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Overgrazing in horse pastures can diminish forages and give weeds a competitive toehold. (Photo by Dirk Phillipp.)

The idea of owning horses is an appealing one to many Americans, whether they grow up in a rural or urban setting. An important part of making that dream a reality is understanding the demands of owning such an animal.

Dirk Philipp, Associate Professor of Animal Science for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said that many families have relatively grazing land to support a horse.

“The main concern for small properties—anywhere from two to 10 acres, for most suburban properties—is providing quality grazing and exercise land,” Philipp said. “It’s important to realize that more work is required to keep small horse grazing pastures in good shape.”

Buying hay from a reputable source is usually a good option, so the nutritional value of the grass isn’t necessarily a concern. Stabling the animal at a nearby facility is also a more practical option for many.

Philipp offers a few tips for keeping your horse—and yourself—happy:

  • Select a dependable perennial forage. Novel endophyte tall fescue or bermudagrass are great choices.

  • Take your time establishing those forages. Invest your time in proper ground preparation, liming and checking the soil’s fertility.

  • Try to keep horses stocked rotationally, and give them at least a couple of paddocks to choose from.

  • Keep grazing paddocks strictly separated from areas designated for making hay.

Philipp also has some suggestions on managing grazing paddocks.

“Keep an eye out for changing plant species composition,” he said. “Horses graze very close to the ground. Over time, that leaves overgrazed paddocks with weed plants in it.”

Landowners can reset the pasture periodically by checking the soil fertility status, and aerating the soil with a harrow in fall for reseeding, or before liming.

“Your most important tool is a mower,” Philipp said. “This allows you to cut the canopy to a standard height after the very uneven grazing by the horse; it will also help with weed control, as most weeds are way more sensitive to frequent clipping than a perennial grass cover.”

If a landowner has bermudagrass, the canopy can be mowed at 4 inches and lower, which helps to push the paddocks towards a dense grass sward with less weeds.

“Be on the lookout for weeds,” Philipp said. “Some are poisonous to horses under certain circumstances, including poison hemlock, groundsel and Johnsongrass when it’s stressed.”

Philipp recommends rotating horses from one grazing paddock to another et least every six weeks, to provide the former paddock with a resting period. He also advises against cutting hay from your grazing paddocks, as this may result in continuous exposure of soil-borne pathogens that may be carried over in the hay.

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