Stud piles are mounds of manure left by rival stallions in the wild. Poo is used to mark territory and so when rivals come along – just as you see dogs doing with urine – they poo on top of the existing manure to leave their own mark.
What does this have to do with domestic horses? Well the interesting thing, is that by watching my semi-feral horses behaviour closely over their first year with me, I realized that they naturally were creating designated poo piles or areas. This is interesting on several levels (why they did it, and where they chose to locate them), and we’ll get into that later, but for now, let me explain what they showed me and how this then led to easier manure management…
They also chose a second poo area for themselves, inside the barn, but off to the side where it wasn’t graveled. This area became an absolute mud pit in winter so it was easy to let them have this area and just observe what happened. Initially I tried laying rubber mats down, but then I gave up and just let them poop in there as much as they wanted.
The first thing I noticed, is that after a couple feet of manure was laid down – don’t forget, each horse poops 50 lbs per day, so doesn’t take long – the mud began to decrease. After a few more feet were laid down, the horses began using it as a sleep spot. At first we were kinda grossed out, but then we realized, wait a minute… it’s way drier than the fields and warmer too. And remember, because they didn’t urinate there, it didn’t smell bad either.
By the time summer rolled around, this poo area looked like this:
So after watching my wildies designate poo areas, I thought, well, what if I designate some poo areas in the gravel paddock to make manure pickup easier for me? YES I’m pleased to say, although it takes a bit of time and repetition, it’s fairly easy to do and SO worth it to have the manure left in tidy piles, rather than kicked all over the place as they walk through it, or stand on it and grind it into the gravel.
Step 1: Choose at Least 2-3 Poo Areas
Most important to realize is that you’re unlikely to get your horses to walk too far away from their food or lounging area to poo. You’ve gotta work with their natural behaviours (more on this below).
Locate poo areas away from main traffic, feeders, play areas etc. but not too far away. For me this was the edges of the paddock and one corner of the barn. You want to choose areas the horses will not stand or walk through, but rather, just poo and walk away. So in addition to the herd’s self-selected poo areas (pics above) I chose this edge of the paddock:
And I chose this corner inside the big barn:
Step 2: Leave at Least Three Manure Piles in Each Poo Area
Once your horses have learned where you want them to poo, for ongoing success, you must leave at least 3 piles of manure in each poo spot. Resist the temptation to remove all manure once they’re trained!
However, while you are still training your horses where to poo, leave a lot more poo to show them that THIS is the poo spot. If your horses are not understanding yet where to poo, then leave more poo in the chosen spot. You may need to pick up intact piles (the more ‘natural looking’ the poo, the better) from other locations and carefully deposit them in the desired poo area.
Step 3: Tell your Horses to Poo There and Praise Them when they Do!
When you see a horse start to poo, point to the poo area, walk over and call to them, “Poo here darling, come over here sweetie.” Visualize (imagine) them walking over to you and pooing on that spot. Imagine it a few times as you call them over. Don’t worry that they are not doing what you ask! Just imagine/visualize what you want them to do and let go of the outcome. You may need to do this a few times with each horse, whereas some horses will get it the first time.
I did this with Kaliah as she was pooing in the middle of the walkway, she turned to watch me as she pooed. Then after she moved away, I went over and picked up her fresh poo and moved it to the spot I had asked her to poo. She watched me do that too. For her very next poo, she walked straight over to the poo area and defecated! I praised her lavishly. Remember that horses (and all animals) send and receive images, so if you imagine it, your horse can see it too.
However, a few days later, Kaliah pooed in the walkway again, so we just repeated the same sequence:
Likewise, if you see any horse defecating in the chosen area, praise them lavishly for being so smart and doing such a great job. Let them know it is SO much easier for you if they poo there. Make sure you leave their fresh manure pile intact and remove the older piles instead. You see how “training” is actually just about clear communication?
Step 4: Move Intact Manure Piles to the Poo Area
As we discussed above, do this right after they poo and while they’re watching. Scoop up their fresh poo and move it carefully (in an intact pile) to the poo area. Praise them while you’re doing it: “Oh dear. Okay let’s move it. See? Good job, THIS is where the poop goes (visualize horse pooing there while you talk). Good job. Let’s poo here now, okay?” (visualize or imagine again the horse walking over and pooing in that spot).
Step 5: Clean Other Areas Daily – ONLY leave Manure in Poo Areas
If you live with your horses and can clear/move the manure more than once per day, perhaps your horses will train quicker. I live off-site so only clear manure once a day. It takes anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months to teach horses where to poo. Also, some horses understand what you want more quickly than others.
If horses have lived in conditions where all their manure is cleared up every day, or twice per day, they can take longer to train than horses who have at least some areas (out in the field) where their manure is left alone.
Horses that have been kept in small enclosures are more prone to treading or kicking around their manure. Horses naturally don’t like to walk through their own manure, and if they are kept in large enough spaces (a few acres per horse), they won’t tread it around. So these horses that have been kept in small enclosures can take longer to train as well. Remember that a human’s idea of a ‘large space’ doesn’t usually match up to the horse’s idea!
Step 6: Expect Good Days & Bad Days
Much as we would love this training to be a straight progression to success, it usually isn’t! You will have brilliant days where you celebrate that they are finally trained and then you come back the next day and it looks like you’re back to square one! Just persevere and know that they will get it and it will be worth it.
Interestingly, if you change/cover the footing or pour fresh gravel, you’ll have to train them all over again. Horses orient more by smell, than by sight. So if you remove all the scents of their poo area, you have to start at Step 1 and re-train them. This may not take as long the second time round though.
