Question: I am new to the equine world and was wondering whether I may have misinterpreted something. Where I board my horse, there seems to be poop everywhere. When I first visited, there wasn't. That was one of the things I looked at--the cleanliness of where my horse would live. Besides reading about a nice pasture with healthy grass, I am sure I read that a horse should also have a clean pasture. He should be free from having to walk in his own or any other horse's manure. When I finally get to bring him home with me, I want to make sure I can make his life a good and healthy one.
Answer: There are several ways to look at this situation. It is true that ideally horses should not be standing in wet manure all day, but if there is manure scattered around a paddock it does not harm them to stand in that. It is also possible that you are comparing the appearance of the paddocks in the warm weather to that in cold winter weather. In warm weather the dung beetles, insects and birds break apart the piles quite quickly, while in the winter this does not happen, so paddocks build up quite a bit of manure.
There are some problems with a collection of manure in the horse's living space. Parasite eggs can be in the manure, and when the weather becomes warm and moist in the spring, the larva hatch and the horse's parasite load increases. In an attempt to make pastures look better people often drag the fields in the spring to break up the winter accumulation. This neatly spreads parasite eggs all over the pasture, and horses cannot eat around their manure piles.
We all are familiar with how horses avoid manure piles or certain areas of the fields. It seems annoying to us as humans to see all that grass going to waste, but the horses are smarter than we are and do not eat there because the parasite larva are concentrated there. So do not drag the fields. Wait for the dung beetles. Heavy use of the ivermectin and moxidectin family of dewormers tends to prevent the dung beetles from breaking up the manure, so piles will accumulate in warmer weather. The same may hold true for daily dewormers, though the evidence is less clear.
Horses with healthy hooves often can tolerate less-than-clean conditions, but horses with poor feet may be more prone to thrush if there is a lot of damp manure. Dry manure, which you will see in the desert parts of the country, causes much less problem to the feet. Very dry conditions dehydrate the parasite eggs and larva, so in drought or naturally dry areas the parasite load is often low.
Frozen manure can be very lumpy for a horse to walk on, resembling rocks. If the horse is accustomed to the footing and has decent feet this is not a problem. If the horse has poor or flat feet they can get bruised in the frozen northern parts of the country.
When you have your own place the ultimate parasite control comes from picking up your pastures and/or reapplying composted manure as a fertilizer. Composting kills the parasite eggs and improves the quality of soil without the need for chemical fertilizers (which usually make the grass too rich and unbalanced for horses anyway--see www.safergrass.org for information about grass). The reality is that many of us do not have the time do this, but sometimes you can muster enough help to spring clean the areas where manure collects just as the weather begins to warm up.
And horses will do just fine with some manure in their pastures as they have done for centuries. Just be sure to have your veterinarian check your fecal egg counts periodically to see how your parasite control program is going. If you want to check the fecals yourself, get tips from the article "Parasite Control Check" in the May 2004 issue of EQUUS magazine. Then read "Staving Off Superworms" in the May 2007 issue of Practical Horseman magazine for more pasture management advice as it relates to worms.
Dr. Joyce Harman is a veterinarian and respected saddle-fitting expert certified in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic; she is also trained in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her Harmany Equine Clinic is in northern Virginia. Visit her online shop.