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Horse pasture management

Jun 27, 2022
Why is horse pasture management important

A biodiverse pasture has many plants suitable for forage, of which grass is the most prevalent. As far as your horse is concerned, pasture is about as important as it gets (alongside the companionship of other horses).

So you must get this right. There are many benefits to having good pasture management for your horses, the wider environment, and yourself. These are listed at the end of this article, so please keep reading.


How should you manage pasture for horses?


Much of the information that is available about horse pasture management is outdated.

For example, the practice of 'rolling' pasture (with a metal, heavy roller pulled by a tractor - a common practice in the UK) assumes that you allow the land to become damaged every winter; therefore, the land needs to be 'rolled' every spring. But instead, you should aim not to create that damage in the first place - rolling compacts the soil, which you need to avoid because compacted soil is on a downwards spiral.

The practice of picking up every bit of manure (from pasture) assumes that you are not rotating the land or using other methods to control 'worms'.

Stick with us, and we can bring you bang up to date!


What are the best tools for horse pasture management?


Believe it or not, the best tools for horse pasture management are you, your horses, and a means to get them off the land (hardstanding) when it is too wet or too dry for grazing!

  • You make the decisions. 
  • Your horses can help you to create healthy land (yes, really!).
  • Hard standing allows you to remove 'grazing pressure' when your land needs a rest.

At Equiculture we advocate that you create a 'loafing' yard. This area can have many names (including a dry lot, holding yard, stack yard etc.) but is essentially a surfaced area where horses can carry out all of their behaviours other than grazing.

Creating a loafing yard will reduce 'pugging' (the damage that hooves cause to wet soil) and soil compaction to a considerable extent. Especially if you set it up so the horses can freely access this area from the paddock/field they are currently grazing. Much of the pugging in horse paddocks is caused by horses standing at or near the gateway, waiting to be let back in after finishing a 'grazing bout'.

It is usually a simple thing to do (set up a loafing area) yet incredibly effective (look at The Equicentral System if you are interested in how you can (usually easily) change things around).


Why is biodiversity important in a horse pasture?

Another important thing that we advocate at Equiculture is that you prioritise biodiversity in a horse pasture. Increased biodiversity means more plant variety for horses to eat (domestic horses rarely get enough plant variety in their diet), a healthier gut biome for horses, and more habitat for wildlife - the list goes on.



Why are longer grass plants better than short ones in a horse pasture?

At Equiculture we advocate maintaining longer grass length than is traditionally recommended. After finishing this article, make sure you read Short grass or long grass for horses - which is best?



Why are grazing systems such an important part of horse pasture management?

This is not complicated. Traditionally, most of the land used for horses is 'set stocked'. This means that all of the land is used all of the time. This results in stressed, poor pasture that eventually gives up and dies and is replaced by an abundance of weeds. This is because weeds are usually the only plants that can grow in such conditions. Set stocking only works when you have a very large area of land in relation to the number of animals. In addition, other animal types need to be grazing along with the horses. So that rules out most horse properties.

We talk about grazing systems a lot in our work. Without using some kind of grazing system (other than 'set stocking'), the land will degrade every year until you are left with short stressed grass plants, weeds, mud and dust.


What is rotational grazing for horses?


Pasture needs to be rested if it is to thrive

Grass plants thrive on being grazed but then being allowed to rest and recuperate. So pasture rotation is vital whatever the area of land your horses are kept on - large or small. The surfaced 'loafing' area also comes into play here. It means that you can vastly reduce the grazing pressure on the land without stressing the horses (because horses naturally spend several hours each day 'loafing'). 

Other grazing systems can be added to pasture rotation to fine-tune it, but you must also ensure you do not overgraze the land. For example, strip grazing to the point that the pasture is grazed too short will create damage that may lead to later problems.


Why should you Identify 'high traffic' areas on a horse property and surface them?

So this includes tracks/laneways, gateways etc. They should be surfaced if they cannot grow grass (due to constant use). Otherwise, that area will degrade. This surface can be with anything from sand, gravel, mud mats etc. So it stands to reason that you should minimise these areas because surfacing is very expensive.

Aim to have just one surfaced area (a loafing area) and use it daily (AKA The Equicentral System). Many horse properties already have a surfaced area that can be utilised for this; it might be that you have not thought of it in this way before.

We frequently visit properties where owners have not realised they already have excellent infrastructure. They just needed to see it differently. Or it may be that by creating a loafing area, you can also create an area for training/riding. In 9 out of 10 cases thinking outside the square (our speciality) leads to huge savings rather than more costs.



