It’s that time of year when the grass gets green and grows fast! But is it time to let your horses begin grazing on the pastures you’ve carefully fenced off all winter? Putting horses out too soon can reduce the productivity of your pastures this summer and letting your horses graze too much can be dangerous to horse health. If your horse has metabolic issues check out my past Smart Horse Keeping on grazing and horse health; otherwise follow these tips to begin your spring pasture management:
By dividing a pasture area into smaller sections and rotating horses through them, you can encourage horses to graze more evenly, keep pasture grasses from becoming overgrazed and guarantee fresh grass for a longer period of time during the growing season.
Photo: Alayne Blickle
- Don’t let your horses have too much grass too soon! Remember to limit turn-out time when horses begin grazing again—too much grass can cause very serious horse health problems, especially in the spring when grasses are rich and lush. Increase grazing gradually. Start with about an hour at a time, and work up to several hours over a period of several weeks. If you have any questions about how much grazing time is safe for your horse, consult your veterinarian for their recommendations.
- For healthy grass plants, keep horses off of pastures until soils are no longer soggy. One of the most important aspects of pasture management is the time you keep horses off the pasture. Saturated soils and dormant plants cannot survive continuous grazing and trampling. When soils are still wet they are easily compacted, suffocating the roots of grass plants. A simple test for sogginess is to walk out in your fields and see if you leave a footprint—if you do, you know it’s too wet and that the weight of a horse will be sure to compact the soil.
- Apply a green band-aid. To encourage a thick, healthy stand of grass (and no bare spots for weeds to take hold) spread pasture grass seed in areas that have bare spots or where grass isn’t growing as thick as you’d like. Remember: bare spots provide a haven for weeds in summer and mud in the winter!
- Keep pastures healthy by rotating grazing areas. By dividing a pasture area into smaller fields and rotating horses through them, you can encourage horses to graze more evenly, keep pasture grasses from becoming overgrazed and guarantee fresh grass for a longer period of time during the growing season. Remember the golden rule of grazing: never allow grass to be grazed shorter than three inches. This ensures that the grass will have enough reserves left after grazing to permit rapid regrowth. Consider the bottom two or three inches of grass an energy collector that needs to be left for the plant. Once horses have grazed the majority of the grass in a pasture down to three or four inches, rotate them on to the next pasture. You can put horses back on pastures when the grass has re-grown to about six to eight inches.
- Are some sections of your pasture still soggy while others are already dry? Try fencing pastures according to how wet they are. That way, in the early spring you can let horses onto the higher, dry areas first. Save the wet areas until later in the summer when they dry out.
About the Author
Alayne Renée Blickle, a life-long equestrian and reining competitor, is the creator/director of Horses for Clean Water, an award winning, nationally acclaimed environmental education program. Well known for her enthusiastic, down-to-earth approaches, Alayne is an educator and photojournalist who has worked with horse and livestock owners for over 15 years teaching manure composting, pasture management, mud and dust control, water conservation, chemical use reduction and wildlife enhancement. She teaches and travels North America and writes for horse publications. Alayne and her husband raise and train their reining horses at their ranch in sunny Nampa, Idaho.