As equestrians, we are all familiar with the constant battles we experience when working towards providing the best possible care for our horses. Whether you have a sport horse at a boarding facility or a backyard barn, proper pasture management provides both physical and mental enrichment that is essential to the wellbeing of our horses. A well-balanced landscape offers solutions to classic issues horse owners face, while also providing opportunities for conservation.
Four key elements of proper pasture management include:
Pasture rotation for regeneration
Rich soils are essential for healthy and diverse vegetation, nourishing our grazing horses. Knowing the pH of your soil through simple soil tests can help determine which steps to take to promote plant growth, for example adding fertilizer or lime to neutralize soil.
Soil tests are widely accessible through at-home kits, as well as companies, universities and government services that may provide a more detailed report. These are often free of cost or very affordable. Many university or government programs will provide consulting on how to alter your soil chemistry safely and properly to encourage plant productivity and proper nutrient levels.
Healthy soils produce healthy plant systems. Thriving vegetation contains higher contents of nutrients for our horses such as sugars, calcium and a range of other vitamins and minerals. Developing strong root systems prevents erosion and assists in the next key element of ecological pasture management, drainage.
Ensure Adequate Drainage
Adequate drainage of pastures is crucial to both the health of our horses and waterways. Manure contains nutrients like nitrogen, which may run off into the water table, fertilizing aquatic plants through eutrophication. This overgrowth of aquatic plants eventually leads to the suffocation of other aquatic plant and animal species while threatening the quality of drinking water.
While healthy pastures can absorb some nutrients from manure, picking your paddocks and storing manure in an elevated and secure location is essential to preventing nutrient pollution. Rain gardens can also be planted alongside paddocks as bonus drainage solutions that can collect and filter stormwater runoff. If your pasture is located near a body of water, create a physical buffer to prevent manure runoff and erosion.
Sufficient drainage secures the quality of the water we and our horses drink while promoting the overall health of our ecosystems.
Paddock rotation and rest is a vital piece of effective pasture management. Resting your pastures periodically allows for vegetation to regenerate and maintain pre-existing root systems that relate to all the previous steps of pasture management.
This is achieved by simply removing horses from an area to allow the vegetation to maintain stability and regenerate. The duration of pasture rest depends on a variety of factors, including quality and density of vegetation, number of horses, and climatic conditions. Simply maintaining a variety of paddocks allows for ease of rotation throughout the seasons, including the use of multiple split grass paddocks, sand paddocks or sacrifice areas with less vegetation in conjunction with vegetation-rich pastures.
Paddock rotation and rest ensures higher density and richness of the vegetation our horses eat, while preventing erosion, poor drainage and other ecological issues.
Pasture and soil health are not only essential for the enrichment of our horses, but the wildlife species that inhabit the land we share. The development of biodiverse pastures provides habitats and crucial resources for many species that maintain the overall health of an ecosystem.
Developing supportive habitats for wildlife can also benefit horse health through plant pollination and natural pest control. Diverse plant populations attract and maintain pollinators in an ecosystem that promote plant reproduction, leading to more thriving plants to support our horses. When it comes to fly control, birds and bats are our horses’ best friends. These instinctive predators can help reduce unwanted fly and insect populations without chemicals in a natural, cyclical way. While biodiverse systems also inherently support these species, building bat and bird houses near pastures can encourage populations to take hold adjacent to our horses.
We as horse people have a responsibility to be stewards of the land that we keep our horses on, for the health of our communities, our ecosystems, and the wellbeing of our animals. No matter the scale or type of farm, the implementation of the key steps of proper pasture management is essential to supporting ecological farm systems and our horses overall.
This article was written by Green Is the New Blue intern Chloe Koval, a graduate of the University of Vermont who majored in Environmental Science with a concentration in Biology. Green Is the New Blue’s internship program for environmental studies majors empowers college equestrians to implement sustainable practices and advocate for a sustainable sport.