Horse Pasture Management

Horse Pasture Management Tips

Penn State University’s Ann Swinker shares tips on land stewardship, specifically regarding pasture management through rotation, dry lots and more.

a herd of broodmares and foals runs across a green grass pasture with oak trees (Credit: 2019 AQHA Photo Contest submission)

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By Connie Lechleitner, for AQHA

Why Land Stewardship Matters for Horse Farms 

Did you know Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States? Due to that fact, it’s no surprise that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with several other agencies, has made water quality through livestock management a top priority. The state of Pennsylvania, for example, requires a “Manure Management Manual,” which includes a manure and pasture plan for all farms that have one animal or more.  

So why are horse manure and pasture regulations important? Penn State University’s Ann Swinker shares tips on land stewardship. She is an equine extension specialist who looks at holistic ways horse farm owners can improve air and water quality. She says that manure, when left to its own devices, will leach nitrogen and phosphorus into the soil – and the water supply. Mud, sediment and erosion all contribute to ground water contamination. With proper management, these issues can be lessened. 

Horse Pasture Management 

Another area where horse owners can improve their stewardship of the land is by paying greater attention to pasture management. It starts by realizing that horses graze much differently than other species.  

Grazing Habits of Horses 

  • Horses are very close grazers. They pull and tear the grass.  
  • Horses are selective or spot grazers, where they graze the best and leave the rest. 
  • Horses graze for long periods of the day, up to 10-14 hours per day. 
  • Horses should only be consuming about 2 percent of their body weight per day. Some horses overeat and can take in up to 3-4 percent.   
  • Horses are not like cattle, which eat for a little while and then lie down and ruminate, before getting up to eat again. Horses keep their heads down all day. 
  • Horses don’t eat every part of the pasture evenly, and they eat the best sections close to the ground.  

To best manage the grazing habits of horses, Ann recommends rotational grazing.  

sorrel horse in a black halter grazes a grass pasture
(Credit: Samantha Musante)

Rotational Grazing for Horses 

“Let’s say I have a 10-acre field with a shelter and water supply. If I set up rotational grazing in smaller sections within the field, I make more efficient use of the pasture, because it doesn’t get overused,” Ann says.  

Ann proposes this schedule for the 10-acre field: 

  • Let the horse graze in the first cell for two weeks. 
  • Let the horse graze in the second cell for two weeks or until the grass is evenly grazed off (2-5 inches).  
  • It might be three to four weeks before the horse is rotated back to grazing on the first cell. 
  • This gives each section time to recover and develop new grass growth (six or more inches). This helps the grass replace its root reserves. 

Dry Lots or Sacrifice Lots 

Ann recommends establishing a dry lot or sacrifice lot. This is a small enclosure, such as a paddock, corral or pen that is sacrificed for the benefit of the rest of the pasture(s). Horses should be confined to this area during the winter months.  

“I like to have a place to put horses where they won’t tear up the grass if it’s too wet or if I need to limit their time on lush grass when it comes on strong,” Ann says.  

Constructing a Dry Lot or Sacrifice Paddock 

To make your dry-lot surface: Select an area, prepare a base and prepare an all-weather surface.  

Step 1: Use a geotextile fabric. Geotextile fabric is a synthetically engineered material. Most geotextiles are made from either spun or woven polypropylene material. Geotextile fabric is porous so water passes through while soil and rock are held in place.  

Step 2: Cover with 4 to 6 inches of #2, 3 or 4 crushed, durable rock, with 2 to 4 inches of sifted limestone or finer material on top. 

Step 3: Slope the sacrifice areas to encourage surface water runoff and infiltrated water drainage. The site should be clear, grubbed, excavated, graded to the appropriate slope and compacted if necessary. The subgrade surface should be free of topsoil, rocks, roots, debris, depressions, mud and standing water.  

Step 4: Top with fill soil. Fill soil should be suitable for compaction (not topsoil or soil with organic material). Do not place fill material on muddy, frozen, frosty or icy ground.  

A dry lot, or sacrifice paddock, covered in crushed rock
A dry lot, or sacrifice paddock, covered in crushed rock (Credit: courtesy of Ann Swinker)

Maintaining Horse Pastures 

Pasture management can also include clipping the pasture with a mower or even using another species of livestock to help clean up what the horses don’t eat.  

“On my own farm, I bring in 40 head of cattle for one day to clear off a lot after the horses have grazed it,” she says, adding that bringing in another livestock species is another method of parasite control, breaking the parasites’ cycle. She also suggests checking the pasture frequently for poisonous or noxious weeds, especially if grass growth was knocked off too hard by over-grazing.     

Pasture management is a continual project, Ann reminds.  

“You can over-seed or frost-seed a pasture as soon as the soil opens up in March or in the early fall of the year. We like using no-till,” she says. “We also recommend soil testing through your local Cooperative Extension Service. The soil test results help you determine how much fertilizer and lime to apply. Be sure to mow your field at 4-5 inches and harrow the field to break up manure.” 

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