Equicentral/Track System compared for horse & land managementAug 01, 2022
They are very different, but people often confuse aspects of one with the other. This article explains the similarities and differences so you can make up your own mind. There is much to read and take in here, so grab a drink and put your feet up.
Firstly - some definitions that will help you to understand this article about The Equicentral System compared to a Track System for horse and land management:
Set-stocked pasture - this is how most land for horses is managed. It means that all of the land is in use, all of the time. The pasture is usually very short (lawns), and there may be numerous 'roughs' (see below). This is how a lot of land used for horsekeeping is 'managed'.
Roughs and lawns - horses typically graze in certain areas (the lawns) and drop manure in other areas (the roughs). They will then concentrate their grazing on the lawns, and the roughs become long and rank. If not managed, this behaviour results in less available grazing every year.
Rotational grazing - is when the horses have access to only about 1/3 of the land at a time, and the remainder is resting and recuperating. This results in more pasture over time.
Loafing yard - also called a holding yard, a dry lot etc. It is a surfaced, fenced area where horses can be kept when the land is too wet or too dry, and also to manage the grass intake of the horses. Having a surfaced area can revolutionise how you manage land for horses.
How Track Systems and The Equicentral System originated
Paddock Paradise/Track Systems
'Track Systems' came about from the Paddock Paradise book (2006) and concept by Jamie Jackson (USA). This concept (when going 'by the book') involves horses living on a strictly no grass 'track'. The horses are fed hay that is distributed around the track (usually in hay nets). Various enrichments may be added, such as a mud bath/pond. A variety of surfaces may be incorporated into the track to simulate the different surfaces horses have to travel over in a free-living situation. Jamie Jackson is a barefoot trimmer, and Paddock Paradise was developed very much with that in mind (as well as to get horses out of stables and to move).
'Grass tracks' are the same idea but different. Paddock Paradise was never intended to be about keeping horses on grass; this is where some of the problems with 'grass tracks' come about. Paddock Paradise was developed in and for arid desert climates that grow very little grass.
In countries/climates that easily grow grass, the grass on the track either has to be worn out (by overgrazing), killed (by spraying), or the entire track needs to be surfaced (which is very expensive).
A Track System. The 1st diagram does not include a loafing yard, and the second diagram does. The centre may be used for grazing when conditions allow, and when people do this, they often call it a 'hybrid' track/equicentral system. See the section further down this article about 'hybrid systems'.
The Equicentral System
The Equicentral System was developed by us (Equiculture) when we lived in Australia (we now live in the UK). We developed the system in the late 1990s by combining our knowledge of equine grazing behaviour (which I, Jane, researched as part of my Equine Science MSc) with Regenerative Grazing and Permaculture concepts. More recently, we have also incorporated 'rewilding' information. Our education is extensive, and we incorporate years of learning and dedication to understand the ultimate goal and how each property can function the best.
People sometimes assume that The Equicentral System is merely about the layout of a property, but it is about much more than that. It is a holistic approach that includes ecological land management, increasing biodiversity and improving soil health and pasture. It also incorporates human and horse welfare. In a nutshell, it is about taking care of the land so it can take care of animals and people (now known as the One Welfare concept).
The Equicentral System. The 1st diagram shows paddocks that radiate out from the loafing yard and the second diagram utilises a laneway to get the horses out to the currently used paddock.
Track Systems (including Paddock Paradise) and The Equicentral System aim to get horses out of stables/confinement and to move more. This is possibly the only commonality as both achieve this goal very differently.
This article compares a grass Track System (rather than Paddock Paradise per se) with The Equicentral System.
You can find out more about The Equicentral System here: What is The Equicentral System?
How important is the track for The Equicentral System compared to a Track System?
With The Equicentral System, the track (or laneway as we call it) is the least important part of the system. The laneway is simply a means for the horses to get from the loafing yard to the paddock currently being used for grazing (as part of a rotational grazing system). We advise reducing or eliminating laneways depending on the property layout.
Obviously, with a Track System, it is all about the track. The horses live (usually permanently) on a circular or otherwise track that goes around the land. They eat and carry out all of their other behaviours on the track. This track is usually fenced with temporary electric fencing. There are no 'dead ends', so the horses can keep going around. The width of the track is critical; too narrow and horses can be bullied or trapped by other herd members. Too wide and it is no longer a track and users say it reduces movement.
A loafing area is important so that horses can spread out and find their own space (especially for snoozing/sleeping), so horses that live permanently on a track should be provided with larger more open areas as well.
