Grazing Your Horse Right: An Overview Of Pasture Management

Feeding a horse can be a major concern for the owner. It can also be quite challenging. This is especially so when you have more than a few horses. Pasture can provide the cheapest means of meeting this challenge. There comes another challenge—maintaining the pasture. Pasture management is as challenging as the entire horse management. But doing it the right way helps your horses to have access to the best feed.

Understanding Forage Growth

Effective pasture management starts with an understanding of the growth rate of forage. This helps you to make decisions about where, when, and how you graze your horse. Unfortunately, this is the least understood in pasture management.

Leaves are food factories for the plant. Plants produce their food through photosynthesis. With the right amount of sunshine, leaves will absorb carbon dioxide from the air and water. They will combine these with nitrates and soil minerals to produce food for the plant. These leaves are what livestock generally, including your horses, feed on.

So, when the tops are short, the roots are short. Only 5 percent of plant food comes from the soil. Roots only store food; they do little in its production. What roots do is to gather and store the raw materials mentioned earlier. It’s the leaves that will do the job of converting them into food. Plants, as a whole, need this food if it is to grow in the future.

The knowledge of this will help you avoid overgrazing as it destroys both the roots and the leaves. Recognize that having short leaves means having short roots. Short roots means a short supply of nutrients. The deficiency of nutrients kills the whole plant in the long run. So, pasture management is all about leaf area management.

This is where rotational grazing comes to the rescue. As a general rule, don’t let horses eat more than half of a leaf. This is so your plant can have plenty of leaf area to provide nourishment. Otherwise, the short roots will lead to stunted future regrowth of food. Up to or more than 60 percent of the leaf area can go to grazing. In that case, it will take many days for root to grow back into a remarkable and functional level. Repetition of this will stress the plants and they will lose their stamina.

But, you can avoid this unpleasant experience. Your grazing heights for cool season forages may begin at 6-8 inches. But don’t ever let grazing go too short to reach the 3-inch height or shorter.

You may now adapt this understanding to the different kinds of forage you can find on a pasture.

Horses Feeding Habit And The Forage

There are several forages that can make good horse pasture, either solo or in combination. Still, there are some forages that are not okay for all horses. Condition, age, and breed of horse may be big factors here. Some are not good for any horses. Generally, forages are grasses or legumes and season grasses. They can be annual forage or perennial forage.

The ideal pasture should have a variety of grass or legume species for the horses’ mood and health. They should be species that are well adapted to the soil of the pasture. Each plant has its best season in a year. So, having different species elongates their pasture rich season.

A quick fact about horses is that they’re quite choosy in their feeding habits. They’ll overgraze their favorite grass and come back to the other forages only when they are out of options. Many horses prefer grass over legumes, even when the former is more nutritious. The solution to that again is rotational grazing.

Pasture Plants Pros And Cons

A deeper understanding of different forages will be beneficial to your pasture management. Consider below the pros and cons of the most common of them. This will influence your decision on the management of your pasture.

1. Legume Species

  1. Alfalfa


  • Very nutritious
  • The yield is quite high
  • Has high adaptability


  • The lifespan is too short
  • Fertility need is high
  • Requires a lot of management input
  1. Bird’s-foot Trefoil


  • Quite resilient and durable
  • Requires low fertility to be productive


  • Seeding vigor is low
  • Difficult to establish
  • Not quite palatable for horses

iii. Ladino Clover and White Clover


  • Can do well with close grazing
  • Quite palatable
  • Hardy during winter


  • Can’t withstand drought
  • The yield is quite low
  • Mold may result in slobbering
  1. Red Clover


  • Very nutritious
  • Has greater soil adaptability


  • Lifespan is too short (only 2-3 years)
  • Can’t withstand close grazing
  • Mold may result in slobbering
  1. Lespedeza


  • Can withstand drought and heat
  • Adaptable to a wide variety of soil


  • Productivity is low
  • Stems can become coarse

2. Cool-Season Grasses Species

  1. Kentucky Bluegrass


  • More palatable than all other grasses
  • Can withstand close grazing
  • It’s adapted to all soils


  • The yield is low
  • Can’t tolerate drought
  1. Orchard Grass


  • Highly palatable
  • Its growth in summer is impressive


  • Can’t thrive on close grazing
  • Accommodates weeds a lot

iii. Perennial Ryegrass


  • Very palatable for the horse
  • Easy to establish


  • Not very persistent
  • Can’t withstand drought
  • Needs a lot of fertility
  1. Reed Canary Grass


  • Does quite well in a very wet pasture
  • Can tolerate drought
  • It’s a great sod former


