Many people think turnout is simply a matter of opening the barn door and letting their horse into a field. Actually, turnout is a science. Whether you keep your horse at home or at a boarding stable, pasture management is key to your horse's well-being.
The happiest and healthiest horse is usually the one that is outside as much as possible. Daylong turnout is the best environment for any equine and, if your situation allows, stalls that enable horses to go in and out at will are even better. Active horses aren't as prone to stiffness, and turnout has been shown to help work the soreness out of stiff limbs and reduce swelling in horses that stock up.
Select Good Ground and Quality Fencing
Dr. Mark Baus of Fairfield Equine Associates, Newtown, Conn., stresses that the quality of turnout also is very important. "Use good ground for paddock areas and pastures where the ground is dry and not boggy," he maintains. If there are trees in the pasture, they should be fenced off with good quality material so the horses won't chew them. Fencing should be sturdy and appropriate for horses, as well.
Carefully Choose Turnout Mates
Be cautious when turning horses out in groups, says Dr. Baus. Give pasture mates plenty of time to socialize across a fence before putting them in the same paddock or field. When in doubt, individual turnout is safest.
Provide Ample Space
In terms of space, Dr. Baus recommends a minimum of one-half to one acre per horse.
If you are planning fencing, the ideal situation allows for rotation of pastures to allow forage to re-grow between grazing. Give horses a week in each pasture. This allows time for re-growth and limits damage to plants.
You will notice that if you put one or two horses out for a period of time in a one- to two-acre field, that they will eat certain sections down to the ground and leave other, seemingly inviting patches of grass, untouched. There are several reasons for that. Horses will not graze in areas where there is manure or forage that they don't like, even if it looks good to you.
Even delicious plants left to grow too long and go to seed may remain uneaten, disputing the myth that horses are like lawnmowers. They're really quite picky. It's a good idea, therefore, to mow the pasture to deadhead the overgrown areas. Be sure to bag or rake and discard the clippings away from the pasture. Fresh-mowed clippings can cause intestinal distress if your horses eat them.
Clean Up Manure
Part of your pasture management strategy must include manure cleanup, at least weekly. This also is important to keep parasites at bay. "Since horses are grazers, manure left on the ground is bound to create intestinal problems for them," warns Dr. Baus. For this reason, a regular de-worming program also is a necessity.
If you rotate pastures, another alternative is to drag or spread the manure once the horses have been moved off the field. This allows the soil to absorb the nutrients and naturally fertilizes your grazing areas.
Clean Up Hay
If you put hay on the ground, Dr. Baus says it's important to clean up those remnants as well. "Old, uneaten material creates mold," he says, another health hazard to your horse.
Reseeding is part of any pasture management program. Horses are hard on grass, so depending on your climate you'll want to choose the hardiest plants possible when you reseed. There are two types of perennial grasses, those that do well in warm weather climates above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, such as Bahia grass and Bermuda grass, and those that thrive in cooler temperatures, between 68 and 72 F. These grasses will enjoy the most growth during the spring and fall, and they include Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, orchard grass, wheat grass, timothy and fall fescue.
Select Hardy Plants
If you don't have the ability to rotate pastures, look for plants that are tougher, like Kentucky bluegrass and certain types of clover. Red clover germinates easily and quickly when broadcasted on the surface of the ground. Kentucky bluegrass can take up to 3 weeks before growth is seen.
Climate also may affect your pasture and, depending on the weather in a given season, some plants will survive better than others. For instance, Kentucky bluegrass and white clover are both sensitive to dry conditions, so if you have a summer drought, they may not do well. However, tall fescue tolerates both frequent grazing and dry conditions. Timothy and smooth brome grass, favorite forages in the Northeast, are not good choices for pastures subject to heavy grazing but do well if given recovery periods.
Legumes such as white clover make up part of any pasture mix because they are fairly hardy and stand up well to grazing. Red clover, found in many pastures, occasionally can be infected by black spot, which can cause sensitive horses to salivate excessively. Alfalfa, found in many pasture mixes, is not terribly hardy and is recommended only for horses that need an extra boost of energy, so you may not want your equine gorging on it. Most horses prefer a pasture of mixed vegetation, so offer variety if you're planning to seed.
Test Your Soil
To keep your pastures in tip-top shape it's important to know what's in your ground. Have your soil tested through your local seed supplier or county extension bureau to determine what, if any, nutrients are lacking. Fertilizing pasture is difficult at best because most products are not safe for horses, so this is something that should be discussed in detail with both your veterinarian and seed supplier.
Lime Your Pastures
You may find it necessary, however, to lime your fields to improve soil acidity – a procedure that generally is done in the spring, during early growth. Horses should be kept off pastures that are limed until after several rainfalls to be sure that the lime has been absorbed into the ground. Retesting the soil will tell you how often to repeat this process.