5 Ways to Improve Your Horse Pasture

Horses in a healthy pasture.
Horses in a healthy pasture. Flickr.com - Smerikal

The beginning of summer is a good time for horse owners with pastures to begin planning and implementing proven techniques that will provide grazing throughout most of the year, suppress weeds, and make pastures pleasing both to themselves and non-horse keeping neighbors.

A healthy pasture is not only beautiful; it provides an ideal diet to keep your horses healthy at a very low cost. Here are proven strategies  to keep your pasture land vital and healthy for the benefit of your equine friends.

Horses thrive on pasture

Horses thrive on pasture

If you are fortunate to have pasture land for your horses use these simple tips to keep in productive and green.

1. Improve soil in your pasture

If your pastures have not been tested for nutrient levels within the last 2-3 years, now is a good time to do it. Obtain sample boxes and a soil sample information sheet from your local library or a local extension service that will perform an analysis, send you the results, and recommend quantities of fertilizer and lime needed to produce maximum pasture yield.

Finding a soil testing lab

Blindly applying fertilizer to your pasture is not a great idea. Have your soil tested, and then apply exactly what is needed. You can find a local lab by calling your agriculture extension office, or simply Google "agriculture extension soil testing" along with the name of your state.

Follow the recommendations for fertilizer application and repeat yearly. While fertilization can be done at any time of the year, you will realize maximum benefit if you fertilize cool season grasses in the fall. This is when most weeds die back, and grasses are dormant in their "above ground" growth. During this period, applied nutrients help root systems develop into more mature organs, capable of penetrating deep into the soil. A well-developed root system can extract water from greater depths, especially during the summer drought spells.

In early spring, you can boost the leafy growth of your pastures by adding 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre, as long as your pasture does not consist of legumes, such as alfalfa or clovers.

Applying the correct amount of fertilizer does not guarantee a healthy pasture if the pH level is too low. In low pH (acidic) conditions, plant nutrients are chemically bound and unavailable for absorption by cool season grass roots. A soil pH of 6.2 is the ideal condition in which pasture grasses can readily absorb their much-needed nutrients. A higher pH level than 6.2 does not improve pasture yield.

Good soil makes for productive horse pastures

Good soil makes for productive horse pastures

The foundation of a productive pasture is good soil that can sustain the growth of the legumes, hays and forbs that horses prefer.

Unlike fertilizers, agricultural lime does not readily dissolve to become a part of the soil chemistry. Therefore, if the recommended lime application is greater than 2 tons/acre, you can avoid waste by splitting the applications (6 - 9 months apart) unless you can disk the whole amount into the soil. This is possible if you are establishing a new pasture or replanting a deteriorated field back into pasture.

Lime applications are equally effective at any time of the year. However, no more than the total recommended amount should be applied over a three year period. After three years, you will need to re-test the soil.

2. Fix unproductive pasture areas

Over-seeding replenishes the stand of grass within an existing pasture area. For pastures with cool season grass mix, it is best to over-seed during the late summer or early fall. To ensure good seed-soil contact, use a drill seeder. If you don't have a drill seeder, hand-broadcast the seeds or use a seed spreader, and then spread a thin layer of composted manure one-half to one-quarter inch over the seeded area to create improved seed-soil contact.

Do not allow horses to graze the field for one full year after you have achieved growth in the renovated pasture area.

Usually over-seeding requires minimal soil preparation, unless the process is combined with pasture renovation. Pasture renovation includes filling depressions and eroding areas with topsoil (not composted material), and then seeding.

Pasture renovation commonly includes restoring grass cover in high traffic areas, such as along fences and around gates. Use temporary fencing to keep the horses out of the area during renovation until the new grass is well established. The area must be disked, graded and reseeded. Consider hardy grass species, such as tall Fescue, when reseeding high traffic areas.

Pasture seed mix

A pasture seed mix is designed to have a variety of plant species that enhance the nutritional value of your pasture. Get a seed mix designed for your area is important as not all plant species do well in different climates.

