“Letting your horses graze for 14 hours makes them fat, and in a drought situation, that’s money down the drain”
Using pasture to feed horses reduces costs and labour and provides a rich source of nutrients for the horse. however, many horse owners have been forced to rely on hay this year, says Jennifer Stoby, a technician with the North West Alliance Conservation Initiative.
“At the end of the day, healthy pastures in good years will assist with drought management in dry years,” she told one of a series of workshops on managing horses in dry conditions held in northern Alberta.
Overstocking, continuous grazing and grazing at the wrong times are the basis of poor horse pastures. Excess weeds are also a nuisance, but are usually seen as symptoms of overgrazing and related problems. Stoby says overgrazing happens when plants are grazed down to the nub and are not allowed to recover.
“On average, we get about 450 to 500 millimetres of annual precipitation a year,” said Stoby. “Of course, we’ve received much less this year. According to research, with a decent pasture and with that 450 to 500 millimetres of rain, you can sustain about one horse per month per acre,” she said. “If you do the math, you need quite a few acres if you’re going to have 10 horses.”
Stoby recommended letting pastures grow until plants are about six to eight inches tall. Plants need time to recover before horses are able to graze them, she said.
“You don’t go out and mow your lawn the first time anything turns green. You let it grow up a bit and then you mow it,” she said, adding that horses will graze plants down to the root, so it’s best to let them grow a bit first to maintain the pasture.
Stoby said that horses will graze 14 to 16 hours a day if given the chance, but only need to graze about five to six hours a day to get their nutritional needs on a healthy pasture.
“Letting your horses graze for 14 hours makes them fat, and in a drought situation, that’s money down the drain,” she said.
WATCH FOR TOXIC PLANTS
During a drought period, horses can be more prone to eat toxic plants. “Because horses are selective grazers, they will usually avoid these plants. But if they’re pushed, and have nothing else to eat, they will eat some of these plants because they’re hungry,” Stoby said.
To reduce overgrazing, she recommends reducing time on pasture, decreasing herd sizes, and trying rotational grazing or supplemental feeding before letting them on pasture.
“Keep them locked up for about 12 hours of the day, feed them a little bit of hay before you let them out. When you let them out they’re going to be a little bit full, so they won’t eat quite as much off your pasture,” Stoby said.
Horses should be kept off a pasture when plants are grazed down to two to three inches tall and should also be kept off areas that are wet in the spring. “Horses will consistently cause damage to wet areas, so that grass will never be healthy,” said Stoby. “Leave that area, let that grass grow up and let them out when it dries. you’ll have more grass.”
Owners might want to keep their horses out of areas that are consistently wet each year to allow for a more productive pasture during drier years.
Stoby says otational grazing can extend the grazing season and allow more animals to be supported on the pasture. The natural grazing selectivity of horses is reduced when they are kept on smaller areas of pasture.
“Our horses will eat quackgrass and they hate quackgrass,” said Stoby. “When they’re given a small area, they will eat everything, and at the end of the day, the pasture is probably healthier for it.”
She said alsike clover and endophyte-infected tall fescue are poisonous to horses and should be removed from pastures.
Rotational grazing also allows for a better utilization of the pasture and forage area, reduces weeds, controls parasites and provides better manure distribution. Moving the horses every day allows for more frequent human and horse interaction, said Stoby.
Animals should not be allowed to drink directly from water sources, she said. horses should not be kept near water well areas, near septic pumpout areas or around small trees, shrubs or new grass plantings.