With careful planning and management, incorporating trees in and around pasture areas can provide numerous aesthetic, environmental, and even equine health benefits.
Shade is an obvious benefit of trees. Barns and run-ins can certainly provide shade, but as prey animals that evolved to see predatory threats over great distances across open spaces, horses will often prefer the shade of trees versus that of a confined structure. A potential health benefit trees offer is that they lower the sugar content in the pasture grasses under their shade. Research has shown that grasses grown in shade generally have a lower sugar content than those grown in full sun, which can reduce the risk of a horse developing laminitis from grazing sugar-rich grasses. Plant shade-tolerant grasses, such as orchard grass, around these areas. When taking advantage of these shaded areas, you may need to use electric fencing to confine your horses there, since they tend to selectively graze the most sugar-rich grasses in a pasture, even if it is not in their best interests.
Good for the Environment
From an environmental perspective, trees provide important habitats to the wildlife that call our farms home. They also play a vital role in protecting soil and water quality, especially when incorporated into a riparian buffer, a fancy term for a stand of trees adjacent to a stream or creek. The trees filter any runoff, soaking up excess nutrients before they can pollute the water. It is critical that horses be fenced completely out of these buffer strips.
What to Consider when Planting Trees
Important considerations must be made when incorporating trees into or adjacent to a horse pasture. The first and most immediate concern is toxicity. While many trees are generally safe for horses, a single toxic tree can have a costly and sometimes deadly impact. An internet search can help you identify which trees are toxic to horses and should be avoided. Your conservation district or Ag extension agent should also be able to assist with tree ID in your area.
Horses can also damage or kill trees by stripping their bark, a behavior known as girdling, or through soil compaction around the base of the trees. Any new plantings within a field should be fenced off for protection, as should any trees showing signs of abuse. Fencing should be placed far enough from the tree to keep a horse from reaching it with an outstretched neck.
Trees provide a wide array of benefits to a pasture. They provide shade, habitat for wildlife and help filter water. However, care must be taken to ensure that the species you choose are safe for horses and that your equines do not damage or kill them.
Clay Nelson is an expert on the planning, design and management of sustainable, eco-friendly equestrian facilities through his organization Sustainable Stables, LLC — SustainableStables.com.