A Deep Ecology of Horse Manure by Mary Sharratt

My recent move from Northern England to the Silver Coast of Portugal has been a radical change on so many levels. Not only am I coming to grips with a different climate and culture and immersed in learning a very challenging new language, I have embraced a completely different lifestyle.

For the first time ever, I can keep my beloved Welsh mare and matriarch, Ms. Boo, at home, along with her companion, the dashing Zinco, a very handsome but sometimes aloof Lusitano gelding. My pet name for him is Mr. Darcy.

I could have taken the easy route and put Boo on a livery yard that did all the care for me, but I wanted to give Boo a lifestyle with daily year round turn out in a big field and none of my local livery yards offered this, though I talked to some very kind and helpful people at these establishments. It’s just a different approach to horse care in Portugal, which prioritizes stabling horses and using their energy for training exercises and riding.

My life now literally revolves around horse care and feeding. As soon as it’s daylight, I’m out bringing them their morning feed before I even have my human breakfast or coffee. I bring them their evening feed some time before sunset. So my writing, intensive Portuguese classes, or whatever else I’m doing is necessarily book-ended by horse care. My “productivity” can suffer as a result. If you have animals or children or other care-taking duties, the care-taking always has to come first. My change in lifestyle prompted me to question precisely why our culture privileges such a narrow view of productivity in terms of working for and selling ourselves to the corporate world rather than caring for the land and beings all around us.

I addition, I poo-pick the field twice daily, a very time-consuming task. I was in a bit of a quandary whether all this meticulous poo-picking was actually necessary. Many UK-based sites insists it is an obligatory part of horse welfare to control both flies and the spreading of parasites. However, my Portuguese farmer neighbor and my farrier both hinted that I could just leave the stuff on the ground and it might actually be better for the soil if I did.

I actually don’t mind poo-picking. It’s good exercise and very meditative, especially in early morning when the sun is rising above the mist and the dew is sparkling on each blade of grass. The other morning I saw a magnificent full moon setting majestically over the Atlantic Ocean on the far Western horizon. It’s so serene and peaceful, just listening to the birds and the horses munching their hay. I feel like I’m entering a slower, more authentic world where time is measured not by smart phones bleeping at you but by the deep cycles of nature, the sun and the moon, and the distant chiming of village church bells.

Breakfast at dawn

I think if certain world leaders got up early to poo pick, they would spend far less time spreading verbal horse sh*t on Twitter.

In many ways this feels like a homecoming, a return to my roots. On both sides of my family, my grandparents were farmers and many of my first cousins and their children are still farmers. Although I’m not an actual farmer, keeping horses at home has made me an accidental small holder.

Alas, the consequence of my poo-picking habit is an ever-growing mountain of a muck heap. What to do with all this manure is a perplexing problem if you don’t have a manure spreader and other fields to spread it on. I offered it to the farmer next door, only to receive a lecture on his view that chicken poo, sheep poo, goat poo, and cow poo are all superior to horse manure! A hierarchy of poo! (It was this gentleman who hinted that I was better off just leaving the stuff where the horses dumped it.)

Nonetheless I have a most imposing muck heap that will only get bigger unless some action is taken. I posted that I had free horse manure to collect on some local gardening sites. So far two people have taken me up on it. Both people took as much manure as they could possibly squeeze into their cars–it hardly made a dent on my manure pile! But from them I learned some valuable tips on composting and have been inspired to dig out the mature stuff at the bottom of the pile to put on my roses and hydrangeas. Hint: if you ever have insomnia, spending a day carting wheelbarrows full of horse manure all around your garden will insure you sleep like a rock.

It’s something sad if horse manure is just viewed as an unwanted waste product instead of being recognized as part of the deep ecology of animal-keeping and gardening. Manure is compost in the making.

In the meantime, my “manure friends” who have collected the stuff for their gardens have gifted me with organic produce and homemade fig jam. I still have a lot to learn but this new life is teaching me so much. Living in harmony with nature isn’t just posting pictures of pretty flowers on Instagram. It’s getting actual dirt under your fingernails.

Mary Sharratt
is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel
Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelations, about the globe-trotting mystic and rabble-rouser, Margery Kempe, will be published in April 2021. Visit her website.

Categories: Interdependence of Life, Nature

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34 replies

  1. Humbling and meditative rituals for the body and mind, while your storytelling gestates.
    There’s a sense of peace and contentment as you adjust, thank you sharing these precious moments. And well done on having the courage to make this move, to change your community.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Loved this Mary. Especially your down to earth approach re pretty flowers and Instagram – nature is so much more than that, as you rightly say. It’s a great teacher.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This read like a morning meditation, Mary. I so enjoyed imagining you poo-picking as I sipped my morning coffee. Thank you for your insights, for your nudge toward simpler, earthier things.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. When I lived in Cyprus near Limassol in the late 80s I was a groom and instructor at a military saddle club. We use to poo pick every morning and there was lots of it. Our muck heap was getting tall and we offered it free to the locals etc, but then we were contacted by an owner of a mushroom farm and he used to come and collect it when he needed it. Worked out very well for us.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Are you boarding a horse or do you have two now? Charlie Dimmock the queen of gardening says manure should be used only after it stops smelling.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thank you for this post, Mary.

    There are so many aspects of it to appreciate but for time’s sake I’ll focus on the one that probably has the least potential input from experience: manure. True, there’s a hierarchy of usefulness of raw manure from a cropping point of view, and after 30 years of massive amounts of goat manure, I’d agree with the English about flies and parasites.

