Grazing for Horses & other Equines

by Garry Holter

It occurred to me when I was asked to write this short article that, whilst most people have a general idea of how to look after their horse, when it comes to what horses, ponies, donkeys & mules actually eat and how to look after the vegetation that they live on, it is a different story. Indeed many horsecare books deal with the handling of the animal, tacking up and riding etc in great detail, but the subject of grazing and what is needed to keep your horse in optimum health (from the inside out) gets at best a couple of pages of non-committal bits and bobs.

Is your Grazing Right for Horses?

Choices, choices - and it's all healthy

!healthy grazing for horses

For many landowners or horse owners, the methods and techniques they need to maintain healthy fields and consequently forage seem to be of an almost mystical stature or come from Agricultural College with its chemical and monoculture, or industrial, ethos.

The Agricultural College route can mean time spent sitting in a classroom with young and aspiring farmers and for someone who often works up to 40 hours a week elsewhere that is untenable. Agricultural College is fine if you are intending to take over the family farm and have time to sit in a classroom but pretty much useless for a few hectares and a couple of ponies. And pretty much useless if you want to keep your horses really healthy.

The other problem with the Agricultural College route is that it is “lazy” relying upon chemicals to provide and to hell with the consequences, although this is slowly changing. Those who prescribe to the Agricultural College means of land management will often argue they do not have time to waste doing things 'the old-fashioned way', whatever that may mean, or “I simply have too many animals to care for so I’m going to take the easiest route to providing forage”. Well please feel free to carry on arguing that case because at some point in the future things will go wrong, and I wonder if those chemicals are going to bale you out of that situation. A more natural system will look after itself to a significant degree and without all the fuss of machines and other impediments.

Simply doing something because someone has stood up and said do this or do that, can lead you in to a whole heap of trouble if you don’t understand the consequences of your actions!

Laminitis (founder) & other grazing-related illnesses

As horse owners you are more than aware of Laminitis and other grazing-related conditions. Yet by simple adjustments to how you graze your horses and to what they actually eat, you can prevent such issues raising their ugly heads. This is achieved by producing good quality pastures - but good quality means a group of fields in as balanced a state and as complete with nutrients of all kinds as is possible - not so energy-rich as to create problems. In this way your horses can extract what they need when they need it without you having to (over) feed one or more nutrients that may (or may not) be missing from their diet.

Most people incorrectly assume that grazing animals eat grass and that’s the end of it - a very damaging theory on several fronts. Even zebra, wildebeest and other African savannah grazers eat more than grass; but just think, if grass is all you provide what else are they going to eat?

The Daily Telegraph in September 2005 ran a very short piece on zoo or wildlife-park kept Zebra (which are equines of course) suffering health issues from eating sugar-rich European agricultural grasses as opposed to the fibre-rich vegetation (note not just grasses) of Africa. When given the choice between the sweet Euro stuff and the coarse fibrous material of Africa, the Zebra actively chose the tough stuff!!!! And so would your horse given the chance - and the horse would still be able to compete at most levels if that is what you wanted.

Vitamin / Mineral Supplements & Balancers

A grass-only diet is just not healthy even if supplemented with various licks, powders and even “hard feeds”. If you are given ice cream every day without a choice you will eat ice cream and your health will suffer as a result, the same can be applied to your animals - just substitute grass for ice cream. In reality grazing animals should eat far more than grass or rather have the ability to choose what they want to eat from a broad variety of vegetation including trees & shrubs for example. A limited choice will not provide all the nutrients needed for good health, this is true for us as well as our horses.

Many people also have the view that the vegetation in the field grows with the minimal amount of input from us but must be kept topped, fertilised if necessary and weed-free. By doing this you believe the animals get what they need, and you sit contentedly in front of the fire thinking you are doing the right thing by your horse - oh how wrong you are! After all, you believe fields look after themselves, they don’t get sick, they will always provide everything a grazing animal needs. Well, left to its own devices a field will rapidly become scrub, full of thistles and brambles, not exactly ideal grazing really, it can become a field of nightmares not dreams. And chemicals really have no place in fields where the delicate balance in a herbivore's gut can be so disrupted as to cause goodness knows what (which it will!).

In fact some of the things we do to grazing are in detail counter-productive. Our activities can actually reduce or prevent the uptake of materials needed for good animal health, often to such an extent we have to reinforce the animal’s diet with supplements pills and potions because the vet has diagnosed a shortage of this or that.

