Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 3, Issue 1 - July, 2010


An Extension Agent/Educator Guide to Consultations with Suburban/Urban Horse Owners

Greene, E.A., Professor/Extension Equine Specialist, University of Vermont
Skelly, C.D., Director, My Horse University, Michigan State University


Many extension personnel do not have a background or comfort level in the equine area; but they are pressured to field questions from equine hobby and business clientele that either have or want to keep horses on their property. Hobby owners often buy "ranchettes" or small acreage in order to keep their horses at home, whether it is for money saving purposes or convenience. They may be driven by the dream of owning their own horse, but they often have no background whatsoever in land stewardship. And, these hobby and business horse owners with one or more horses in their backyard can negatively impact local land and water quality. This article provides a starting point for discussions on key topics and basic background information for extension consultations with equine owners. There is a resource table that provides multiple websites, content synopses, and links that will be useful for both extension personnel and/or their equine clientele.


While suburban/urban horse owners face many of the same management issues as rural horse farm owners, close proximity to neighbors and small acreage farms can intensify environmental and liability problems. There are more and more horse workshops and educational information geared to adults offered through extension and equine businesses. A growing number of adult horse owners look to extension for nonbiased science based information despite previous misconceptions that extension “only” serves 4-H youth. Often, field-based educators with little to no horse responsibilities or equine expertise are uncomfortable dealing with horse questions. However, an expertise in equine management isn’t always necessary to successfully work with the horse industry. Many of the equine industry’s questions revolve around manure, pasture, and facility management – the same issues that face other livestock operations. The following information will help extension agents/educators identify cross cutting issues that face the horse industry in the United States, define some of the nuances that are specific to suburban/urban horse ownership and mentality, as well as identify resources that can help the educator answer horse questions in the field.

Environmental/Land Use Issues

Pasture/Turnout Requirements. Most horses thrive when they are housed outside, providing they have shelter from freezing rain, extreme sun, and biting bugs. However, many horses are stalled, for the owner’s convenience, to keep the horse’s coat in “show shape”, or for health reasons. Stalled horses need access to daily turnout (ideally around six hours) or exercise (training, riding, lunging, etc.) to maintain conditioning, respiratory health, and to avoid behavioral vices such as pawing, kicking, wood chewing, and weaving in the stall. Any turnout area should be big enough (about the size of a 40 X 80 foot riding arena) and have adequate footing so a galloping horse can easily stop at the fence line.

Forage Requirements. Horse owners often do not consider the forage in their pastures/paddocks as a replacement for some of the horse’s ration. A small turnout area (or bare ground) should not be expected to provide any level of nutritional substance for the horse. If the owners are utilizing their pasture as the horse’s main nutritional source, the average stocking rate of a managed pasture to support the horse’s nutritional intake is 2 acres per horse with an increase in acreage for dry and rocky pastures. Horses will consume 1.5 – 3 % of their body weight in feedstuff depending on their work load, stage of growth, and production status. The forage component of a horse’s diet should make up a minimum of 1% of their body weight. So, the “1000 pound horse” should get at least 10 pounds of hay per day to keep the digestive system moving. Most adult horses that are idle or lightly worked can be maintained on a forage diet alone, as long as their vitamin and mineral requirements are met. There are several brands of vitamin/mineral supplements available to balance forage only diets and most are palatable alone, or can be put in a small amount of concentrate.

Hay Purchase. Since horses in boarding stables or housed on small acres often have limited pasture access, feeding hay is essential to meet the horse’s nutritional requirements. Typically, horse owners use small square bales (45-70#), because of the ease of handling, storage and small horse numbers. Buying hay at local feed stores in small quantities can be costly and unreliable, from a hay quality standpoint due to multiple hay sources, and/or deliveries. Horse owners need to be educated in hay selection and storing large quantities of hay. In general, most horses do very well on moderate quality grass hay. Lactating broodmares and young growing horses may benefit from alfalfa or alfalfa/grass hay. Fescue hay can be a challenge, because endophyte infested fescue1 can cause problems in pregnant mares during their third trimester, including agalactia, thickened placenta, and abortion. It is not possible to visibly distinguish between endophyte-infected or endophyte-free hay, so this is a risky choice if broodmares are involved. Horse hay should be free of mold, dust and debris as well as toxic plants like hoary alyssum or blister beetles found in alfalfa fields in the southwest. Hay testing is a good option for horse owners purchasing hay in large quantities who are balancing rations for horses with high nutrient requirements.

