Grazing fresh forage while out on pasture can provide excellent nutrition for horses. But environmental conditions and horse needs can make it challenging to maintain productive pastures.

Some pastures require very little management to support a low density of horses. However, for horse owners with limited turnout space or poor soil quality, good management practices are critical for preserving pasture health.

Regular maintenance can improve pasture productivity even when optimal growing conditions are not met. Grazing management strategies are also critical to prevent overgrazing that can damaging fields.

This article will review how to keep pastures healthy with routine maintenance and grazing management. We will also discuss factors that influence pasture health and suitability for horses.

Pasture Evaluation

Pasture evaluation is the first step in developing a pasture management program for your equine facility. Owners should evaluate their property’s forage species and soil to determine pasture productivity and nutritional value for horses.

Other aspects of pasture management depend on paddock size and the number of horses. Proper management is key to preserving pasture health when owners keep a high density of horses on small acreage.

Forage Species

When planning horse pastures, examine the types of plants currently growing on your property and determine which forages are most suitable for your region.

Some forage species are hardier than others and stand up better to overgrazing when space is limited. For example, warm-season grasses such as bermudagrass can withstand more heavy grazing than cool-season grasses like orchard grass. [1]

Horses also tend to overuse parts of pastures with preferred forage species. Cool-season grasses can have elevated sugar levels under certain growing conditions, leading to overconsumption. [2]

Submitting pastures samples for analysis will give you an idea of the nutritional quality of your forage so you can allocate pastures for grazing and balance your horses’ diets.

Soil Testing

Soil pH and nutrient levels vary significantly between farms. Optimizing soil conditions for the forage species in your pasture will increase productivity and nutritional value.

Soil testing can also help you determine if you need to add fertilizer or other treatments to your pastures. [3]

Horse owners can contact their local cooperative extension or conservation district office to learn how to test pasture soil. Some offices provide test kits for horse owners to collect samples to submit for soil analysis.

A soil analysis evaluates nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and other nutrient levels. pH levels reported in the analysis measure soil acidity. Pasture health will suffer if the soil is too acidic or low in nutrients. [3]

Horse Density

High stocking rates can stress pastures and reduce productivity. Research suggests stocking density higher than one horse per two acres alters pasture composition and decreases soil nutrient concentrations. [4]

The stocking rate is especially important if owners rely on pastures to meet most of their horse’s nutritional requirements. If facilities do not have adequate acreage to support continuous grazing, horses will need supplemental hay and limited turnout time to prevent overgrazing. [4]

Large, healthy pastures with a low density of horses are ideal and require little management. But horse owners can still make the most of limited pasture space with strategic renovation and grazing practices.

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Pasture Restoration

Pastures sometimes require restoration or renovation to improve grazing. For example, soil test results may reveal conditions that prevent plants from thriving. Owners can restore soil conditions by using fertilizer and lime according to soil analysis recommendations.

Owners can renovate pastures by seeding the field with desired plants if overgrazing has altered pasture composition. Regular maintenance will preserve pasture quality after renovation or annual restoration.

Lime

Balancing soil pH is essential to support healthy forage growth. The pH scale measures how acidic an object is on a 1 – 14 scal