The ABCs of Horse Pasture Maintenance

Tips to keep your horse’s pasture healthy and safe
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When I moved to a five-acre farmette in Maryland, I was ecstatic to be able to care for my horses myself, to see them every day from my kitchen window and to ride more often. There is a lot to know about horsekeeping. And to your horse, perhaps the most important element in his life is his pasture space. There are important questions to consider if you keep your horses at home: Is there good grass to graze on? How much turnout time should each horse get? How can pastures remain healthy for horses especially on a small acreage?

(Amy K. Dragoo)

(Amy K. Dragoo)

Although I began asking questions at my local Southern States feed store (it was pre-Internet), the steps toward creating good pasture on a small acreage are still very much the same today. To start, you should contact your local agricultural extension service, which is run by your state or university.

Test the Soil

Your local cooperative extension, Natural Resources Conservation Service or conservation district office can tell you how to get your pasture’s soil tested. Some do the testing and will explain the results, while others send you directly to a lab. I learned that it was important to test my particular pasture soil because it can be different from others nearby. I needed to know what nutrients were there and what fertilizers might be needed to correct the pH balance, for example, and encourage good grasses to grow. The soil-testing process can vary depending on what part of the country you live in, but I will share how it generally goes:

1. The extension offices may have test kits you can use. If not, use plastic bags. Directions are often easy to find on each state or county extension service’s website.

2. Take soil samples from three or four different locations in your pastures. Depth can vary but dig about 4 inches into the earth and take your samples at that depth. 

3. Take the samples where directed, such as a local extension office. Today the costs vary depending on how many tests you want to do, but it is not prohibitive. The three primary nutrients you want included in a soil test report are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K).

4. You will get back a soil analysis of these nutrients as well as the pH levels, which indicate the acidity in the soil (7 is neutral; less than 7 is acidic).

My extension office found my pasture to be acidic and suggested the application of lime and a bit of fertilizer. I called my local feed store and they sent someone out to spray my fields. The spring rains came and the pastures flourished much to the delight of my horses and myself, although I couldn’t have told you exactly what was at work.

Most people fertilize in the spring or fall. It often depends on the type of weeds growing and the type of grass you want to grow. The life cycles of each vary. The local extension office can tell you what time of year is best for the fertilizer you want to use.

For this article, I wanted to finally understand a bit more about the science and common sense of pasture maintenance and what had changed since I did it years ago. So, I contacted two specialists. Donna Foulk is an equine natural resources educator at the Penn State Extension, which is part of the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences within Pennsylvania State University. She specializes in equine pasture management among other things. Another professional who helped me understand the art of pasture management is Tom Guthrie, a statewide equine extension educator for Michigan State University. His expertise in the equine industry focuses on environment management on horse farms, pasture management and toxic plant identification.

Guthrie says, “Having the soil analyzed for fertilizer recommendations will help with keeping the pasture productive over time. In some instances, horse owners will reseed a pasture for a fresh start for reasons such as wanting to try a different seed mixture or the pasture is no longer viewed as productive. At any rate, it is important to recognize that stocking density (horse-to-acre ratio) needs to be appropriate otherwise it will be difficult to maintain a quality pasture with enough forage availability.” 

Start with Adequate Horse-to-Acre Density

I told Foulk and Guthrie that I had kept three to four horses together and rotated them through three fields. They were out most of the day on my five acres, then they came into the barn at night. Foulk says that this is a good density for that amount of acreage. She and Guthrie generally recommend two acres per horse. But if you have more horses on that five acres, even in the Mid-Atlantic area where pastures tend to be abundant, “good management practices are necessary to maintain desirable plants,” Foulk explains. “Without adequate pasture acreage, horse owners need to limit turnout time to prevent overgrazing and supplement with hay to help meet equine nutritional requirements.” She went on to say that in 2018 more horses are being kept on fewer acres than ever before. Pasture lands are shrinking in size as cities and their populations grow larger and larger, causing “continually changing environmental conditions and fluctuations in horse populations residing on farms.”

Guthrie agrees that one of the biggest challenges horse owners face today is having adequate turnout space. “The two-acres-per-horse rule may also depend on soil type and what forages can feasibly be grown,” he says. “Oftentimes, there are just too many horses for usable land.” Have patience, he advises horse owners. “Owners can be impatient and turn horses out on pasture as soon as the grass starts to green up or keep them on the pasture too long, resulting in overgrazing. It is important to manage the grass from a growth standpoint rather than a particular time, such as days or weeks and/or season of the year.” In other words, owners should look at the length of the grass and not let it get too short (which is overgrazing) as opposed to relying on a timetable.

