Tips For Successful Horse Pasture Management On Small Acreage

Horses are intended to eat grass, so it’s only natural that many horse owners want to provide a great deal of their horses nourishment from grazing. Can your horse get a significant amount of nutrition from grazing on a small plot of land? With proper management you can provide ample grazing for your horses even on small acreage.

In this article, we share good tips on managing your small acreage effectively to maximize nutrition and fiber intake for your horses. Read on to learn more.

Good Planning Is The Key To Success

poorly managed horse pasture

A poorly managed pasture will not provide much nutrition for your horse. It takes a bit of work to create a pasture that provides high quality, and nutritious forage.

Begin by planning how you will manage your horse pasture. According to the University of Kentucky, you need to have between two and five acres of land per horse, and you need to realize that grass is not just a naturally growing plant. It is really a crop when you’re relying on it for grazing.

Just as when growing crops, you need to be cognizant of the quality of the soil in your horse pasture. It’s good to develop a working relationship with your county extension agent who can test your soil and help you determine the type of fertilizer you need to make the most of your pasture.

Your county extension agent can also take a walk around your property and evaluate the plants that you already have growing naturally. He or she can make recommendations as to plants you will want to get rid of and those that you will want to encourage or add.

Your county extension agent can also help you choose the right type or combination of grasses. This is partly determined by the number of horses you have and the size of property you have. There are some grasses (e.g. fescue and Bermuda grass) that can take quite a bit of overgrazing.

More delicate grasses, such as orchard grass are not able to tolerate overgrazing. You don’t want to waste money sowing this type of grass if it cannot prosper where you live.

What’s The Easiest Way To Manage a Pasture?

easiest way to manage a horse pasture

The easiest and most natural way to manage a horse pasture is to have a great big piece of land and allow your horses to graze continuously. Being allowed to roam freely on a large open area with access to fresh water, shelter and hay as needed is a happy and carefree way to keep your horses.

When you have plenty of property for your horses to graze, they are unlikely to frequent favorite areas so much that they eat the plants all the way down to the ground. If this does happen, there’s still plenty of good grazing (lawn areas) where they can find good forage.

Unfortunately, most people don’t have access to very large tracts of land where their horses can roam freely, so rotational grazing is usually the pasture management method of choice. This involves dividing your pasture into two or more smaller paddocks and rotating the horses on a daily, weekly or monthly schedule depending on the number of horses in the size of the property.

Your own schedule may also play a great part in determining your grazing rotation schedule. If you work every weekday and are not able to spend a lot of daily time with your horses, shifting them from one paddock to another on a daily basis may not be practical. In this case, weekly or monthly rotation is preferred.

What If You Don’t Have 2 To 5 Acres Per Horse?

There are grazing schemes that can work with as little as 2.5 acres for two horses. For this kind of pasture management for horses, you have to start out with a pasture that has been renovated to produce the maximum crop of grass. You’ll need to remove all broadleaf weeds, sow appropriate grass for your area and fertilize at the right time for your climate.

It may take several months to get your pasture set up. Once you do have good grass growing, you can add your horses, but don’t let them graze the whole pasture all at once. Separate it into a couple of sections so that your horses can down one half and then be moved into the other half to give the grazed area a rest.

What’s The Best Way To Divide Your Horse Pasture?

best way to divide your horse pasture

When dividing your property into sections for your horses to graze, be sure to take all aspects of the various portions of the property into account. Any area where your horses are going to spend some time will need to have a number of different factors as well as good grass.

For example, horses need good shade, protection from the elements, and the ability to socialize. The flipside of providing these kinds of amenities is that you may also accidentally create favored areas that the horses over graze. Horses may tend to frequent specific areas of the pasture more than others. They have favorites just like anyone else, and they will eat their favorite grasses to the ground and ignore plants that they do not prefer.

When grass is grazed to the ground, it leaves an opening for weeds to take over. If left unmanaged, your fairly nice horse pasture could soon turn into a big weed patch. It’s very important to control inedible weeds because they can ruin your pasture very quickly – check these weedkillers for horse pasture.

Keep a close eye on your horses’ behavior and alter your rotational schedule accordingly to prevent having them eat the grass down to the dirt. One way of doing this is to give your horses only limited turnout to their grazing areas. Have them stay in the dry lot (a.k.a. sacrifice area) for measured periods of time each day to give the grass a bit of a many rest daily.

What Is A Sacrifice Area?

This is a smaller corral or paddock where grass does not grow. It’s a dry lot that should be established on well draining ground that is free of mud and has good footing. In your sacrifice area or dry lot, you can provide a round bail of hay or hay in net bags continuously so that your horses will always have free access to forage. Be sure to keep your hay under shelter so that your horses can be comfortable while eating and your hay will not be spoiled by exposure to the elements.

Manage Your Water Source

manage your water source

When you’re using a rotational pasture system, you’ll want to have your water source located towards the middle. One good plan is to establish your dry lot in the center with access on all sides to different sections of your pasture (a.k.a. paddocks).