Oh! At this point I had better add I am not saying supplements and their ilk have no place in animal care, they do. What I am saying is many of us have come to rely totally upon such materials to replace nutrients, vitamins and other essentials which should be available in a natural form from the vegetation in their fields.

Competition horses, like all athletes, need a nutritional boost BUT they also need a healthy diet and that does not come from a bucket of processed feedstuffs. Ask an Olympic champion (any discipline) if they ate hamburgers or junk (processed) food and still became a champion and they would not stop laughing, unless they were a superheavyweight weightlifter - and actually, no, they don’t live on junk food either; in fact their diets are stricter than any other athlete's.

Your fields should and can provide all the stuff in those bags of processed supplements and in a form that Mother Nature actually meant for your animal to eat. It has taken over 100 Million years minimum for the horse and anything else to evolve to eat and digest vegetation, to get to where they are now. Such animals are not really able or meant to digest processed pelleted food and whilst it may have all the nutrients supposedly needed they may also be causing problems in the gastric action of the animal, leading to who knows what. The reasons why is to do with the presence or lack of bacteria and microfauna and flora in the gut able to deal with the material. Like many things we do in this modern age, feeding this way is for OUR convenience or erroneous belief, which isn’t fair on our animals on so many different levels.

Also such feeds can be loaded with the wrong sugars, and / or too much salt (they act as a preservative) which are in human terms a no-no. The same is true for your equines and matters such as insulin resistance, high blood pressure etc are as much part of animal health as they are for human health. It also may explain why your animals will not eat long stringy grasses and vegetation, it is not sweet (but it is very healthy) so by giving them sweet stuff you encourage picky feeding, and the supposed need to top fields to keep the grass short. Short grass is very sweet, yet almost everyone I meet says it is all their horse will eat, because it is - you have conditioned it to do just that by feeding sweet and sugar-rich foods from a bucket!

Fields are living entities in their own right

A typical ditch - too shallow & narrow

a typical field drainage ditch

It is also important to realize that your fields are a living entity (yes really, you would be surprised by the numbers of horse-owners who think because it cannot run it cannot be alive!) with far more going on than you might first think. There are battles going on for a variety of resources (light, water, space etc) with winners and losers; invaders come and go, and there are predators eating the vegetation or seeds or growing tips that range in size from our domestic animals down to microscopic creatures that eat the plants from within. The plants are not defenceless however, look at the thorns on a rose or the acidic sap of the buttercup.

Your fields are home to a variety of animals of all sizes that probably do not have any direct impact on the field but gain from other organisms drawn to them. These in turn attract other organisms and some of these may have beneficial effects for your animals. But none of this can happen if things are out of balance or so polluted as to be dangerous for a vast proportion of those creatures. If it's dangerous for them how long before it is dangerous for your animals or even you?

If you think herbicides are a good idea consider this. To spray large areas or even spot spray today, you need to wear a respiratory filter, gloves, disposable overalls, and washable wellingtons. And this is supposed to happen even if you are sitting in the air conditioned luxury of the modern tractor. If this stuff is so safe why do the Health and Safety people demand so much protection for the user?

Much of what happens in pasture or any plant-orientated system occurs at such a slow rate (to us) or over a very long period of time that we simply fail to notice any changes - sometimes with expensive consequences for either the system or us or of course both.

Think about how ragwort or some other plant can seem to suddenly take over a field and what it will cost you to eradicate it. Well not if you follow my advice but I hope you get the idea.

Mother Nature through evolutionary time has produced a system of interactions and counterbalances within all ecosystems, such as grassland, that in turn have produced as a result a balanced energy flow for the organisms that live there. (That comment makes it sound as if the whole process was designed, but of course in reality it has evolved and will continue to change as time passes). This energy flow decreases the further up the food chain as differing organisms take their share of that energy, I’ll expand on this in a moment.

Your grazers are fairly low down in the food-chain but need to extract energy from a difficult source, the plants, (a counterbalance). We in our infinite wisdom (often encouraged by slick advertising or threats of cataclysmic failure), deem this energy flow as unsuitable or lacking enough goodness or even energy (!) for as many reasons as there are blades of grass in a paddock. If that’s not true why do we head to the local feed merchant and buy the stuff off the shelves?

Here’s yet one more thing to think about, all those blades of grass in your fields are NOT individual plants but elements or clones, (oh dear that’s going to bring images of evil scientists to some) of ONE plant. Clone in this sense simply means each element (leaf blade) shares the same genetic makeup as the parent plant - it is a natural thing, not something produced by an evil scientist in a laboratory!