If the track incorporates a variety of surfaces, this is great for healthy hooves. The loafing yard, which is part of The Equicentral System, can have different surfaces to accomplish the same hoof care goals without compromising grazing behaviours.
Which system is best for soil management and improvement, The Equicentral System or a Track System?
The Equicentral System is about creating a healthy environment for the horse to live in so that they graze the right sort of grasses, herbs, shrubs etc. This allows the horse's natural biochemistry to work for them. But it starts with the soil; after all, just like us, horses are what they eat. Eating healthy food improves their health, and healthy pasture starts with healthy soil. The Equicentral System focuses on good soil health because good soil is essential for life.
With a grass Track System, soil management is not usually prioritised, and the soil on the track can end up severely degraded (compacted, eroded etc.). In dry times of the year (especially in hot, dry climates), the track will be dusty, and soil loss/erosion occurs as the wind blows it away. In countries with abundant rain, unless the land is exceptionally well-draining, the track cannot be used for a certain amount of time each year due to mud.
Which system is best for plant biodiversity, The Equicentral System or a Track System?
The Equicentral System focuses on the whole horse and, just as importantly, the ecosystem where they live, trying to create healthy soil and pasture for the horse to live on. Increased biodiversity benefits more than just the horse; it also helps the wider environment.
A Track System is hoof-centric. Its foundations are built on the premise that the horse eats grass; it gets fat with a potential for laminitis; therefore, you should not allow access to grass. With a Track System, the aim is little, or no grass should be allowed to grow where the horses live. Some 'trackies' encourage growth in the centre of the track to which the horses have little or no access for all or most of the year. This may be used as 'foggage/standing hay' in the winter/dry season. This central but seldom used area can sometimes have good biodiversity, the track very little but usually none.
Having horses on a bare track but having long grass on the other side of the (usually electric) fence can be an issue. Horses will understandably try to get to this grass, creating stress. If they do break through the fence, they will tend to gorge. This is a common problem for owners of horses living on a track.
Which system is best for managing weight issues and laminitis, The Equicentral System or a Track System?
Both systems successfully manage weight issues in horses but go about it differently.
The Equicentral System encourages feeding with (safer) grasses as much as possible and with low-energy hay the rest of the time if necessary. The loafing yard is used to control grazing for the sake of the land (so that it can grow healthy grass in the future) and to monitor the grass intake of the horses. The aim is for the grass to be biodiverse and high in fibre/low in sugar (when managed correctly). This can take a little time to become established but will improve each year.
The Equicentral System aims to gradually but surely improve the lifestyle of horses and their owners. That said, there are times when you may have to take a step back before going forward - in the case of a Laminitic horse, for example (look at for future articles on that). We also recognise that there are barriers to overcome, and it can take time to get the improvements, but even if just a 10% improvement is achieved each year, you are still heading in the right direction.
A Track System controls weight by eliminating grass (or allowing grazing on very short grass), so the horse relies on hay. Whereas The Equicentral System aims to allow ad-lib grazing as much as possible (eventually), a Track System aims to control intake permanently. Some 'Trackies' have attempted to transition their horses to ad-lib (on low-energy) feed but have been unsuccessful. In contrast, others have made the change (and some have become 'Equicentrics' - we have many in our Facebook group).
It is possible to change most horses over (some are more difficult, we are not saying it is easy). Read this blog article: Short or long grass for horses and ponies? Which is best? And the following one: Switching a horse to grazing taller grass plants for more information. We understand and acknowledge that it is not in everyone's power to make these changes.
Which system best allows 'natural' behaviour, The Equicentral System or a Track System?
The Equicentral System is, in effect, a mini 'home range'. In the free-living situation, horses live on a home range (rather than migrate like many other large herbivores). Their home range contains the resources they need (feed, water, shelter) and the size of it is entirely dependent on the availability of resources.
So in harsher conditions, the home range is large (think Brumbies in the Australian outback and Mustangs in the USA). And in less harsh climates, with more readily available resources (think The New Forest in the UK) the home range is much smaller. But in all cases, the horses must travel between the resources, which is what happens in The Equicentral System. This allows the horses to make choices, something that many domestic horses have very little of.
Horses that live on a track and those that spend longer periods in the loafing yard (of an Equicentral System) should be provided with 'enrichment' - look out for a future article). Enrichment can be added to paddocks if necessary. However, the horses may not need it depending on how much grazing time they are getting. Grazing itself is enrichment for horses.
Horses also move between resources on a Track System (although it is to hay rather than grass). Behavioural issues that need to be kept in mind are that horses that are subordinate to other herd members may find it too stressful to access hay (if the track is too narrow). They may end up trapped at the back, unable to get to the hay, or pushed too far ahead, away from it (depending on the set-up).
