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Equine Ordinances Control the Numbers – Is There Another Way?

by Denise O’Meara, RLA, Director of Education
May 2013

sacrifice area credit University of Maryland Equine Rotational Grazing Demonstration Farm

This sacrifice lot and rotational grazing program may help determine how many horses can be kept at an equine facility. Photo courtesy UMD, Rotational Grazing Demonstration Farm.

“I thought we had this settled, and now the planners want to reduce the number of horses that we can have per acre in our suburban community.  Are there any standards that we can give them to help us keep what we have?” This is a question that we are often asked.

To answer that question, a look at equine ordinances around the nation is important.  We should also consider tactics to manage the potential capacity of horse facilities.

What is the Reasoning Behind the Horses-Per-Acre Approach?

Communities often attempt to regulate the number of horses allowed at stables, farms and other facilities, especially those not within agricultural districts using a horses-per-acre method to manage odor, water pollution, dust, noise, traffic safety, viewsheds and the expectations of neighbors.  Managing these issues is the purpose of community codes, which deal generally with health, safety and welfare.

Public horse boarding and activity centers, along with private residential horse-keeping areas, need to be located in or near towns and cities. Without access, many equestrians, horse enthusiasts and the general public would not be able to enjoy horses.  Zoning ordinances that limit the number of horses may inadvertently diminish access to horses.

Existing ordinances in many communities set a maximum number of horses per acre. The numbers may be based on a variety of indicators, including neighborhood density, new development in the area, if the facility is public or private, public health requirements, a history of complaints, what other communities are doing, or simply what has been acceptable for the community in the past.

A given community may allow for one horse per acre or two, or allow a maximum number of horses for parcels up to 10 or 20 acres. Properties larger than the community’s maximum under the ordinance are generally considered to be agricultural land, covered by right to farm laws and not subject to the maximums. For the smaller properties though, there is little flexibility, regardless of the property’s use.

One way of providing more flexibility is to institute tiered ordinances.  For example, San Diego’s draft ordinance includes three tiers of permitted horses per acre, which provide easier permitting for smaller stables with lower numbers of horses, and more arduous permitting for large, commercial type operations.  The tiers are:

  • Ten horses per acre on up to five acres;
  • Up to 50 horses;
  • Ten horses per acre on five to ten acres up to 100 horses;
  • Ten horses per acre on more than ten acres or more than 100 horses.

When ordinance changes are proposed by community planners, a reduction in the number of horses allowed per acre is usually involved.  The effect may be a hardship on horse businesses. This is the point at which most horsemen become alarmed and begin to take action, and an understanding of existing and proposed limits on horse numbers is necessary.

It is also an opportunity for the equine community to work with the state and community, through various agencies, to determine their own horse numbers by complying with environmental regulations on their land.

Kids and horses credit United States Pony Club

Open horse land can and should work to reduce the quantity of stormwater runoff and improve water quality through infiltration. Photo courtesy of United States Pony Club.

A Different Approach

An alternative approach is to determine the number of allowed horses based on any given facility’s ability to comply with state and local best management practice. This approach yields better outcomes for communities and the environment than assigning a specific number of acres per horse.  How does this work?

There are many factors that influence the number of horses that can be kept on any piece of land, including soil type, vegetative cover, amount of rainfall, adjacent uses and impervious surfaces that contribute to runoff, slope of the land, presence of streams or ponds and the regional climate.

The use of best management practices, such as pasture rotation, manure management, stream and pond buffering, planting trees, etc. –can help the land remain healthy for horses and people. These practices help to keep pasture grasses in better condition, prevent soil erosion and compaction, reduce dust and keep the air cooler in hot weather.  These are benefits that also carry over to the community as a whole.

Federal regulations require states and municipalities – to have stormwater best management practice policies and procedures-(BMPs) in place.  Horse facilities and farms should comply with or exceed the BMP requirements.  Regulations cover water quality, quantity and prevention of soil erosion related to stormwater runoff. Depending upon region, other BMP’s may be required through other regulations, including air quality related to dust, etc.

Each horse operation is different. Some may keep most of their horses in paddocks or pasture for most of the time, while others keep their horses up in stalls for the majority of the day, all depending upon the use of the horses. This affects the need for a specific number of acres for each horse or for the operation as a whole.

This approach requires the following:

  • Knowledge and understanding of the regulations by the facility or farm’s management as well as understanding BMPs for complying with those regulations;
  • An understanding on the part of the municipality of the needs of the horse community, both in land use and in business or private stable operations;
  • An adjustment period for horse farms and facilities to comply with regulations, especially new standards;
  • Educational and possibly financial support for farms and facilities to install or carry out BMPs, such as composting manure, fencing to prevent animal access to streams, and installing permeable paving, infiltration basins and other stormwater catchment and filtration devices.
Planning Meeting credit ALTA Planning and Design

Proposals for new ordinances or changes to existing ordinances may give horsemen the opportunity to change equine language to be more flexible and environmentally responsive. Photo courtesy of ALTA Planning & Design.

This approach requires more thought and consideration than a horses-per-acre standard.  However, this model can result in both a more robust horse population and healthier, more harmonious land use.

As federal, state and municipal regulations tighten, this approach may become the norm. Government entities will need to help land and facilities owners to implement BMP’s through education and training programs and with financial assistance.

Maryland counties provide an array of examples on how the question of horses-per-acre is handled. Many counties, especially those in the Chesapeake drainage basin, do not have requirements for a number of acres per horse. They do have setback requirements (structures must be a minimum number of feet away from property lines or road rights-of way), minimum overall acreage requirements, and most importantly, a requirement for submittal of nutrient management plans. Kent, Montgomery and Talbot Counties are examples.

A nutrient management plan shows the methods and locations of best management practice components that will be used or installed on the property to ensure compliance with waste, water quality and soil conservation standards for that county.

All states must carry out the EPA’s nutrient management plan program. Many states have programs similar to Maryland’s that are run through their USDA, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) offices.

Community Perception and Horse Neighbors

Horses play an important role in their landscapes.  Many people appreciate and value passing by horse facilities in their daily commutes.  However, this appreciation comes with expectations for the aesthetics of your facility. Elements such as the look, location and height of fencing, barns, arenas and other structures matter to your neighbors.   Odors, insects and dust also influence the perception of whether there are too many horses on the property.  Traffic and parking, especially if you are holding events, also require consideration in terms of community impact.

All in all, there is real flexibility in a compliance-based program for horse numbers. If you follow this process, you’ll be contributing to the environmental wellbeing of your community and improving the sustainability of horses in your community.

For additional information, go to your state’s department of agriculture website and search “Nutrient Management Program” or “Nutrient Management Horse.”