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Horse Forage and Forage Management

Grazing or Use Management

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Grazing or haying management is where potential benefits can be won or lost.

Horse Grazing Characteristics, Spot Grazing, and Trampling

The horse is a biting top-grazer. The cow is a tongue-lapping, tearing side-feeder. Horses graze off the tops until the pasture in that spot is short. Then they tend to continue grazing resprouts on that spot and avoid what appears to be good, taller pasture. Other grazers do this, too, but the horse is notorious for it.

The spot grazing effect can be so intense and extensive that large spots, and finally whole pastures, are almost completely destroyed by grazing too short, too often, and too much over an extended time and by all the associated trampling effects. The hog is probably the only domestic animal that can do more damage to a pasture than a horse can.

Spot grazing ranges from short-grazed areas associated with tall spots to completely bare ground. Spot grazing and short grazing also increase pasture dust, which can lead to respiratory, digestive tract, and parasite problems. This syndrome also apparently increases parasite levels and soil erosion.

The natural traveling characteristic and flipping hoof action of the horse cause much trampling damage by cutting off forage or uprooting whole plants. This problem is most severe with tender forages such as legumes and cool-season annual winter pastures. It is less severe in permanent forages or sod forage such as bermudagrass, bunchgrasses, crabgrass, and fescue.

There is only one way to avoid spot grazing and trampling damage - don't graze. Since such a course is unacceptable, use rotational grazing and controlled stocking rates along with good production practices to control both damaging characteristics.

Changing Pastures and Introducing Horses to Pasture

A crucial factor in managing horses on pasture is to avoid abrupt changes from a fed ration to pasture and from extremes of pasture quality or type. Changes are especially a problem when horses are moved from a lower-quality pasture, or no pasture, to a high-quality pasture. Many, if not most, horses must adapt to great changes. Horses unaccustomed to very lush pastures can colic, founder, or have other digestive tract problems associated with overeating and the sudden change in diet. These reactions can kill the animals. Lush pasture might be excellent and abundant winter pasture, early bermudagrass, early crabgrass, and legumes. Many horses tend to eat too much too fast in these cases. The problem is generally nonexistent when horses go from a high-quality to lower-quality pasture. A good procedure is to gradually increase the exposure to lush pasture over a period of days, which works well when horses go from a dry feed program to lush winter pastures. The actual approach will vary, depending upon the horse characteristics and value. A guide for such changes would be to

  1. feed a ration of hay before the first grazing;
  2. graze on lush pasture thirty minutes every morning and evening the first day;
  3. increase time to one hour in the morning and evening the second day and preferably continue this program several days (watch the horses and make a judgment);
  4. gradually increase the time to full-time grazing, if that is the goal.

Creep Grazing

Using creep grazing for foal nutrition is uncommon but should work, if properly implemented. Creep grazing is simply allowing the colt to creep graze into an adjoining paddock that can be managed for better quality than the one where the mare is.

Rotational Grazing Approaches

Horse pastures should be used in a rotational grazing approach, if at all possible. This style of grazing, properly done, enhances forage production and quality, betters stand sustainability, and controls some problems mentioned before. There are no exceptions to rotational grazing if you are interested in good pasture production, quality control, uniform use (reduced spot grazing), pasture recovery after grazing or mowing, and pasture life span. Without an acceptable rotational grazing approach, the reverse of all the above will happen to some degree, even causing the pasture to die.

The drier the region and the lower the quality of soil, the worse the negative responses of uncontrolled grazing. Recovery periods are crucial to the success of a rotational grazing approach. Multipaddock arrangements are excellent for rotational grazing. In limited-control situations, recovery periods may have to be done while horses are lotted, stalled, or in special runs not associated with the main paddocks.

What is rotational grazing? It is the science and art of a planned sequence of grazings during which each paddock is both grazed and deferred several times by one congregated herd during the same production year. Rotational grazing is (1) using the forage in one paddock a short time, (2) deferring use and allowing regrowth and recovery, and (3) regrazing the area.

It is important to repeat some things from above. Horses are destructive to pasture by:

  1. grazing nature
  2. spot grazing tendencies
  3. spot excreting
  4. trampling, trailing, and loitering in the same areas
  5. bogging and hoof action on pastures

Rotational grazing can control or eliminate the harmful effects of these characteristics. Using a pasture rotationally is vital to stand longevity and production, and neglecting to do so is possibly the worst horse pasture problem, closely followed by a lack of adequate production practices. Bermudagrass is tough, but horses can kill it in an intensive nonrotational situation. Anybody can use his pastures in a rotational approach, but effectiveness is a matter of degree. Two paddocks are better than one, and several are better than two.

