Healthy Horse Pastures

Is your horse pasture healthy?  I don’t mean is it beautiful and green–I mean is it healthy for your horse?!? You may or may not have ever thought about this question, but it’s something I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on lately.

I’ll be honest, until recently, I could have cared less whether my pasture was healthy or not.  I saw grass as the enemy for the most part.  I fretted about how much grass my horses were eating and whether it was sunny or cloudy (which affects the sugar content).  I was especially worried come spring and fall–when horses are most at risk for grass-related laminitis (even though I’ve never had a horse develop this dreaded condition).

In order to restrict grazing, I’ve employed several methods over the years–from keeping my horses penned up for part of the day, building a ‘dry’ lot, using grazing muzzles, and even building a paddock paradise.  All in the name of limiting grass intake.

I’m not saying that the above grass-restriction methods are bad or that they aren’t necessary in some cases.  In fact, I’m sure they’ve saved many horses’ lives.  But I began to question why was I so concerned about grass when my horses had lived on it for years with no problems?  

I’d also like mention that I do still really like the paddock paradise concept–I think it could be great in many situations.  It just wasn’t working for me.  For one, my grass is stubborn.  No matter how much I tilled it and tried to make it go away, it kept coming back. (I refuse to use chemical sprays.)  And I realized that my horses would be better off on pasture than eating the short, stressed grass that was on the track.

Another reason why the paddock paradise didn’t work for me is that one of my oldest horse eats very little hay.  Even though I did allow the herd into the center pasture for a few hours in the early mornings, hay was the main option on the track.  Both Hershey (who’s always been on the thinner side anyways) and Kady (my grandma horse) began to lose weight after several months of being on the track.

So I moved all four of my horses to another pasture for the winter and decided to rethink things for the coming spring.

I realized that I had not been listening to my gut instincts on caring for my horses.  My gut instincts were telling me a couple of things: 1.) Horses are meant to live on grass and 2.) My horses needed more say (and by say, I mean choices) as far their diet is concerned.

I started doing some research in order to learn more about healthy pastures.

I found that there are different opinions on what is considered healthy (many opinions involve fertilizing and spraying), but Joe Camp’s definition of a healthy horse pasture made the most sense to me.  In one article, Joe says “the pasture the horse needs isn’t pretty.”   (By the way, Joe even has a short but informative book on the topic:  Horses Were Born to be on Grass, which I bought.)

So you may be thinking–no, no, no.  My horses can’t live on grass–full time anyways.  I’m not ignoring the fact that so many horses do have problems when living on pasture.  It can and does happen.  I believe there are several reasons for this, but unnatural living conditions, unhealthy pastures, and mineral imbalance are probably a major culprit in grass-related issues.

I also think springing change upon our horses is a recipe for trouble (for example, keeping them in a pen with only hay to eat and then suddenly turning them out on spring grass.)

To me, creating and maintaining healthy pasture makes more sense than depriving my horses of what they are meant to eat though.  So here are my ideas on what a healthy horse pasture should include.

 

Variety

If you look at many horse pastures these days, they’re beautiful.  Lush and green with little to no weeds and comprised of primarily one species of grass.  I know people people that take great pride in how their pastures look.  But beautiful grass does not equal healthy grass (for horses, anyways).

Variety is so important.  Horses roaming free will pick and choose which grasses and plants to eat in order to meet their dietary needs.  Horses in a pasture with one type of grass will eat that grass–because they have no other choice.

In addition, we often seed our pastures with modern grasses which are higher in simple sugars.  We may fertilize and spray for weeds as well.  All good and well if we’re going for aesthetics–but not so good if we’re going for a healthy horse.

 

Horse_Pasture_near_Danemoor_Farm_-_geograph.org.uk_-_442450

Variety is Important!

 

A healthy pasture should consist of a variety of grasses, plants, shrubs, and trees–giving the horse many different options.  What we often consider to be weeds can actually be very beneficial for our horses (as I wrote about recently).  The lowly dandelion, for example, contains many minerals and vitamins and has medicinal value as well.  Just something to consider before you spray. . .

 

Herbs

Living herbs can be a wonderful addition to any horse pasture and this is something that I decided to add to my pasture this year (as I recently wrote about).  Herbs can be great sources of minerals and vitamins and some also have great medicinal value.  In domestication, we’ve taken away so many of the horse’s choices, but I believe that horses are intelligent enough to self-medicate, as so many other species do.  By planting a variety of herbs in your pasture, you are giving them this opportunity.

 

Space

One key factor in having a healthy pasture is having enough space to adequately support the number of horses you have.  Not only do horses need space to move about, but they also need sufficient grass/ plant life to keep them healthy.

When I was  a kid, we had a two-acre pasture with as many as four horses living on it at times.  I realize now that this was just not enough land–for four horses living on it full-time anyways.

So how much land is enough?  Well, the answer depends on a several things, including the type of soil and terrain you have. For many areas, 1-2 two acres per horse is enough, while in areas where grass is sparser, 5-10 acres per horse might be needed.  I found this cool article with a link to a page which can help you find the type of soil your pasture has and also a good estimate of how many horses your pasture can handle.

 

Avoid Overgrazing

Going back to the two-acre pasture we had when I was a kid–it was full of these weeds with little yellow flowers.  These weren’t the ‘good’ weeds either.  Why were they there?  Overgrazing.  Overgrazing will often result in poor quality soil which allows one or two species of weeds to take over.

