How Much Land is Needed Per Horse?

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Editor's Note: This month we asked author Katie Navarra to investigate the topic: How Many is Too Many? We have found as farm and stable owners that we often end up with "too many" horses for our physical or financial situation. We also know of other owners and stables who struggle with the same problems. We invite you to make comments on each of these articles, or chat with us on the Finding Out forum on these topics.

Appropriate paddock size is partially determined by the size of the horses, the management strategy and a number of other factors. “I normally recommend two acres for the first horse and one additional acre for each additional horse,” said Mike Yoder, Extension Assistant Professor & Specialist Extension Horse Husbandry at North Carolina State University.

“This acreage allows you to implement different management plans with a reasonable expectation that you will not over-graze your pastures,” he added.

If your stable is relying on turnout to provide full nutritional value, the acreage required will be much greater. “A good rule of thumb is to maintain 70% vegetative cover, or no more than 30% bare ground,” said Laura Kenney, Program Associate, Department of Animal Sciences, at Rutgers University. The forage should be 8”-10” tall, not eaten to the ground and not full of weeds.

You might think that horses eat 50% of their nutritional needs in 12 hours of turnout, but recent research by Dr. Paul Siciliano at North Carolina State University indicated that horses eat more per hour when they are only turned out for part of the day. (In other words, they "make up" for less grazing time by grazing more intensely.)

Conversely, if your paddocks will only be used for turnout, you can house more horses on less land. “A ranch or small farm in the southwest may only provide a 20' x 40' run for a horse, yet those horses remain as healthy as horses running in a 40-acre field,” Yoder said. “for physical well-being, horses do not require room to run, only move around freely for at least a portion of every day.”

Non-grazing space can be referred to as a dry lot, exercise lot, stress lot or sacrifice lot. “According to Washington State University, the minimum recommended space in a dry lot is 400 square feet per horse, though a larger space would be more appropriate,” Kenney said.

In small turnout pens it’s critical to pick manure daily, have a well-thought-out manure management plan, and divert clean water away from the dry lots. You also need to ensure that horses have access to fresh water and that the pecking order does not preclude a horse from getting its fair share of feed since there won't be grazing.