Introducing Horses to Growing Spring Pastures

Introducing Horses to Growing Spring Pastures

Introduce horses to spring pasture slowly to avoid digestive upset.

Photo: Thinkstock

The long, harsh winter is gradually changing into spring! Here are a few things to consider before turning your horses out on lush growing pastures.

Changes in Pasture Growth

During the winter months and times of inclement weather, domestic horses are often confined in areas where they cannot access natural forage on a day to day basis. Many owners that have pastures restrict the horse's access to the pasture in winter to protect the pasture from the damage a horse can inflict. Horses are destructive on wet pastures often ripping the forage by the roots with their teeth, or causing extensive damage to the sod by churning and forming rivets with their hoofs.

But along with the warmer temperatures comes changes to the pasture's condition, when grass turns to a greener appearance and regains nutritional value for the grazing horse. Early in spring, grasses are striving to grow and must have two to three weeks to develop a length of stem that will assist growth in the following growing season. Horses should not graze on these early plants until the grass is at least four to six inches in height.

Benefits of Pastures

Problems can occur with horses' acclimation to forage when spring arrives and they're introduced to a diet of green grasses:

  • Horses are grazing/browsing animals and seek to obtain the nutrients and fiber they need need by eating natural pasture forage.
  • A healthy, well-maintained pasture might provide all the necessary forage a horse needs in its diet.
  • The challenge for owners is controlling the amount of green grass consumption when returning the horse to grazing.
  • When the horse’s metabolism is not accustomed to the lush forage dramatic digestive system issues can occur.

Digestive System

The horse’s digestive system does not adjust to changes rapidly or easily. Horses fed erratically in the amount and/or type of feed tend to develop problems that can lead to colic or founder.

For instance, a horse not use to eating apples can develop colic if they consume a bag of apples. Innocent people might think they are giving the horse a treat when they feed them large amounts of carrots or apples, or throw the fresh lawn clippings over the fence for the horse to chomp on; however, they actually they could be causing a harmful chain reaction.

Introduce Pasture Slowly

One method of gradually introducing the horse to grass is to begin with small controlled periods of grazing of 15 minutes per day for a few days. Then, increase the his time on pasture an additional 10 minutes each day until the horse has adjusted to a three or four hour period of grazing time.

Then, maintain this four-hour grazing period for a two-week period before giving the horse full turnout on the pasture. This will help enable the horse’s digestive system to handle the fresh grass. Remember that even with careful management of your horse's forage consumption, digestive upset can occur.

Continue Pasture Management

  • Throughout the growing season, manage pasture growth by allowing grasses to reach at least a six inch height before allowing grazing.
  • Dividing pastures allows for rotational grazing and allows each pasture able to have a rest period.
  • Remove horses from pastures when grass height is four inches or lower and move them to a new pasture.
  • Grass needs approximately 21 days to regain a height of six to eight inches.
  • Since horses grass sporadically often parts of the pasture may be have higher grass heights. Mowing consistently during the growing season will assist in maintaining a desirable grass height and discourage weed growth and reproduction.
  • Do not mow below six inches.

Reprinted with permission from the Pennsylvania State University Extension

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