How can you learn more about horses, land management and the environment?

Start by signing up for the free mini-course about Horses, pasture and grazing www.equiculture.net/equiculture-free-mini-course



What are the benefits of pasture to your horse, the wider environment and yourself?


The benefits of good pasture for horses

  • Grass and other pasture plants are what horses have evolved to eat; it is their most natural feed source. Horses eat a wide range of pasture species. Although they are predominantly grazers, they are also browsers and foragers, supplementing their diet with many things, including bushes, trees, herbs, berries and succulents.

  • These pasture species have evolved over millions of years to have a symbiotic relationship with the animals grazing on them. Just as grazing animals cannot survive without the nutrition that biodiverse pasture provides, the grasslands rely on grazing animals for survival.

  • The correct type of pasture is an excellent feed source for most horses. Even pasture that is deficient in specific nutrients can be remedied with the addition of supplements (minerals etc.). Horses working very hard, lactating or growing, may need supplementation with concentrated (hard) feed, but this is easily done.

  • Grazing horses can maintain the correct gut fill required to keep gastric ulcers at bay. Horses need and thrive on a very high fibre diet; without it, their gut cannot function properly.

  • Grazing horses have their head down and are simultaneously draining their airways and breathing fresh air. This is very important as horses have delicate lungs which rely on the lowered head position to keep them clear.

  • Pastured horses generally have a better quality of life than their stabled counterparts. Grazing horses carry a natural pattern of behaviour and do not develop behavioural disorders such as crib-biting and weaving. Those that have already developed these behaviours tend to reduce them over time when they spend time at pasture with other horses.

  • Pastured horses have better circulation and better hoof quality due to the continual movement associated with grazing because, while grazing, horses are walking slowly and steadily. Slow, steady walking, interspersed with occasional short energetic bursts, is the ideal exercise for a horse.

  • Pastured horses are exposed to sunlight, enabling them to synthesise enough vitamin D. This relies on them not wearing rugs that block sunlight.


The benefits of good pasture for the environment

  • Pasture plants are a highly efficient 'carbon sink'. They take carbon from the atmosphere and 'sink' it into the soil. This is important now when excess carbon in the air is attributed to global warming. Pasture transfers carbon into the soil even more rapidly than trees. Like trees, pasture also produces oxygen; in fact, an area of healthy pasture of approximately 25sqm (275sqft) produces enough oxygen for a family of four.

  • Pasture plants collect and hold water, preventing the soil from drying immediately after morning dew and any rainfall. Without these plants, valuable water is wasted as it runs straight off the land.

  • Pasture plants regulate the temperature of the soil, keeping it cool when the weather is hot and warmer when the weather is cold.
  • Pasture plants also slow the movement of water across the land, allowing it time to be absorbed into the soil and prevent erosion.

  • As they grow, the roots of the plants allow air and water to penetrate the soil. Plants provide organic matter for soil; as their roots grow and die back in a continuous cycle, the organic matter builds up in the soil.

  • Organic matter carries out many functions in soil – not least keeping the soil particles apart, thus helping prevent it from becoming compacted.

  • Pasture plants cover, cushion and protect the soil. Without this protection, the soil becomes further compacted under the heavy weight of large grazing animals.

  • Pasture plants hold the soil together, protecting it from erosion. This function is essential, as nothing can survive without soil and clean water. Without this protection, loose soil and manure end up in the waterways, causing pollution.


The benefits of good pasture for horse owners

  • Keeping horses at pasture saves money on bedding and time spent on stable chores. Horse owners have a less strict timetable; horses do not necessarily have to be exercised every day. Time spent with a horse can be 'quality time'.
  • Pasture is a convenient and relatively cheap form of feed. Pasture is up to ten times more affordable than the next most inexpensive form of feed – bought-in grass hay. Money spent on pasture renovation saves money spent on feed later.
  • Properties/land with good pasture have a higher value; therefore, spending money and time on pasture management is a good investment.



How can you learn more about horses, land management and the environment?

Start by signing up for the free mini-course about Horses, pasture and grazing www.equiculture.net/equiculture-free-mini-course


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We teach horse owners how to manage their land

And to do it in a way that is good for: HORSES - by improving their welfare. PEOPLE - by saving them time and money. The ENVIRONMENT - by improving biodiversity and soil, creating habitat for wildlife, etc. A true win-win-win.

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