Above-Ground Burial for Horses

While attending the 2019 Best Horse Practices Summit in Maine, I had the opportunity to tour a unique equine business called Compassionate Composting. This company deals exclusively with composting dead horses.

Before you wrinkle your nose and turn away, consider that many places across the country have fewer and fewer options for dealing with a horse’s body after the animal has died. Rendering companies are under more scrutiny to reject carcasses of animals  euthanized using barbiturates such as sodium pentobarbital, which is the most common choice for euthanizing horses. Many states or municipalities don’t allow ground burials due to water quality concerns. If you prefer sending your horse’s body to a rendering service, among the remaining choices are euthanasia via gunshot or captive bolt. You could also find a way to transport the horse’s 1,000-pound body to a landfill for disposal.

Or, you could consider what is referred to as an aboveground burial—the composting of a horse’s body. Composting is a biological process that aerobically (requiring oxygen) breaks down carbon-based organisms, or anything that used to be living, and turns it into a healthy, finished material that has beneficial uses on pastures and land. The process is cleaner than anaerobic decomposition (not requiring oxygen) that occurs at landfills, which is very slow and creates the methane (an environment-damaging greenhouse gas) and other foul odors.

I talked with Michelle Melaragno, owner and founder of Compassionate Composting, in Auburn, Maine, to get more information about composting horse carcasses.

Above-Ground Burial for Horses

Q: Please tell us about yourself and your business. How long have you been doing this, and what motivated you to get into it?  

Melaragno: I started Compassionate Composting, an above-ground equine burial service, in the fall of 2012. I had recently purchased some agriculture/resource-protection zoned property abutting my existing property and wanted to establish an agricultural-based business.

Having experienced and heard about some rather horrific removal and disposal stories (of dead horses), I knew there was a significant need for a humane method that was also environmentally responsible. As an assistant instructor for the (regional) Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue, I am experienced in the use of specialty equipment and mechanical handling techniques of large animals. My skills merged with the land purchase and my desire to offer a more thoughtful, respectful service for horse owners. I attended the Maine Compost School and went through the process to get a zoning ordinance amendment, also with the assistance and support of the Maine Compost Team.

Q: I know there are new laws where I live in Idaho and elsewhere in the country that prohibit rendering companies from picking up bodies of horses that have been chemically euthanized. Water quality laws or concerns might also prohibit burying a horse on personal property. Other than the landfill, is composting the only other options for “disposing” of a deceased horse? 

Melaragno: Currently the most utilized options throughout Maine and New England include ground burial (depending on municipal and state laws), cremation, and composting. There are very few options for rendering in New England and very few (if any) landfills that accept large animal carcasses. Alkaline hydrolysis (using lye and heat) is another option but is not yet readily available. Each state has specific regulations regarding ground burial, composting, and rendering. In Maine those requirements are detailed in Chapter 211 – Rules for the Disposal of Animal Carcasses. Every state also has different laws and requirements about what they allow. For example, California does not yet allow carcass composting.

Q: How does the composting process work with a large animal body? How long will it take to decompose? Can the owner pick up and safely use the finished compost?

Melaragno: Most people are familiar with “backyard composting,” but it is important to note that the composting of large animals is a very different process. It is a thermophilic process (which reaches higher temperatures—between 106 and 252 degrees Fahrenheit—than traditional composting) with a specific “recipe” for bulking materials and shaping windrows. (Bulking materials are the carbon-based materials used in composting to add structure to a pile, such as shavings, dry leaves, landscaping materials, shredded paper, or animal bedding. Windrows describe the shape the bulking materials create.) The bulking material we use is stall waste from horse facilities. The animal is placed on a deep bed of bulking material in a large, long windrow, next to but not touching other animals. Then it is covered with more of the same bulking material. Standards for the shape and size of the windrow/pile must be followed to:

  1. Mitigate against potential odor issues;
  2. Not attract predators;
  3. Contain bodily fluids; and
  4. Maintain the best environment for proper composting.

In a properly constructed pile or windrow, all soft tissue is decomposed in four to five months. Only bones remain, which continue to break down at a slower pace. Temperatures are recorded to confirm that the process achieves at least 131 degrees Fahrenheit for three consecutive days, which ensures pathogen (disease-causing organism) destruction. The location of every animal is marked, and owners can return a few months later to obtain compost from that area. Occasionally, an owner opts to have a fully private aboveground burial, in which case they can get back all composted remains. No restrictions have been placed on the use of the finished compost. Studies regarding residues of sodium pentobarbital or other drugs commonly used in horses show very little or no remaining amount in the finished compost product. I encourage owners to use the compost as a soil amendment for landscaping or flower beds or to spread it in the fields where their horse grazed.

Q: What kind of permitting is required for a business like yours? 

Melaragno: Every municipality and state will have different requirements and laws. I had to go through the lengthy and expensive process of getting a zoning ordinance amendment in my town. A Compost Management Plan is also required in Maine and must be developed with professionals such as the Maine Compost Team as well as the Department of Agriculture, Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Maine Extension Service, and the Maine State Planning Office.

Above-Ground Burial for Horses

Q: Do you provide a pickup service? And if so, how does that work? 

Melaragno: For the horse owner, this is the most important part of the services I offer, because my approach involves respectful and gentle handling of the horse’s body. A horse’s body is not dragged (in chains by a leg or neck) across the ground, as is the case with rendering services. I utilize Large Animal Emergency Rescue Equipment, specifically the Large Animal Rescue Glide, as well as large animal rescue techniques and mechanics. The Rescue Glide is essentially a (thin but very durable plastic) horse-sized stretcher that allows for the humane and gentle handling of the horse’s body. The horse is secured to the glide, which is attached to a winch inside the trailer that pulls the glide with the horse’s body inside the trailer.

Q: What do you recommend horse owners in other parts of the country think about when considering or selecting a composting service for their deceased horse? 

Melaragno: I recommend the following:

  1. Before a horse owner ever has a need, research available options in your area (and check surrounding states);
  2. Check local and state laws and requirements regarding ground burial and composting; and
  3. If burial or composting are permitted on your property, check laws to determine setbacks from roads, structures, property boundaries, wells, and other water sources.

Extension in each state is a great resource!

Q: How have horse owners reacted to the idea of “compassionate composting”?

Melaragno: There seems to be a growing receptivity to the concept of composting horses with this above-ground burial method. Horse owners generally seem very relieved to know their horse is being handled with respect and that they are utilizing to an environmentally responsible option. With my methods, horse owners can comfortably witness the handling process and often jump in to assist, which seems to give them a peaceful sense of closure in many cases.