Does Soil Diversity Impact Horse Gut Health?
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 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 and this is due to the fact that they lack plant diversity, and therefore, lack many types of beneficial bacteria that all animals need.
Diversifying Your Pasture
How do you make a good horse pasture?
The practice of monoculture (cultivating a single crop) is a modern farming technique which has also carried over to how people maintain their yards and pastures, but the healthiest horse pastures support a wide variety of plants, including what some would consider weeds. Instead of aiming for “pretty,” consider seeding your pasture with several types of grass species native to your area to add in some diversity. Your local county extension agent can help with this.
Planting “good” weeds which have nutritional and/or medicinal value in small patches around the pasture 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!), spraying all weeds can be detrimental for soil health, as well as the health of our horses.
Pasture Management Tips
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 of “rest” can help the plant life and soil bacteria recuperate.
When Pasture Isn’t Available
Can a horse live on grass alone?
In some boarding situations, 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 horse’s overall health, 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.