Sacrifice Lots. Suburban horse owners may have limited land available to provide horses with a productive pasture. Owners need to understand that if they overstock their pastures, there is no pasture mix that will provide adequate pasture through the growing season. Sacrifice lots, smaller turnout lots that have little to no nutritional value, can be used to reduce the pressure on pastures, particularly in early spring or after a hard rain. Hay should be provided in off-the-ground feeders, to avoid sand ingestion or parasite issues which can lead to colic.  In addition, using drain tile and/or a high traffic drainage system2,3 in the high traffic areas and picking up manure weekly can help avoid the mucky lots that typify some overcrowded horse farms.

Pasture Management. Many new horse owners don’t have an agriculture background and need help with pasture management. Pasture establishment, renovation and maintenance, as well as, identifying toxic plants are all frequent questions that most extension educators with a good background in forages are more than equipped to answer. Optimum forage species will vary according to regions, soil type, and conditions of a farm. However, certain species may need to be avoided based on palatability issues and toxic reactions. In general, pasture mixes for horse farms should avoid fescue seeds, and if they are included, they should be endophyte free seeds. Some horses will have reactions (photosensitivity reactions or a condition known as slobbers) to certain variety of clovers under certain climatic conditions. Horse owners can utilize rotational grazing systems to maximize their grazing. Weed prevention methods may include periodic mowing, soil test based management (fertilization or lime application) and ensuring field stands are not overgrazed.

Manure Management. Oversized manure piles on horse farms can lead to complaints by neighbors4. Horse owners may be reluctant to spread manure and used bedding on their pastures for fear of parasite exposure. Often, small horse farms don’t have access to tractors and manure spreaders or even an adequate land base to apply manure. Improper manure management can lead to water pollution, fly, and odor issues. In addition, neighbors don’t like to look at a pile of manure over their fence line.  Composting5 is one way to stabilize the nutrients in manure and break down bedding material to provide a nice complement to the soil when used correctly. If active composting versus stockpiling manure is practiced, neighborhood gardeners as well as nurseries may be interested in taking the composted material. Other alternatives include removal to community composting sites, or hauling the manure and bedding to land fills. There are also electrical plants that are utilizing used horse bedding as an alternative energy source. Horse owners need extensive education in manure management; however, they may not realize this until a complaint has been filed on their farm. Horse workshops with “Manure” in the title typically aren’t very popular. However, manure management curriculum that is relevant to horse farms can successfully be worked into other horse management topics including health care, pasture management and facility management to increase awareness of proper manure management practices.

Land Access/Open Space Urban sprawl contributes to the growing concern of land access for horse farms and riding trails, which are being threatened. While some may see the 5-acre small horse farm as part of the problem, others would argue that promoting horse-friendly communities helps conserve open spaces provided by hay fields, pastures and riding areas. Horse owners need to be encouraged to be proactive in attending community functions and working with decision makers on zoning issues affecting horse farms and boarding establishments. Many of the reasons horses are being zoned out of communities have to do with manure management related problems. Educating both the community and horse owners in manure management can help establish horse friendly community zoning ordinances.

Rails-to-trails Conservancy is a popular national program that develops old railways into trail access for equestrians, bikers and hikers. However, there are concerns that horses will bring in invasive seeds and endanger water quality of nearby streams, wet lands, and lakes. In addition, there is a struggle between other trail users and equestrians whether it is due to horses spooking on the trail, or hikers and bikers upset with manure on the trail. Local trail riding organizations must be proactive in advocating for equestrian trail usage in their states, as well as educating trail riders in responsible trail sharing.

Facility Risk Assessment and Liability Analysis

Many horse or stable owners do not have a full appreciation for the potential exposure to liability if their horse were to get loose, or hurt someone by biting, kicking, or unseating their rider. There is a tool available to help horse owners become aware of important issues related to their facilities, visitors, neighbors, and horses. The Self-Guided Horse Facility Analysis booklet is an easy to use, educational tool that uses checklists to alert barn owners and users to dangerous procedures or environments6.If horse owners identify high risk areas in their facility, or potential risky behavior, changes can be made prior to an accident or injury. Finally, Promoting Biosecurity in the Equine Community7 is an excellent resource for addressing disease prevention, pest control, and other on-farm biosecurity issues for horse owners.

