Switching a horse to grazing taller grass plantsApr 21, 2021
This article is a follow-on from a previous blog article on this website called horses - short grass or long grass so make sure you read that one first if you haven't already.
Grab a coffee or whatever floats your boat, put your feet up and clear your mind - you are going to need it.
Even if you want to, but cannot, make changes now, due to restrictions such as not owning your own land, etc. reading this article (and the previous one) will help you to more fully understand horses and their relationship with pasture.
Changing over to grazing your horse/s on taller/longer grass plants is not something you should switch to overnight! You need to fully understand and be committed to making the change. It is not something you can 'chop and change' willy-nilly. Things may initially become harder before becoming easier, but it is usually well worth the effort in the end.
You will need to spend some time doing your research, and getting the right help, if necessary before you embark on this method of managing your horses and the land they live on. This is not something to be undertaken lightly or without a lot of thought.
If your horse has been on a restricted diet of short grass and you would like to make the switch to him or her grazing taller grass plants, for the benefits listed in the previous article, there are a couple of ways that you can do this.
What you decide to do depends on factors such as:
- How 'high risk' (laminitis etc.) your horse is.
- What time of year it currently is.
- What type of pasture you have.
- Your access to suitable hay.
- Your facilities.
- The needs of other horses in the herd.
Before embarking on any radical changes such as those outlined in this article, have your horse/s checked out by an experienced equine veterinarian, preferably someone who has a particular interest in the subject of equine obesity. You could also engage an equine nutritionist; preferably an independent equine nutritionist.
If your horse is not 'high risk' you may be able to make changes straight away that will be hugely beneficial for your horse and the land they live on. Make sure though that you still take in all of the information in this article (and do further research) so that you are fully prepared.
If your horse is 'high risk' you need to do plenty of planning, preparation, etc. before you can even begin to make changes. You are, after all, going to be doing something quite radical.
Some things to keep in mind when switching a horse to grazing taller grass plants:
If your horse/s has always had measured/restricted amounts of food, rather than ad-lib access to food, then you will have to be very careful about changing them over to grazing longer grass plants because they will tend to ‘gorge’ when first allowed to eat at will.
Ad-lib means free access. This does not mean free access to high-energy food (unless a horse needs it - most don't) it means free access to low-energy, high-fibre feed. The sort of feed that horses have evolved to eat.
Remember - a horse would naturally spend most of their day eating fibre, their whole physiology has evolved in a way that allows them to do this very efficiently. It is how they are meant to eat - read this article if you need more info - www.equiculture.net/blog/what-is-essential-feed-for-a-horse
When you use restrictive feeding/grazing practices, this is in complete contrast to how a horse would naturally feed, and when combined with a horse's natural instinct to attempt to gain weight whenever possible, it is easy to see why many horses develop ‘eating disorders’.
Free-living horses naturally have weight loss and weight gain cycles throughout the year. They gain as much weight as they can in spring/summer and use this excess stored energy to survive the winter or drought, losing weight in the process.
As humans, we have interfered with this delicate balance and tend to keep feeding the same calorific value food throughout the year, in some cases actually increasing it over winter. This is probably one of the main triggers that have caused the current epidemic in equine obesity.
So, if a horse is currently living on short (stressed) grass (and is overweight), it would not be a good idea to start turning him or her out on long grasses straightaway; even though these longer grasses are lower in sugar per mouthful. The horse in question will probably gorge themselves initially because they will currently be behaving as if they are being starved.
A better strategy when switching a horse to grazing taller grass plants would be to do either of the following:
Option 1: Over winter – with no access to pasture at first:
You will need the use of a surfaced holding area/yard – preferably as part of an Equicentral System. If not then you will need to keep the horse off grass through the winter - maybe you already stable your horse in winter. If you do stable, think about if there is any hard standing that you can use so that the horse is not confined 24/7. This applies in any case where your horse is stabled in the winter, try to utilize any hard standing as a loafing area if you can so that your horse is not over-confined.
During winter, when the horse is not on pasture, feed ad-lib low-energy hay – preferably in an area with other horses. You may want to soak this hay in warm water for an hour or so before feeding as a further precaution, particularly if you are not sure what the energy level of the hay is. You can pour the water used for soaking onto the pasture as the sugars in it will benefit the soil biome.
Aim to make it so that the hay does not run out – at all. This is because, if it does, the horse thinks he or she is being ‘starved’ and behaves accordingly (e.g. starts to gorge when food is available again).
Aim to reduce the horse’s weight gradually, but significantly, over the winter by avoiding high-energy supplementary feeds (unless of course, the horse does not need to lose weight), avoiding rugging unless absolutely necessary (but ensure that the horse can get under/into a shelter) and by increasing exercise if you can.
Aim for a condition score of no more than 2.5 on the Carroll/Huntingdon Condition Scoring System (commonly used in the UK/Europe - below) or 4 on the Henneke Condition Scoring System (commonly used in the USA - scroll down) by the start of spring.
The Carroll/Huntingdon Condition Scoring System
You are aiming for a condition score of 2.5 on this scale
KER Body Condition Score Chart showing the Henneke System
You are aiming for a condition score of 4 on this scale
The horse can still be given minerals etc. if you feel that they are needed, but these do not have to be added to high-calorie feed; they can be added to a small amount of low-calorie chaff.
Remember, not allowing this naturally occurring weight loss to happen in winter is one of the main reasons for the equine obesity epidemic today.
If your land recovers enough to grow pasture before the winter sets in, and this paddock is rested/locked up, you can start to introduce the horse gradually to the pasture over the latter part of the winter. By then this 'standing hay' will be lower in energy than at the end of the summer/early autumn. By mid-winter, it will have more fibre value than nutritional value; in other words, it is ideal for a ‘weight challenged’ horse.
