5 Ways to Keep Your Horse Pastures Healthy

These tips will help you cultivate pastures that support your horse’s health and reduce harmful runoff from your property.
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rotational grazing for horse pastures
Utilizing rotational grazing can help keep your horse pastures healthy. | Alayne Blickle

Q: I know that thriving pasture benefits both the environment and my horses’ health. How can I manage my current pastures to be sure they can support my horses’ well-being all year

A: Healthy pastures don’t just happen; they are actively managed. A well-managed grass pasture is one of the most cost-effective and high-value nutrition sources a horse owner can produce and utilize.  

Maintaining healthy pastures also reduces the risk of pollution and supports the goal of cleaner water by avoiding soil erosion and runoff of manure and urine. Healthy pasture plants also reduce greenhouse gases by sequestering carbon.  

These five tips can help you keep your pasture plants (and, in effect, your horses) healthy: 

1. Establish a confinement area.

Improve the health and productivity of your pastures by creating and using a paddock where you confine your horses when they are not grazing. Essentially, you give up the use of this land for grass production to benefit the rest of your pastures. Confining your horses to this area during winter and early spring, when grass plants are dormant and soils are wet, helps prevent soil compaction, which can suffocate the roots of grass plants, killing them. In the summer you can utilize the confinement area as needed to keep pasture from being grazed below 3 or 4 inches—or when soils are saturated (such as during irrigation or after storms). 

A simple test to determine if your pasture is too wet for your horses is to walk out in your fields and see if you leave a footprint. If you do, it’s too wet and your horses need to go in the confinement area.  

2. Evaluate your current soil status by testing it.

How much compost or fertilizer you apply to your horses’ pasture and the time of year you apply it should be based on the results of a soil test. Talk with your local conservation district or extension office for help on how to sample your soil, where to have it analyzed, and how to interpret results.  

3. Spread compost.

The best time to spread compost on your pastures is in late spring or early fall, but anytime during the growing season will be beneficial. The nutrients, organic material, beneficial bacteria, and fungi in the compost help retain moisture, improve soil health, and create healthier, more productive grass plants. With small pastures you might be able to spread compost by hand with a wheelbarrow and pitchfork, but using a tractor and manure spreader will be more efficient in large fields. After you spread the compost, go back through with a garden rake or harrow to spread it into a thin layer so grass plants aren’t smothered.  

4. Keep pastures healthy by rotating grazing areas.

By dividing a pasture area into smaller enclosure and rotating horses through them, you can encourage horses to graze more evenly, avoid overgrazing, and extend the life of your pasture during the growing season. Don’t confuse these enclosures with confinement areas—rotational grazing areas are larger and you want to maintain grass in them. 

5. Never allow horses to graze pastures shorter than 3 or 4 inches.

Maintaining this height ensures the grass plants have enough reserves after grazing to allow for rapid regrowth. Consider the bottom 3 inches of grass as an energy collector for the plant. Once horses have grazed most of the grass in a pasture down to 3 or 4 inches, rotate them to the next grazing area. You can put horses back on the initial area when the grass has recovered and regrown to 6 to 8 inches. 

Take-Home Message 

Managing your pastures well can benefit your horses nutritionally and reduce harmful runoff from your horse farm. Cultivating healthy soil through soil testing and targeted soil amendments based on that testing serves as the basis for healthy pasture. In the meantime, use rotational grazing and confinement areas to avoid overgrazing. 

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Written by:

Alayne Blickle, a lifelong equestrian and ranch riding competitor, is the creator/director of Horses for Clean Water, an award-winning, internationally acclaimed environmental education program for horse owners. Well-known for her enthusiastic, down-to-earth approach, Blickle is an educator and photojournalist who has worked with horse and livestock owners since 1990 teaching manure composting, pasture management, mud and dust control, water conservation, chemical use reduction, firewise, and wildlife enhancement. She teaches and travels North America and writes for horse publications. Blickle and her husband raise and train their mustangs and quarter horses at their eco-sensitive guest ranch, Sweet Pepper Ranch, in sunny Nampa, Idaho.

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