If you’re not able to have a large water source in the center of your property, you can set up smaller portable tanks in each of your paddocks so your horses will never be without water. If you have access to a water hydrant, you can run a system of hoses to the various tanks to make sure that each tank is always filled with fresh water with the least amount of physical effort on your part.

How Do You Move Your Horses From One Paddock to Another?

The ideal is to have a good-sized sacrifice lot in the center of your property with gates that open on all sides. Divide your paddocks so that you have one on each side of your sacrifice lot. When you’re ready to move the horses, just open the gate corresponding to the location where you want them.

If this is impossible, of course you will need to herd them here and there or catch them and lead them to the desired destination.

What Kind Of Fencing Is Best?

If you are renting or you simply don’t want to permanently divide your property into paddocks, a portable electric fence is a very good option. You can get enough fencing so that you can divide your permanently fenced property into paddocks in a semi permanent manner.

Alternately, you can move an electric fence from place to place to provide small grazing areas for your horses on a daily basis. Of course this is quite time-consuming, and may not be practical for many people. If this is the case, you can modify your schedule by sectioning off larger areas and allowing your horses to graze for a week at a time so that you only need to move them on the weekends.

If you need to move your electric fence frequently, be sure to use a very safe type of electric fence that’s quick to install and breakdown. Examples include small wooden or fiberglass posts strung with poly tapes.

If your permanent perimeter fence includes an electric wire, you can connect it with your temporary electric fence for greater flexibility. Using poly tape gives you a lot of flexibility and is a good idea if you plan to install permanent fencing, but you’re not really sure where you want it. Being able to move your fences around for a season or two can help you make an informed decision.

Very often, people who believe they want permanent fences find the poly tape so convenient and easy to deal with that they decide to continue using it on an ongoing basis. One very good advantage of setting up temporary fencing using electric poly tape is that you can take it down to mow your entire pasture or even to cut hay.

Which Rotation Schedule Is Best?

horse pasture rotation schedule

If you have a very small plot of land and can only do small paddocks, you may want to try a method called controlled intensive grazing. To do this, you would allow your horses to eat down most of the grass in a small area during a very limited time period.

When they’ve consumed all of the edible grass, move them to another paddock to repeat the process. This is sometimes called mob grazing or flash grazing, and it is a good option if you have lots of horses but not lots of land.

If you live in an area that gets lots of rainfall and you do a good job of keeping your pasture well fertilized and well cared for, this type of intensive grazing can be quite effective.

If you do have 2-5 acres per horse, you may do well with traditional rotational grazing. With this method, you can allow your horses to graze until the grass in a given paddock is approximately three or four inches high. Then remove the horses to another paddock.

Of course, horses will not graze the grass to a consistent level like a lawnmower. After a day or two of grazing, you may have some areas that are 2 inches high and others that are as tall as 6 inches high. When this happens, you should give the grass a day or two to rest and then mow it to a 4 inch height and let it rest a bit more to recover for the next round of grazing. You can put horses back into a rejuvenated paddock when the grass has grown to be about 8 inches high.

As a general rule of thumb, try for a two-week on/four week off schedule. Let your horses graze for two weeks and then give the paddock a month to recover. This is doable if you’re practicing three paddock rotation on 2 1/2 acres and you have no more than two horses.

Of course, you’ll need to make adjustments depending on your setting, your climate and your schedule. With good rain and good fertilizer, you may be able to move to a one-week on/two weeks off schedule.

What Can You Do If Your Grass Is Not Growing Properly?

If you have a spell of bad weather or your pasture is not well fertilized, you’ll need to give it a good long break. Keep your horses up in your sacrifice lot and be sure they have plenty of hay to eat. Give your pasture as long as needed to rejuvenate and recover. Of course, you may also need to be very actively involved by sowing new seed, mowing and watering to help your grass grow.

While this may seem like an awful lot of work, the fact is that when you manage your pasture well you can significantly reduce your feet and hay costs. Additionally, a well-managed pasture looks good and improve your property values.

Good pasture management is usually most successful with at least two people working on caring for the horses and caring for the pasture. It is not an easy or quick job. Caring for your pasture is very much like caring for your lawn. You have to be serious about it and you have to keep after it.

In the final analysis, there are lots of ways to make the most of even a small pasture. Pay close attention to your soil quality, choice of grasses and correct use of fertilizer is a great way to improve the quality of your property, the quality of your horses diet and the health of your feed budget.

The state of Missouri provides a handy PDF guide to horse pasture management.

Forages & Pasture Management For Horses

Nicky Ellis
Nicky has been an editor at Horses & Foals since 2017. Horses have been in her life from her earliest memories, and she learned to ride a horse when she was 5. She is a mom of three who spends all her free time with her family and friends, her mare Joy, or just sipping her favorite cup of tea.


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