Pasture

Maintaining healthy and ample grazing land for your horses is incredibly important, but with the right approach and tools you can provide your horses with a great pasture.

After reading this article you will know how to grow horse pastures that will provide the nutrition your horse needs. 

How many acres do I need for a horse pasture?

The amount of pasture you need depends on a variety of factors including the weather, how fertile the soil is, how many weeds are in the pasture, and how well it’s managed.

In general, you should provide 2 acres per adult horse if they’ll be getting most of their nutrition from grazing.

Depending on the conditions, you may need as little as 1 acre per horse or as much as 5 acres per horse.(1)

How do I start a horse pasture from scratch?

If you’ve recently acquired some land that you intend to use as pasture, it may need a lot of work before it becomes suitable for sustaining horses.

You first need to look at what you have.

Are there any toxic weeds such as buttercup, jimsonweed, pokeweed, poison hemlock, water hemlock, or anything in the nightshade family?

These will need to be killed or removed before your horses begin grazing.

Excessive amounts of weeds also need to be removed so they don’t choke out the grasses and legumes that you intend to plant.

Is pasture soil quality important?

The next thing you’ll want to do is to take soil samples to determine the nutrients in your soil.

This will effect what fertilizer you should use and whether you should fertilize in the spring or fall.

If you aren’t sure how to obtain a soil sample, your local county extension agent or district conservationist can give you some tips. (2)

How does climate effect my pasture?

You need to be conscious of your climate before choosing what to plant in your pasture.

Some warmer locations can support horse grazing year-round and should have a mix of cool- and warm-season grasses along with legumes, but any place with a real winter will only destroy what was once a thriving pasture by having horses on it in the dead of winter.

Keep in mind that if you keep your horse off pasture during the winter, you’ll want to introduce your horse to the pasture slowly in the spring to prevent laminitis – also known as founder – from developing in your horse’s hooves.

Laminitis, an inflammation of the laminae that connects the hoof to the coffin bone, has been tied to the rapid intake of the starches found in pasture plants.

Introducing your horse to the pasture only 15 minutes a day at first and gradually increasing the amount of time spent at pasture can decrease the chances of your horse developing laminitis.

Depending on how poor the quality of the land is that you intend to use as pasture, you may need to plow or disc the entire field to kill weeds and other plants that could impede the growth of new seeds.

If the ground is sparse with limited weed growth, you may kill weeds with an herbicide (always follow label instructions), and no-till seeding can then help replenish the pasture.

How can I replenish an existing pasture?

Using an herbicide on any weeds and then no-till seeding should be enough to replenish your pasture.

Be sure to keep horses off new pasture until the grass is about 8” tall and remove horses from the pasture once it gets down to about 4”.

This will help maintain your pasture for years to come.

What is the best way to maintain my pasture?

Rotational grazing is highly recommended to allow the pasture to grow and replenish itself.

Rotational grazing uses additional fencing – often electric fencing thanks to the ease of moving it from location to location – to divide a pasture into smaller sections so that each section has time to recuperate while the horses have access to another part of the pasture.

A sacrifice area is recommended for containing horses when conditions are not ideal for keeping them on pasture. Such as during times of excessive rain when their hooves would tear up the fragile grass and soil.

The sacrifice area should have shelter, water, and access to another food source, such as hay.

What should grass should I plant in my pasture?

The weather, soil, and intended purpose of your pasture will help determine what you should plant.

For example, endophyte-infected tall fescue is extremely dangerous for pregnant mares.

Therefore it is important to only use grass intended for horse pastures such as the following grass varieties. (3)

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    Bermudagrass
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    Dallisgrass
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    Pearl Millet
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    Crab Grass
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    Orchardgrass
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    Timothy
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    Kentucky Bluegrass
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    Wheat Grass
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    Rye
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    Oat Grass

Check out our article on what plants are toxic for horses.

What sort of fencing should I use for my pasture?

Around the perimeter of the entire pasture, you will want a safe, solid fence.

You should include the BASIC rules when planning on what type of fencing to use. The BASIC (1) rules are:

  • Budget
  • Appearance
  • Safety
  • Installation
  • Containment

Mesh or plank fences are popular choices (2) for perimeter fences.

Barbed wire should never be used for horse enclosures.

