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Developing a Grazing Management Plan for Horses
Paul R. Peterson, Extension Agronomist, Forages

Pastures furnish horses with high-quality, nutritious feed at a
relatively low cost and help to maintain healthy animals by
furnishing exercise, sunshine, and fresh air. The horse is a
natural grazing animal. If the horse owner practices good grazing
management; mature, non-working horses and well-developed, older
yearlings can be maintained on pasture with no grain
supplementation during a typical pasture season. Well-managed
pasture can provide many of the nutrients needed by growing
horses and work horses, but some additional grain and hay feeding
is generally needed for these horse classes.

Virginia has tremendous pasture potential due to the adaptation
of a wide variety of forage species, favorable moisture and
temperature, and a long growing season. However, proper grazing
management is necessary to take advantage of pasture's potential.

Development of a grazing plan requires an understanding of the
growth requirements of forage species that can provide good
grazing for horses in Virginia. Cool-season grasses that can be
used include Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue, orchardgrass, and
timothy. Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue are sod-forming
grasses that are the most forgiving of poor grazing management.

Abortions, foaling difficulties, and milk production problems can
be encountered with pregnant mares grazing endophyte-infected
tall fescue. Keep pregnant mares off of infected tall fescue
during the last three months of pregnancy. For other classes of
horses, there have been no reported health problems when grazing
tall fescue.

Orchardgrass and timothy are high quality bunch grasses that
require more careful management to be productive and persistent
under horse grazing. While timothy can provide high quality
forage, it is often not the best choice for pasture in Virginia
because of poor summer growth due to a lack of heat and drought

White (Ladino) clover, red clover, and alfalfa are the best
legume options to mix with cool-season grasses in horse pastures.
Alfalfa should only be used where soils are well-drained and the
pH is at least 6.2. It is important to regulate grazing to
maintain legumes in the stand. A balance of 40% legume and 60%
desirable grass in the pasture sod is a goal to shoot for. Tall
grass tends to crowd out clover. If the clover is thinning, keep
the pasture grazed or clipped to reduce grass competition. This
will improve the legume's chances of flourishing. While horses
generally prefer grasses to legumes, they do graze some legume.
Legumes will enrich their diet, improve summer pasture
production, and provide fixed nitrogen to the pasture grasses.

Pasture production can be stabilized by having different forage
species in various pastures, thus extending the grazing season.
For example, in the Southern Piedmont and Eastern Virginia,
having pasture planted to bermudagrass will ensure summer grazing
and a strong sod to support horse traffic. Dwarf pearl millet is
a summer annual that works well for providing summer horse
pasture, too.

Sorghum, sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, and Johnsongrass
should NOT be used for horse pasture. These warm-season annuals
have been known to cause a condition called cystitis which is
characterized by paralysis and urinary disorders. Foxtail millet
is also not recommended because diuretic effects have been

Having a pasture of tall fescue allows the potential for
stockpiling (accumulating) fall growth for late fall and winter
grazing. Winter annual grasses such as winter cereals are
excellent species for providing late fall, late winter, and early
spring grazing.

The amount of pasture acreage required per horse varies with size
and age of the horse, pasture species, the amount of supplemental
feed, and soil productivity. In order for pasture to be expected
to provide the majority of a horse's diet, 2 acres of pastureland
is generally needed for a mature horse. The most common pasture
management problem among horse owners is overgrazing because of
too many horses on too small an area of land.

Ideally, the total pasture acreage should be divided into 2-4
separate pastures (paddocks). This will allow the flexibility to
rotate horses among pastures to allow for recovery of pasture
plants and clipping as well.

While a minimum of 2 acres of pasture per horse is ideal,
oftentimes land area is limited to the point where only an acre
or less is available. If horses are allowed to access this entire
area, it is nearly impossible to maintain a pasture sod with
constant traffic. In such cases, dividing the area into at least
two lots is a practical solution. One lot can be an exercise lot
where pasture is sacrificed, and the other lot(s) used for
grazing. Key to this is not allowing overgrazing in the pasture
areas -- permit grazing on the pasture sod only when sufficient
growth is present.

Do not allow horses to graze pasture down to less than 2". Since
horses are spot grazers, the only practical way to follow this
rule is to subdivide pasture area into subunits and rotate the
horses through. A rule of thumb is to allow about 4 weeks of
recovery time between grazings for any one pasture area. This
will ensure a stronger, more productive sod and reduce weed

Because of their spot grazing behavior, there will almost always
be areas of pastures that are underutilized and over mature. These
areas should be clipped. Two to three clippings per year may be
necessary to help promote more uniform grazing and aid in
controlling weeds.

Horses should be removed from pastures during very wet soil
conditions, since horses can damage even well-established pasture
sods when they run, stop, and turn sharply.

There are advantages to grazing different types of livestock on
horse pastures. For example, beef or sheep can be stocked
together with horses, or they can follow horses in the rotation
of pastures. Since they are more random grazers than horses, beef
or sheep help to make more efficient use of pasture by grazing
more uniformly and thus maintaining more of the pasture in a
high-quality, vegetative stage.

Well-managed pasture with grazing horses is a beautiful sight.
There are a few key management moves that the horse owner can
make to ensure good pasture condition. Foremost of these is
dividing pasture area into a minimum of two and preferably more

For more information on pasture management for horses, go to your
local Extension office and pick up a copy of VCE Publication
418-008 entitled "Horse Pastures for Virginia."

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