Pasture Evaluation Back »

This article was written by Danielle Busselman under the direction and review of Rebecca Bott.

Pasture utilization for grazing remains beneficial to both horses, and their owners; horses are better able to express their natural grazing habits, and owners have the ability to save on forage costs. While providing grazing saves costs associated with feeding hay, it does not necessarily mean all forage worries should be forgotten. Managing a pasture becomes a great responsibility. Proper management of pasture and grazing directly impacts horse health and the environment.

Pastures offer horses many benefits including nutrition, ability to express normal behaviors as well as a venue for exercising.  Horses spend many hours each day in pastures where available, oftentimes around the clock. However, continuous grazing may pose a threat to forage reserves, and can detrimentally affect pasture through trampling, erosion and uneven grazing. These factors can contribute to reduced vigor of pasture species and an increase in bare ground or weed incidence.

Rotational grazing offers an alternate use of pastures where, when properly managed, it maximizes grazing while minimizing negative impacts on pasture. Rotational grazing involves grazing one pasture for a certain amount of time, and then resting the pasture while utilizing a different one. The amount of time horses are allowed on a pasture depends on several factors. The number of animals grazing, the size of the allotted area, and the quality and density of the forage will determine the duration of the grazing period. A key indicator of when to move to a different pasture relies on the “take half, leave half” rule. When grass in the pasture has been grazed or trampled to approximately half of the original stand, the pasture should be rested to promote better forage regrowth. This can be a tricky rule to follow as horses tend to favor certain spots for grazing over others. They naturally select areas that provide the best nutrition or most palatable forages first. As a result more grazing pressure is applied to some areas of the pasture over others. Using the best judgment and consulting with an area range specialist will aid in making the best decision to suit an individual operation.

Before introducing horses into any pasture, fence lines and water sources should be thoroughly inspected. If using electric fence, damages to posts, or the fence material itself can cause short circuits and a compromised containment system. Other types of fencing, no matter how sturdy it appears to be, should be checked for needed repairs as well.

When rotating horses to the next paddock, transition them into pastures that are stocked with similar forages to limit digestive upsets.  Carefully monitoring the animals introduced to a new area remains not only an important part of pasture management, but to horse health as well. Owners should be aware of their horse’s behavior, and should be able to identify signs indicating digestive problems.

Careful consideration for the forage species within a pasture area is critical. Understanding horse-safe forage species as well as species that can withstand grazing by horses are important aspects of managing pastures. Some grass species can withstand grazing better than others. Orchard grass and Kentucky bluegrass for example have the ability to support the grazing pressure horses apply to forage. Others, such as timothy, are renowned for their ability to produce quality horse hay, but cannot withstand grazing pressure.  Weeds and forages that are toxic to horses may have a tendency to grow where they are not wanted. These plants must be identified and combated to prevent ingestion.  Gaining a better understanding of plants both good and bad will aid in bettering the overall health of horse and pasture.

Some of us may take the ability to turn our horses out on pasture for granted, but this is a privilege that comes with a large amount of responsibility. Correctly managing the length of grazing will impact the forage’s ability to continue to support grazing; the ability for forage to provide adequate nutrition depends on regrowth, which depends on rest, and management. By gaining a broad knowledge of pasture control, as owners we are able to impact our horse’s overall health. For more information regarding the establishment and management of horse pastures, please refer to the Equine Pasture Maintenance & Renovation for South Dakota publication on iGrow.

About the Author

SDSU student Danielle Busselman authored this article with the guidance of SDSU Extension Equine Specialist Dr. Rebecca Bott.  Danielle is studying communications and equine science and looks forward to a career in writing for an equine publication.     

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