Another behavioural problem often seen with horses that live on a grass-free track is that they can become frantic about getting to the grass when they are taken out (for a ride/to an event).
Which costs the most to set up, The Equicentral System or a Track System?
Depending on what is in place already, The Equicentral System can usually be set up utilising existing facilities, with possibly some alterations. The most important facility is to have an area of hard standing (a loafing yard). Paddocks/fields may need to be subdivided (for rotational grazing), which can easily be done with electric fencing. Many of our clients use an existing stable yard or even a riding arena.
A Track System usually involves setting up a double or single-fenced track around the land. This is not typically expensive in itself; however, an area of hard standing still needs to be created for times when the track is too wet or too dry. The area in the centre is sometimes used for winter/dry season grazing, but hardstanding is still needed because there will always be times when the track is unsuitable, but for one reason or another, the centre area cannot be used (wrong time of year etc.).
So both systems have similar requirements and costs to set up, but it does depend on what is already in place.
Which costs the most to run, The Equicentral System or a Track System?
Sustainability is essential with The Equicentral System, which utilises whatever space you have to grow safe, healthy pasture to feed your horses. It does not make sense to have land for horses and not maximise its growing potential. This is becoming an increasingly important factor as feed costs continue to rise. By utilising The Equicentral System, you should produce more feed each year as the land recovers and continues to improve and as the horses adapt to grazing safer grasses. This will over time reduce your feed bill.
A Track System does not maximise feed production and relies on bought-in hay more than The Equicentral System. This can be a problem if sourcing hay is difficult, especially during drought conditions.
A drought affects everyone, but well-managed land will provide feed for longer and recover quicker after a drought.
Which system has the most barriers to set up, The Equicentral System or a Track System?
The Equicentral System follows accepted good land management practices: rotational grazing management. It also emphasises less or no mud. So aesthetically an Equicentral System should never create resistance with landowners (if you rent your land) and neighbours. Instead, everyone is usually happy as the land thrives. Also, huge benefits are created for all. Natural resource managers also greatly appreciate The Equicentral System as they recognise how keeping horses in this way is good for the wider environment.
A Track System can create bad feelings with neighbours (due to mud and dust creation). Landowners often resist allowing a track system to be set up for the same reasons so if you rent your land you may not be allowed to set a Track System up.
Which system creates more movement, The Equicentral System or a Track System?
It depends; you need to understand what makes a horse move. They move to get to resources - water, shade/shelter, and most importantly, while grazing. And the more biodiverse the pasture, the more they move to get to the variety of plants in the pasture. The other main reason that horses move is when they are playing. Horses eat for a minimum of 12 hours a day, often longer. Whilst grazing they are continually on the move seeking out the next mouthful.
In a correctly set-up Equicentral System, the horses move a lot. They are grazing biodiverse pasture, and when they finish a grazing 'bout', they move themselves to water (which is back in the surfaced loafing yard, not in the pasture). Occasionally, they also run around and play in the paddock, holding yard, or both. People who use an Equicentral System frequently report that their horses move more than when they grazed overgrazed (set-stocked) pasture or when on a (grass) Track System (especially after it has turned to mud in the winter/wet season).
Remember that horses continually move when grazing biodiverse pasture (the ultimate goal of The Equicentral System). The grass is everywhere, and they have to move to find it. The better you are at being a Grass Farmer, the more biodiverse your pasture, and the more movement takes place. For the first year or so, that can be difficult, but each successive year you should have better and healthier pasture, Remember - it won't change overnight, and often the first year of transition will be the hardest.
Owners of horses on a track system report that their horses move more than when they grazed in open, short grass, set-stocked pastures. In many cases, this movement is horses pushing each other around the track. When eating, they tend not to move much because their hay is in a net or a pile on the ground, so they only move from hay station to hay station. So while they are eating at a stationary net or pile of hay, they are not moving. They only move between piles. So they can be stationary for 12+ hours a day (plus sleeping).
Interestingly, the following study found that horses did not move more on a track than in an open paddock (they moved the most in the open paddock). And this was on a track that had good grass cover. Only the abstract is available to the public (the rest is a paid scientific paper); email me: [email protected] if you would like more specifics.
Monitoring distances travelled by horses using GPS tracking collars - PubMed (nih.gov)
Which system requires the most work, The Equicentral System or a Track System?
The Equicentral System minimises work so you can maximise time spent doing 'quality' activities with your horse or just putting your feet up and enjoying watching them graze! Instead of distributing feed and water around the property, the horses bring themselves to the loafing yard, where shelter/shade, water, hay, and supplementary feed (if necessary) are provided.