Sometimes you’ll get a spot or walkway where the horses will just not stop pooing. The solution to this is to put a feeder there until you’ve broken the pattern. We had this problem at the barn entrance. I got a loose box and put alfalfa in it once a day (their favorite hay), so no one was going to soil that box! There is enough room on either side of the box for horses to walk through, so no risk of injury. Once they stopped pooing there, I moved the box with no recurrence. If it did recur, I would have just moved the box back and given them more time to understand what I wanted.
Reminder: When you remove poo, do your best to clear all the poo – even the little bits. Horses have an incredibly strong sense of smell and they are perhaps more motivated by the smell of poo, then the appearance.
Equine defecation behaviour
Since we’re on the subject of horse manure… I’ve often wondered why horses defecate all over their fields, when their innate intelligence means they will not eat where they shit. However, this is also extremely wise, since the larvae from the worm eggs in their manure attach themselves to grass stalks where they hope to be ingested again. If your horses do not have enough pasture for their needs and they also don’t have 24/7 hay available in slow feeders… then they may well eat this worm-infested grass from sheer hunger. But if their stomachs (which produce acid 24 hours a day) have enough forage to satiate them, then they will not touch the grass around the areas where they defecate.
Which brings us full circle back to the question of why do they poo all over the damn field? But when I consider this question from the perspective that ‘nature is a self-sustaining, regenerative loop’ I realize that what they are doing is fertilizing the field evenly. In the wild, horses will eat and fertilize an area, then move on to a new/fresh area. By the time they get back around to the manure-covered area, either the worms would be dead from the cold winter, or the manure kicked around and spread by other animals to dry in the sun, or dried/composted into soil. They are essentially doing what Will Harris does when he puts 1000 cows on a field with soil wrecked from monoculture crops and uses the cows’ dung and urine to regenerate the earth and create nourishing soil with a vibrant microbiota.
Here’s another super interesting thing I noticed from watching my wildies: They never urinated where they defecated. In fact, they would pee far away from where they pooed, so the two were kept completely separate. Well guess what? When you separate urine and feces, it drastically reduces foul odor and the poo composts faster!
The other bizarre thing I noticed, is that they would locate their self-selected poo areas fairly close to where they ate! Now why the heck would they do that?? But remember we are trusting in the wisdom and experience of these animals… So I resisted my urge to remove or re-locate these poo areas and I left them alone and watched instead. This goes against every horsekeeping or manure management article you’ll ever read! They always tell you to locate manure piles well away from horses’ living or eating areas. Someone even noticed this in one of my YouTube videos and blasted me for piling shit near the horses’ feeder. It wasn’t me, honest!
One day I realized, as I drove to my barn, that all the horses I saw along the way were wearing fly masks. But at my barn, even eating right next to one of their 10×12-foot poo areas piled 18-inches high with manure… my horses were almost clear of flies! Wait, what?? They were munching away contentedly, with barely a fly in sight.
What do flies eat & who eats them?
When the horses went out into the fields, lots more flies swarmed their faces and concentrated around their eyes. But close to their slow feeders – which were all close to their poo areas, they were almost clear of flies. I discussed this with my optometrist father and he informed me that the horses’ eye fluid contains protein and this is what the flies are after. Oh.my.gosh. could it be that the horses were providing an alternate/better protein source for the flies (worm eggs etc in manure) so the flies chose to eat that, rather than trying to get the protein from their eye fluid? Dr. Ronald Hoffman MD says:
“Tears aren’t just salty water; the eye surface requires oils for lubrication, mucous for even distribution, and antibodies and special proteins to prevent infection.”
Flies are omnivores and can eat any wet or decaying plant or animal/protein matter. Turns out flies don’t have teeth, they have to suck up liquid matter through their proboscis and sponge-like mouth parts – so if something is solid, they vomit enzymes and digestive juices on it first, to turn it into a liquid they can ingest. I also noticed that the horses kept pooing on top of the same poo areas – this kept the pile moist and keeps the food source available to the flies for longer.
We also have a lot of birds (robins, sparrows, hummingbirds etc) around the barn and fields, untold spiders, and a bunch of wasp nests on my barn and shelter roof – so the flies have plenty of natural predators around. No doubt, this keeps the fly population in check, even though the horses have also provided them with an ideal breeding ground. Of course, winter also helps keep fly populations manageable.
I’m exploring the concept of, What happens when we let nature balance herself? I’m trying to watch and learn and interfere as little as possible. So even though my horses have only a tiny fraction of the land they would have/need in the wild to be self-sustaining, I’m looking for the ways I can work with their nature-based wisdom to provide a better environment – which, thankfully, usually means less work for me!
So, we have ended up with three big manure piles located right next to the shelters where they eat. Two were chosen by the horses and the third was chosen by me after watching where they located theirs! So my manure dump spot is right outside the back of the barn. Once a year, I have a bobcat come in and remove my manure pile (dumping it in the middle of a large blackberry thicket), digging it down into a pit again, which I then dump into all year long. I also have him scrape the horse-designated poo areas back down to ground level. However, this year, he didn’t need to remove any manure from the paddock poo area as it had converted itself into flat earth!
If anyone living in a hot climate (California, Arizona, etc) wants to experiment with this poo area-fly control concept, I would modify one thing. I suggest starting a poo area near an eating area and then sprinkling it with water once or twice a day (if needed) to keep it moist. If your horses don’t poo there, then move their poo piles to this area, but check on how quickly the manure dries out and add extra water as needed. I would be very interested to hear how and if it works in hot climates as well… since it works great here during the summer months, I would think so.
The other option that mimics this phenomenon is to hang those liquid fly traps around eating areas. I experimented with that one year (before my first herd of wildies arrived) and they work well too. I have to say though, they smell much worse than manure! You can hang them above your head height and then you only have to smell them when you dump them out.
Happy manure management! 🙂