failing pastures

Your horse’s pasture is important to him, and its quality can greatly affect his health and happiness. Help your pastures thrive with these maintenance tips.

Good quality pastures are key to equine well-being. When your horse’s pasture starts to fail, his health is negatively impacted. So how and when should you compensate for a failing pasture? The second part of this question is easy to answer, while the first part is a little more difficult. So let’s get the easy part out of the way first – when to compensate. The answer is “yesterday”, or failing that, “right away”. The longer you leave the pasture, the harder and more expensive it will be to fix. In fact, once your pastures start showing signs of failure it’s already too late, and you have a long road ahead of you back to recovery.

The “how” aspect is more complex. We can only touch on a few basic principles in this article, but the simple answer is that you have to reduce the “grazing pressure” on your pastures. When thinking about grazing pressure, horses are said to have five sets of teeth. This means that each of his four hooves does as much damage to the land as his mouth does. So a horse standing around in a gateway, even if he’s not grazing, is still exerting four mouths’ worth of pressure on your land through his feet.

Overgrazing is never a good thing

One of the biggest mistakes we see people make with regard to their pastures is letting their horses overgraze the land. Overgrazing leads to less and less pasture, and also reduces its biodiversity. It destroys the plants’ root systems and leads to soil compaction, dust and/or mud. This in turn leads to unhealthy degraded soils, which results in weeds and/or erosion. A general rule of thumb is that any bare soil marks an area under far too much pressure. The simplest thing you can do is remove that pressure by taking the horse out of the pasture.

One of the biggest mistakes we see horse owners make with regard to their pastures is overgrazing.

Overgrazing is made worse by set stocking, a very common practice among horse owners. Set stocking means all the land is being used by the horses – all the time. Pasture plants and grazing animals such as horses evolved alongside each other, to ensure they both thrive. In other words, pasture plants actually evolved to be graze; but they did not evolve to be overgrazed. They thrive on just the right amount of grazing pressure, but then need a period for rest and recovery. Pasture plants have a couple of defence mechanisms that they use in the wild to ensure they get the required rest. The trouble is, when horses are confined to the same pasture on a daily basis, their need for fiber overrides the plants’ defence systems. The plants become stressed and try to maximize their sugar and starch content to help them recover when the pressure is lifted; but if the pressure doesn’t lift, it becomes too much and the plants die. Eventually, if any pasture plants do survive, it is only the species capable of coping with high levels of grazing pressure, resulting in less diversity.

Implementing rotational grazing

When we deliver talks on this subject, we raise the idea of horse owners becoming “Grass Farmers” and trying to create the best, healthiest pastures on their land, which in turn leads to healthier and happier horses.

In order to give your pasture time to rest and recover, you need to employ a rotational grazing system.

In order to give your pasture time to rest and recover, you need to employ a rotational grazing system. Rotational grazing involves some of your land being rested while other parts are being grazed. You should aim to have only about 30% of your land being grazed at any one time, with the other two-thirds being rested. If you can reduce this to 10% or 20%, that’s even better. If your initial reaction is “I don’t have enough grass/space now”, you need to understand that once you implement rotational grazing you will actually have more plants with increased biodiversity and healthier soils. As well, your available grazing will last longer throughout the year.

Repairing damaged pastures

I have talked very briefly about how you can avoid failing pastures, because prevention is always better than cure – but how can you repair already damaged pastures? As mentioned earlier, two things are happening when a pasture is failing, both of which are linked. You have a reduction (sometimes an elimination) of certain pasture species, and you have soil degradation. The good news is that when you start to improve one, you also start to improve the other.

Let’s start with the soil. In a healthy pasture, what you see above ground (i.e. the length and health of the plants) is very roughly repeated below ground in the volume and health of the root systems. Short overgrazed pasture plants have short unhealthy root systems. The root system does several jobs – it prevents soil compaction, exchanges minerals and nutrients, and provides a suitable environment for earthworms, beetles, fungi and other microflora and fauna.

When pasture is overgrazed, the soil becomes compacted and often becomes deficient in minerals and nutrients. Compacted soil repels rather than absorbs water, which means a good rain shower can actually harm rather than benefit it. Bare compacted soil also attracts weeds. This is because nature does not like bare soil and attempts to protect it with something – usually weeds. Many weeds are opportunists and respond to the soil conditions, and many are actively trying to repair the soil. Once you can identify the weeds on your property, you’ll have a good indication of what is happening with the soil. So to improve the soil, have a soil test done, identify the weeds and learn what they are trying to tell you, and reduce the compaction.

You can reduce soil compaction using mechanical methods, or you can employ a more natural method that also improves your grass species – we call it round bale mulching. Feed hay in large round bales on the bare patches of your land, and allow the horses to “waste” a certain amount. This so-called wastage covers and protects the soil the same way garden mulch does. It creates a cool, moist environment for microorganisms to begin repairing the soil; equally important, the leftover hay contains many “free” seeds that will hopefully germinate. Our Facebook page (Equicentral Central) features many examples of people who are very excited about the huge improvements they’ve seen in their land thanks to this simple method.

Creating a dry lot

What happens when you employ a rotational system but the grass is still unable to catch up with the horses? This issue leads to what we believe is the best investment you can make on a horse property — an all-weather holding yard (dry lot or sacrifice area).

A surfaced dry lot enables horses to be kept off pasture when the land is too wet or dry and pasture plants are too short or long. We have developed a system (called The Equicentral System) in which horses voluntarily use these holding yards, vastly reducing grazing pressure without you having to do anything else. I wrote an earlier series of articles on The Equicentral System and its advantages, which can be found in EWM V10I4 and EWM V10I5.

The very best way to compensate for failing pastures is to ensure they don’t become overgrazed in the first place; this is done by following good pasture management practices. If it’s already a too late for that, you can begin to repair your pastures by taking a look at your soil and the state of the plants. With a little work and a lot of patience, you can bring your pastures back to a healthy state – and keep them there!