At Equiculture, we encourage Dung Beetles whenever possible, so when they are 'working' they take care of the manure in paddocks (if you do not yet know about Dung Beetles, read this article Horses and dung beetles - they are just incredible!). A percentage of the manure ends up in the loafing yard, so you do not have to travel far to clean it up. If you do not have Dung Beetles, manure can be harrowed in because you are resting and rotating the land (as part of a rotational grazing system).
Management of a Track System can be labour intensive as hay nets must be distributed around the track, and manure must be picked up. Also, because the track itself is land that is under pressure, weeds have to be managed. Nature will always attempt to replace bare soil with whatever will grow, and weeds are usually the only thing that can grow in degraded, compacted soil.
Is an Equicentral/Track System hybrid a good idea?
Some people use what they call a 'hybrid' Equicentral Track System'; whilst we understand why people do this, it is not something we usually advocate. Often, a 'hybrid' system is just a Track System where the central area is used for occasional grazing. Another way that some people combine the two is by using the track as the holding yard and allowing grazing on the rest of the land when conditions allow. In this case, it is even more important for the track to be surfaced; otherwise, it will be very difficult to manage, in the same way that land for horses is hard to manage if you do not have somewhere to put them when it is too wet or too dry. In this case, if the horses are fed ad-lib low-energy hay it is not that different to The Equicentral System.
We believe it is difficult for a 'hybrid' system to work (if horses are kept on a short grass track for part of the year) as each system looks at very diverse outcomes. With a 'hybrid' system the horse spends part of the year on restrictive grazing practices and then has to transition to grazing longer grasses.
The Equicentral System aims to provide non-stressed pasture for the horses to graze on for as much of the year as possible. Once horses have transitioned to eating longer grass plants, we feel it is best not to switch between restrictive feeding and ad-lib feeding. As already explained, each approach is very different, and it takes a while for a horse to transition from short to long grass successfully.
That being said, some people successfully manage their horses and land using aspects of both systems. We say if you can do that then great. If you are not trashing your land and your horses are healthy and happy, then you are doing a great job. Every situation is different. Horses are different, and land varies enormously with regard to the amount of pressure it can withstand.
Ultimately, in our opinion, we believe that a Track System, at best, only manages existing conditions. The horse has to be kept on a restrictive diet for the rest of their life with no opportunity to live a natural grazing lifestyle. With The Equicentral system, although the transitional period can be difficult, those horses that can successfully transition to grazing healthier pasture have an opportunity to have a more fulfilling lifestyle. One is where they can choose where they want to be and when. Where they can live on a 'home range' as they would in the wild.
Our philosophy is about improvement rather than maintenance. The health of the soil, the pasture and the horses are all linked. If you can only make small yearly improvements, these soon add up over time.
We have put off writing this article for some time because we do not like to discourage people and create angst and we know this can be a very emotive and divisive topic. Most horse owners desperately want the best for their horses. We repeatedly say that if you are doing is working, as long as you and your horses are happy, then don't make changes. Or at least make sure you know all the pros and cons before you do.
Ultimately all horsekeeping is about compromise and choice, both of which must be made repeatedly. The more information you have, the better you are able to make informed choices.
The main reason we wrote this article is that The Equicentral System is being mentioned more frequently in the literature, on social media etc., but people writing about it often do not fully understand it. Hopefully, this article will have explained more about the different systems so that you know them better.
Further reading/research about alternative grazing systems for horses
This study looked at the length of the plants and how that affected horses' NSC and Blood Glucose/insulin profiles. It compared 'short' grass to 'long' grass and found that 'short' grass was safer. However, the 'short grass was 15cm! (the long grass was between 30cm and 40cm). This study is often casually quoted without being read in full leading people to think that short grass is safer. You can read the complete study below, followed by an article about it by Horse Talk NZ:
Effect of Sward Height on Pasture Nonstructural Carbohydrate Concentrations and Blood Glucose/Insulin Profiles in Grazing Horses - ScienceDirect
Regular pasture mowing has potential to reduce laminitis risk for horses, study finds - Horsetalk.co.nz
This study compared (by questionnaire) various alternative grazing systems for horses (in the UK). It is a good start. More research is needed on this vital subject.
The Use of Alternative Grazing Systems in the UK December 2020 (liverpool.ac.uk)
How can you learn more about horses, land management and the environment?
Start by signing up for the free mini-course about Horses, pasture and grazing www.equiculture.net/equiculture-free-mini-course