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16th January 2013

Climate Change and Horse Owners – RIRDC Equine Research News, December 2012

The research project ‘Climate Change for Horse Owners’ funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) Horse program and managed by the Horse Federation of South Australia (HorseSA) aimed to discover how horse owners feel, what they know, and how much preparation they are undertaking for climate change.

One of the key problems for horse owners when it comes to climate change and its potential impact on their horse is lack of information. This is surprising because, for horse keepers, the quality and availability of pasture grasses, baled hay and manufactured feed, coupled with the maintenance of race tracks and grounds are major areas of potential impact. The horse industry collectively stands to suffer unnecessary economic loss and miss out on market opportunities.

As the distance between the horse keeping population and capital cities/major regional centres decreases and the need for smaller grazing spaces increases sustainability and environmental management is coming into sharp focus.

Horse owners are now considering practices to protect drinking water quality and remnant habitats, as well as responding to neighbourhood concerns about dust, mud and erosion. If good horse husbandry means creating equine friendly ecosystems, how can horse owners prepare?

HorseSA says as a first step they sought to engage with horse owners and organisations to discuss climate change impacts and the need to develop adaptive practices. A key part of this was to survey the horse community about their practices around, knowledge of and attitudes to climate change. Sixty-nine people responded to the survey, the majority from SA and WA. They were asked:

  • If and how horse keepers have been impacted by any major climate/weather events in the last 10-20 years
  • What action was taken by horse keepers in response to any weather or climate events
  • What action horse keepers have been considering taking in the short or long term
  • What barriers have prevented those actions
  • What horse owner education, research, government policy or other help horse keepers need.

In the survey report, prepared by Dr Kirrilly Thompson it was noted that while many people shied away from using the term climate change, many people had already made some changes to their horse properties in response to major weather events, including selecting land and care actions such as rotational grazing of pastures or protecting waterways with fences.  It also showed emergency events such as fire, flood and cyclone are the highest concerns expressed by horse owners. This is followed by aspects around horse events including heat stress, biosecurity and insurance.

Following on from this survey a workshop, Horses & Climate Impacts, was held to identify horse keepers’ attitudes, practices and knowledge in relation to meeting climate change challenges, identify gaps in research and, importantly, engage horse owners in a way that could lead to a positive approach towards commencement of adaptation measures.
Jane Myers travelled from Brisbane to share some experiences gained form researching horse keeping practices in the UK and Europe, including a commercial project that recycles stable waste for resale as clean bedding.

Part of the project included a literature review by Senior Researcher Melissa Rebbeck.  She concluded that disease seems to be the biggest threat to long term horse health. While much of the literature review relates to disease, it is difficult to predict what insect vectors will increase or decrease due to temperature and humidity changes. Cyclones and storms that carry these vectors are also difficult to predict.

The review suggested that other things to consider will be maintenance feeding as pasture is likely to be available for less time due to shorter growing seasons across Australia. Careful planning and track design will be important to reduce both heat stress on horses and heat impact on synthetic tracks.

Horse SA are now in the process of developing an action plan to map out next steps, and are keen to stress the Climate Change for Horse Owners project has been very much a starting point. HorseSA is keen to hear from anyone who teaches horse care and would be interested in joining an industry collaboration group.

Contact: horsesa@horsesa.asn.au

The fact sheet Climate Change for Horse Owners is available on the RIRDC website www.rirdc.gov.au for download. RIRDC publication number 12-077