 

Deaconpasture-triple-crown-nutrition-horse-feed-1-2

 

Giving pasture grasses a chance to rest and recuperate is important– especially if you have a small acreage.  You can do this in several ways such as using portable electric fencing (to fence off certain areas), pasture rotation, or dry lotting (with hay, of course) for a period.    Recovery time for pastures takes anywhere from 10 to 60 days, depending on the season, weather, and soil.

 

Manure Management

 

Horse_manure_BRD6G_3133377b

 

I also wrote about this recently.  I don’t know why it took me so long to realize the importance of manure management in the pasture, but I’m glad that I finally did.  This is especially important if you have multiple horses on a smaller acreage.  By cleaning manure daily (or every few days) from the pasture, you can help to reduce the spread of parasites, minimize flies, and promote a healthier environment (since manure often leaks into nearby streams and ponds, wreaking havoc on water quality as well as plant and animal life.)

 

So, there you have my ideas on what a healthy horse pasture should include.   If you have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment below.

 

Ta-ta,

Casie

 

Sources and Further Reading

Pasture Grass: The Healthy Choice

Pasture: Evaluation and Management of Existing Pasture

Overgrazing can Hurt Environment, Your Pocketbook

Casie

Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

You may also like...

15 Responses

  1. vicki says:

    We too have been considering our pasture this spring. Thanks for your article laying out some good tips for us! We have a pasture that has been growing up this spring, they have yet to be on it, hopefully in the next few days, that has a wide variety of grasses and plants. Thanks for the tip that it should not be just one thing!
    Loving your articles!
    Vicki

  2. Marie says:

    That is a great article!!! We have been working on our pasture as well this spring and your article confirms that we are on the right tract.

    Here’s an article we found very informative on grass. Hope you enjoy it!

    http://www.gotcha.com.au/index.cfm?pageName=articles_aspects_of_pasture_and_feeding#signs

  3. Helen says:

    Hi Casie,

    My horse is pastured at a large farm south of Bastrop TX. The pastures support 40 horses of all ages. Every day the owner uses a harrow in one or more of the pastures to spread the manure out to dry in the sun. A commercial fertilizer is applied by a company in the Spring on all the pastures, but no weed killers. We’ve also had a lot of rain this year for a change. There are lots of different species of the many birds that “take out” the few flies I’ve seen. I’ve read your posts and others about the benefit of free-choice herbs and have found several varieties along the fence lines so all this is good news. Birds are beneficial to a healthy pasture.
    Thank you for your informative posts.

    • Casie says:

      Thanks, Helen. I think harrowing can work in some of he drier climates (and in big pastures), but I’ve always been nervous to do it here. It would definitely be easier though! That’s a good point about the birds. I think supporting an environment were other species such as birds and bats can live and naturally help control insects is important too. 🙂

  4. Susan says:

    I like this article very much. I have always had my horses on grassy pastures and never really had problems with laminits or too much weight gain. The part of this article I liked the best is when you talked about having a variety of species of grasses, weeds, herbs, etc. I wish someone who knows what they are doing would come up with a great recipe for horse pasture for the different areas of the country. I don’t have the expertise to do it myself…if I did, I’d want to start a new seed company….no GMOs either!

  5. Susan says:

    One more comment, a little off subject but still pertaining to pastures: a lot of articles have been written about what trees are poisonous to horses, so don’t plant them. I want to know which trees CAN safely be planted with the horses!!! I can’t find information about that anywhere!

    • Casie says:

      I think horses are smart enough to stay away from what will hurt them as far as trees go–unless they don’t have many other options to eat. An exception might be persimmons. These aren’t poisonous to the horse, but the seeds can get caught up in the intestines, causing colic.

      • Susan says:

        I have a friend who’s horse actually died from Red Maple poisoning. I know not to plant Red Maple and Oak trees are not good either (too many acorns can cause problems). If you do some research, you will find all the no-no’s not to plant. I want to plan out some shade trees for my guys and I don’t know which ones are safe. I don’t want to chance it.

        • Casie says:

          I don’t blame you for wanting to be careful. There were already about 30 trees in our pasture when we moved here and the only ones I’ve removed were the the persimmons. But yes, maple leaves are toxic and acorns can be too.

  6. Scott Kistler says:

    My mom has 3 horses at her farm that I help with and we’ve had one that has been coughing for the past year or so. I kept asking “experts” about what could be going on and always go the same answer….probably just dust or allergens. Never once did any of them indicate it could be a symptom of heaves. I had not even heard that term until this week when a veterinarian friend of ours came by at our request because we were getting no answers. Now we are dealing with an underweight horse in distress and it just really …..well…makes me mad. I’m partly mad at myself because I should have asked more questions and/or more people and I failed Smokey. You have some very good information that we will be using. hoping it helps. Look forward to following your articles. THANK YOU!!

  7. Scott Kistler says:

    Oh, my comments were in regard to your past article on heaves but guess I somehow put it under your healthy pastures article. Sorry about that…..I’ll admit to being country and therefore not too “techno”. 🙂

    • Casie says:

      That’s fine, Scott. I knew which post you were talking about! I’m sorry to hear about your mom’s horse. Heaves is not fun to deal with. Hopefully you’ve caught it in time and can make some changes that will help this horse to be more comfortable though. Glad to have you following the blog, too. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *