The field or paddock that your horse lives in serves many different purposes; food source, exercise area and a secure environment to socialise with other horses. Whether your horse lives out 24/7 or is turned out for a few hours a day, pasture management is of the utmost importance to your horse’s health and welfare.
RESTORING YOUR PADDOCKS
In early Spring it is advisable to pH test and analyse your soil to identify any nutrients that are lacking from the pasture. Soils that are deficient in various nutrients will produce little grass and this will be of poor quality and this year nutrients will have been leached by the excessive rainfall we have experienced. The main nutrients required for plant growth are: – Nitrogen which promotes rapid, leafy green growth and builds plant material, Phosphorous which helps the plant produce seeds and root growth and Potassium which improves quality and disease resistance.
If the above nutrients are deficient then a fertiliser can be applied to the soil, this would normally occur around mid March. Specialist slow releasing fertilisers are available for equine pastures and contain the correct ratio of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Vital nutrients for plant and animal growth such as sulphur and magnesium are also often included in ready balanced fertilisers. Too much, or the wrong type of fertiliser (such as a nitrogen based fertiliser) will produce rich grass, which may cause digestive tract problems, laminitis or obesity. It is always sensible to seek expert advice regarding seeding and fertilising pasture. Once a fertiliser has been applied to pasture, a minimum 3-week rest period is usually required, to allow time for it to disperse before the horses are allowed to graze the pasture again. Always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines. Horse manure should not be used as a fertiliser for equine pastures due to the risk of spreading parasites and making the grass unpalatable.
For optimum grass growth the soil pH should be 6-6.5. The pH influences grass growth as it affects the availability of nutrients for uptake by the plant. A low pH reading (5.5 or below) will usually indicate the soil is acidic and a dressing of lime should be applied to the pasture to raise the pH to the correct levels. Expert advice should always be sought regarding this application.
From March onwards harrowing can take place in dry weather to remove dead vegetation allowing new growth and air to the soil. Weeds should be monitored and weed control measures put in place if necessary.
Following the worst winters rainfall on record, many paddocks will have been turned into pure mud baths with hardly a blade of grass in sight so reseeding will be essential for pasture restoration. Specialist seed mixes are widely available for equestrian pasture. An equine nutritionist or seed mix supplier will be able to advise on the appropriate mix for your horse. Once seed is applied, the pasture should be rolled to flatten poached areas and consolidate loose soil. Rolling must be done when the soil is dry but before the ground is too hard.
Horses should not graze young grass until it is well established. New growth should ideally be 5-6 inches long before it is grazed, this allows a strong root system to establish. It is advisable to introduce horses to the new pasture gradually to help their digestive system to adapt to the change in nutrients.
GOOD PADDOCK MANAGEMENT
Maintain a good stocking density to prevent over grazing and “horse sick” paddocks. Horses are selective grazers making them poor utilisers of pasture. Horse sick pasture develops into ‘roughs’ (unpalatable areas, avoided by horses) and ‘lawns’ (overgrazed, sparse areas). ‘Lawns’ tend to be overtaken by weeds and pasture regrowth is often poor due to the reduced soil nutrients.
The recommended stocking density is a ratio of two horses per hectare on permanent grazing (1 – 1.5 acres per horse). A number of factors will of course affect this recommendation, such as: size and type of horse/pony, length of time for turnout, time of year, quality of the pasture and underlying soil. If you have enough pasture it is advisable to segregate and rotate grazing allowing rest and recovery to keep the pasture in good condition, while others are grazed and managed accordingly.
Droppings should be removed from the pasture on a regular basis, ideally every day. This will help control the parasite burden and prevent the grass beneath the droppings from becoming sour and unpalatable. As general guidance a combination of rotating paddocks, regularly removing droppings, using faecal egg counts and having a worming programme will result in effective parasite control. Speak to your vet if you need advice on formulating an effective worming programme for your horse.
Weeds must be controlled as early as possible and expert advice should be sought. If a herbicide is required, this is normally applied when weeds are actively growing during the summer months. Any poisonous plants such as ragwort should always be immediately removed.
Topping the pasture in summer improves the pasture by encouraging the grass to establish a thick turf. Horses must not be allowed to graze the pasture until any cut grass has completely dried out or been removed.
Maintain good field boundaries and gates to reduce chances of escape and injury. Regardless of the type of boundary used it is essential to inspect them daily to ensure they are safe and secure. Please note that if your horse escapes from their pasture because of inadequate or unsafe field boundaries, the horse owner/keeper and/or landowner may be liable for any damages caused.
Gates and gateways should allow for safe passage for horses and must fasten securely. If gateways become very wet and poached in the winter months it may be necessary to create an area of hard standing with material such as hardcore. For security purposes and to help deter theft, boundary gates, such as those leading onto the road should be padlocked.
Pasture management is essential for your horse’s health and welfare, so it is important we look after the land which our horses graze. There are many expert contractors available who will be able to advise on all matters of pasture management, many of whom may be able to supply products for DIY maintenance or better still take the strain away completely and do the whole job for you!