If you are fortunate enough to have horse pasture winter is the time to baby it. It’s also important to realize that a good stand of grass is critical for environmental health. Grass roots hold valuable topsoil in place and prevent erosion. Grass plants minimize pollution by filtering out nutrients and sediments and reducing runoff.
Photos by Alayne Blickle
The best winter care you can give your pastures is to confine horses in sacrifice areas, or winter paddocks, and off pastures. Here are what our paddocks look like at Sweet Pepper Ranch.
Here are the basics for winter horse pasture management:
Keep horses off saturated and rain soaked soils and dormant or frozen pasture plants. Soggy soils or dormant plants simply cannot survive continuous grazing and trampling in winter months. Compaction of soil makes water filtration and plant growth very difficult. In addition, when the soils are wet horse hooves act like plungers, loosening fine particles of precious topsoil to be washed away by rain. All of this hurts your pastures, diminishing pasture growth and vigor next spring and opening the door for weed invasions.
Never graze your pastures below 3 to 4 inches. This is called the Golden Rule of Pasture Management and I like to harp on it in all my classes—because it’s important! A pasture plant always needs at least 3 to 4 inches of green, leafy material to manufacture food. If it doesn’t have that its health is compromised and you will have less forage production next summer along with more weeds. (In addition, there are some serious horse health issues for horses on overgrazed pastures, such as risk for sand colic or ingesting too many simple carbohydrates which are stored in the bottom few inches of the plant.)
Create a sacrifice area or winter paddock to be used during the winter months. A sacrifice area is a small enclosure such as a corral, run, or pen, which is meant to be your horse's outdoor living quarters. It is called a sacrifice area because you are giving up the use of that small portion of land as a grassy area to benefit the rest of your pastures. Your horse should be confined to the sacrifice area during the winter and early spring when grass plants are dormant and soils are wet. In the summer, utilize the sacrifice area to keep pastures from becoming overgrazed (never below 3 or 4 inches) and to keep your horses from becoming overweight. For more on sacrifice areas see this past Smart Horse Keeping post.
A sacrifice area should be located on high, well-drained ground far away from creeks, wetlands, ponds or other water bodies. Using a sacrifice area confines manure and urine to an area where you can manage it. Surround your sacrifice area by a grassy buffer or pasture to act as a filter for contaminated runoff. Using a footing such as hogfuel (wood chips) or crushed rock in a sacrifice area will help cut down on mud problems.
At our place, Sweet Pepper Ranch in southwestern Idaho, we have a seven-acre hay field. Last winter I had hoped to graze my six horses on small portions of it all through the winter, during dry periods when the soils weren’t wet or soggy. Unfortunately even with seven acres of pasture I was quickly at that critical three to four inches mark. Grass plants are dormant in the winter and simply aren’t re-growing. Even when you have a lot of pasture it’s very challenging trying to use it in the winter and still maintain its integrity. It seems that during the winter the best option still is to utilize a sacrifice area.