  • Not quite palatable
  • Its utilization is low
  1. Smooth Bromegrass


  • Very palatable
  • Capable of tolerating drought


  • Requires higher fertility
  • Brings low yields
  • Can’t cope with close grazing
  1. Timothy


  • Easy to establish
  • Produces well in the spring
  • Can survive drought and various climatic conditions
  • Adaptable to a wide range of soil


  • Not quite productive
  • Can shield weeds

3. Warm-Season Grasses Species

  1. Bermuda Grass and Old World Bluestems


  • Enjoy good protection during summer
  • Can tolerate close grazing
  • Form a dense sod


  • Can be difficult to establish
  • Their quality and palatability reduce a great deal as it matures
  • They require good fertility
  • Can be evasive
  1. Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, and Eastern GamaGrass


  • Help a lot in a summer production
  • Don’t need much fertility
  • Not evasive


  • Difficult to establish
  • Can’t cope with close grazing
  • Upon maturity, the stem can become coarse and the maturity can reduce
  • Can cause photosensitivity and liver damage

Apart from the above, there are other forages that may be good for many horses. They are:

Cool-season: Rye, annual ryegrass, oats, triticale.

Warm season: Browntop millet, crabgrass, pearl millet.

But there are species that shouldn’t be in the pasture. They include:

  • Alsike clover
  • Arrowleaf clover
  • Endophyte-infected tall fescue
  • Goosegrass
  • Johnson grass
  • Sorghum
  • Sudan hybrids
  • Sweet clover
  • Switchgrass

Forages That Are Poisonous In The Pasture

How can you find out when a plant that is poisonous to the horse is growing? Observe the attitude of horses toward the plant. For instance, broad-leaf plants are generally poisonous to horses. The good thing is that horses will naturally not graze them. So watch out when you find out that they’re avoiding a forage, be quick to uproot it. When the desirable option is no longer available, the available forage may become desirable.

Though there may be no real cause for alarm, it’s always good to embark on weed control in the pasture. During the exercise, watch out for the following plants:

  • Black locust
  • Bitterweed
  • Cocklebur
  • Horsetail milkweed
  • Ornamental yew
  • Pigweed
  • Snakeroot

It’s time to take a closer look at more specifics of pasture management.

How To Properly Manage Your Pasture

There are several factors that come to play when it comes to taking care of a pasture and pasture management in general. Below are some of the major steps involved:

1. Test the Soil

This is the place to start off. To know how to nurture the soil of your pasture, you must determine the real need of the soil. This will help prevent nutrient runoff that can result from over-fertilization of pastures. By applying only what the soil needs, you can reduce the cost of fertilizing. It is an inexpensive procedure. It is good to test soil yearly, depending on the use. At any rate, you must test it at most, after three years of use.

2. Fertilize and Lime

Fertilizer and lime actually serve as nutritional supplements for the plants on your pasture. Naturally, plants will draw nutrients out of the soil. These nutrients under normal circumstances come from dead leaves, biomass, and manure. The seasonal rest cycle of pasture enhances the process filling its nutritional needs.

But, human activities and soil usage have altered this natural process of fertilizing the soil. Effects of various construction work and accompanying deforestation are changing the landscape. So, good topsoil is giving way, necessitating artificial fertilization to balance soil composition.

The test carried out on the soil will dictate the fertilizer needs of the pasture soil. It is best applied at the time of the year the soil goes dormant. Resting will allow the root system to become strong and deep. During the spring, there will be a more durable pasture. If you can’t make the application of fertilizer annual, it shouldn’t exceed three years. Again, the major considerations are the use and the environmental factors.

The use of liming depends on soil moisture. It’s best applied during spring when there’s more moisture. Aerating before applying the lime is important for proper absorption.

The pasture liming need depends on the result of the soil test. In all cases, the generally accepted rate is 2 tons of lime per acre. Anything in excess means you’re wasting lime. This is because lime doesn’t absorb like fertilizer. The rest will simply wash away.

3. Manage Manure Properly

Your horse will not graze on areas of your pasture full of manure. There can be different growth in areas of the pasture where there are manure clumps. So, to have manure evenly distributed means you need to harrow and drag. Examples of good tools for dragging are a spike-tooth arrow, a flexible chain arrow, or a brush. Dragging the manure will expose the parasites to the sun.

In the interest of safety, it’s good to drag manure when horses are not in the pasture or paddock. Keep them away for two weeks or more. For safety considerations, don’t store manure where its runoff may flow into streams. In the interest of economy, store piles of manure where flood waters will not wash it away.

The standard practice of pasture manure storage is to keep it no closer than 150 feet to a stream, pond, or well. There should be grass buffer strips to control washing away of manure piles as well.

