As a horse owner & County Extension Agent, I hope that you will find value in my mixture of “by the book recommendations” and personal experience. One thing I would like to encourage horse owners and trainers to do is engage with their local Extension Agent. Pasture management, it seems, has a different meaning for every horse owner/manager. I want to focus on things you can do to have the potential for better grazing for your horses.
We need to remember a few basic things. First, a horse has basic nutritional requirements that are determined by stage of growth, breed & work load. As a “horse feeder” you will have to decide whether you want to utilize pasture to help meet these nutritional requirements OR whether you just want better ground cover in your turnout areas & pastures. A rule of thumb is that a horse should consume at least 1 percent of its body weight in hay or an equivalent amount of pasture daily. For example, a “typical” quarter-horse weighs 1,150 pounds and would therefore require a minimum of 11.5 pounds of hay daily.
Secondly, there are certain physiological characteristics of grass that are the reason “we see what we see” in our pastures. Grass roots basically look like the part of the plant that is growing above ground. Resting or allowing grass to have a period of time to regrow without grazing pressure is always best. As grass is allowed to grow, the roots will grow proportionately, resulting in a healthier plant. The function of the root system is to deliver nutrients (water included) up to the above ground portion of the plant so that it can function properly.
The third basic thing to keep in mind is the grazing habit of horses. Horses graze closer to the ground than cattle. Also, they typically graze in the same spot, avoiding manure piles and undesirable grass species and weeds. Dragging manure piles will help. We know horses are “close grazers”, but, there is a difference in close grazing and over grazing. Their grazing habits almost make it a must to intensively manage pastures in order to allow grass to survive, much less thrive. A minimum grazing height of 4 inches is best for most of the forage species that will work for horses.
So, with all that said, we can now discuss grazing strategies! I’d say the first & most commonly seen grazing strategy is continuous grazing. In the south east, this typically means there is a warm season perennial grass that horses are allowed access to continuously. For continuous grazing systems, stocking rate is the most important thing to consider. Supplying supplemental feed or hay will influence stocking rate to some degree. Generally,1 ½ to 2 acres per horse is required to keep an acceptable stand of grass. Over seeding winter annual forage species (grasses & or appropriate legumes) can be beneficial in continuous grazing systems. Also, maintaining proper soil fertility & weed control are necessary. Many horse owners who use continuous grazing systems do not allow a rest period for grass. Often times a simple cross fence that allows grass a couple weeks to regrow would be beneficial.
Rotational grazing systems are going to call for more emphasis on management. Your pastures will be subdivided into smaller areas with the intent to allow for the proper minimum (“stop grazing”) grazing height and rest period. Stocking rate will determine the number and size of paddocks needed. As an example, if your grass is Bermuda, each paddock should be grazed down to approximately 4 inches and then rested for around 4 weeks. When conditions allow for optimum growth, the rest period may be shortened, more horses could be grazed or hay could be harvested from the paddocks that have excess growth.
Limited turnout is another grazing strategy that can be useful in maintaining healthy grazing areas. This strategy simply limits grazing time to 1 or 2 hours during a 24 hour period. Dividing a larger paddock into smaller areas and limiting grazing time will still allow areas to rest and regrow. Incorporating a sacrifice area will likely be necessary in this system. A sacrifice area still allows an area for turnout, however, the emphasis here is not necessarily on growing grass. It is simply an area that can be utilized at any time and will not be expected to maintain optimum forage cover. The following link has a good example of a limited turn out design: https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/media/GrazingStrategies.pdf.
Below is a second example of the use of a sacrifice area and limited turnout from the North Carolina State Horse Blog posted by Liz Joseph in 2017.
As I said before, the folks who manage horses don’t often consider good grazing management as “first on their list”. The need to keep individual horses separate, convenience or simply a lack of understanding often lead to mismanaged or failing pastures. Talk to your local County Extension Agent and ask them for advice. Give them enough information about your operation so they know who to refer to if they don’t know how to help initially. They have access to so much information on anything from how to soil sample, types of fencing, equine health & nutrition to forage varieties.
Additional resources for grazing strategies: