Ten years ago, a friend sent me a packet of wildflower seeds, which I indiscriminately sprinkled along the outside of a fence line. My friend had suggested I plant the seeds along the side of the house lawn, but I thought to myself, “Why ruin my lawn?”
But when some of those wildflowers actually came up from my haphazard planting, I had an epiphany…these are native plants, why am I freaking out if I see anything that isn’t a grass in my pastures? Then it occurred to me that pastures 100 years ago were not single plant monocultures, but diverse ecosystems.
These days I have cool and warm season grasses (orchard, big bluestem, Indian grass as well as clover and some fescue), wild herbs, and wild flowers growing everywhere: pastures, fence lines, and the grassy area once known as a lawn, which in spring looks more like a dandelion convention. We leave swaths of pasture unmowed along the tree line for the birds, the butterflies, bumblebees, and the wild bees. Even the paddocks have wild chamomile growing along some of the fence lines. Blackberry thickets have sprung up, the honeysuckle vines provide food for the hummingbirds, and the elderberries, which I used to hack down as nuisance, are providing pollen for my neighbor’s honeybees.
I have come to appreciate diversity, and in fact seek it.
Diversity and the GI tract:
Diversity plays an important role in diet. The microbiome of the GI tract is a multi-strain universe that depends on food varieties to support diversity of beneficial microorganisms. Studies of small diet changes in mice and humans show that various colonies of beneficial bacteria can increase within 24 hours.
Supporting good GI tract microbiome diversity does not mean you have to overhaul your feed program overnight; in fact that could cause an upset in the colonies of the GI tract. Supporting healthy microorganisms in the gut can be as simple as offering your horse small amounts of different foods like cucumbers, celery, squash, lettuce, pumpkin seeds, chopped beet greens, some slices of papaya, mango, a handful of blueberries, some parsley, a few carrot tops, some basil leaves. My horses love mint: spearmint, apple mint, and peppermint leaves from right out of the garden.
I like to rotate hays: alfalfa with timothy, orchard grass with alfalfa, orchard grass and timothy, and sometimes some chaff hay sprinkled in.
There are some wonderful herbs that, if allowed to grow in pastures, provide supplemental variety for horses: chicory, milk thistle, burdock root (horses can dig up the root in winter and eat it), chamomile, dandelions, chickweed, and plantain. Just because these herbs are growing in the pasture does not mean a horse devours them; horses nibble on the herbs and move back to the grasses. I know we’ve all known horses who will chow down on the dandelions, and others who couldn’t be less interested. It is the same with the beneficial wild herbs.
What one human might call a weed, another might know as a medicine.
Diversity in the ecosystem:
When we look at the ecosystem at large, the sheer diversity of plants, animals, and insects we see only highlights the fact that a monoculture approach works against the very essence of Nature. We need to celebrate diversity, encourage it. We need to consider the other species that do share pastures and trees with us and with the horses. Because all the elements in an ecosystem work together — depend on each other.
Think of the diverse populations that comprise the microbiome of the horse’s gut as a mirror for the diversity in Nature. Is there only one kind of tree? Only one kind of grass? One kind of wildflower?
A beautiful pasture now:
I used to look at lovely lush pastures and think, what could be better for horses? But I have since changed my tune. When I see pasture grasses sprinkled with dandelions, clover, some Queen Anne’s Lace, some chamomile — I see an ecology-minded pasture that is not only beneficial for the horses, but for the birds, insects, and bees.
Diversity is a fundamental component of the natural world. When we fear diversity, we become disconnected, and all the components of the ecosystem are then at risk from the imbalance. Our job is not to conquer the fields; our job is to harmonize with the fields.