How can I maintain a bit of grass for my horses?
Good question, and this will take into account many factors. How many horses you have, how much land there is, where you live, how long the horses are turned out, and even local water restrictions, your local weather plays a huge role, too.
- One acre of pasture can support two horses for one month.
- Open your pastures when there is about 4 inches of growth. When about 50% is gone, time to rest the pasture.
- Allow about 3 weeks to rest a pasture before you put horses out again.
So much horse salad!
Every part of the country will have different soils and climate. This will determine what types of grasses to use for your pastures. Check with your local agricultural extension service for their suggestions for you area. It's likely that you will use one "base" grass that can be top seeded with a non-competitive variety when the base grass is dormant (either summer or winter). For example, use a base grass like bermuda, which grows in the summer, and top seed with winter rye, which only grows in the winter.
Understand how your horses move around in pastures. Waterers and gates are high traffic, you may want to intentionally leave that area with good draining gravel or sand. Gates placed away from corners are also a great way to save a bit of pasture and make things safer for herds. (More on gates here)
Horses also like to eat the sweet stuff - which comes from grass that is stressed or in transition. For example, grass that has just been eaten down will have higher sugar, so it's tastier. So your horses will eat it down to the dirt. This is why you often see fetlock deep pastuers with large patches of super short grass.
The sweet stuff is also around when the grass goes to seed. Letting your pastures go to seed is great, saves you some time and money. But, horses love the seed heads, it's wise to let the pastures rest during that time. You should also be leery of any metabolically challenged horses eating the super sweet grasses and pasture. (More on that here!)
Horses pound the earth, so plan on aerating your pastures at least twice a year if the ground becomes hard. You can rent machines that do this from a local gardening supply house. This allows fertilizers and water (and air) to reach the soil below the roots. It's a great thing to do before your pasture rests!
It's great to be able to water your pastures when you can if you need to, many parts of the country are on water restrictions and this will definitely affect your watering capabilities. Low flow sprinklers placed under the fence (not on top where the wind carries away precious water) do the trick. Turn the sprinklers on overnight, for about 10 minutes or so a few times through the night. Most grasses do better with shorter drinks than a deep soak, and the deep soaks from sprinklers often just run off the top.
In order to control the weeds, mowing your pasture periodically is also encouraged. While this may seem counter-intuitive, the mowing knocks down the plants that your horses have decided to avoid and allows the tender shoots of forage that your horse prefers to snack on. If it’s a particularly large weed, pull it!
Removing manure will help the grass grow more evenly and not create the “dead” patches in the grass. When you remove manure, treat the area with a stall freshener to neutralize the ammonia. The lack of ammonia will help maintain the grass, as ammonia tends to kill off those tender grasses. Also be on the lookout for any urine spots, many horses like to urinate in the same area and this may start to damage the grass.
Not just for stalls.
If you provide water, shade, and salt, your pasture can be a great way to do your turnouts, even if it's only for a little bit every day.
What works for you?
(Special thanks to Jenn Roberts for her pasture management expertise!)