We all dream about having farms with rolling hills and lush pastures. We don’t want to panic at the horse taking a gallop around the field because he’ll tear up the 10 blades of grass the preside there. We want to smile at the hay bill during the warm season. However, for many businesses and hobby farms, this dreamer’s amount of land may not be possible.
On average, it takes 2-3 acres per horse to keep sustainable pasture. If we plan on bringing horses in off the field for half the day, we might say 1.5-2.5 acres/horse. Theoretically, that puts a 15 horse boarding farm at 30- 45 acres of pasture. Wouldn’t that be nice! For most businesses though, this becomes too expensive to rent/purchase/maintain, and we often see 15 horse operations on 6-15 acres. In this situation, the pastures are often exhausted, and people end up with mud, parasite, and nutritional problems.
Here are some tips & ideas to help optimize horse management practice on limited pasture.
Turning out in a paddock modified to promote moving horses and rested sections allows managers to get the most out of their space. With a TST (Track System Turnout), paddock space is shaped to drive horses to obligated rest corners for hay, feed, water, and shelter. In between the rest corners, narrower paths connect to create a track. This paddock design encourages horses to walk/forage from rest corner to rest corner.
This design also leaves sections of paddock in the middle of the track. These areas can be rested to allow grass to grow as needed. This separation enables managers to preserve it for the hard keepers.
The best maintenance practice when dealing with more horses than acres is to pick the paddocks. Simple, yet effective, removing manure helps to prevent parasite infestation, muddy paddocks, fly problems, and skin fungus. So please, please, please- Pick out the paddocks.
Particularly important for horses who live in a paddock 24/7, sheds allow horses off the muddy ground. If hay can be fed under cover in inclement weather, not only do we preserve good ground, we also protect horse’s feet and eliminate hay waste.
Let’s say we have 15 horses and 8 acres of pasture. By sacrificing the quality of an acre, we can preserve the other 7. During grass season, this may mean allowing horses on the 7 acres for only 6-8 hours per day, and putting them in the 1 acre for the other amount of turnout time. In the winter/mud time, the 1 acre can be dedicated to poor weather turnout. While the 1 acre will be pretty exhausted, the horses and 7 acres will be content and doing well.
Concerning nutrition, forage is king. With healthy amounts of grass pasture, forage is cheap and sufficient. Without it, a harder keeping sport horse could very well need 25 + lbs of hay everyday. The key being, the hay needs to be of good quality. 20 lbs of mature, stemmy, seedy/leafless hay will not measure up to a day of summer grass, so we need to consider that without grazing, horses need sufficient amounts of quality hay to make up their daily nutrient requirements (Energy, Vitamins, Minerals, Protein).
A common issue with exhausted turnout space is loose sediment. This means sand, gravel dust, loose dirt, dried manure, etc. When ingested, the sediment settles to the lower nooks and crannies of the digestive tract. This not only presents a colic risk, but also limits effective digestion. For example, if sediment rests on the bottom half (gravity) of sections in the small intestine, the digestive enzymes that wait in that surface area are ineffective until the sand is removed. So the expensive supplements that said horse eats are ineffective.
To combat this, maintaining horses on Sand Clear, or a like product, will help to keep the GI Tract clear of sediment. These products are made up primarily of psyllium crumbles that help to scoop the sediment from the gut. A typical dose would be feeding the crumbles through with meals for a week out of every month. This practice alleviates colic risk and optimizes digestive efficiency.
Last but most certainly not least, horses that do not have grazing ability often go periods without foraging. While hay is perfectly suitable for the equine GI tract, often times horses finish night hay long before breakfast. Without forage, stomach acid builds up, as do dry spots in the intestine. This puts horses at risk for gastric ulcers as well as discomfort through the entire tract.
Fortunately, powderized slippery elm bark is readily and inexpensively available. This botanical is literally the inner bark of the slippery elm tree. It is often used in humans as a home remedy for GI discomfort, and what do you know, it works on horses! The elm bark lines the alimentary tract to lubricate ulcers and dry spots, relieving pain and inflammation. Many horses owners, including myself, have also found it to help manage parasites. I guess it is fairly difficult to bite down and feed off a slimy host! For horses who have limited foraging time, this makes for a much more comfortable gut!