What doesn’t seem quite so simple is the idea of a healthy pasture that will nourish our horses in perpetuity. In reality, though, it’s easier than you think.
To optimize your equine companion’s health, wellness and performance, you need to combine the best nutrition possible with a happy lifestyle. And the most important factor is a healthy pasture that can support your horse effectively.
How do you keep your pasture healthy?
You start with healthy land. Just as a solid foundation is essential to a house, a foundation of healthy land is essential to a healthy pasture, which in turn is a building block to a healthy horse. Simple, right?
Many scientific studies tell us about the decreasing nutritional value of the plants we grow. Land overuse and other environmental factors have led to soil depletion. As plants grow they draw nutrients from the soil; if there are inadequate nutrients in the soil, the plants will also be deficient. So we have to start with the soil.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you build and maintain a great foundation of healthy pasture for your horses. First, you have to assess the health of your soil. Then you have to make sure you use the pasture in a healthy and responsible manner. Finally, you have to properly maintain the pasture.
Assess the land
The first step to an environmentally healthy pasture is to evaluate the soil and plant life.
1. Start with a visual inspection. Get out there and walk your land. Pay attention to:
• the type of grasses growing there that offer forage for your horses
• the varieties of weeds present (both broad leaf as well as noxious)
• whether there is moss
•where the horses don’t seem to be grazing
• where there are areas of heavy wear
2. Next, you should have your soil tested. You need to understand which nutrients are both present and lacking in order to be able to build a better crop. Most experts suggest an annual test, or one every other year at a minimum. The results will help you develop a good plan for building your soil foundation and monitoring the effectiveness and progress of your pasture management program.
The next critical step to a healthy pasture is to use it properly.
1. Familiarize yourself with the climate and growing seasons in your area. Know when:
• the grass stops growing and goes dormant for the winter
• the rains typically come and go
• you consistently have dry periods
• the grasses start growing again in the spring You need to understand all this in order to adjust your grazing practices accordingly.
2. Proper grazing involves making sure you don’t permit your horses to eat the grass too short. Grasses need a certain amount of plant structure above the soil in order to maintain a healthy root. If you let your horses overgraze, you are damaging the plants and jeopardizing the overall health of the pasture. Overgrazing can also lead to a loss of topsoil through erosion as well as an increase in weeds that choke out the grass you need to feed your horses.
Prevent overgrazing by planning pasture spaces so you can rotate usage and allow for proper growth of grasses between grazing periods. You will have to balance the size and number of your pasture subdivisions to optimize both the ability to give pastures a “rest”, and the space your horses need to stretch their legs and get enough exercise.
You should only start allowing the horses to graze in a certain pasture space when the grass reaches approximately six to eight inches in height. When the grass has been eaten down to about three inches, take your horses off the pasture and move them to another area. Then, after the grass grows again, you can bring the horses back for more grazing.
3. I’m sure you’ve noticed areas in your pasture where the horses tend to eliminate, but where they will not readily eat the grasses that grow there even though they appear to be very rich. The manure deposited in these areas yields grasses very high in nitrogen; horses will avoid those patches unless and until it’s all that’s left for them to consume. So it’s important to properly dispose of manure. Either pick it up and add it to your manure composting bins, or break it up by kicking apart the piles or dragging a harrow.
After I pull my horses off one section of pasture and move them to the next, I like to manage the manure and then mow. By cutting the grasses to a consistent length, some growth is spurred, and I can effectively monitor when that section is next available for grazing. I can also prevent the areas the horses don’t tend to graze on from growing too long and going to seed.
4. Finally, proper use of your pasture involves monitoring heavy traffic areas. We’ve all seen how mud develops or grasses are worn down by the heavy tread of horse hooves. Areas near water sources and around gates seem most severely impacted. Consider using rock or gravel in those areas to minimize mud, which we all know tends to spread over time. And mud means no pasture to grow healthy grasses for our horses!
Now that you’ve built a great soil foundation and are properly utilizing your pastures to ensure their health, how do you maintain them?
1. Proper mowing and harrowing to break up manure and keep the top layer of soil aerated is the first step.
2. Next is augmentation, which comes in several forms:
• using your composted horse manure to add nutrients to the soil
• applying natural fertilizers when necessary
• applying lime to maintain the proper pH of your soil
• re-seeding annually to replace grasses
• controlling weeds through proper soil balance, or applying environmentally safe weed control mechanisms when required (healthy soil will resist weed infestations, so one of the best ways to minimize weeds is to build healthy soil).
Remember, healthy land means healthy pastures – and that means healthier horses!