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To Graze With Horses Is To Think Out of the Box

By   /  March 19, 2013  /  1 Comment

Some people say that if you want to build a putting green, put a horse on pasture. Their dietary needs, the way they graze, and the space an owner has available for horses all influence how we manage them.

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Photo by Bill Hathorn

Pasture management for horses is hard. Horses are picky eaters, and each one has different needs. Some horses get fat on air and some require much more to maintain condition. How you manage your pasture for your horse depends on your budget, your land base and you. From improving grazing for more forage and lower feed bills to renovating an area for year-round turnout, investments in your pasture can pay back in environmental benefits enjoyed by you and your horse.


The size of a pasture required to meet dietary needs is often at odds with the exercise needs for the horse. The amount of forage needed to support a typical horse is only 10-20 lbs of dry matter per day. For a two to three day period, enough forage is available on a “postage-stamp” sized area, less than 1/10th of an acre on a healthy pasture.

Most horses – and their owners – want to have enough outdoor area for the horses to have a good frolic. However, increasing the grazing period beyond three days to increase paddock size and available forage isn’t the best answer. That’s because after three days, grazed plants begin to regrow.  Your horses aren’t standing around pondering the state of world events or the economy. Rather, they are consumed with the tasty things to eat and where they are. The moment a delicious morsel of forage pops up, they will be on it, giving the plant an added challenge for survival.

To avoid a putting green of a pasture interspersed with towering and ever-increasing weed populations, there are a number of solutions you can adopt.  If you want to produce graze-worthy forage to supplement your horses’ dietary needs, you need to manage your land and horses toward that goal. The most basic plan includes dividing up the larger pasture into small areas, each of which can provide 1-3 days forage for grazing.  These subdivided pasture areas can each be accessed by one exercise or turnout are that also includes a water source and a run-in. This set up gives horses the room to run, while fencing out forage that has been recently grazed, giving those plants the chance to regrow to a height worthy of grazing (6-8” or more).

The layout of subdivided pastures and turnout area will be dependent on your land and your needs.  You may choose to position the exercise area within the center of the paddocks, or to one side. Another option is to encircle the paddocks for grazing with a racetrack of a turnout area.  Your investment in fencing, be it temporary or permanent, will result in reduced forage costs and a healthier pasture.

Renovated turnout areas

Odds are pretty good that mud is a challenge you have to deal with, either in turnout areas, at gateways, around water tubs, or maybe all three and then some.  To deal with the mud, folks may choose to put down some sand, sawdust, gravel, or anything else on hand. Then, they end up with grittier or gravely mud, and more of it.

A solution to mud problems in high traffic areas includes removing the top 8-9” of soil in the compacted area, and putting down two layers of geotextile (the road fabric often used by construction crews) sandwiching a gravel layer that transports water from the surface. The geotextile and gravel sandwich is covered with a pea stone that also alleviates problems with standing water.

Winters in the northeast typically bring plenty of snow and ice. Spring and fall showcase mud and more ice. But with this renovation, farmers were able to turnout horses onto the renovated area in all conditions without risking the horses’ health – or their own.

This article is based on materials related to the SARE-funded project discussed above. For more information on pasture management for horses and renovating a high traffic area, visit www.uvm.edu/pasture and http://asci.uvm.edu/equine/?Page=publications.html

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About the author

Author and editor emeritus

Rachel's interest in sustainable agriculture and grazing has deep roots in the soil. She's been following that passion around the world, working on an ancient Nabatean farm in the Negev, and with farmers in West Africa's Niger. After returning to the US, Rachel received her M.S. and Ph.D. in agronomy and soil science from the University of Maryland. For her doctoral research, Rachel spent 3 years working with Maryland dairy farmers using management intensive grazing. She then began her work with grass farmers, a source of joy and a journey of discovery.

1 Comment

  1. Fantastic & much needed initiative, thank you for this resource! Look forward to keeping my eyes open for horse related articles, to better aid my clients in providing a more species-appropriate, sustainable diet and management system.

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