In very old fields that plant may cover half or even three quarters of the field and be a thousand years old. Now given that your fields may have only a few albeit very large plants growing in them, what would happen if the grass in your fields and everybody elses fields was to die off, what would you feed your animals on then? Hay might be (will be) in very short supply (after all everyone else would be after it) and horses need to have a full gut (trickle feeders) continually to prevent any number of gastric problems for example.

Another way to examine all this is to look at the problems such a plant disease might cause for those people who are determined to wipe out every non-grass plant in their fields. Well, these people are playing with fire as they could finish up with nothing but soil if a grass killing virus was to spring up. Don’t think that couldn’t happen - many strange viruses have a habit of appearing out of nowhere, affecting all sorts of different organisms (Bird Flu during 2005/6 for example). And grass is as much a living organism as you or I, and funnily enough cultivated forms (the type interfered with by man) are not as disease-resistant as wild types - something else to think about.

Other factors affecting grazing

Of course it is not all about the vegetation, there are many abiotic factors which are just as problematic and I will deal with some of these in the next chapters of my book [work in progress!]. The biggest fly in the ointment as far as you the landowner / animal carer is concerned is the fact that all the following can and do interact not only with each other but the biotic aspect of the grazing as well. (Abiotic means the non-biological - weather, altitude, aspect; biotic the biological, your horse the vegetation etc; beyond that I hope I need go no further at this point.)

To give you an example of these interactions (and only taking a very very few) let’s examine an “unprotected” gateway into a field. It is subject to a very wet Autumn and Winter and has too many horses in the field which pass through it. The result is a mud bath in the gateway and elsewhere, with horses standing hock (yes I have seen this) deep in mud, getting mud fever, you having to call out the vet, a reduction in available grazing - need I go on?

With careful planning, a bit of protection and sensible management most, if not all of that, could have been avoided. The field might have been usable for longer or even capable of supporting another horse or two depending upon the size of the field, and all through a bit of thought.

Abiotic factors including soil conditions, temperature and a multitude of other similar aspects all play a role in maintaining a healthy pasture. They must be considered in the planning stage, chalk soils will drain fast, and sandy soils will drain even faster. Clay soils stay colder for longer but have a greater nutrient content, but given all this, by careful sowing of specific grassland species, a consistent pasture can be provided almost year around in any soil type at any altitude or aspect. Not only this, but the same pasture should, with seasonal variation, provide the same nutrients over the year either as direct grazing or as hay/haylage.

This is important as your animal’s gut fauna and flora are adapted to a specific type of vegetation, rapid or overnight changes can play havoc with these organisms that will in turn play havoc with your animal (think about your trip to India and what happened to your digestive actions!) Just think, with careful planning you could feed your own hay or haylage from your own fields - because it is exactly the same as the grazing it will not cause any digestive challenges for your horses.

Of course you can argue that hay from an outside source will provide nutrients vitamins or other metabolic materials possibly unavailable from your own fields. I will argue to the contrary and suggest that with care and full use of deep-rooted herbs this should be untrue in that your horse will receive all the nutrients it needs from your own pasture, be it as grazing or as hay / haylage.

But I have to rent grazing for my horse

I do realise there are many of you who simply do not have enough land or even have to rent land to graze your animals or rely upon liveries for grazing. Even so, by careful adaptation of some techniques or methods it should be possible to do better for your animals. And please note this is all done for your animals, not you; they after all have very little say in what you provide them with, and they just have to take what they are given.

I have a caveat to being able to help you however, I, like a doctor, cannot diagnose a problem based on your description of the dilemma over E-mail or the telephone. So calling and asking me to sort out a problem via that medium will only get you the vaguest of answers, after all I could be wrong and that will open another can of worms. I need to see for myself what is happening as the problem may have a cause so totally removed from what you think it might be or so obvious as to be completely overlooked, and that is very easy to do when you see it everyday. All this and perhaps it is so cheap to remedy as to be laughable. Although this often isn’t the case, it does happen.

The above remains the intellectual property of the Author (Garry Holter) and may not be copied in any way. The Author may be contacted by Email on or by telephone 01273 515474 for advice help and a shoulder to cry on when all you have is mud. Also with a bit of luck a whole book will be available very soon which should help deal with some of the more obvious problems - Garry's book (CD format) is now available in our online shop

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