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Managing Grazing for Healthier Horse Pastures

The average horse pasture isn't always a pretty picture. While the image of horses grazing contently in belly high grass might be what horse owners would like to see, the reality is the appearance of most equine pastures leaves a lot to be desired.

“A paddock paradise involves adding an extra "inside" fence to create a "track system" for horses”
Some grazing experts have dubbed the rough appearance typical of some horse pastures as the "lawns and ruffs." This scenario, which occurs when horses are continuously grazed on the same pasture, describes the areas of overgrazed forage and regions of tall, overly mature grasses that do not get grazed.

Picky eaters

One reason for these unfavorable pasture conditions, says Dr. Emily Meccage, forage extension specialist at Montana State University, is the selective grazing behavior of equines.

"Horses like to go for the same areas over and over, what we call the 'lawns', which are shorter grass areas.  These are going to be the areas with grasses that are actively growing because they keep getting grazed down." says Meccage. "The ruffs are those areas that don't get touched, so they get stemmy and become stagnant."

Horses Grazing

Along with their affinity for the leafy, vegetative plants in short grass areas, Meccage points out horses also have grazing preferences based on species. In addition, their close-to-the-ground "biting" grazing style can lead to plant regrowth issues in "lawn" regions of the pasture to develop in a continuous grazing situation.

"If you are grazing at the ideal maturity for a grass, horses can rip the leaves and it won't cause a lot of issues," says Meccage. "But if they are continually grazing in a 'lawn' area, they are grazing so close to the soil surface that they have to pull even harder and that's when you run into issues occurring."

According to Meccage, when horses or other ungulates graze off a plant, the plant immediately begins to put energy towards regrowth with the new forage being available within 7-10 days. Left to their own devices without rotation, however, horses will continue to graze the same plant and, in time, deplete its energy reserves.

Improve pasture care

To prevent "lawns and ruffs" and their associated plant detriments from occurring, Meccage suggests horse owners consider switching their grazing management over to a rotational system. Additionally, she says they utilize a dry lot or sacrifice area when needed to allow pastures time to rest and regrow.

"It's about managing for the pasture, not the horse, per say," says Meccage.

using rotational grazing methods, Meccage notes, horse owners will give their grass the rest it needs to regrow and, in turn, pastures will be healthier and more productive. Forage species will also be better equipped to outcompete weeds which may have taken over the pasture in continuous grazing circumstances.

For those managing horses on small acreage, Meccage emphasizes, "Dry lots are your friend."

Horse GrazingA dry lot is a turnout area with little to no vegetation. These spaces offer a convenient way to manage horses, limit grazing, and allow for pastures to receive the much-needed rest they require to regrow and stay productive and healthy. Pulling horses off pastures during poor environmental conditions like drought and placing horses into a dry lot helps to prevent overgrazing and improve pasture conditions. Grazing equines for limited hours and rotating the areas they graze are also beneficial. However, Meccage says it's important to know, research has shown when horses know they only have access to pasture for a set number of hours per day, they tend to eat fasters during those hours they have access.

"So, it's not a guaranteed fix," says Meccage. "If you have horses on the fat side, consider using a grazing muzzle. It will help to decrease their intake by about 30%. If that doesn't work, you may have to dry lot them more frequently and for longer periods of time."

Paddock paradises

Alternatively, Meccage says, a "paddock paradise" may also be an option for small-scale horse operations. Developed by natural hoof care and wild horse expert, Jaime Jackson, paddock paradises are a management or boarding concept based on the lifestyle of wild horses. According to the Association for the Advancement of Natural Horse Care Practices, this management methodology was conceived as a way to provide domestic equines with an environment that more closely resembles their natural habitat.

Instead of keeping horses in regular square or oblong pastures, a paddock paradise involves adding an extra "inside" fence to create a "track system" for horses. The track width can vary and depending on how narrow or wide it is, will affect how horses will move through the track system. All of this can be done quickly and inexpensively using electric fencing, says Meccage.

"In the track around the pasture, they place water on one side, maybe there will be some hills horses can climb, and they put hay around," says Meccage.  "Then owners can allow for a couple hours in the actual pasture grazing every day. It helps to preserve the pasture, the horses still get exercise, and they're not beating up your property."

Getting started

So where does a horse owner start on the path to better pasture management? Meccage recommends horse owners first consider how much time they have and want to manage pastures.

Horses Grazing

“You want to have a centralized area, that’s usually going to be your dry lot,” says Meccage. “Make it easy as possible, so you have access from that dry lot to every one of your pastures. Then all you have to do is open a gate. This will make it easier for you and more likely you’ll stick with the plan versus having to hand walk horses to different pastures every day.”

Along with the pasture layout, Meccage suggests horse owners place water in a central location. Breaking pastures up into smaller sections will also help encourage horses to branch out and graze spots they normally may not.

Taking pasture clippings periodically can also be valuable, explains Meccage, and can inform horse owners about how much forage they have available. Furthermore, tools like a grazing stick can be extremely helpful to first-time graziers or pasture managers in determining proper forage heights and grazing rest periods for pastures.

One quick tip to measuring forage heights is to take a water bottle out to the pasture with you, says Meccage.

“If you take a water bottle out and the grass is the same height or taller, that’s when you can start grazing,” says Meccage. “If you flip it on its side and the grass is that height, that’s when you pull them off.”

Ultimately, Meccage says horse owners should consult with local university extension or National Resource Conservation Service agents for the most up to date and best information on their horse pasture management options. Nutritional consultants can also be helpful.

“There is a wealth of knowledge out there,” says Meccage. “You just have to look.”