Managing Horse Pasture
"Overgrazed horse pasture may never recover."
Pasture management is key to maintaining its productivity.
Horse Pasture: A major component of a horse's diet is hay or pasture. A horse weighing 1000 pounds will eat about 500 pounds each month. If dryland pasture is the only source of forage, your horse will need about 28 acres of non-irrigated pasture a year. An irrigated pasture will grow more forage than dryland pasture, so less acreage is needed. The amount of irrigated pasture land needed for one horse is roughly 1 to 2 acres.
Two acres of pasture are recommended per mature horse. One acre of horse pasture can provide adequate grazing but requires more pasture management. Manage your pasture as you would with any crop with soil testing, fertilizing, and managing manure. The horse will not eat trampled grass or grass with manure on it. Horses will quickly overgraze smaller areas. Therefore, a combination of pasture and small lot or barn is needed to minimize overgrazing.
Do not let the horse overgraze the land so the grass will no longer grow. Keep pasture grass healthy - overgrazed pasture may never recover. Resting a pasture is key to horse pasture management and maintaining its productivity. Horses tend to overgraze, which weaken and kill pasture plants and allows weeds to take hold. Allowing the pasture to recover for 3 or 4 weeks helps the pasture to stay healthy. Horse pasture requires water to be productive and is particularly important during the recovery period.
The grazing area should be divided into three (or more) equal size pastures. Portable electric fencing provides an efficient and economic way to partition your pasture. To allow for regrowth, leave about 1/3 of the grass uneaten at any given time. Graze one pasture area down to 2 to 3 inches, then move the horses to the next pasture. The horse could be confined to the lot or barn and only allowed to graze for specified times lasting for only a few hours a day, thus reducing damage to the small pasture.
- Let your horse graze for one week per pasture
- The pasture grass should be no shorter than 2 to 3 inches
- Let the pasture rest for three weeks or more
- When the pasture has grown to 6-8 inches it is ready for grazing again
While the pasture recuperates, you should mow it, so that all plants are at an equal height, fertilize and water. Rotational pasture lots are one key to using small acreage pasture space to the fullest potential. Over-supplementing your horse with hay and grain will not prevent your horse from overgrazing.
Is pasture absolutely necessary for a horse? No. A lush green horse pasture is not a reality for many. Horses can be well fed without pasture; however, horse pasture has several advantages. It is the natural feed for horses, reduces the cost of feeding, provides your horse with exercise, and horses are usually healthier when kept outside on pasture. Establishing and maintaining a productive pasture is not too difficult.
A few dollars spent for soil nutrients for your pasture is a sound investment. Fertilization will help your pasture to become more productive and produce more forage. Fertilization costs will generally be offset from good pasture rotating and from savings in feed costs for hay and grain supplements. Have a reputable fertilizer dealer or extension agent evaluate your soil samples and recommend the best fertilizer for your pastures.
Mowing is also important for horse pasture management. It minimizes the spread of weeds to help maintain a higher quality forage. Mowing weeds before seedheads are produced limits the spread of weeds. Grass should be mowed to 3-4 inches. Mowing keeps the grass shorter, which horses prefer. The grass has less fiber, is higher in protein and more nutrients reside in the younger leaves and stems.
Dragging the pasture helps to distribute manure nutrients evenly. Dragging helps to uncover and destroy parasitic eggs and larvae by being exposing them to the hot sun. Dragging enables water and air to better penetrate the soil.
No matter how well you manage your horse pasture, it will most likely thin. To help ensure your pasture continues to produce good grass, new quality forage seed should be spread every year. It is recommended re-seeding be done in the Spring or Fall. In the Spring, wet conditions allow for germination and growth, but only if it is not too muddy. In the Fall, there will be less weed pressure. Do not allow grazing on new grass seedlings for approximately 6-weeks after they have emerged.