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Pasture that has been allowed to grow long (and then grazed by horses in the winter) is called ‘standing hay’ or foggage’. This practice has many, many advantages including that it saves the costs of cutting, baling, and storing hay (and the risk of it ‘failing’ as a crop). Also, the taller plants protect the soil so horses can be out on the pasture at times when it would otherwise be too wet. Later I will do an article about standing hay and go into more detail about this practice.
When the rest of your land is ready to receive horses again in the spring, you can gradually allow the horse in question to have at first one grazing turnout session (grazing 'bout' - 1.5 to 3 hours usually) per day over a period of about a week (in addition to ad-lib hay fed in the yard), then allow this session to be longer (for about a week) and so on. While doing this you will need to be extra vigilant.
By the time the pasture is growing higher energy feed in the spring, the horse should have relaxed and should not be as tempted to gorge. If you have carried out the above steps, the horse should have a much lower body condition score and be in a much safer position.
Extra exercise may be necessary during this period too and it is extremely beneficial if you can do this. This does not have to be riding. Look about for a future article about the various (and novel) ways you can exercise a horse.
By using The Equicentral System you will be able to, at first, dictate when that first grazing period takes place; very late evenings (well after sundown) or very early mornings are a good time – but you will need to bring them back in by lunchtime at the latest.
Initially, avoid allowing the horse to graze between mid-day and nightfall because this is when the sugars in the grasses are at their highest levels.
By early summer, as long as you are keeping a close watch on the horse’s body condition score and are not reverting to restricting their low energy hay intake, you may be able to allow night and day grazing bouts with free access to the paddock that is currently in use.
You need to keep up this pattern of reducing the horse’s weight every winter and keeping up the extra movement whenever it is possible/necessary.
What if your horse is still too fat at the start of spring and/or has not learned to 'self regulate'?
Some horses adapt to self-regulation in a few weeks, others may take months, but if they never learn to self-regulate and you have been vigilant about following the above regime, it may be worth having a veterinarian check for hormone imbalances.
If your horse is taking a while to adapt, you could consider an extension of what is outlined above. Think about this:
We tend to think that summer is when horses should be turned out grazing and winter is when they should be 'in' and have access to limited grazing or no grazing at all. But you can actually turn all that 'on its head' and some people do with great results.
You can 'confine' horses in spring/summer/autumn when the grasses are more 'dangerous' and turn out in winter when they are safer.
There are numerous benefits to this approach:
Even though the horses are confined (to a surface, not a starvation paddock) in summer, summer is when you tend to have more time and inclination to spend time exercising them. You should certainly have more time to do 'stable'/yard chores and they are more pleasant in the better weather.
In winter the horse/s get to spend much more time outside than they normally would, grazing 'standing hay' which has been allowed to grow over summer. This saves you lots of time and effort in the winter, and the land is protected by the longer grasses. By doing this you will also over time increase the biodiversity in your pasture.
A slightly different approach is to make hay on the pasture in the summer (rather than allow them to graze it) and feed this in the winter, either in the yards or out on the pasture if it is not too wet for hoof action.
Of course, this will not work for everyone. If your land is has a lot of clay for example winter grazing may not be possible. There are things you can do to improve clay soils, but we will leave that for another article. For many situations it is possible, it just requires a radical shift of a cultural belief, that horses should be out in summer and in winter.
This might be something you do for a couple of years until your horse/s can be switched back to summer grazing (gradually) or you might decide this method suits you, your land, and your horses and keep doing it indefinitely.
Option 2 – During summer – with access to pasture.
This option is if you would like to start changing a horse over to ad-lib feeding right away, without waiting for winter. Again you will need the use of surfaced holding yards – preferably as part of an Equicentral System.
Initially, confine the horse by day, on ad-lib low-energy hay. Again, it is imperative that the hay does not run out, and again, you may want to soak this hay in water before feeding.
Allow only one grazing turnout period per day as per the previous example. Gradually allow the horse in question to have at first one grazing turnout session (grazing bout) per day over a period of about a week (in addition to ad-lib hay), then allow this session to be longer (for about a week) and so on.
You will need to closely monitor the horse’s weight and you should definitely increase exercise during this period if you can, which should be easier for you at this time of year.
As in option 1, avoid supplementary feeding and rugging.
Make sure the horse has access to shade/shelter and they should preferably be kept with other horses. Carry on adding grazing time as per option 1, but only if you feel the horse is not increasing weight too fast.
The idea is that you are initially controlling the horse’s intake by allowing ad-lib access to low-energy hay, but you are switching the horse over to not feeling restricted at all. Remember - restricted feeding can actually increase insulin resistance levels because the body reacts by going into ‘starvation mode’ - never lock a horse up without something to eat.
So remember, the idea is never to limit hay, limit grazing time initially if you feel the horse is gaining weight too fast.
When winter arrives and for every winter from now on, it is important for the horse to lose some weight, because, remember, this is what horses have done naturally for aeons; lost weight in winter. This way they are in a safer state to begin grazing spring grasses. They can then usually safely gain some weight during spring and summer. This is a more natural strategy than trying to maintain the horse’s weight at exactly the same level all year round.
You should aim to learn as much as you can about pasture plants too, including factors that make them safer, or not as safe, to graze.
Hopefully, this article has given you some ideas that will help you to improve your horse's welfare, your land management, and your own sanity! Keep an open mind and make adjustments to suit your own situation.
Learn how to manage your land and horses better, in a way that is good for biodiversity, the wider environment, soil health, horse health, and their welfare etc. etc.
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