Dakota Farmer

Managing horses on pasture

There are plenty of reasons to pasture your horses in the summertime, but proper pasture and grazing management can increase the nutritional value of horse pastures.

Curt Arens, Editor, Nebraska Farmer

April 24, 2024

3 Min Read
horse in pasture
GREAT GRASS: A well-maintained, well-managed pasture can provide the nutritional needs of most horses at a rule of thumb stocking rate of 2 acres of pasture to one 1,000-pound horse. But managing pasture correctly can increase productivity, keep weeds to a minimum and help horses get the most out of your grazing forage resources. Curt Arens

Ranchers pay plenty of attention to pasture management to get the most benefit from their grazing land forage resources for their cattle. It’s the same with horses.

A rule of thumb for stocking density on pasture for equine is 2 acres of healthy, well-managed and fertile pasture per 1,000-pound horse. According to Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota Extension equine specialist, this stocking rate should provide most of a horse’s nutrition during the typical spring and summer growing season.

Pasture management is needed

It doesn’t mean, however, that pastures don’t need management when the horses are grazing. Overstocking horse pastures and overgrazing lead to less healthy, weedy and less productive pastures that will not support the usual stocking rate.

It may seem like common sense, but there are basic management tips to keep the pastures healthy through the growing season and, consequently, provide optimal grazing forages for horses.

Rotational grazing through a series of paddocks prevents overgrazing, Martinson says. “Horses don’t graze uniformly, and they prefer less mature grass,” she says. After grazing a particular paddock, mowing or shredding areas where grass is taller can help the pasture recover more uniformly during the rest period in preparation for the next grazing period.

Horses should be moved to the next paddock when the grass is grazed down to about 3 to 4 inches and can return to the paddock when the grass has grown back to 6 to 8 inches in height. If conditions are right, horses may be able to graze the same paddocks two or three times during the season.

Don’t overgraze

“Cool-season grass, for instance, can recover very quickly when conditions are wet and cool,” Martinson says. “Recovery is slower when it is hot and dry, and grass growth can stop, and forages become dormant when there are extended periods of drought.”

Instead of overgrazing paddocks without rest, horse owners can feed horses in a dry lot situation, just as they might do with cattle during drought, to provide alternative forages and baled hay without ruining pastures. “Start and stop grazing based on plant height, not by the calendar,” Martinson says.

The best way to prevent excessive weed growth in horse pastures is through proper grazing management, she says. “Avoid overgrazing, and keep soil fertility up so grasses can compete with weeds,” Martinson says. “If you use herbicides to control weeds, be sure to follow directions and grazing restrictions on the label.”

She also suggests dragging horse pastures two to three times each season to better distribute piles of manure, allowing the manure and nutrients to disperse into the soil through rainfall. If soil tests show a need for additional nutrients to maintain grass production, Martinson advises applying the first half of the fertilizer in the spring, with the balance applied in June. “It is best to apply fertilizer before light rainfall,” she says. “Then, hold off on grazing until the fertilizer pellets have dissolved.”

Prevent laminitis

Healthy horses can graze on normal pasture conditions without restrictions. Nonstructural carbohydrates, the starches and sugars found in plants, are a main energy source for grazing horses, Martinson says. But overweight horses and those prone to laminitis, or founder, may need extra management on pastures, she says.

Cool-season grasses like bluegrass or fescue can accumulate nonstructural carbohydrates. These are at higher levels in the plants in late afternoon on sunny days and at lower levels overnight, on cloudy days or in more mature grass.

“Drought and overgrazing increases levels of nonstructural carbohydrates in the grass,” Martinson says. “For horses that are more prone to laminitis, use caution when grazing in early spring or late fall, or grazing short or overgrazed and drought pastures. Graze those animals overnight. Maintain a healthy body condition score to lessen the risk of laminitis.”

Learn more at extension.umn.edu/horse-pastures-and-facilities/managing-established-horse-pastures.

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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