During November 2013, BRIT became the temporary home of twelve horses who helped our researchers study the impact of grazing herbivores on our restored prairie habitat. Prairies used to be home to bison, elk, deer, and other large herbivores whose hooves would aerate the soil and whose grazing habits (and ability to provide fertilizer) helped with the germination of native plants and grasses. As the horses ate down the grass, sunlight was also able to penetrate further into the foliage, which allowed new seedlings to grow and made for a healthier prairie.
Our original objectives for the project were to:
Prior to working on the prairie, we:
Once the horses arrived, we left them undisturbed for two weeks as they ate, slept, and played in their temporary prairie home.
After the horses left, we observed the following:
Prairies that are not managed do not stay prairies. Perennial bunchgrasses create dense stands and thick layers of old leaf material, crowding out annual grasses and forbs that need to space and sunlight to germinate each year. Woody plants (e.g., mesquite, juniper, pecan, oak) eventually get big enough to create shady areas, changing the soil moisture and chemistry. The horses we brought into our prairie were but one tool for prairie management; in the absence of hosting the horses every year, we can manage the prairie through mowing or burning to achieve similar results.
In January 2021, we finally got our chance and successfully burned our prairie for the first time (read about it here!). Because of the highly urban location of our pocket prairie, we are in a great spot to demonstrate to city dwellers what historical prairies and prairie management techniques look like. We hope to cycle through these three techniques — grazing animals, burning, and mowing — over the years to continue educating our growing community.