Managing established horse pastures

The following will help boost your pasture productivity:

  • Don’t overstock or over graze pastures. Use rotational grazing.

  • Have a sacrifice paddock (or dry lot) and use it as needed.

  • Each pasture needs rest and regrowth between grazing events.

  • Test the soil every 3 years and fertilize if needed (1 to 2 times per year)

  • Mow after each rotation and control weeds

  • Drag a few times a year

Stocking rate

The stocking rate is the total number of pasture acres available per horse. In general, we recommend a stocking rate of 2 acres per one 1,000-pound horse. This rate applies if you expect your pastures to provide most of your horse’s nutrition during the growing season.

For example, if you have five horses that average 1,000 pounds each, you’ll need 10 acres of well-managed pasture.

Stocking rate will range based on soil type, environment and management practices.

  • A well-managed pasture on fertile soil, used mainly for exercise and supplemental grazing, may only need 1 acre per horse

  • A less-managed and less productive soil, may need up to 5 acres per horse.

    • In general, higher stocking rates will require more hay supplementation.

Sacrifice paddock

A sacrifice paddock is a designated area where you can keep your horse when pastures:

  • Don’t have enough forage

  • Are resting

  • Are too wet

Because a sacrifice paddock usually turns to dirt, it’s also termed a dry lot or holding area. Many owners feed hay and grain in the sacrifice paddock. This area usually has a water source and shelter for the horse.

The sacrifice paddock should be large enough for comfortable, long-term housing for horses.

Horse grazing
Start grazing horses when the grass has reached a height of 6 to 8 inches.

When to start and stop grazing

You can start grazing horses when:

  • Tall cool-season forages (e.g. smooth bromegrass and orchardgrass) are 8 to 10 inches tall

  • Short cool-season forages (e.g. Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass) are 4 to 6 inches tall

Remove horses from the pasture when:

  • Tall cool season forages are 3 to 4 inches tall

  • Short cool season forages are 1 to 2 inches tall

Adequate rest and recovery periods are essential to maintaining desirable pasture plants with good productivity.

Rotational grazing

Rotational pasture layout
Example of rotational pasture layout

Rotational grazing is dividing the pasture area into several small paddocks. As one paddock needs rest, you can move the horses to another paddock for grazing. There’s no ideal number of paddocks for rotational grazing, do what works best for your farm.   

In some cases, (early in spring with several paddocks) you may need to rotate the horses before they adequately graze the pasture. In this case, horse owners may hay the paddock, or mow the forage to about 4 inches in height.

Horses tend to eat the forage type they prefer in the pasture and disregard the rest. Because of continuous grazing, the species or areas they prefer become weak and can’t compete with other plants such as weeds.

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Spring grazing

In spring, keep horses off pastures until the ground firms up and the grass has a chance to get growing. Once the grass is 6 to 8 inches tall, start easing the horses onto the grass in 15 minute increments. Gradually increase the amount of time in the pastures by 15 minutes each day (e.g. 15 minutes on day 1, 30 minutes on day 2, 45 minutes on day 3) until you reach 5 hours of grazing. This will happen over the course of several weeks. Once you reach 5 hours of grazing, the horses can graze continuously as long as enough pasture is availabl

Laminitis

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Weeds

A well-managed pasture will outcompete most weed species. But since horses are such picky grazers, you can’t completely eliminate all weeds. Weeds are generally:

  • Less palatable

  • Less nutritious

  • Lower yielding

  • Less dependable for forage

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Soil testing and fertilization

Fertilizing
Fertilize pastures once or twice a year relative to the results of your soil test.

Taking a soil sample will help you decide if your pasture needs additional fertilizer.

Splitting nitrogen (N) fertilizer applications in two (spring and mid-summer) provides the best yield distribution over the season. Applying N during a dry spell can burn the grass. Apply phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) if needed, based on the soil sample. These can be applied once in the spring.

Avoid fertilizing right before a large storm event to prevent the fertilizer from washing away. The ideal time to fertilize is right before a gentle, soaking rain. Keep horses off the pasture until you can no longer see the fertilizer pellets.

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Seeding bare or overgrazed areas

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Late fall and winter care

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Electric fence
Use a safe, permanent fence to enclose your pastures.

Fencing options

Always follow the BASIC rules.

  • Budget

  • Appearance

  • Safety

  • Installation

  • Containment

The fence around the entire pasture should be permanent and safe (i.e. no barbed wire). Electric fencing is generally the most economical, especially for internal subdivisions. Consult a reputable dealer that has experience with horse fencing for more information.

Krishona Martinson, equine Extension specialist and Paul Peterson, former forage agronomist

Reviewed in 2018

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