Using your pasture in small segments—putting horses on just one part and letting the rest grow and recover from grazing—is healthiest for the pasture and enables it to last a long time and be most productive. Yet, many horse farm owners don’t utilize this simple management tool.
Bob Coleman, PhD, State Extension Specialist at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, said part of the reason is that horse owners think rotational grazing would be too much work. “Pasture is a crop, however, and it is worth the effort if you can extend your grazing season or have more grass for your horses during the season.
“With healthier pasture, you may not have to reseed or fertilize,” he said.
You don’t kill out the desirable plants by overgrazing them if you graze each piece for a short time and give it a longer recovery period.
“To make it easier, set up a grazing pattern before you start in the spring; figure out how you want to use it for this particular grazing season," suggested Coleman. "If you have 10 acres, divide it into some 2- to 3-acre paddocks and decide how you’ll supply water for the horses in each of those areas.”
There are some great portable horse watering systems today that can make it easier—and lightweight portable water troughs.
“In one situation, I used a portable tank and garden hose, keeping the hose shaded under the grass along the edge where it wouldn’t get too hot," said Coleman. "With a portable waterer, I make sure the valve is at the bottom where the horses can’t touch it, and I like a float that is visible from a distance so I can tell if it's working and the tank is full."
With equine portable water systems, you don’t have to bury a water line and can change the location whenever you need more flexibility in your pasture rotations.
Dividing the pasture is simple with step-in posts. A person can set up a temporary electric fence in a short time and relocate it when needed. You’re not locked into any particular pasture configuration, and you can change it to give the horses a larger, smaller or different strip or section of pasture at any time, or have it different next year.
You learn as you go. Try to figure out the best way to have the horses graze certain areas. You might want to force them to consume the forage that’s there, moving them around to create more uniform use of the pasture.
“We’ve done studies here (at the University of Kentucky) on rotational grazing on a 5-acre plot, and in the five years that we did different studies, we never had the same configuration two years in a row," noted Coleman. "We might have the same number of paddocks but in different locations.
“We also could change the configuration and make each paddock smaller, with more total paddocks, so the horses could move to the next one quicker and give each part a longer rest to regrow," he added.
And, if you have a single species of grass like Bermuda grass that the horses might not like as well, they will graze it more evenly, Coleman said. If horses only have a small area to graze and a short time to graze it, they don’t overgraze certain parts.
“Everyone talks about lawns and roughs—the areas horses graze right down to the ground and the other areas they don’t touch that grow tall and become overly mature and less palatable," said Coleman. "Everyone thinks the roughs are where the manure is, but this isn’t necessarily true.
He explained that horses don’t graze where they defecate, but there are also other areas they avoid because the grass gets too mature. They eat the shorter grass over and over again because it’s young and tender, and they avoid the coarser, taller grass. Which means it just gets more mature, then they never eat it.
“When you assess the pasture, let them graze it down to about 3 to 4 inches in height and move them," said Coleman. "If there’s some grass they didn’t eat, you could mow it to get rid of the mature grass.”
Then that area will regrow and the whole paddock will be more uniform—and more palatable—when the horses come back to it.
“If there’s 8 or 10 inches of a certain grass in the far corner that the horses haven’t grazed, they are not going to graze it," he said. "You might think because there’s some taller grass they could stay there longer, but they are not going to eat it. They just keep overgrazing the shorter grasses.”
Then there is part of that pasture that is grazed down to the soil. “The grass in that portion isn’t going to come back in time to graze again that season, but the weeds will," Coleman noted. "If there are places the horses aren’t grazing, reconfigure your electric fence, move your waterer, and encourage them to graze there.”
If you want the horses to make the most of your pasture, you need to make them stay in each area until they graze it down to a uniform level.