Managing Established Horse Pastures

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. Overtime, 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.

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 one 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.

Rotational 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.

Start Grazing Horses When:

  • Tall cool-season forages (e.g. smooth bromegrass and orchardgrass) are 8 to 10 inches tall.
  • Short cool-season forages (e.g. Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass) are 4 to 6 inches tall.

Remove Horses From The Pasture When:

  • Tall cool season forages are 3 to 4 inches tall.
  • Short cool season forages are 1 to 2 inches tall.

Adequate rest and recovery periods are essential to maintaining desirable pasture plants with good productivity.

A sacrifice paddock is a designated area where you can keep your horse when pastures:

  • Don’t have enough forage.
  • Are resting.
  • Are too wet.

Because a sacrifice paddock usually turns to dirt, it’s also termed a dry lot or holding area. Many owners feed hay and grain in the sacrifice paddock. This area usually has a water source and shelter for the horse.

The sacrifice paddock should be large enough for comfortable, long-term housing for horses.

Generally, grass growth potential is higher in spring, lower in summer, and moderate in fall. If you have only a few paddocks or if it’s during the summer, you may need to keep your horses in a sacrifice paddock while the paddocks rest and regrow.

You must allow adequate rest and regrowth periods for pastures when using rotational grazing. Rest is key to pasture productivity. It provides pasture recovery and flexibility based on the season.

For example, you may need:

Only 2 weeks of rest and regrowth per paddock in the spring or during rainy periods.

6 weeks of rest and regrowth per paddock in the summer or during dry spells.

4 weeks of rest and regrowth per paddock in the fall.

Remember resting the pasture is key to vigorous forage regrowth.

Courtesy of University of Minnesota Extension