Keep Pastures Mowed and Weeded

Years ago, my veterinarian husband was happy to mow our fields and seemed to find that time particularly rejuvenating, so I left it mostly to him. However, sometimes it looked like a lawn, and I had to remind him not to cut the grass too short. My thinking was that the short grass left the horses nothing to eat, but Foulk explained that grass plants store their energy to regrow in the lowest 2 or 3 inches. That is the real reason not to cut it too short. “When mowing, maintain a forage height of 2 to 3 inches if the pasture is composed primarily of fine-bladed, short grass species, such as perennial ryegrass and bluegrass,” she tells me. For taller, high-yield grasses like orchard grass or timothy, she recommends keeping it about 3 to 5 inches tall.

Mowing not only helps the grass regrow, it keeps down the weeds. If they start taking over, you may need to either reseed or apply herbicides. If using herbicides, Foulk recommends planning wisely. “Remember that broad-leaf herbicides will also eliminate desirable legumes, like clover and alfalfa, from pastures along with the weeds,” she points out. “Most pasture herbicides available today do not have grazing restrictions, and animals do not have to be removed from the pasture.” Always pay attention to and follow all directions found on the herbicide’s label.

To be smart about ridding your pastures of weeds, Foulk explains that you need to know the life cycle of the particular weed you want to get rid of and apply the herbicide at the best time. For example, “The ideal time to control summer annual weeds, like lamb’s quarters, ragweed and pigweed, is in the spring when the weed seedlings are very small,” she says, and then she gives another example. “If you need to get rid of winter annual weeds that have not been killed by the pasture grass, the best time to apply herbicide is in the late summer after the weed seeds have germinated.”

Foulk says that, in fact, “the best weed control agent that exists is a thick, healthy stand of pasture grasses that will not allow weed seeds to germinate in the first place.” But weeds aren’t all bad. “They can play an important role in absorbing excess manure nutrients and protecting soil from erosion,” she notes, adding that if you are going to kill weeds, at the same time you must also have a plan to thicken the grasses you prefer and keep them healthy.

Design Your Pastures for Success

The best pasture management includes using fencing (even temporary fencing) to divide the land you have for horse pasture into two, three or more grazing spaces. This allows you to keep horses off one portion at a time, thus giving the rested area a chance to regrow.

Foulk says not to wait to rotate your pastures until they need reseeding, which takes time and money to do. “Repeated, close grazing depletes energy reserves,” she explains. “This reduces growth and eventually kills the plant.” The length of the rest period depends on the size of the pasture and the number of horses grazing on it. She advises turning horses into a pasture “when the grass is 7 to 10 inches tall, and allow them to graze it down to 3 to 4 inches.”

Another way to let a pasture rest is to designate a “sacrifice area.” This is a small paddock ideally situated on high ground with good drainage that has no grass in it at all and where the horses can be fed hay in lieu of grazing. The sacrifice area is also important when pasture grass becomes too rich, often in the spring and fall, because there is a danger of horses foundering.

You can keep sacrifice areas from turning into mud pits, Foulk tells me, by lining them with 2 or 3 inches of stone aggregate topped by a minimum of 2 to 3 inches of finer stone dust. There are other ways to prepare the area, but be careful about using sand, she says. “Horses should not be fed on sand since it can cause colic and impaction if the sand particles are ingested.” She adds that the area also should be kept free of manure.

Guthrie says that “pastures can provide nutrients in the same way that hay does, but it may be necessary to supplement with hay if there is not enough forage available in pastures and/or during inclement times (heavy rains, mud, drought conditions, etc.) when horses should not be on pastures.

The Walk Around

Foulk says it also pays to regularly walk your pastures and look for any changes taking place in the grasses and weeds. Are bare spots popping up, for example, or are the horses depleting grasses in a way that makes it important to take them off the pasture for a while? “Walking pastures in spring and summer will also allow you to become familiar with the types of weeds you have,” she says.

Walking the pasture is essential for a safe pasture. Horse owners “must keep perimeter fences in good condition to keep their horses in and unwanted animals out,” Guthrie says. “Be sure to walk pastures frequently to check for hazards like downed tree limbs, woodchuck holes, etc. In addition, by walking your pastures frequently you create another opportunity to observe your horse and build your skills at identifying potentially harmful plants. Knowing what is growing or what should not be growing in or around your horse pasture can be extremely helpful if the horse is encountering any sort of health issue.”  

This article first appeared in the August 2018 issue of Dressage Today.

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