You can construct a manure storage structure, or at least, have a bin. If not, you can find a way to have the manure piles covered from rainwater. Some pasture owners have constructed compost bin for this purpose. Doing this comes with a lot of benefits. The composted manure allows the gradual release of fertilizer to the pasture. It also serves as a good soil conditioner. It allows the manure to dry off and makes it easier to handle. It even reduces the chances of disease transmission. This is because the composting temperature kills off the germs.

4. Maintain the Pasture Field

Don’t give room for overgrown grass in your pasture. Some people use a lawnmower to groom their field. Your goal should be to make sure that the grass remains tender. Tender and young grass is the most nutritious and appetizing. So, cut off overgrown and dead tops as soon as you notice them. This will reduce the risk of fire and increase pasture lifespan.

Dragging out forages will help with breaking up and distributing manure. The pasture will benefit from the resulting distribution of manure piles. This will also encourage even grazing. It will even destroy parasites’ eggs and larvae.

Poorly maintained pasture can be hazardous to horses. The dangerous weeds mentioned earlier shouldn’t grow in your pasture. There are several methods of weed control, and safe and cost-effective weed management strategies.

5. Provide Fresh Water

You can’t talk of pasturing horses if there’s no accessible fresh and clean water in your pastureland. You’re likely going to have paddocks due to rotational grazing. Each paddock can have a separate source of water. If there’s only one source of water, it should be accessible from every paddock. You can run the water pipe to fill the trough in each pasture or paddock.

It’s not good for the horses’ health if they have to travel 800 feet or more to source their water. Horses consume a lot of water! Prepare to give each horse 8-12 gallons of water a day under clement weather. The average consumption increases to 23 gallons a day when the temperature rises to 32 degrees Celsius and above.

6. Practice Rotational Grazing

Pastures need to rest too. By practicing rotational grazing, you can divide a larger pasture into several fenced paddocks. You can have as many as 12 paddocks to ensure effective rotational grazing. But four paddocks will produce results. There are a lot of benefits in well-structured rotational grazing.

Horses are tough grazers. A lot of their grazing habits can damage their pastures. They can be choosy and stick to one forage. Their hooves can be harsh on the soil. Abandoned forages lose their values when they mature. An overgrown paddock can affect shorter ones’ access to nutrients. Confining horses to a paddock will force them to graze with uniformity on all forages.

Effective fertilization of the pasture is only possible when horses are not currently grazing it. The same statement applies to the general maintenance of the pasture.

7. Reseed Your Pasture

If you must keep the turf on a steady growth, it’s important to introduce new seed as needed. It’s advisable to harrow the pasture before seeding to help new seeds flourish. It may require or allow broadcasting or drill seeding.

8. Know When and When Not to Graze

Don’t be in haste to graze a new pasture. It won’t reach its full potential to feed your horse and you may soon lose it. After seeding, wait until the forage has grown up to six inches before giving the horse access. Stop grazing when the forages have gone down 3 inches. It takes about 21 days for grazed forage to grow back to the desired length in spring. It may take 60 days in the summer months.

Another bad time to graze is when the soil is already wet or you expect rain. Don’t let the horse out. Their hooves are not friendly to forages, especially newly planted ones. They can damage even established pasture soil when it is wet.

9. Aerate the Soil

With a lot of horse grazing on pasture, there can be a hardening of the soil. The compacted soil will have a new lease of life if you aerate it.

10. Keep Animal Concentration Areas

Besides rotational grazing, having Animal Concentration Areas (ACA) will also improve soil rest. ACA is what some refer to as barnyards, dry lots, exercise paddocks, heavy use areas, riding rings, or sacrifice lots. This is a restricted access area for animals. This is the area you will keep your horse when there isn’t a paddock ready to graze. ACA is also useful during times of low growth or overpopulation.

It should be on high ground, about 100 feet from ponds, streams, or wetlands. It should not collect water or be muddy. It may or may not have grass. It may have wood chips, stone dust or soil.

Horses seem to be healthier and happier when kept outside on pasture with full shelter. Exposure to sunshine, fresh air, and exercise helps them more. Horses kept in stalls generally don’t perform as well as those on pastures.

Table Of Contents

clickable navigation

Chapter 1 – Grazing Your Horse Right: An Overview Of Pasture Management

Chapter 2 –  Understanding Forage Growth

Chapter 3 – Horses Feeding Habit And The Forage

Chapter 4 – Pasture Plants Pros And Cons

Chapter 5 –  Forages That Are Poisonous In The Pasture

Chapter 6 – How To Properly Manage Your Pasture


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