Electric fencing is a popular option for dividing the pasture into a rotational grazing format.

There are also many quality portable horse corrals that make great temporary pastures for your horse.

What kind of tools do I need?

Some of these tools you’ll want to purchase as you will use them frequently. Others may be rented or borrowed if you have a smaller farm and will be using the tools infrequently.

Your local county extension agent or NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) agent may rent out equipment or may be able to direct you to farm supply stores that rent out equipment or offer contract work. (4)

-Tractor or ATV

Larger farms will need a tractor to pull some of the following tools, but smaller farms can get away with using an ATV and down-sized equipment.

-High-traffic area pads

In high-traffic areas, especially around feeders, it’s best to remove forage and cover the area with a hard surface such as gravel, or a combination of geotextile fabric and crushed limestone. 

Feeding pads provide stable footing for horses even in wet or freezing weather and reduce erosion and hay loss.

High-traffic areas are frequently used around gates, feeding or watering areas, and fence lines.

-Hay feeders

Hay feeders help to reduce waste and make it more efficient to feed horses at pasture.

Moving the feeder around can help reduce the negative impact it can have on spring pasture qualty.

Feeders come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are available in covered options that help protect hay from the rain.

-Manure spreader

Composted stall muck can be a great natural fertilizer for your pasture.

A manure spreader distributes the composted muck over the field.

Bedding material such as straw or wood shavings can contain too much carbon to be beneficial unless you compost it first.

-Mower

Mowing is often required for pasture maintenance, especially if you’re employing a good rotational grazing strategy.

Mowers come in a wide variety of sizes, so you can decide how much money to invest based on how much pasture you have.

-Chain harrow

A chain harrow helps break up clods of manure and distribute the nutrients evenly over the pasture.

While parasitologists recommend chain harrowing in the heat of summer to help kill parasites, weed specialists say that summer harrowing can spread warm-season weeds, so you should decide which issue is more important before you decide when to harrow.

-Sprayer

Sprayers come in a variety of sizes from backpacks to booms and are used to apply herbicides or liquid fertilizers.

Always follow the directions on herbicides, fertilizers, and sprayers.

Keeping your sprayer clean and empty will ensure that it’s ready to go whenever you need it instead of becoming clogged.

-Disc

A disc helps prepare the soil for seeding without burying weed seeds the way a plow would.

Keep in mind that discing fields on a slope may increase the chances of causing erosion.

Discing should be done no more often than every 4-5 years to prevent compacting the soil.

-Plow

If you need to start your pasture from scratch, plowing will completely turn over the soil to prepare it for a fresh start.

Plows come in a wide variety of sizes and styles and may not be used very often since you shouldn’t need to plow a well-maintained pasture. Keep in mind that plowing also increases the potential for erosion.

-Cultipacker

A cultipacker uses a set of heavy rollers to smooth the surface of soil after plowing or discing to prepare for seeding or to firm the seedbed after seeding.

Some seeders include a seedbox and cultipacker all in one tool for maximum effectiveness in reseeding pastures.

-Drill seeder

A drill seeder is incredibly useful for starting a pasture from scratch, as it will slit the soil and deposit the seed at the appropriate depth.

You may need to cultipack after seeding to close the slit for the seeds to properly germinate.

-No-till drill

If you want to freshen up a pasture without starting from scratch, a no-till drill is crucial as it drills seed into ground that hasn’t been turned over with a disc or plowed first.

This helps prevent erosion or losses in soil moisture in fields that you don’t need to start from scratch.

-Broadcast spreader

A broadcast spreader is a funnel-shaped drum mounted on the back of an ATV or tractor for broadcasting seed or fertilizers.

It’s commonly used for applying granular fertilizers or late winter clover seeding. Be sure to clean a spreader well after using it to apply fertilizer since many fertilizers can cause corrosion.

Conclusion

Whether you are maintaining existing pastures or starting a new you must use the right techniques to ensure your horses have safe access to nutritious grazing grounds. 

Let us know any tips you have found in maintaining your pastures in the comments.

Resources:

1 University of Minnesota Extension - Managing established horse pastures

2The Horse - Pasture Management 101: Renovating Horse Fields

3 The Horse - Pasture Management 101: Grass Species

4 The Horse - Equipment for Managing Horse Pastures