Penn State
ForagesPeopleTopicsResourcesSelection ToolContact Info

Topics : Pastures : Pasture and Hay for Horses

Pasture and Hay for Horses

Download the Pasture and Hay for Horses document in Adobe PDF format.

Additional pasture information via the Forage Information System (FIS)

Pasture for Horses

High-quality, properly-fenced pasture represents one of the best and least expensive sources of summer feed for a horse. In addition, a well kept pasture can provide the most natural and healthy environment for exercise and rest.

Productive, well-managed pastures can provide most of the feed requirements of horses at the lowest cost. In fact, good pasture alone is sufficient to meet all of the nutritional requirements for many classes of horses. Yet, poorly-managed pastures supply little or no feed, and are frequently the source of many internal parasites.

General guidelines for the pasture needs (if the pasture is to serve as a feed source) for horses which have a mature weight of 1000 to 1200 lbs. are:

  • Mare and foal 1.75 to 2 acres
  • Yearlings 1.5 to 2 acre
  • Weanlings 0.5 to 1 acre

When acreage is very limited (less than one acre per horse), exercise may be the main use of the pasture. Pasture for this purpose will not supply more than a minimum amount of feed. However, with limited pasture pasture acreage, rotational grazing systems are the most effective method to maximize forage production and consumption. In this system, a group of compatible horses can graze a paddock (area of divided pasture) for approximately 3 to 6 days and then be moved (rotated) to a fresh paddock. Well limed and fertilized Kentucky bluegrass should be the main grass for this type of area. Kentucky bluegrass withstands close and continuous grazing better than most other grasses and when well established and properly fertilized, it produces a reasonably dense and attractive sod.

Pasture Improvement

If you already have good stands of desirable grass and legume species, proper soil fertility combined with good management will be sufficient to assure good horse pasture. Most permanent bluegrass pastures produce less than 2000 pounds of dry matter per acre per year which is far below their potential. Yields on many pastures can be doubled simply by applying lime and fertilizer. Liming and topdressing Kentucky bluegrass pastures with phosphate, potash and nitrogen costs much less and is less work than complete pasture renovation. Furthermore, it is often possible to have these materials custom applied at a relatively low cost.

Apply lime and fertilizer according to soil test results and recommendations. A soil test will determine the pH (acidity) and nutrient level of your soil. Soil testing kits and information on how to take samples are available through your local extension agricultural agent. The response is often slow when you apply lime and fertilizer on the surface of established pastures. It may take 1 to 3 years, depending largely on the lime needs and species present in the pasture, before your pasture sod is thick and productive again.

If you don't have a good stand of desirable species, you may want to renovate the pasture by destroying the existing plants and planting productive mixtures. This procedure usually results in the highest yield increase per acre, but will also be relatively expensive to complete. If you plan to renovate an old pasture you should consider the following points:

  1. Soil test for lime and fertilizer requirements. This is the only sure way of knowing how much lime and fertilizer are needed.
  2. Apply required lime several months before the actual seeding. Disking or plowing will help to mix the lime evenly throughout the soil.
  3. Select a seed mixture that complements the pasture drainage characteristics.
  4. Destroy or suppress the old pasture by plowing or use of herbicides.
  5. Use the appropriate method of seeding based on extent of tillage.
  6. Protect the seeded area until the new plants are well established. Where recommended mixtures are seeded without a companion crop and weeds are controlled, new seedings can become established in a single year.

In heavy traffic areas, along fences and around gates and water troughs, tall fescue may be used. While it is generally considered less palatable than bluegrass, tall fescue produces one of the toughest and heavy traffic sods of any adapted grass. Older stands of fescue often are infested with an endophyte (within the plant) fungus. Toxins associated with this fungus can cause lowered reproductive rates, abortion, agalactia (lack of milk) and prolonged gestation with mares. Use endophyte-free tall fescue seed whenever establishing new fescue stands for horses. Brood mares should be removed from pastures containing endophyte infested tall fescue at least 90 days prior to foaling.

Pasture Management

Whether you improve your pastures by the use of lime and fertilizer or by reseeding, sound management is essential to keep the desired species persistent and productive.

Avoid over or under grazing. Horses are notorious spot grazers. They will seriously damage desired species in some areas unless they are moved into new pastures frequently. Therefore, some form of rotational grazing is desirable. The correct acreage per horse changes with the season as well as with other factors. However, a good rule is to provide at least one acre of good quality pasture per horse. Then set up 5 or 6 paddocks, letting the horses graze first in one area for about one week and then change to another. This system helps to keep the legumes and grasses growing better and increases the feed available per acre. In addition, by rotating the horses from pasture to pasture you can break the life cycle of some parasites.

Clip pastures regularly during the growing season. Clipping at a height of 2 to 3 inches after horses are moved to a new paddock helps to control weeds, prevent grasses from heading and in general keeps the pasture in a more desirable condition.

Drag pastures with a chain link harrow at least once per year. Dragging helps to spread manure droppings which reduces the parasite populations by exposing them to air and sunlight. Dragging also helps to smooth over areas dug up by horses' hoofs on wet soil.

Apply fertilizer as needed. Improved horse pastures must be fertilized annually if legumes and grasses are to persist and remain productive. The fertilizer to use depends on the pasture species present. A complete soil test every 2 or 3 years is your best guide.