Reestablishing a pasture area that has turned into a dirt or weed field is also considered pasture renovation, but more extensive soil preparation is necessary; fertilizing, liming and seeding are the very least to be done. It is essential to keep the soil moist by watering and mulching with straw to keep the germinating seeds from dehydrating and dying.

Do not allow horses to graze the field for one full year after you have achieved growth in the renovated pasture area. Otherwise, your labor will be for naught. During the wait, consider cutting the grass for hay. If you cannot keep the field unused for an entire year, then renovate the area in sections, a year at a time.

3. Establish a sacrifice area

Sacrifice areas are key to successful pasture management, especially in situations where horses are kept in relatively small acreage. For one or two horses, a sacrifice area can be as little as a 350 sq. ft. (14' X 25') fenced in area. Horses can be kept within the sacrifice area and provided with hay and drinking water. Here, they can "horse around" and get their much-needed exercise with no harm to your pastures.

Rest your horse pasture

Rest your horse pasture

Horse wandering hooves and play can damage otherwise productive pasture land. Prevent damage by resting your pastures with a fenced sacrifice area.

Sacrifice areas provide respite for pastures exposed to intense grazing. Even with opportunities to confine animals within certain fields while others recover, intensely used pastures are impossible to manage without the incorporation of a sacrifice area into the rotational system. Extreme weather conditions (such as drought and excessive rain) also create conditions that demand the use of a sacrifice area.

In a newly established pasture, keep the horses in the sacrifice area until after a year of growth. After a year, allow up to 50% of the available grass to be grazed. Then give the field a chance to recover, until re-growth is about six inches. Depending on the weather and soil conditions, the re-growth period may be one to three months.

Conditions necessary for a successful sacrifice area include:

  • Proper drainage
  • Maintain a surface slope of about 3% to prevent erosion.
  • Establish good drainage at the time of construction or renovation. A standard design includes spreading a sheet of heavy duty geotextile in contact with the graded soil surface and a six-inch layer of crushed limestone rock consisting of particles sized at 3/4" to 3" median diameter on top of the geotextile. The layer of crushed limestone is then capped with 3" to 4" of fine cover material which can be ground lime stone, crusher run or mulch. Limestone has proved to be the best capping material.
  • Divert all offsite flows (such as barn runoff) around the area.
  • Waste removal
  • Remove waste from the site on a daily basis or before rain.

4. Manage grazing patterns

Once the pasture is established and rapidly growing, the next step is to control when, where, and for how long the animals graze. Achieve this easily by installing cross fences to separate the grazing area into smaller fields. By nature, horses like to bolt in long straights. Therefore, consider dividing your pasture into longer fields, rather than the traditional square fields. Always keep in mind that fields can be divided using temporary fences.

Controlling the grazing pattern through shorter grazing periods and rotating the horses through the pastures will help the grass stay resilient and prevent weed growth. Controlling grazing intensity and timing through a rotational system can also provide a longer grazing season. It provides an even distribution of manure throughout the fields, controls the possibility for horses to over-graze, and reduces erosion.

Fields should be rested as soon as the pasture has been grazed down to about 2 - 3 inches high. An unevenly grazed pasture should be mowed down to make for uniform re-growth. Dragging horse droppings on a regular basis helps prevent clusters of non-grazed vegetation within a field.

Keep animals out of water saturated pastures to prevent damage to the pasture and erosion.

5. Control weeds

Control weeds with a combination of techniques. Proper identification of weeds is key to determining the most effective herbicide, and the best time in their life cycle to be treated. Adequate (not excessive) fertilization and liming, and a controlled grazing practice create conditions for preferred vegetation to thrive over unwanted vegetation (weeds).

Other great weed control techniques include:

  • Regular mowing of weeds, especially before they get to seed production stage.
  • Composting of horse manure to kill contained weed seeds.
  • Using high quality seed mix that contains low percentage of weed seeds.

Dig deeperTM

If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about improving your horse's living area we recommend that you see our Healthy Barn Center.

About the Author

EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.