When you look at your pasture what  do you see? Some people look at pastures as a place to turn their horse out for  exercise while others realize a pasture can be an important part of their total  feeding program. Unfortunately it's not as simple as watching the grass grow  and turning your horse out in the field. Proper pasture management has many  components spread across all four seasons.

Importance of Pasture

A well kept pasture can provide the  most natural and healthy environment for exercise and rest for your horse. A  good pasture alone is sufficient to meet all of the nutritional requirements  for most horses. Providing a horse with good quality pasture is one of the most  inexpensive ways to feed a horse. Ideally a horse should consume a minimum of  1% of their body weight in hay or pasture each day. 

 Horses are designed to be roaming  herbivores. During their evolution horses roamed as they pleased, spending the  majority of their day grazing along the way. The reality for most horses today  is dramatically different with the majority of horses being stabled and  expected to perform as athletes for us. However, their digestive systems are  still designed to eat grasses and be on the move. Therefore an adequate size  healthy pasture is important in maintaining healthy gastrointestinal function  in horses. 

 Not only does pasture help meet your  horse's nutritional needs but it also helps to meet their emotional and  physical needs. Pasture time gives horses an opportunity to socialize with  other members of their "herd" and exercise, both of which are important for  their health and well-being.

Characteristics of a Good Pasture

Regardless of where your barn is  located, there are characteristics associated with a good pasture. The number  one characteristic is having a safe area to turn your horse out in. It is  important to make sure that not only is your pasture properly fenced, but that  it is free of poisonous plants and hazardous objects such as rocks, wire,  garbage and stumps. The pasture should also be large enough to provide  nutritious and palatable forage, but at the same time manageable. Horse owners  typically look at a large pasture and place too many horses in the area. Do not  overload your pasture. Over grazing can result in reduced grass stand and  increase weeds that reduce yield and quality of the forage. In addition some  weeds can be toxic. 

 Ideally horses should have access to  ample shade in the summer and shelter in times of inclement weather. Water  troughs should be available in more than one location in the pasture. When dealing  with shade, shelter and water, the more options available the better. If a  field only has one water trough, it is guaranteed that the surrounding area  will be a muddy mess simply because the trough will be a high traffic area. 

 A well drained area is essential to  a healthy horse pasture. You can make adjustments for drainage, either by  moving dirt around or "tiling" which involves underground drainage.

Test Before You Plant

Soil is the foundation of a good  forage program. It is essential to know what nutrient levels are present in  your soil. If a nutrient is deficient in the soil then plants growing on that  soil will also be deficient for that nutrient. The better the soil, the greater  the potential for both quantity and quality of forage in the pasture. 

 Regardless of whether you are  establishing a new pasture or rejuvenating an existing area soil testing is the  first step. Work with your local Southern States store to assist in  conducting a soil sample. Soil tests should be conducted at least every three  years to determine your pasture's needs.

 When testing your soil it is  important to get a representative sample of your entire pasture area. Soil test  results will determine the pH (acidity) and nutrient levels of your soil. The  report will also provide you with 

recommendations for lime and fertilizer  application. Different plants thrive on different pH levels, so this report  will help you determine what changes need to be made according to your planting  preference.

The Right Seed for Your Need

There is no forage that is perfect for all  situations. Pick the proper plant for your pasture conditions and feeding goals  of the pasture for your horses. Keep in mind, different plants will thrive in  your pasture depending on where you are located and your soil preferences.

  Horse pastures should have a mix of grasses and  legumes that provide pasture needs throughout the growing season. By having a  variety of plants, your growing season will be extended as each species has its  optimum production period. In most cases grasses grow during the beginning and  end of the growing season while legumes such as clover and alfalfa flourish in  the warm midsummer months. 

 Your local Southern States  store has seed to meet your needs. The Southern States Horse Pasture Mix consists of more bluegrass for the northeastern  climate with 20% Benchmark Plus Orchardgrass, 45% Kentucky Bluegrass, 20% Grand  Daddy Perennial Ryegrass, 10% Derby Timothy and 5% Will Ladino Clover. The Southern States Horse Paddock Mix contains less bluegrass and more bunch grasses to  persists better into the summer in more southern and eastern climates. The Southern States Pro Horse Pasture Mix contains more quality ryegrass with a full load of bluegrass along with the  others for quality and aggressive establishment - especially when overseed  existing paddocks. 

 Not only will the mix grow at different times,  but it will meet different needs. The root system formed by bluegrass helps  produce a sod that rejuvenates itself well when constantly under the pressure  of horses' hooves. Legumes supply needed proteins and reduce the need for  additional nitrogen fertilization. 