The expense of caring for a horse makes keeping an unusable horse a costly and sometimes unsafe option if the horse has dangerous behavioral problems. The current struggling economy combined with the US ban on horse slaughter has created an “unwanted horse” crisis in many parts of the US. Horse shelters are at capacity and the horse market is at an all time low. There is an increase in horse neglect cases across the country as horse owners can no longer afford to feed and care for their animals. The American Horse Council has sponsored the Unwanted Horse Coalition8 to help address this national concern. The Unwanted Horse Coalition promotes responsible horse ownership by providing educational resources and advocating for industry practices that promotes good horse welfare.


Extension Agents/Educators now have a basic guideline and topic resources for consultations with horse business or hobby owners that house their animals in more populated areas. The resource table (Table 1) contains brief content synopses and hot links to more in depth information on these topics. In general, many of the issues that arise are parallel to other livestock operations, however the inclusion of the “general public”, be it visitors or clientele adds a different level liability.

Literature Cited

1Shane, M.  2008.  Toxic plants of concern in Pastures and Hay for Michigan horses.  Michigan State University Extension Bulletin E-3060.  []

2Greene, E.A. 2007. “"Tools to Help Horse Owners Deal with Muddy High Traffic Areas." Journal of Extension. 45:6 []

3Greene, E.A. and R. Gilker. 2009. “Stable Footing for Your Horse: Practical Strategies for High Traffic Area Renovation.” 12 pages.

4Skelly C. and K. Linderman.  2005.  Perfect Planning Prevents Problems.  Michigan State University Extension Bulletin WO-1019.  []

5Shane, M.  2005.  Composting – How Do I Do That?  Michigan State University Extension Bulletin WO-1025.  []

6Greene, E.A. and J. Trott. 2004. “The Self-Guided Horse Facility Analysis: A Proactive Safety Education Tool for Equine Facilities. Journal of Extension. 42:6 []

7Ather, J. and E.A. Greene. 2005. “Promoting Biosecurity in the Equine Community: A New Resource for Extension Educators and the Equine Industry. Journal of Extension. 43:1 []

8Unwanted Horse Coalition []


Table 1: Additional Resources
Web Address
eXtension offers free, science based, peer-reviewed information on a range of equine related topics. There are learning lessons, articles, event calendars, and frequently asked questions.
My Horse University
An online horse management educational program offers certificate courses, DVD’s, free web-casts and e-newsletters. 
UVM Equine Publications 
“Stable Footing for Your Horse: Practical Strategies for High Traffic Area Renovation.”
“Greener Pastures: Sacrifice a Little to Save a Lot”.
“Heads Up!!” Helmet fitting Poster
“Tools for Promoting Biosecurity in Equine Facilities.”
“Self-Guided Horse Facility Analysis”
One Horse or One Hundred
Bulletin series addresses land use issues including neighbor complaints, site planning, water quality, and manure management on the horse farm. 
Virtual Horse Facility Tour
Developed by University of Vermont and Michigan State University to aid in designing facilities and identifying and reducing risks associated with horse farms. 
UVM Pasture Resource
Contains multiple articles on pasture establishment, management, plant species, and toxic plants.
Equine Law and Horsemanship Safety
Contains comprehensive resource materials on equine law and horsemanship safety.  Both the legal and horsemanship materials are suitable for use by law students, lawyers, and the general public.
American Horse Council
As the national trade association representing the horse industry in Washington, D.C., AHC works to represent equine interests and investments.  The AHC web site provides information on statistics, legislation and regulations related to the horse industry. 
American Farrier’s Association
The website offers information on horse hoof care for the horse owner as well as provides resources for the professional farrier.
American Association of Equine Practitioners
A good resource for information on horse health can be found on this site.
Unwanted Horse Coalition
Unwanted Horse Coalition promotes responsible horse ownership. 
The Horse Facility Handbook
This is a comprehensive guide to horse facility design and covers all aspects of horse farm construction including barns, sheds, fencing, and manure storage.
Equine Law and Horse Sense and More Equine Law and Horse Sense
Two books authored by Attorney Julie I. Fershtman that every horse enthusiast should read.
Rails-to-trails Conservancy
Information about the Rails-to-trails Conservancy
Forage testing specifically for equine
Equi-Analytical Laboratories
Nutrient Requirements of Horses
The Nutrient Requirements of Horses(revised in 2007) authored by the National Research Council Equine Advisors, is both practical and technical, and has key information on the nutritional needs (requirements, toxicities, and deficiencies) of horses and other equids.