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Grazing horses on grass and legume mixed pastures

Quick facts

  • Grass and legume forage mixtures provide benefits for horses with higher nutrient needs. 
  • Alfalfa can be grazed as a single-species or mixed with grass.
  • Mixed pastures may not be appropriate for horses that are overweight or prone to certain metabolic conditions.
  • Legumes can be safely grazed by healthy horses.

The importance of pasture to horses 

Horses are grazing animals and most horses in the Midwest meet their nutritional needs from cool-season grass pasture or hay.  

Forages are an important part of the equine diet and more than 80% of horses have some pasture access. There are many benefits for horses grazing pasture compared to eating hay in confinement, including the reduction of unwanted behaviors such as bedding and manure eating, cribbing and chewing wood.

Benefits of adding legumes to pasture

Close up of horse eating alfalfa in a pasture.

Grass pasture alone often does not meet the greater energy and nutrient needs of growing horses, horses in heavy work, and lactating mares. But they may not be appropriate for horses that are overweight or prone to certain metabolic conditions.

Legumes such as alfalfa and white clover can meet elevated needs and can be planted with grasses to improve the nutritional value of forages. 

Alfalfa and clover contain more digestible energy (DE) and crude protein (CP) than grasses. They are a good option for owners who want to limit feeding grain to their horses. 

Grass-legume pastures offer added benefits, including:

  • Increased crop yield. 
  • Better weed control. 
  • Improved seasonal distribution of forage.
  • Greater adaptability to weather conditions. 
  • Legumes can fix nitrogen and transfer it to grasses, reducing nitrogen fertilization needs. 

Although common in horse hay, legumes are rarely grazed as the sole forage species.

  • Alfalfa can be grazed as a single-species or mixed with grass.
  • Red or white clover doesn't regrow well when grazed by horses, so it’s best to mix with grass.
  • Alfalfa and red clover can be appropriate pasture species for horses diagnosed with metabolic disorders. If your horse has a diagnosed metabolic disorder, work closely with your veterinarian and an equine nutritionist before grazing. 

Horses readily eat legumes mixed with grass. In a three-year study of feeding alfalfa and clover though, horses showed a preference for red and white clover. 

Weed control

Weeds pose a problem in pastures, as they can reduce yield and forage nutritive value. Certain weeds can pose a toxicity risk to grazing livestock. Grass-legume mixtures tend to create a more competitive environment compared to grasses planted by themselves. Mixtures can be an effective management tool to help reduce weeds.

  • Herbicides for weed control cannot be used in grass-legume mixtures, as products will also injure or kill the desired grasses and legumes, depending on the target weed species. 
  • Mechanical weed control, including overseeding and mowing in mixed pastures, also works.

Research summaries

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Krishona Martinson, Extension equine specialist

Reviewed in 2020

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