When planning your horse pasture, you should ask yourself the following question: will the pasture be a major feed source or just an exercise area?
Most horses benefit from being outside regularly for exercise. Free exercise reduces behavior and respiratory problems, promotes optimal growth and development of young horses, and improves overall horse health. However, if the pasture is to serve as a feed source, other factors need to be considered including its potential nutritional value, carrying capacity or stocking rate, and grazing system design. These topics will be discussed in further detail later.
Other things to consider when planning your pasture include:
1. Topography and Geography of Your Pasture: Individual pastures should not include steeply sloping hillsides; soil types that vary significantly in suitabilities due to wetness, presence of rocks, inherent differences in fertility; or forage species that differ greatly in growth or yield characteristics. Also, paddocks should not be oriented up and down hillsides.
2. Environmental Concerns: Keep horses out of rivers, creeks, swamps, or wetlands. Poor pasture management can cause environmental damage. Wet areas should be avoided because they typically have a greater number of insects (biting flies and mosquitoes) and poisonous plants.
3. Pasture Size: Pastures should be large enough to handle your stocking rate and grazing system. For example, two one-acre-sized pastures should be sufficient for rotational grazing of two adult horses. Rectangular shaped pastures tend to better suit horses as they encourage exercise. Irregular shaped pastures should be avoided because they create a greater risk of injury. If the pasture is to be used for year round grazing, at least two acres per horse is needed; anything less should be considered an exercise area.
4. Sacrifice Paddock/Corral: Dry lots, or sacrifice paddocks, provide an opportunity to move horses off pastures when they are excessively wet or dry, and to avoid overgrazing. Dry lots can vary in size, however they should provide a minimum of 500 square feet per horse.
5. Gate Placement: Gates should be placed away from corners, closest to the direction of travel. Gates should be large enough to get equipment through (i.e. tractors, mowers etc…). Narrow gates should be avoided because they increase risk of injury when more than one horse passes through. Avoid placing gates in low areas where water may pool.
6. Water: Clean, fresh water is a requirement for horses. Place waterers in areas where filling and cleaning is convenient, and if possible, where multiple pastures have access.
7. Safety and Common Sense: Design safe pastures use appropriate fencing materials for horses (ie. barbed wire should be avoided). Pasture layout and design should be suitable for your horses and your farm.
Remember, management of horse pastures is an ongoing process that takes time, equipment, knowledge, diligence, and money. If managed well, pasture will be an economical source of high-quality forage, as well as a healthy place for horses to exercise. If managed poorly, pastures can become overgrazed, allowing weeds to take over. A poorly managed pasture provides little nutritional value and may contribute to horse health problems.
Watch the following video for information on selecting safe fencing for horse pastures.
More Pasture Management Resources from eXtension Horses:
- Equine Pasture Management Learning Lesson
- Managing Your Horse on a Small Acreage
- Weed Control in Horse Pastures
- Horse Pasture Management Publications
Krishona Martinson, Equine Extension Specialist, University of Minnesota