Before domestication of horses, grass was the main source of fibre in their diet. Horses in the free-living environment will graze between 10 to 17 hours, predominantly in the day with periods of grazing at night. Horses are selective grazers so will not evenly graze the pasture. Domestication has lead to reduced time out at pasture and smaller amounts of land available to owners. Owners use different ways to graze depending on the horse and its health, the land available and animals available for cross-species grazing.
Common Grazing Systems
Strip grazing is beneficial for weight management of horses or ponies, acclimatising to new grasses/lush summer grass and to protect your pasture. The fields areas are the recovering area, grazing area and the rested area. The grazing area will begin at one end and work its way up to the top of the pasture gradually. Once the fence moves up the pasture to make more grass available, the fence line behind the grazing area should also move forward to allow the area previously grazed to recover. Ensure your horses has access to a fresh, clean water supply at all times. Once the grass has been grazed down to 4 inches it is recommended the boundary can be moved up the paddock by one meter. This will reduce the likelihood of overgrazing. Be sure to move the second boundary so the grazed area is rested.
If you have multiple horses be sure the strip leaves enough room for horses to pass one another with space to avoid putting stress on the dynamics of the herd. The areas that are resting and recovering can be harrowed, seeded and topped as required to maintain the paddock.
The benefits of strip grazing are that the amount of grass the horse has access to can be restricted. There will be sections of the paddock can be managed and rested to avoid overgrazing. The fresh grass is gradually introduced to the horses diet to allow their digestive system to become habituated. The use of two fence lines helps to minimise selective grazing resulting in a more evenly grazed field.
The disadvantages of strip grazing is the requirement for additional electric fencing equipment. This results in more labour as the fence will need to be moved when the grass has been eaten. Water bucket may also need to be moved or buckets added. Horses have a smaller section which can sometimes lead to pressure on the hierarchy if there are multiple horses on one section.
Rotational grazing is used to move horses between multiple paddocks to avoid overgrazing and allow each pasture to be managed, rested and recover before horses are moved back onto the paddock. Usually horses moved to a new paddock every week as the pasture will regrow after 7 days.
To know which field to start grazing on first to start the process look for grass that has at least six to eight inches long and then rotate the horses once they have grazed around half the pasture and move onto the next pasture. For one week grazing, the pasture should then have 3 weeks rest in spring, to allow for the regrowth. However, if the rotation is occurring in winter it is important to not overgraze and allow longer rest periods as the grass will not grow a quickly as the spring and summer. To slow the grazing period you can add hay piles around the paddocks. Some paddocks may contain different grasses or be richer than the previous pasture so it is important to acclimatise the horses to each paddock.
The benefits of rotational grazing allows rest and regrowth but also helps avoid poached fields and more intense management as multiple fields can be used whilst one is recovering.
More fields means more fencing and water supplies. Each field will need to be monitored to be able to see which stage it is at and when it is ready to have horses back onto the pasture. It is more costly as you will need to be able to provide shelter in each field.
Track System Grazing
Track systems are used to encourage more movement when grazing. With the track system requiring more movement to graze it is often used for good doers or horses overweight. To achieve the track system the middle section of the field is fenced off so the horse is left with a track around the outside. The track system usually runs parallel to the external fence line and is narrow to encourage horses to continue moving round to graze mimicking natural grazing behaviour.
Ensure your horse has access to clean, fresh water and hay can be placed around the track system to encourage movement and keep fibre intake high.
When using a variety of surfaces around the track system it can benefit hoof health. It is beneficial to horses that have metabolic issues or are grass sensitive and still allows them time outside of a stable with the ability to move around freely, increasing daily exercise. The narrow tracks encourage faster movements and can lead to a more interesting environment for horses to explore.
Adding a variety of surfaces to the track may require permission, if the land is not owned by yourself and can be costly depending on the price of different materials. The track can become poached and reduce grass species. More fibre sources such as hay and haylage will need to be added and increase cost. More fencing equipment will be required.
Less common Grazing Systems
The Equicentral system is similar to rotational grazing however, this encourages all non-grazing activities such as shelter, hard feed and water in a central location away from the paddock. A usual setup of the equicentral system uses four paddocks which all are connected to a hardstanding middle section where the shelter, hay, hard feed and water is located.
With this system horses are able to choose when they graze and which paddock they graze in. This system helps avoid overgrazing and poaching of areas.
Managed Intensive Grazing
This system splits a larger field into many smaller fields. It has all the benefits of rotational grazing but is usually more time consuming and therefore a less popular option. Because the sections are smaller it means that horses are on the small section of paddock for smaller amounts of time usually a day at a time. This system is great for horses or ponies that may be on restricted grazing and also those that may be recovering from an injury. The disadvantages of this system is each section has to have shelter and fresh, clean water. It also requires extensive management and can be time consuming when using temporary fencing.
Eleanor Blinkhorn (Bsc) | Equine Nutritionist