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Should I Consider Composting A Horse Carcass?

By Jeffrey Rolo

Composting horse carcasses has become an increasingly popular method of disposal, particularly among those that believe composting offers significant environmental benefits. While it is true that composting a horse carcass can be an environmentally friendly disposal method when done properly, it's not an option for everyone.

First and foremost you need to research any state or local laws regarding the disposal of horse carcasses. For example, in Illinois the Dead Animal Disposal Act forbids allowing any body part of a horse carcass to remain above ground for more than 24 hours, effectively banning composting throughout the state. Just as with horse burials, laws can vary significantly among different states and counties.

Penalties for accidentally or intentionally violating horse disposal laws can be significant, and unlike burial, a compost pile is much more visibly evident for neighbors or town officials to witness. So regardless of your views of what you may or may not do on your own property, it's not a good idea to attempt a horse carcass compost without first consulting with local and/or state officials to make sure that your efforts will be in compliance.

What are other considerations to take into account? Obviously there's the emotional one; some horse owners may not be comfortable with a constant reminder of their deceased companion if a compost pile remains within eyeshot of their home or barn. After a burial or off-property removal, the carcass is out of sight, and as the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.” More sentimental horse owners prefer to think about their deceased companion as little as possible immediately after the event when their emotions are at their rawest, until time has allowed their emotional wounds to heal a bit.

Other considerations are odors, vermin and biological contamination. Technically if you follow proper composting procedures, you'll provide a buffer between the compost pile and frequently traveled areas. The problem is a buffer requires you to own a good-sized plot of land... large enough to ensure winds won't carry odors or contaminated water runoffs won't run down to your living areas or water supplies. Provided you can maintain a proper buffer, odor and vermin considerations will be minimized, leaving only biological contamination to worry about.

When a compost pile is properly formed, the high temperatures achieved during the composting process should be enough to destroy most viruses or pathogens, thereby eliminating the biological threats. The carcass itself will be destroyed by micro-organisms over time, leaving behind bone fragments and environmentally-friendly fertilizer. So horse composting is a completely safe process as long as you take necessary precautions and avoid taking any shortcuts.

Still gung-ho about composting a horse carcass? There's one last thing to consider: horse composting will require a light degree of observation (i.e., taking the internal temperatures of the pile), and if the composting pile isn't reacting properly you may need to re-do the job so as to achieve the proper balances necessary for the composting process to work. There is a sweet spot that internal composting temperatures must maintain; too low and odors/biological contamination will occur due to the decomposition process not occurring properly, while if the pile's temperature is too high spontaneous combustion can occur!

If the idea of potentially turning over new compost materials over an already rotting carcass due to the initial compost pile not being produced properly scares you... composting might not be the best option for you. It can be a “set and forget” process once you confirm that your initial temperature goals have been met, but it's not guaranteed, particularly if you are new to the composting process.

In our follow-up article we'll discuss the specific processes to follow when composting a dead horse, such as materials you'll need, temperature goals you'll want to meet, and more at How To Compost A Dead Horse.

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