest decisions that we make almost unconsciously to the bigger decisions that we consider more thoroughly. Every time we choose or choose not to do something, it affects the world around us. Since our actions and behaviours are usually the result of our decisions, Holistic Management focuses first on decision making from a holistic point of view.(1,2)

Holistic Management is a new approach to decision making and management that has been developed by Allan Savory. Holistic Management entails the use of a new decision-making framework that enables an individual to make decisions that satisfy immediate needs without putting future well-being at risk — including the well-being of subsequent generations.(1,2)

As a manger, one of the first things that you need to define is the entity that you manage in terms of the people involved in its operation and the resources available to you. For example, if you own a lifestyle property and manage horses for pleasure, your household is your entity. However, if you own a horse business (e.g. a breeding stud, equestrian centre, or agistment), both your household and the horse business form your entity, which may also then include employees, partners, and investors. Or, it may be that you have a lifestyle property and manage horses but own a business that has nothing to do with horses; in this case, you still need to include the business in your entity, because it is a resource that enables you to manage your property at home.

Once you have established your entity, you need to develop what we refer to as a ‘holistic goal’. A holistic goal describes the quality of life that you collectively seek (you, your household, employees, and business partners), what you need to produce in order to create that quality of life, and a description of the resource base upon which you depend. Your resource base needs to extend across a long time-frame to sustain what you must produce to create the quality of life that you envision (e.g. your income from your job, profits of your business, or savings).(1,2) All the decisions that you make in your household and/or business towards reaching the holistic goal, or in addressing problems or opportunities that arise along the way, need to be evaluated to determine if those decisions are economically, environmentally, and socially sound relative to the holistic goal that you formed.(1,2) (In Holistic Management, the evaluation process comprises seven questions to assist with decision-making processes, which we address later.)

In simpler terms, any action that you take to deal with a problem, to reach an objective, or to meet a basic need should move you closer to your holistic goal. To ensure progress in this direction, Holistic Management utilises a feedback loop, so that, if monitoring highlights a problematic decision, you can act immediately to correct it.

Holistic Management provides a practical way for individuals and organisations to develop a clear, focused vision for their future. The feedback system within decision making is common to many other successful management approaches in leading-edge corporations. However, in a Holistic Management practice, the new decision-making framework originates from a drive to restore deteriorating environments, rather than to enhance the corporate bottom line alone1: Allan Savory, the developer of Holistic Management, notes that it is impossible to make any real progress on the land unless we consistently examine the financial and social consequences of any decision — just as corporations increasingly find that black ink turns red when they do not consider the environmental and social consequences of their decisions.(2)

Horse owners who care about — and are deeply committed to — preserving or enhancing the environment of their properties find that Holistic Management provides them with a unique and practical means to account for and work with the complexity of nature in balance with human needs and desires and economic realities.(1) Those who are looking for a single, simple way to solve the ever-escalating problems that we face as property managers will not find it in Holistic Management. There is no one way, no one answer, to any problem, and never can be. For every problem, there are many answers and potential solutions. These have to be worked through on a case-by-case, situation-by-situation, basis by people who are driven by a desire for something better. Holistic Management merely empowers people to identify and achieve what is best for them.(2)

The Holistic Management Model

The framework for decision making is summarised in what we refer to as the Holistic Management model.(1) The model is illustrated below:

  • It considers the key role that animals play in renewing the land, and recognises the nature and importance of four basic ecosystem processes: the water cycle, the mineral cycle, energy flow, and community dynamics (the relationship between organisms in an ecosystem).
  • It identifies eight tools for managing these ecosystem processes: human creativity, technology, rest, fire, grazing, animal impact, living organisms, and money and labour.
  • It incorporates planning three procedures, which include holistic financial planning, holistic land planning, and holistic grazing planning.

It falls short of what we conventionally think of as a model in that it does not illustrate the flow of a process — merely the elements within it.2 To illustrate the relationships shared among the various elements (which can vary depending on the management or decision-making context) would require many loops, lines, and arrows. The Holistic Management model is a basic skeletal structure, the framework for holistic decision making and management.

This same framework can be used for diagnosing management problems (e.g. pasture management, grazing management, general property management) and for designing or utilising research that is relevant to management needs.

Holistic Management for Horse Properties

The Holistic Management framework was originally developed to help large landowners, such as rangers and farmers. Even so, it can be successfully incorporated into horse management. In the next sections, we discuss this context in greater detail, explaining how we can apply the information to managing horse properties on small and large acreage.

Firstly, we review the four key insights that prove to be critical in the development of the Holistic Management model. Secondly, we define the entity that we are managing (household, lifestyle property, (horse) business) and form a holistic goal. What are our ultimate goals and aspirations as they relate to our horses and property?

These considerations go beyond the everyday management of horse properties; they incorporate our life’s goals as a whole, which may include our family, and, if we run a (horse) business, our staff, managers, and business partners, too.

To be able to make economically, environmentally, and socially sound decisions on our properties, we must investigate both the ecosystems that sustain us and the tools that we can use to manage those ecosystems. So, finally, we discuss the planning of three procedures: holistic financial planning, holistic land planning, and holistic grazing planning. In particular, we focus on grass development, leaf area management, and holistic grazing planning for horses.


  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.


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