Pasture Types

Pastures are often an afterthought to horse owners.  If it’s green, fence it and put the horses on it.  But it’s not that simple because of several factors.  These include the ability to nourish the horses correctly, grow where you live, meet the maintenance requirements of the pasture, and stand up to the traffic and the grazing.

One of the most common mistakes I see on almost every farm (including mine) is seeding the pasture with just one type of grass.  Sometimes there is a mix of plants that offer a variety of grasses or a mixture of grasses and legumes.  Here are the two reasons why this is detrimental to horses.

The first reason is if the seeds used to plant the pasture are of a genetically modified species that provide more starch throughout the year, the horses will have too much starch (glucose, sugar) in the winter.  Increased sugar content throughout the year negates the natural ebb and flow the horse needs to prevent the creation of glucose from their protein (gluconeogenesis – see the nutrition section). 

The second reason is that proteins have a variety of amino acids (see the nutrition section), and not all ground plants have all the needed essential amino acids for the horse to maintain health.  In other words, a mono-grass pasture is probably deficient in some essential amino acids – the ones they can’t make.  An amino acid deficiency causes a poor hair coat, a hay belly, poor top line, unsoundness and illness.

Other thoughts about the type of pasture should include the origin of the horses.  Just eating the green grass doesn’t mean they are OK with it.  In the jet age, where we can eat here today and be on the other side of the planet tomorrow, we often get intestinal distress because the intestinal microbes are shocked.  I have frequently asked, how do you feed an Arabian, a Mongolian and a Fjord horse all living in Biloxi, Mississippi?  What are the long-term effects of the horse eating a diet so different from the genetics in their gut?

What if the horse needs special grass in the pasture – imported from the Middle East, but you live in Michigan, where winter will destroy it?  What if your horse is used to Michigan pasture but then moves to the sub-tropics (south Florida), where the grass is very different?  These need consideration and time taken for adjustments.

Finally, remember that a pasture is a living and breathing thing.  It requires understanding the nutritional needs for growth and maintaining it correctly.  The leading cause of pasture death is a simple misunderstanding of pasture care, overgrazing or both.

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