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Horses at pasture

Pasture management

‘If you watch horses grazing pasture you would think that they were made for each other. You would in fact be correct; millions of years of evolution have created a symbiotic relationship between equines (and other grazing animals) and grasslands. Our aim as horse owners and as custodians of the land should be to replicate that relationship on our property as closely as possible. By managing our land effectively we can ensure that the environment and our horses achieve optimum health.’ Extract from Understanding Horses and Pasture

‘In an ideal world most horse owners would like to have healthy nutritious pastures on which to graze their horses all year round. Unfortunately the reality for many horse owners is far from ideal. However it is possible to improve and maintain your pastures to an optimum level with a little applied knowledge. Good pasture management requires an understanding of equine grazing behaviour combined with an understanding of grazing systems. This information can then be applied taking into account the needs of you, your horses and the pasture that you have.’ Extract from Horse Pasture Management

Horse owners need to think in terms of being ‘grass farmers’ however the types of grass that they farm is (or should be) very different to those of cattle and sheep farmers. Horse owners require pastures that are rich in diversity (have many species) and contain predominantly grasses that are resilient and most importantly are low in sugar. Much of what is written in books and articles about pasture grasses applies to cattle and to a lesser extent sheep. Domestic cattle have very different needs to horses therefore to sow grasses that have been developed for cattle can be very dangerous for horses. This is because grasses for cattle are usually very high in sugar. Remember farmers need their (beef) cattle to gain weight quickly (so that they can be sold/butchered as soon as possible) or produce gallons of milk (in the case of dairy cattle), neither of which function is required by horse owners for their horses. Other potential problems with pasture grasses that have been developed for cattle are high oxalate levels (which can lead to calcium deficiency and then ‘big head’) or dangerous endophytes (which leads to conditions such as ‘staggers’ and can affect cattle and sheep too).

Pastures for horses must provide relatively safe grasses that can be grazed with minimal problems, but deciding which grasses to sow for horse pastures is not easy. As well as avoiding pastures that can lead to ‘big head’ or ‘staggers’ you need to avoid the risks associated with obesity which puts the horse in a higher risk category for laminitis/founder (an extremely debilitating condition). Older insulin-resistant and Cushing’s Syndrome horses can be particularly at risk on certain grasses.

Even information written about pasture for horses is often inaccurate and assumes that they are either working very hard (much of the information comes from a time when horses worked very hard for a living) or are breeding/growing. The information rarely (if ever) takes into account horses that are mature and either in light work or are not in work at all. These horses make up a large percentage of the horse industry and it is these horses that often fall prey to conditions such as laminitis/founder.

To compound these misunderstandings and common beliefs, many horse owners do not have a land management background. Horse owners often start life in the city or suburbia and then move to acreage because of their interest in horses. It is even quite common for experienced and professional horse people to have no real understanding of land care. Horse owners tend to be highly focused on their horses but the pasture side of horse management is often put in the 'too hard' basket. Degraded pasture is frequently believed to be an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of domestic horsekeeping.

This creates a reputation for horse owners of being poor land managers. It is very common to see examples of poor land management in semi rural and rural areas. Common sights are pastures with areas of bare compacted soil, erosion, mud and dust, weeds and rank grass. This poor land management leads to health issues in horses as well as creating problems for the environment. Mud and dust in particular cause skin problems (greasy heel etc.) and respiratory problems in horses. Other health issues that can result from poor pasture management besides laminitis/founder are colic, obesity or loss of condition. Increases in horse intestinal parasites (‘worms’) are also a consequence of poor pasture management. Badly managed pasture is an eyesore to all and creates degradation to the environment through contaminated run off, soil loss, loss of habitat for wildlife and water pollution.

The most common mistake carried out by horse owners is overgrazing. This occurs for several reasons including:-

We now know that short grass has a higher sugar content (per mouthful) and because horses are able to eat very short grass (and in fact seek it out) keeping them on short grass does not really restrict their intake.

Also once the grass gets too short it becomes more stressed and is unable to effectively photosynthesise and eventually dies out. One this happens the land quickly begins to degrade. Another consequence of overgrazing is that the pasture becomes a monoculture and only the species that are able to cope with high intensity grazing survive - along with hardy weeds that the horse will not normally eat.

The first step in becoming a ‘grass farmer’ is to ‘hold your horses’ and let the grass get in front of your horses rather than being continually stressed from having to play catch up. The simplest method of doing this is to rotationally graze your pasture, this combined with a few other simple systems will ensure that your horses, the land and the environment all benefit.

If you want to learn more about pasture management we cover all this information and much more in our one day seminars. Please subscribe to our mailing list and you will be kept up to date with additions to this site including new seminar dates etc. On Facebook we have pages for Jane Myers and Equiculture and The Equicentral System

Also for more information on pasture management see our publications including Horse pasture management, Understanding horses and pasture, Managing horses on small properties. See also the articles and links on the More pasture info page.