Rotational grazing can be accomplished many ways in multiple paddocks or single pastures. Probably the best way is to have two to four paddocks for one group and graze one area at a time, but eight to twelve paddocks would be better. When the pasture being grazed is used, or spot grazed, rotate horses to another pasture and graze it. The pasture just grazed by horses may need to be clipped, mowed, shredded, or grazed off by other livestock. Many horse producers don't have facilities to do the best rotational grazing, so it becomes a matter of doing the best possible. Sometimes there is only a single pasture and herd. The management choices in this case are few. The approach that seems best is to graze the area, lot or stall the horses and feed them until the pasture has regrown, and then regraze it. In this case, we are talking about maintaining pasture in a bad situation, not destroying it by continual overuse. Sometimes horses are congregated heavily on an area and then moved out after breeding, foaling, or something similar. This use, in effect, constitutes a form of rotational grazing because it allows regrowth during the fallow period.

In all cases of rotational grazing with horses, the dominant horse influence, or pecking-order effect, must be considered. Although horses can be congregated into high-density herds more than under wide-open continual grazing circumstances, they cannot be placed into an extremely high stock density like cattle, sheep, and goats. When forced into such a situation, territorial behavior increases, as do fighting and other aggressive behavior, and horse injury can result. The behavior can damage fence and other facilities. There is not a definite rule of how many horses can be in one herd: it depends on the herd involved, their temperament, and conditioning to the circumstance, so it is somewhat a trial and error method to find the acceptable number for a given herd under rotational grazing. Small horse operations may successfully congregate at least a dozen horses. Large operations may be able to congregate thirty to fifty head in paddocks. Regardless of the operation, the more constant the case, the less the trouble. Extreme troublemakers need to be removed and isolated

The alfalfa and grass forage mixture in the paddock to the right in figure 1 is well grazed with adequately uniform residue (stubble) for horses. The residue in the paddock should be trimmed when the horses are rotated. The forage on the left is regrown (recovered) to 6 to 12 inches and in an excellent stage for regrazing. This example of rotational grazing management could represent grazing of bermudagrass, winter pastures, crabgrass, Old World bluestems, and many other forages used for horse pasture.

In this case, the horse producer has a small operation with six paddocks in the pasture system and eight horses on one 0.9-acre paddock. This stock density is about eight horses per acre, an illustration of many things done right.

Figure 1

Figure 1.
Figure 1 illustrates many things about rotational grazing and electric interior fences. The onestrand, high-powered, electrified, white, very visible polytape performs well for interior paddock fences. The one-strand visible electric gate is adequate, and it will break at about 200 pounds of tension, thus limiting horse injury. Some types of polystrands have a higher breaking strength. A strand height of 36 inches at the line post is excellent for these horses. The fiberglass posts are flexible and will give in the event that a horse hits the fence. Always use a high-powered, highquality, electric unit.

Sometimes rotational grazing may not be practical, in which case the pasture should be occasionally trimmed, hayed, or grazed with cattle. Recovery and regrowth should still be allowed. Rotational grazing has secondary reasons. Good rotational use tends to aid internal parasite control. Treatment with dewormers is still necessary, but infestations can be reduced.


Horse managers tend to have limited options for rotational use of their pastures or paddocks because of a lack of fencing to subdivide the areas. Besides, many horse managers want one pasture for one horse or herd of horses. It is difficult or impossible to manage pastures and implement any form of rotational use under these circumstances.

Part of managing a rotational-grazing horse pasture approach is having pastures divided into smaller paddocks because rotational use of pastures is vital for stand maintenance, production, and overall degree of pasture success. More subdivision is needed in most cases, but traditional horse fencing is costly. Managers may consider cheaper, more convenient means of interior fencing to allow necessary subdivisions for better forage management.

Some alternatives might be as follows:

  1. various good-quality electric fences, such as ribbon, and other polywire or polyrope made by high-powered electric fencing supply companies (but use only white-colored wires for visibility against a green or brown pasture background, and use an alternating dark- and white-striped polytape for visibility where snow is common)
  2. smooth multiwire high tensile fencing (high breaking strength), 12-gauge
  3. smooth conventional hardware store wire (low breaking strength), 12-gauge
  4. smooth conventional wire topped with an electric wire, 12-gauge
  5. PVC fencing, which is expensive compared with the other choices

Some of these fences can be managed very well for strip grazing or breaking up paddocks. Some electric fences cost only about four hundred dollars per mile for materials and are very effective if properly installed and managed. Using one to three lines of electric temporary or permanent fencing is suggested only for interior fences. Exterior fencing should be good conventional nonelectric fence or multiwired (four to eight wires) electric high-tensile smooth wire fence.

Stock, including horses, need to be trained to the electric fence under controlled circumstances before being turned out to paddocks made of these fences. All electric fences should be made visible by using white polytape, white polyrope, and white signal strips as necessary. These fences should be constructed to break easily to prevent injury if a running horse encounters the fence.

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