The best nutrition for your horse is good pasture or hay, but what makes up good pasture, and how do you keep your pastures healthy and growing? Here's how to get the most out of your horse's pastures so the grass provides the optimum nutrition your horse needs.
Good pastures provide your horse with natural grazing time, exercise, a space to interact with herd companions, and good nutrition. Your horse's pasture has a few enemies, though, including over-grazing, soil compaction, drought, weeds, and mud that stresses the grass.
It's worth the time to inspect your pastures and assess their health. The pastures may look lush at a glance, but they could be full of weeds that your horse won't or shouldn't eat, or have bare spots that sustain nothing.
Many people keep horses on relatively small acreages. The recommended acreage per horse is around 2.5 acres. This, of course, will vary depending on location. Obviously, providing a horse with 2.5 acres of pasture in Vermont is very different than the same size acreage in Arizona, and many horses are kept on much smaller acreages. On small acreages, most of your horse's fodder will need to come from good-quality hay, but even if you are feeding hay, you'll want to avoid turning your pastures into dust bowls or mud pits and still provide some natural grazing.
To avoid over-grazing you may need to establish a few smaller paddocks and a "sacrifice area." A sacrifice area is a paddock where you will not expect any grass to grow. Ideally, it has good drainage so it doesn't turn into a bog during wet weather. If the grass growth comes to a stand-still, such as in the fall or during very hot, dry weather, the horses can be removed from the pastures to the sacrifice area, where they won't be able to damage the grass plants by grazing down to the roots. Horses can be very hard on pastures even when hay is available due to their natural grazing instinct.
Dividing your large field into smaller areas means you can rotate horses from one place to another, allowing the grass to grow in one area while the horses graze another. If you can't put up permanent fencing in a large area, smaller sections can be created with electric fencing. This makes it easy to move the fencing should you want to use or protect any part of the area.
You may have a small section that is very wet in the spring but is healthy during the summer when the area is dried out. Having the option to move fences is useful to utilize or rest specific areas.
Protecting and Encouraging Growth
Over-grazing isn't the only problem you may run into when your horses are using their pastures. Soil compaction can make it difficult for the grass to grow. If there are too many horses in one area, the soil can become trampled by their hooves. The problem can become worse if the soil is dry or muddy. When the soil is very wet, the horse's hooves can churn up and damage the grassroots. When the soil is dry, the grass can break off, weakening it.
The best way to prevent compaction and encourage growth is to reseed bare spots, fertilize and lime the soil and keep horses off the pasture when their hooves can damage it. When the grass is dry or the soil is wet, your horse can live in the sacrifice area and be fed hay until the grass is healthier.
Scattering or removing manure prevents bare spots and areas that horses won't graze, as well as controls parasites and pests. Grass tends to die under piles of manure, leaving bare spots. And while the grass around the manure may grow greener, horses won't eat it. Ideally, manure should be composted before it's spread on pastures, but scattering it does help. Reseed bare and thinning areas.
Just like you feed your lawn, your pastures may need a little boost. Over time, the nutrients in the soil are depleted and need to be replaced. Your area's agricultural office can provide you with soil testing resources and recommendations for soil amendments.
When the grass becomes weaker, the weeds begin to take over. It's easy to spot a neglected pasture by the great clumps of weeds the horses leave as they look for the tastier grass. In extreme cases, horses may eat the weeds—some of which may be poisonous. Hand weed or mow down weeds before they go to seed. Compost manure before spreading it, as horses don't digest small, hard seeds, and these can germinate after they've passed through the horse.
If the weed problem is really out of hand, the pasture may need to be sprayed with herbicide, tilled under and reseeded completely. Again, your local agricultural extension agent can recommend the best products and grass seed for your area. It's tempting to think that pastures are self-maintaining, but in order to provide the best for your horse, a little help can go a long way.