How lucky are you? You’ve just found the perfect piece of land, and now you get to set up the perfect horse pasture. Though the task can seem both exciting and daunting, using a methodical decision-making process means you’ll be happy with the results for many years to come. Let’s look at the most important factors to consider when establishing your farm from scratch.
Begin by evaluating the lay of your land. Consider the slope, any sources of water, trees, low spots, drainage issues, etc. Remember the following:
• Easy access for farm machinery, including haying equipment, lime and seed trucks, or tractors for mowing and harrowing, is essential. It’s critical you have enough gates to move freely around your farm and access every piece of usable property. Ensure that fence lines allow you to easily maintain areas in corners as well as outside and underneath fences. Placing a fence post in the corner of a pasture at the bottom of a hill or the lowest spot in your pasture is simply asking for trouble.
• Pasture rotation must be factored into your layout. You want to be able to manage your land and pastures in a healthy manner. You must rotate your horses from pasture to pasture to allow for rest and vegetation growth. Making this easy to do should factor into your overall pasture layout. You can accomplish it with temporary fences within your perimeter that can be moved with the seasons or removed altogether to hay a field or apply fertilizer or soil amendments.
• Know where water pools and runoff goes. Many land owners will fence off ponds and streams from their horses for safety and to ensure minimal impact on the land. Many counties have requirements for land that’s classified as wetland. Regardless, you need to understand where your pastures are likely to develop mud and limit your access with equipment. For example, if you make an error, you may end up with a large area of mud right inside the gate you use to bring your vet’s truck into the pasture for an emergency. Or you might have to put your mud boots on every time you go in and out to fetch your horse.
• Consider building alleyways between your pastures. Many farms have enough land to allow for alleys between the perimeter fencing around each pasture. These ensure that studs cannot interact with other horses over fence lines. It also allows you to quarantine horses new to your farm or who might be ill. It can minimize injuries and damage caused by horses fighting or playing too roughly across a fence. The downside is that the land in alleys is not usable for grazing – and that defeats the purpose of having grass growing on our farms! This approach requires more fencing and maintenance; for some, however, it’s worth it for the safety aspects. It’s important to have smaller paddocks that will restrict a horse’s movement when the pasture is slippery and dangerous, or when you must take horses off pasture to manage their weight. In addition, when fertilizer is applied to the pastures, you will need to keep the horses off them for a while. Having a smaller paddock to keep your horses in instead of a stall has distinct health benefits.
Your pastures should be large enough to optimize pasture rotation and the opportunity for play and exercise. Be cautious of making a pasture only big enough that a horse can get up a good head of steam playing and galloping across the open space – yet small enough that he will get going fast and have to slam on the brakes at the opposite fence line, possibly resulting in injury to both horse and fence.
When you lay out your pastures, avoid making sharp corners into which one horse can pin another. Consider rounding all corners – this creates a safer environment for your horses and a much easier fence line to maintain with your tractor.
Factors to consider when making your fencing choice include safety, cost of installation and ease of maintenance. Take into account the number and age of the horses in your herd, the availability of certain types of fencing in your area, your local weather and how it impacts installation and maintenance, and your budget. You also need to consider what you want to keep out of your pasture as well as what you want to keep in. Let’s look at the pros and cons of some fencing choices:
Types of vegetation Deciding what grasses and other vegetation to have in your pasture depends on your soil type and climate. Consult with local agriculture co-op agencies or feed stores to determine what grows best and yields the best crop for your purposes. Grow more grasses than legumes, as these are healthier for your horses (e.g., orchard or Timothy versus alfalfa). Educate yourself on different local grass varieties and how nutritionally complete they are so you can understand how best to meet your horse’s needs.
If you’re haying versus grazing, you may select different options in seed. Always begin with a soil test to determine if it needs any augmentation and what types of grasses will grow best. You may need to add lime or another mineral to your soil in order to optimize vegetation growth.
Know what plants in your area are toxic to horses and eradicate these from your property. If you’re planting a pasture from scratch, you will need to keep horses off the grass until it has had at least a year to become established. Then utilize proper grazing practices so your land remains healthy and your grass can produce adequate nutrition and forage.
If you have trees in your pasture, you may need to protect the bark from your horses. Nutritionally challenged horses will often eat tree bark in search of the minerals they lack. Also beware of low-hanging branches that can cause injury – keep in mind that horses’ eyes are typically higher than ours, so you will need to clear branches at a higher level than you would for yourself.
Water in your pastures
There are many options for getting water to your horses when they’re in pasture. Ponds and streams are natural sources. For unshod horses, standing in moist soil is beneficial to hoof health. Not so much for shod horses. And be aware that the pond bank or stream bed will eventually deteriorate with all the horse traffic in the soft moist soil. This is not necessarily healthy for your horses or the land.
Troughs should be easily accessible to your horses and kept full of fresh water at all times. Clean out algae as it grows (consider putting fish in your tank in certain seasons to keep the algae population to a minimum). In winter, you will need to break and remove ice from troughs so the horses can access the water easily.
Many people use automatic waterers. These are convenient but can be pricey. You must also be diligent in maintaining and checking them for proper function.
It’s exciting to build your own pasture design and lay everything out according to your own needs. But doing so effectively means research and work. Be prepared to ask experts lots of questions before you make any decisions. Visit other farms in the area to get ideas. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. Put all this knowledge together with your budget, and you’ll end up with a perfect horse pasture.
Sandy Siegrist is a lifelong horsewoman who practices natural horsemanship, healing and horse care techniques. She works with clients throughout the U.S. to evaluate their feeding and horse keeping programs based on their horses’ specific needs. She also does energy work and overall health analyses, often taking in horses for more extensive rehabilitation. Sandy’s approach to horse care is based on natural and alternative therapy techniques and incorporates bio-energy testing, cranio-sacral therapy, acupressure, kinetics, herbs and flower essences, among others. H er lectures and articles address nutrition, hoof care, bodywork, worming, vaccinations, and emotional well-being, grounded in maintaining a more natural environment and healthcare practices. perfectanimalhealth.com