 Once you have picked the right seed  varieties for your area it's time to get seeding. There are many schools of  thought about when the best time is to seed. However, the consensus is that  spring and fall are the ideal seasons. Some believe that late summer/fall  seedings do better as the plants don't have to deal with hot weather after  seedling emergence. Work with your local Southern States store to  determine the best time to spread your seed mix.

I Have Grass Now What?

Once your seeds have finally started  to sprout it's time to turn your horses out to graze, right? No! Although it  can be tempting to turn your horses out once the green grass starts growing be  patient. One of the biggest mistakes horse owners make is to turn their horses  out on the grass before root systems are mature. 

 The general rule of thumb is to  allow six to eight inches of growth prior to allowing a horse to graze on the  new grass. If grazed too early, plants may die and be replaced by unwanted  weeds or less desirable species. Immature roots cannot handle the stresses of  grazing and trampling caused by horses on turnout. 

 When it is not possible to keep  horses off the field for pasture use consider using temporary fence, such as  EquiTape to divide the pasture into two separate areas. One area will be  available for grazing while the other is left to establish mature roots.

Rest and Rotation

Like the horses that graze on the  pasture, pastures need rest too! Resting pastures allows plants to replenish  food reserves. Without a break from the stresses from hooves and teeth, forages  will not be able to reestablish new growth. This will have a negative impact  down the line as overstressed plants can have a poor response to water and  fertilization.

Recovery time for pastures can range  from 10 to 60 days depending on the season. In the spring when cold season  grasses are prospering the rest period will be shorter. However during the  warmer months when plant growth is slow, rest periods will be between 30 to 60  days. 

 In a perfect world, you would have  several fields available at your disposal to graze amongst. By implementing  rotational grazing you split a large pasture into several smaller fenced  paddocks. Once your horses eat half of  the grass that had grown prior to grazing you can rest the grass and allow the  plants to regrow. Rotation helps prevent overgrazing of pastures. Once you  remove horses from the pasture mow the area to clip to a uniform 4 to 6 inches.  Mowing prior to seed heads emerging will encourage the plants to produce higher  leafy vegetation.

 Portable electric fence tape works  perfectly in a rotation system as it give you an inexpensive way to create  temporary paddocks in a larger pasture. When it is time to rotate the horses, you can  simply move the fencing to the next area.

Limit Your Grazing

As farm land continues to be  developed horse owners have to do more with less land. Gone are the days of  hundred acre farms. The rule of thumb has been one horse to every two to three  acres, however if you don't have the luxury of that much land you can still  have a healthy pasture. 

 Through a limited grazing program  and rotation, your pasture can still thrive. This way you can divide up the  total number of horses on the pasture at any given time and avoid overstocking  your pastures. Regardless of the amount of land you have the "rules" remain the  same, "eat half, keep half".

Create a Sacrifice Lot

One of the best ways to protect your  pastures from extra wear and tear is to create a sacrifice lot. A small  enclosure such as a corral, pen or bluestone paddock can all serve as a  sacrifice lot. Sacrifice lots give horse owners more flexibility in turnout and  pasture management. 

 Sacrifice lots are ideal if you have  a horse that requires turnout rain or shine. Regardless of muddy conditions,  you don't have to worry about plant destruction with a sacrifice lot. They can  also be used if your pasture needs a rest or you have a horse that needs a  controlled grazing environment due to health or nutrition issues.

Manure Management

One of the main causes of uneven  pasture growth and grazing is manure piles. Horses will not graze in areas  where manure is present. One way to combat this problem is to drag or harrow  your pastures to break up and spread manure piles. Dragging can be done with a  chain harrow, spike harrow or even a homemade design. If you have a smaller  pasture area picking the field can accomplish the same goal.

 By dragging not only does manure get  spread evenly over the entire grazing area, recycling nutrients into the soil,  but it also encourages uniform grazing. During dry weather dragging helps to  dry out parasite eggs more quickly than if they were left in manure piles. However,  if you drag during wet or moist times, parasite eggs are more likely to hatch  and thrive. When dragging during moist times try to keep horses off of the  pasture for several weeks to allow the manure and eggs to dry out.

 As the majority of parasites that  horses encounter come from their pastures, a proper pasture management program  essential. Work with your veterinarian to establish and follow a regular deworming program for your horse(s).

A Yearlong Effort

Although pasture management comes to  the forefront in the Spring, proper management practices must occur throughout  the year. From seeding to grazing to manure management it's not something that  can be done once and then forgotten about. Remember if you take good care of  your pastures, your pastures will take good care of your horse(s).