Horses were created to graze and as such are well suited to the mountain pastures of our area. However, if not managed properly horse pastures can become overgrazed, weedy and of little or no value as a food source. Maintaining a good horse pasture requires some planning and attention to detail. Here are some general guidelines for good horse pasture management.
A soil test should be done every 2-3 years to monitor changes in pH and fertility. Maintaining a soil pH between 6.2 and 6.5 (by applying lime according to soil test) improves nutrient availability and plant growth in our grass legume pastures. Phosphorous and potassium should be maintained in the high range as determined by soil test.
Make an effort to distribute manure piles. Horses avoid grazing near manure piles. Scattering these piles by dragging the pasture will encourage uniform grazing.
Each horse should be provided with 2-3 acres of pasture. This cannot be overemphasized. The large size of most horses and the large amount of forage required, means they need a larger amount of land than many people give them. Providing less than this often results in bare, overgrazed, pastures. If your land resources are limited, it may be necessary to feed supplemental hay to avoid destroying the pasture.
If possible, subdivide your pasture. Cut your pasture into four or more pastures and graze them rotationally. This gives each section an opportunity to rest and recover between grazing events. Resting pastures allows plants to replenish food reserves. Allow pastures to regrow to a height of 8-10 inches. Do not graze closer than 2-4 inches. Leaving plenty of leaf area results in faster regrowth and helps maintain a vigorous sod. Do not graze pastures when plants are not growing. Feed hay in a sacrifice area to avoid overgrazing pastures during the winter and summer.
If possible remove horses from pastures during wet weather. Hoof action can seriously damage established sods during wet periods of the year. Place horses in the sacrifice area and feed hay when the soil is soft if practical and possible.
Horses should have access to fresh water and shade. Ideally, each pasture should contain water and shade. In some cases lanes can allow access to the barn from all pastures. However, access to trees should be limited. Trees should be fenced out to prevent girdling.
For more information, contact your local Extension office.