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Managing established horse pastures

Quick facts

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 three years and fertilize if needed (one to two times per year).
  • Mow after each rotation and control weeds.
  • Drag a few times a year.

Divide up your space

The best way to make your pasture more productive is to divide your pasture area into a few small paddocks.

Horse’s are selective grazers. They tend to eat the forage they prefer and disregard other less appealing areas of the pasture. Over time, the areas with preferred forage become weak and prone to weeds and less desirable plants. Providing rest periods (to allow plants to re-grow) can reduce overgrazing and stress on desirable plants.

Having a few small paddocks can allow you to rest one paddock while the horses graze another. Small paddocks also aid in better manure management and weed control.

Horse grazing

How many horses per acre?

The stocking rate is the total number of pasture acres available per horse. In general, we recommend a stocking rate of 2 acres per 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 pasture with less productive soil may need up to 5 acres per horse.

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

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.

Rotational grazing

Aerial of divided pasture area on horse farm.
An example of a divided pasture area with a lane that allows access to a single pasture and the dry lot. Connecting the dry lot to the pastures ensures free access to water and shelter during grazing.

Rotational grazing requires 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.

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 available.


Keeping pastures productive throughout the seasons


Authors: Krishona Martinson, Extension equine specialist and Paul Peterson

Reviewed in 2021

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