A pasture provides food and room for a horse to exercise. It should have adequate plant growth for forage and shelter from weather elements. There should be access to water and salt. It should be free of holes, obstacles or other objects that would cause injury. Pastures can greatly reduce the cost of feed, reduce the amount of stall cleaning and add enjoyment to the horse’s life. Horses were designed to live outside, roaming, playing and eating at will.
Pasture development and management requires knowledge about many aspects of land management, soil management, crop growth, fertilizers, irrigation, weed control, planting and harvesting. Unless you are confident that you have the knowledge to deal with all of these subjects, consult your local agricultural extension agent for advice.
Keeping horses on pastures that are already established is a different subject. This discussion will represent a general overview. Horse owners can turn out their horses “in the pasture” while never giving a second thought about how to optimize the land use or what will benefit the horses. There are a few general guidelines to keep in mind if you maintain pastures for your horses.
Horses can do a significant amount of damage to a pasture. Their hooves are very damaging to the land, digging up tender roots and young shoots that would replace the plants they have eaten. If the pasture is overgrazed, it will turn into a mud or dirt field. The horses will paw at the ground searching for something to eat. They will defecate in an area and will not eat any food in that area, thereby eliminating a certain amount of the pasture from their food source. If the horse-to- pasture size ratio is incorrect, the pasture will be used up in short order.
The best time to put horses out to a pasture is when the plant growth is between 4-6 inches. This gives the plant roots a chance to get firmly grounded. The pasture has to be closely monitored; when 50% of the plant growth is gone, move the horses off the pasture. The pasture should be allowed to rest for at least four weeks.
The concept of rotational grazing is important to the horse’s health and optimum pasture output. If the horses overgraze the pasture and the plants can not rejuvenate, the pasture will be useless. Ideally, the pasture should be just large enough so that the horses put on it will consume all of the forage produced in about 10-14 days. Horses eat the plants that are most palatable to them first, leaving mature or distasteful plants last or they may not even eat these at all. These factors combine to cause increased weeds in overgrazed areas and wasted forage in the undergrazed areas. To correct patchy grazing, mow the weeds and the wasted forage and spread the manure that has accumulated in spots.
The general rule of thumb is that a pasture may hold two horses per acre per month. There are factors that must be taken into consideration for your specific pasture situation such as weather, types of pasture plants and your horses’ grazing behaviors.
The important aspect of pasture management is that the pasture manager be observant and knowledgeable about grazing horses.