Pasture turnout provides horses with access to important nutrients, allows for exercise, and supports their natural eating behavior as a grazing animal. As we transition to spring, pastures are especially tasty and horses will often gobble them down. The first grass growth of the season is high in energy and can provide most of the calories needed for horses at maintenance. However, an abrupt change in forage nutrient content (such as energy) requires special feeding management.
Reintroduce your horse to pasture gradually
Sudden feed changes can upset a horse’s digestive system. Switching grains, hay types or transitioning from hay to pasture upsets the microbial population in the horse’s hindgut, which can cause colic or diarrhea. Spring grass is high in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), which includes sugars and fructans. Overeating NSC can induce laminitis or founder in horses, especially those with metabolic issues like Equine Metabolic Syndrome or Insulin Resistance.
By following a few simple steps, you can safely re-introduce your horse to lush spring pastures. Start gradually with short, 15-minute grazing periods. Increase turnout by 15 minutes each day until unlimited grazing access is achieved. During the transition period, continue feeding the diet your horse is used to eating to help prevent digestive upset. Easy keepers or horses with pre-disposition to metabolic disorders may benefit from grazing muzzles and/or alternating turnout on a dry lot. Always continue to monitor horses’ body condition.
Pay attention to the weather
Overcast days or overnight turnouts from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. are ideal for horse comfort. Try to avoid turning out on cool nights followed by sunny days. Cold frosty nights cause sugars to accumulate in the grass making it riskier for laminitis prone horses.
Maintain your grazing pasture
Regular maintenance is critical to maximizing the benefits of pasture. Test your soil to see if your pastures need any nutrients, repair fences, check available water sources and reseed sparse areas. Then develop a plan to avoid overuse. Allow the grass to be at least six to eight inches high before turning horses out and create a rotation plan that gives pastures time to rest and regrow.
Horses need to eat the equivalent of at least 1%, preferably 1.5% of their body weight in forage daily for digestive health. Understanding land requirements needed to provide necessary forage amounts is important.
One horse can be maintained on:
- ½ acre pasture, if turnout is less than 3 hours per day
- 1 acre pasture, if turnout is 3 – 8 hours per day
- 1 ½ acre pasture, if turnout is 8 – 12 hours per day
- More than 2 acres, turnout can be unlimited
Relying on pastures for feed saves horse owners time and money. Well-cared for pastures can reduce hay costs by as much as $60 - $100 each month. It also reduces bedding costs from less stall time and cuts down on chore time.
However, keeping more than one horse on the same amount of land referenced above, means that supplemental hay and feed will likely be needed to provide each horse with the nutrition they require.
What else does your horse need?
While pasture can provide much of the needed energy (calories) for maintenance, horses may still require supplemental protein, vitamins and minerals. These requirements vary depending on age, physiological status, activity level, and breed. There are many supplement options available to supply these key nutrients based on individual horse requirements and the quality and quantity of pasture and/or hay being fed.
Consider Kent Nutrition Group’s protein, vitamin and mineral supplements that are fed at very low feeding rates. These products include Blue Seal Min-A-Vite Lite, Sunshine Plus, Kent Topline 12, or Kent Topline 32. If forage quality or quantity is a concern, consider supplementing with forage alternatives such as Kent Nutrition Group’s Dynasty Forage, Ecube and Hay Stretcher. Please note that if your horse needs more energy or calories than your pasture or hay can provide, feed an appropriate grain ration.