When we read about climate change, including the things we should be doing to prevent it and the dire warnings against ignoring its effects, it is easy for the individual to feel overwhelmed. Environmental scientists tell us that conditions such as drought, flooding, and heat will increase due to climate change, and many of us around the world have already experienced more frequent extreme weather events in recent years. Dr. Poppy Harding, equestrian, environmental scientist and lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, says that while everyone should be paying attention to climate change and adjusting lifestyles to protect the environment, there are particular concerns for horse owners. “Prolonged heat and drought will have big impacts on our fields and pastures. That’s going to push things like our feed bills and winter hay to get more expensive.” She continues, “The health of our horses will also be affected. We’re going to have longer periods of extreme heat and that will be very detrimental to our horses, as well as changing things like disease vectors. For example, I’m in the UK, so we don’t currently have a problem with things like malaria, but distribution of insects like mosquitoes is likely to change as the climate does, and we will see disease vectors spreading to areas where they aren’t currently found.”
When faced with the litany of impending environmental problems, it’s tempting to feel like nothing we as an individual can do would really make a difference.
According to Dr. Harding, “The science that we get bombarded through the media can be quite scary for people, but actually, we have science coming out from things like the IPCC reports suggesting evidence that we still have time to make a big difference on this. The next decade is going to be quite critical. But we have to take action. If we do start to make changes, then we actually have a chance to make the world safer for ourselves and our children.”
As riders, we can certainly be creatures of habit when it comes to barn life and horse care. Oftentimes we continue doing things exactly as we’ve learned to do, and we can be hesitant to make changes. When something works well for our horses, it’s understandable to want to avoid rocking the boat. Plus, in an already expensive sport, many horse owners just don’t have the extra funds to make any big renovations or experiment with new eco-friendly products. But Dr. Harding says there are some simple changes we can all be making around the barn that don’t involve big financial investments or time commitments. “No one I’ve ever come across doesn’t want the environment to be healthy. People just don’t know where to start. It’s really a case of making small changes. You don’t have to jump in and try to do everything. But we can all build things into our daily routines to be more environmentally friendly at the barn.”
Pay Attention to Consumption and Water Waste
Stables and yards don’t tend to have great storage for water from rainfall from gutters, so adding rain barrels can be an easy, inexpensive way to cut back on water waste. Also, if we do things like cold hosing when we are dealing with swelling, we end up losing a huge amount of water. Dr. Harding recommends looking into other options, like ice boots, or installing systems that capture the run off water so it can be reused for other things. “We also need to be careful with how often we are washing our horses. Obviously, that’s going to depend on individual situations. If you are out competing, your water use for that is going to be higher. So consider running water off using gutter and drainage systems. You can reuse that water for irrigation or washing.”
Dr. Harding suggests that we think twice about how long we can continue to use something, whether we can reuse something we already have, and if we really need a new product. “There is effectively wasted energy sitting in tack rooms all over the world. It’s fun to be matchy-matchy, with your matching socks and bandages and things, and it looks lovely. But we need to shift toward actually valuing and using what we already have.” If we aren’t using something, can it be donated? Repaired? Repurposed? Shared with a friend? Sometimes, the answer isn’t always switching to a more eco-friendly product, but rather considering if a new item really needs to be purchased in the first place.
Anyone who spends a lot of time with horses or around the barn inevitably ends up with extra loads of laundry. “As we put things like our riding clothes, horse saddle cloths, rugs, etc. through the washing machine, they will emit these tiny little micro-plastic particles that will be rinsed out of the washing machine. They go out to our rivers and have significant impacts on the life in those ecosystems.” There are a couple of really simple ways to change our habits here, which will actually make a big difference. “You can use a microfibre catching bag for the smaller items (Guppyfriend being a well known brand for this) in your washing machine, or you can get hold of a Cora Ball, which is placed into the washing machine and the microplastics get tangled onto it. The Cora Ball is good for larger items, and also works more efficiently when you have additional fibers in the wash—so horsehair getting tangled on it will make it catch more microplastics.”
Enhance Environment for Biodiversity
When we think of our pastures, it’s not just a big empty space only for our horses. Insects are important for our whole food web, which of course benefits both us and our horses, and we can support biodiversity by making our yards better for pollinators and the insects that support our soils. “Insect and little bug hotels are great. You can pop them onto a fencepost, somewhere that the horses aren’t going to rub on it. Same with bird boxes. If you have a significant patch of wind, you might end up with lots of small twigs coming off trees. You can pile up those twigs and create a whole little microhabitat for insects.” If you can, consider adding wildlife friendly trees or putting in some shrubs that are good for pollinators, taking some time first to research what is native and natural to your environment. While horses aren’t huge methane producers, they still produce about forty-five pounds of methane a year, so Dr. Harding says planting those trees can help offset that as well. Another benefit? “Actually seeing the diversity increase in your pasture with bees and butterflies and flowers in the summer months, that’s really nice and good for our mental health.”
As riders, we spend a lot of time with our horses outside in the environment, so it makes sense that we will be impacted by climate change. When we’re out riding, we get to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, and we can also see the changing seasons and the impacts of different weather conditions. Because of that relationship we have with animals and nature, we are in a unique position to work for change, both as individuals and our industry as a whole. Dr. Harding believes that, as each rider begins to adjust their mindset toward more sustainable habits, we will work together to transition the equestrian industry to larger scale changes.
Photos Courtesy of Dr. Poppy Harding