If your idea of the perfect horse pasture consists of neatly-mown bermudagrass and carefully-pruned hedges, you’re likely not alone. After all, this is what we often see in equine magazines or at those fancy Thoroughbred farms in Kentucky. But while pastures such as these might be appealing to the eye, there’s one main problem: they may not be healthy for our horses. This is due to the fact that they often lack plant diversity, and therefore, lack many types of beneficial bacteria that grazing animals need for healthy gut function.
Diversification is the key to pasture management for horses
The practice of monoculture (cultivating a single crop) is a modern farming technique that has also carried over to how people maintain their yards and pastures. However, the healthiest horse pastures support a wide variety of plants, including what some would consider weeds. Instead of aiming for magazine-worthy pastures, consider seeding your pasture with several types of grass species native to your area to add in some diversity. If you contact your local county extension agent, they can help with this.
Planting “good” weeds--those that have nutritional and/or medicinal value in small patches--is also a great way to diversify your pasture. Examples include dandelions, goldenrod, chickweed, mullein, broad leaf plantain, cleavers, stinging nettle (yes, horses will eat it!), and yarrow.
While weed control is important (we don’t want our pastures to be overtaken by a noxious species, after all!), widespread use of herbicides can be detrimental for soil health, so it’s best to use them sparingly and targeted toward specific noxious weeds you want to do away with.
How much pasture per horse?
Along with diversifying your pasture, it’s also important to properly manage your horse’s living space to keep the soil and plant life healthy. First and foremost, avoid overstocking pastures. The number of horses a pasture can support will differ depending on the type of terrain in your area; grassy pasture can often support one horse per 1-2 acres while pastures with sparse vegetation may only support one horse per 5-10 acres.
By the same token, any pasture can become overgrazed if horses are left on it long enough, but you can remedy this situation by implementing pasture rotation or strip grazing. Giving grass several months to “rest” can help plant life and soil bacteria to recuperate.
Reseeding horse pasture
Sometimes, you don’t have much choice but to start over with an overgrazed or poorly managed horse pasture. In this case, reseeding is often called for. However, this isn’t something you should do on a whim; you will need to plan ahead.
The first step might be starting with noxious weed control via tillage, targeted herbicide application, or both, and this should be done 6-12 months before seeding. Collecting soil samples for analysis is also a vital step to take before seeding.
Early on, you’ll need to decide which method of seeding you plan to use: till or no-till. Tilling involves using a plow, disk, or harrow, and it allows for aeration of the soil, as well as elimination of existing vegetation. Tilling also provides a smooth surface for seeding. The no-till method,on the other hand, helps to reduce soil erosion, conserve soil moisture, and is less labor intensive. No-till works best on sandy or silt loam soils.
If you plan to do tilled seedings, collect a soil sample at the plow layer depth (usually 6 ⅔ inches). For no-till seedings, collect two soil samples, one from 0-2 inch depth and one at plow depth. Again, your local county extension office can help with both collecting and assessing soil samples.
If your soil’s pH is too low (which is often the case with overgrazed or poor pastures), lime should be applied 6-12 months before seeding and thoroughly incorporated into the plow layer to neutralize soil acidity. With no-till seedings, apply lime to the surface 1-2 years ahead of seeding. Lime can be applied any time of the year but is most often applied in spring since moisture helps it incorporate more thoroughly into the soil.
As for the specific types of grasses to seed with, ask your local county extension office agent for advice, and match grasses with the type of soil, climate, and the amount of grazing the pasture will get. Again, planting several varieties of grasses will help to ensure plant and bacterial diversity for a healthy pasture.
When it comes time to seed, horses should be removed from the pasture or seeded areas until plants become established. If seeding in late summer, the pasture won’t likely be ready until the following May. Seeding in late winter or early spring, however, usually produces grazable grass 3-4 months later.
Pasture fertilizer for horses
For recently seeded pastures or those that could benefit from improvement, fertilization can improve grass quality and yields. Again, soil testing is an important tool to use before fertilizer application so you can purchase one targeted to your pasture’s specific needs.
Complete fertilizers consist of nitrogen (N), phosphate (P205) and potash (K20), and these values are given on a percentage basis, such as 5-10-15. However, you may not need all three ingredients, depending on your soil sample results.
When pasture isn't available
In some boarding situations and locations, pasture can’t be accessed 24-7 or may not be an option at all, so in these cases, owners need to do the best they can. Yes, fresh grass is the most natural food for horses, but they can also do well on hay year-round. In cases such as this, adding variety and many natural foods into your horse’s diet can help support gut health, and since your horse won’t have access to beneficial bacteria from live plants and soil, consider feeding an equine probiotic to make up for this difference.
The health of our pastures and soil quality is closely connected to our horses’ digestive system, and keeping horses on diversified pasture is best. However, when that’s not an option, adding probiotics is a great alternative and will ensure your horse is receiving the beneficial bacteria he needs for digestive health.