    Two possibilities for moving that ever growing pile on in widely beneficial ways would be
    1. reach out to organic farms and wineries, who would take it by the dump truck load
    2. Get a tractor with a bucket and literally turn the pile into compost (possibly even biodynamic compost). Get a system to bag up the finished stuff and then it can be easily picked up at the farm by gardeners or distributed to food coops and garden centers.
    Either way, see about getting certified organic if the piles still don’t disappear.

    I know this sounds like capitalism walking right back in to your new world, but really capitalism is a corruption of the natural full circle exchange economy. You bring in inputs for the horses, so if nothing leaves again, there is no flow. Tuning the flow for our current world is the trick ;-)

    Congratulations and all the best to you with this new chapter! Very much looking forward to hearing more.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I grew up on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina, when necessities (milk, bread, ice, etc.) were delivered by horse cart several times a week. When a horse dropped their poo on the cobblestone street in front of our house, neighbors swarmed out of their homes to gather the manure for their gardens. It’s an childhood image that has stayed with me for years!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. “Living in harmony with nature isn’t just posting pictures of pretty flowers on Instagram. It’s getting actual dirt under your fingernails.”
    Yes -it’s fine to post pictures but unless a person immerses herself in nature in some kind of direct way there is a lack of intimacy that creates distancing.
    I also like what you say about caregiving animals – Everything in my life seems to revolve around caring for my dogs inside and caring for birds, gardens, tree , land outside… I am always in direct relationship with nature unless I am writing.
    Ironically I can’t find anyone to give me manure which I have always used for gardening…ridiculous… and there is nothing better for the soil/flowers/food.
    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks…

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Mary, I love your delving into the meaning of “productivity.” Geez, we get so damaged by the Puritan idea that if we’re not “productive” we’re lazy or worse. Just what does that mean? I think of Alice in Wonderland and her need to keep running faster just to keep up. We miss not only the sweetness of life but the brilliance of nature and the cycles that sustain us that are so integral to our sustenance. And we do so at great peril. Brav@ to your work!

    Liked by 5 people

  10. I never knew there was a hierarchy of manure. I always learn something from your posts. And your novels, too. Seriously, it’s good to hear from you and to learn that you’re thriving in Portugal and that you’re taking good care of your horses. You’re still productive, but now it’s not just writing. You’re being productive with Real Life, i.e., Nature. Hooray! And brightest blessings to you, your husband, and both horses. (BTW, are you suggesting that the Austen hero is a gelding just because he’s so polite?? Just wondering. Haha.)

    Liked by 4 people

  11. Love this post, Mary. Horse sense–and sensibility.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. Lovely post, Mary. Compost is a part of my religion.There was a short period in my life when I wasn’t able to compost, and it felt awful, because, as Laurie Goodhart describes in a different way above, it’s a part of the birth/life/death/and rebirth cycle that is the basis of Wicca. And manure is already partway to useable compost as opposed to vegetable waste, which has to decay first. Good luck with your “waste,” which need not be wasted.

    You also wrote about another part of that cycle, namely life. Sustaining life is about care. But we know that caring for animals, caring for babies, caring for other people is women’s work, and as a result, not recognized for its importance to all our lives.All you need to write about now is birth…

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Firstly I think you absolutely right that if all our leaders spent time doing the very basics and poop handling there would be a big shift in perspective and I am a little jealous you are able to make the shift from a 9-5 perspective to living with the rhythym of the land and sky.

    On a practical level I think your local farmer is on to something, you have gone through an enormous shift in climate from essentially cold and wet to warm and dry and the land will respond differently to manure because of this, there is more benefit to the land to leave it as it will process much quicker in Portugal than it would in the UK. Poo picking in the UK has become another stick with which to beat the horse owner and maybe symptomatic of the fact that we do not have the luxury of switching fields out with a different type of livestock to keep the worm burden down. Also fresh horse manure is often too rich for the garden, give it a year and gardeners will fighting for it, especially good for rose and rhubarb btw.

    Finally I hope that you are getting a load more riding in with the decreased rain fall :-).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your reading and your insights, Kt! I read recently that in temperatures over 90 Fahrenheit, the parasites in the manure die off anyway, so at least in the summer heat, the worm burden shouldn’t be such an issue.


  14. This is without a doubt one of the most beautiful word-pictures I have ever read! You made me feel as if I were there with you, seeing through your eyes and appreciating with your consciousness.

    Your essay is like receiving an unexpected birthday present. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Such beautiful horses! I volunteer on a sanctuary farm, and call my volunteering time- a majority of which is spent poo-picking- my Moving Meditation.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Makes me miss having horses.. also I agree, with that statement politicians should stay off Twitter 😂

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Mary Sharratt, I think you have a heart of farmer as you care for of your horses show that you can be a good farmer. Why not to buy a land which you can use as farm because the poo horse as you put it. It will be great manure for that farm. I suggest to get land for farming whereby your horse poo will be use. Even though horse poo is light compared to goat poo as you put it. Becoming a farmer will to reduce the huge manure on your site. Second you can start free giving manure to your local farmers who can not get manure from market which is nice idea. My father was a farmer and what they did is to give away manure free so that we reduce the huge file. If you do that then you will be free from huge file of manure. Why the local farmers said that horses poo are light is due to that we did not allowed them to roam. I like your idea of giving manure to your local farmer. i think your present among them will be blessing to them and i wish you to continuing caring for your horses. Who know maybe if there is competition for animals welfare organization you will be number one as you care for your horse like babies.

    Liked by 1 person

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