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Pasture management for horse paddocks

Find out how to manage your paddock for the health of your horse, pasture and soil.

Find out how to manage your paddock for the health of your horse, pasture and soil.

What is pasture management?

Pasture (or grassland) management is the practice of growing healthy grass and related plants to sustain year-round forage availability, whilst also encouraging ecological health. This can conserve or enhance native grasses in your pasture as well as improving the soil health.

Why do we need to manage our pasture?

Engaging in good pasture management has numerous benefits, including providing a safe turnout area in which your horse(s) can exercise and exhibit natural behaviours – the benefits of which should never be underestimated!

Managing your pasture actively will also allow you to grow the type of grass you want. The grass already growing in your paddock may not be the best kind for horsesbut by overseeding you can encourage growth of more horse-friendly varieties.

Good pasture management may reduce your feed costs as well as improving biodiversity and reducing the environmental impact, as grassland is a big carbon trap. Healthy grassland is also more resistant to poaching and desiccation.

How should we manage our pasture?

A great place to start with pasture management is soil analysis, which will measure the health and fertility of your soil. This will tell you the current pH levels – ideally between 6-6.5 – which is worth finding out as grass won’t grow very well on acidic soil. If you do find out that your soil is too acidic you can have lime spread on your fields if need be. Most weeds thrive in acidic soil, so pH testing and then liming in the autumn every three years can make your soil less favourable for them.

Flooding can leach essential nutrients out of soil, so it’s worth monitoring your soil health, especially if you’re in an area which gets a lot of wet weather/flooding. If you do find your soil is in need of fertiliser, most are made up of a combination of nitrogen – which helps with growth of leaves and aids photosynthesis; phosphorus – which assists root growth and development of flowers/fruit; and potassium – which boosts overall plant function and performance. Sulphur can increase yield and fertility and can be added to a standard NPK fertiliser.

Natural fertiliser options include manure, slurry or seaweed, which add nitrogen and boost fertility. These will provide healthy essential elements as well as adding humus which will improve the soil structure.

If you choose to spread dirty bedding such as woodchip or shavings on your fields as a fertiliser you need to ensure that it’s well-rotted (for at least a year). If applied too “fresh” it will take nitrogen out of the soil in the process of breaking down and hinder the grass growth, as well as potentially spreading worm eggs around the pasture.  

Fertilising is often seen as a problem for horse pastures as it is associated with productive grasses and metabolic disorders in horses but choosing a fertiliser lower in nitrogen will help to prevent rapid leaf growth. Phosphorus and potassium are essential for healthy plant root growth, which in turn is important for helping your paddock stand up to both particularly dry and wet weather conditions.

There is a misconception that heavily-grazed “starvation paddocks” can be better for overweight horses and/or those prone to laminitis but these can do far more harm than good, for horses and pasture alike! Please don’t ever “crash diet” your horse – this can be really dangerous for them as well as counterproductive for weight loss. Grass which has been grazed down very tightly will be stressed and the soil will be less resistant to erosion or poaching (depending on your soil type and weather conditions).

How should we maintain our pasture?

Despite our best efforts, owners are often faced with a rather poached, sad-looking field by the time spring comes around at long last. This is the time to do some general maintenance to help your pasture recover, including harrowing and rolling.

A chain harrow towed behind a quad is a common sight in the equestrian world but you could also get a contractor in to harrow your paddock for you. Harrowing helps to aerate the sward and encourages grass growth as well as removing moss, dead grass and weeds. It will also flatten mole hills and go some way towards tackling poached areas, depending on the severity. However, do make sure you poo-pick the entire field before harrowing as otherwise parasitic larvae will be spread across the field.  

If you get a contractor in they may well have the kit to be able to harrow and overseed the paddock at the same time, which is a great way to introduce some more equine-friendly types of grass. This can be especially useful if your paddock is starting to show bare patches.

Harrowing should be followed by rolling, which will flatten any remaining poaching and firm up the soil structure around the roots of the grass. It’s worth getting a contactor in to do this for you as it’s very likely that if you can get on to roll the paddock with a quad it’s too dry to have any real benefit, whereas a tractor will be able to get on when the ground is soft enough for rolling to do some good.

Topping can improve the quality of the sward, encourage young growth and stimulate new root development. Again you could get a contractor in who has the right kit to do this but sheep can be a great alternative to machinery – and are excellent for weed control! They also have different worm cycles to equines, which means they won’t be affected by the worms which affect your horses and vice versa. Sheep will also eat down any rough areas created by horses undertaking selective grazing.

If you do need to control weeds in your paddock, you could choose to have them sprayed off. Given current regulations, you would need to get a licensed contractor in to do this for you. Depending on the chemical used, your horse(s) would also need to be kept off the paddock for a period of time.

Topping can be used for weed control purposes to prevent weeds going to seed, but be very careful if you do this with any ragwort present – you would need to make sure any cut ragwort is removed and disposed of safely as it becomes more palatable once dried.

Digging small patches of weeds (especially ragwort) up by hand is generally the most economic and effective method of weed control. It is hard work but it’s also particularly satisfying to see your nice clean paddock afterwards!  

How does poo-picking help with pasture management?

Poo-picking your paddock, especially if it’s a smaller one, helps to keep the pasture palatable as well as reducing weeds and the worm burden of any horses grazing the field. You should poo-pick at least twice a week and ideally more often than that. If you don’t poo-pick regularly you’ll find that your horses will create latrine areas which will result in patches of rough grass and weeds.

After all that hard work poo-picking (unless you’re lucky enough to be using a paddock vacuum or sweeper) don’t undo all your efforts by creating a muck heap in your field! Tipping poo in the corner of the field will cause the grass round the pile to grow faster than the rest of the field, making it very appealing for your horses – but grazing right next to a muck heap will significantly increase your horse’s worm burden.

Stocking rates

A standard stocking rate for horses is one acre per horse, plus one extra acre – so four horses would need four acres plus one extra, making a total of five acres. However, the ideal stocking density for your particular field could vary significantly depending on the type of land as well as the breed, size and age of the equines being kept there.

The amount of work your horse(s) are in can also influence ideal stocking rates, depending on their calorie requirement, as well as how much shelter is available and whether you have access to a stable. Over-stocking can lead to poor soil and grass quality which in turn can impact on your horses’ health, so it’s worth making sure you have a stocking rate appropriate to your paddock.

How do gateways impact on pasture management?

As high-traffic areas, gateways can very quickly become poached, as can footing around water troughs. It can be well worth scraping out a semi-circle approximately three horse-lengths from the gate or trough and putting down crushed stone.  Though it may seem costly at the time, there can be huge benefits to the health of both your horses and pasture. Cheaper options, such as putting woodchip down in the gateway, may seem less expensive at the time but can end up adding to the problem when the material starts to break down.

If your field is on a slope it can also be extremely helpful to move the gateway to the highest point of the field. If not, it could be worth assessing which area of your field stands up to wet weather best and installing a gate there. Even rotating between which gate you use can be helpful, as it allows one area to dry out a bit before it gets used again. Another consideration is ensuring when you put a new gate in that it’s wide enough for a tractor to get in the field to carry out maintenance work.  

Why does pasture management matter?

Pasture management might seem costly and/or time-consuming but it really is worthwhile – even small changes can make a big difference and if you view it as an investment in your horse’s health all of a sudden it’s worth every penny!

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