A horse’s natural environment is the open range, with seemingly unlimited acreage for foraging and exercise, and the ability to move along when the grass is poor or the footing underneath becomes wet or muddy. For many horse owners with large farms, it’s relatively easy to find space to move horses into different pastures and ensuring that they remain in optimal condition. But for those who have “farm-ettes”, smaller farms or minimal acreage on which horses are kept, it becomes much more of a challenge to keep pastures clean, free of mud and weeds, and producing enough good-quality grass to provide adequate nutrition and satisfying turnout for your horses. So where does one begin?
An old-fashioned ‘rule of thumb’ has been to figure on at least an acre of pasture per horse. Of course, this will vary depending on the quality of forage/pasture grasses, and it does not take into account where in the country the pasture is located — the wetter Northeast, drier Southwest, etc. But this minimum average defines what is required to provide enough space, socialization and exercise, and ‘recycling’ of the horse’s manure and urine output.
Horses require a relatively large amount of pasture, as they are large animals, averaging 1,000 pounds or more, that are very efficient at grazing and can graze a pasture down almost to the roots due to the use of their lips and teeth. They will not eat where they have deposited their manure unless forced to, and will not do well standing in muddy or wet areas. In addition, horses need exercise, and will tend to run and jump, creating divots and slides that tear up the grass — especially when shod with steel shoes — and so safe and level footing is necessary. Thinking and planning ahead for the upcoming summer season will be a big help in figuring out how best to manage your pasture.
It’s important to keep your horse off prime grassy pasture during the wet season. Having a ‘sacrifice’ area, which can be a smaller paddock or pen in which your horse is turned out to get some exercise and fresh air can alleviate this problem. The area should be monitored to prevent mud and wet areas from forming, as horses are susceptible to health problems with their feet and skin from standing in wet, muddy areas, not to mention the increase in insects, flies and parasites that are attracted to such conditions. Provide material for footing that drains well, such as gravel, coarse washed sand or large wood chips when preparing your ‘sacrifice area.’ If sand is used, do not feed your horses directly on the sand, as they can ingest sand and cause colic. Remove manure regularly, and check to see that the turnout area is level so as to prevent water and mud from building up. In addition, the use of gutters and downspouts on barns and buildings where appropriate will help to minimize water runoff and draw the excess water away from the area where the horses are kept.
Horses should not be turned out to graze on pasture until the grass is 6 – 8 inches high. Move the horse off once the grass has been grazed down to 3 inches; ideally if you have enough pasture, you can section it off so that your horse is being moved from section to section, and the grass will regrow to an optimum level by the time he is moved back.
Mowing and weed control are very important in good pasture management. Horses do not graze evenly, and will move from area to area if unrestrained, eating the choicest grasses first, and leaving the lesser preferred forage. This can result in an overgrowth of weeds; some of which are unsafe for your horse to eat. It’s important to mow your pastures after your horses have grazed in order to keep weeds at bay and encourage the good grasses to grow more vigorously. By mowing regularly and moving your horses once they’ve grazed down to three inches, you will encourage the smaller grasses and discourage seed heads from forming, thus preventing the spread of weeds through their seeds.
Consider fertilizing your pastures for optimal growth; the typical nutrients that are added include nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur and calcium. It’s a good idea to have a sample of your pasture soil taken and sent out for testing; contact your local Cooperative Extension office for a list of testing labs in your area. Recommendations for fertilizing your pastures will be based on the results of your testing, and Cooperative Extension can also be helpful in suggesting the type and amounts of fertilizer to apply.
Another important part of optimizing your pasture is managing the horse manure. In areas that are heavily used, remove manure to prevent build-up; other areas will need to be dragged to have the manure distributed evenly, as horses will not graze in the spaces they use as ‘toilet areas.’ In addition, harrowing and distributing manure will help to control flies and parasites.
Manure should be collected and stored in a place that is away from low, wet areas or waterways. It’s important to cover your manure pile during the rainy season with a tarp that is weighted down to control the level of moisture and to prevent nutrients from being washed away. If too wet, the process of composting will be significantly slower, and manure may not compost properly.
Ideally, you can set up a compost system that is comprised of two large side-by-side bins — from as simple as a wood pallet structure to one with concrete pad and sidewalls. It’s important to cover the piles during wet weather, and turn the piles in order to aerate them and speed up the composting process. Smaller piles can be turned by hand; tractors and loaders can be used for larger piles. The process of composting, if done properly, will reduce the manure pile significantly, and the heat produced will kill insect larvae and weed seeds, leaving you with a low-cost, nutrient-rich material that will improve your pastures dramatically. Be sure to spread manure and compost when the soil is dry.
If there are bare spots in your pasture, you can broadcast seed over the pasture to increase the amount of grass that is present. Be sure to use certified seed that is endophyte-free, and is a variety of grass that does well on the type of soil you have. While this is best done in the fall, late September or early October, added seed of about 5 to 10 pounds per acre can be helpful. If you need to reseed large areas, you’ll need to keep the horses off it until the roots become established and the grass is at least three inches high, allowing them to graze lightly for the first season of growth.
Depending on your area and the amount of rainfall you typically experience, some form of irrigation may be necessary in dry periods to keep grasses and legumes growing well.
Even a small horse farm can improve their pastures by practicing good management practices such as listed above. You’ll be rewarded with healthier horses, fewer weeds, better grass and a more pleasing appearance to your farm.