Introducing Horses to Spring Growing Pastures
Posted: April 7, 2010
by Helene McKernan, Clinton Co .Extension
Horse owners are anticipating the joy of realizing that the long harsh winter is gradually changing into the pleasures of spring. Along with the warmer temperatures, changes occur to the condition of the pastures where grasses turn to a greener appearance and will contain healthy nutritional value for the grazing horse. It won’t be long until the sound of lawnmowers will be abundant and farmers will be processing the first cutting of hay.
During the winter months and times of inclement weather, domestic horses are often confined in areas where they cannot access natural forage on a day to day basis. Most horse owners that have pastures for their horses tend to restrict the horse in winter from the pasture to protect the pasture from the damage a horse can inflict. Horses are destructive on wet pastures often ripping with their teeth the forage by the roots or causing extensive damage to the sod, by churning and forming rivets with their hoofs. A horse owner who wishes to provide the supplement a pasture can provide to the horse’s diet must take a concentrated effort in maintaining a healthy pasture year round. These owners often have sacrifice or dry-lot areas for the horse’s daily exercise and turn out during inclement weather and long months of winter.
A problem can occur with the acclimation of horses to forage when spring arrives and the horses are introduced to a diet of green grasses. Horses are a grazing animal that prefer to supply the nutrients and fiber needed in their system by eating natural pasture forage. A good healthy well-maintained pasture might provide all the necessary forage a horse needs in its diet. The problem for the horse owner is the challenge of controlling the amount of consumption of the green grass when returning the horse to grazing. When the horse’s metabolism is not accustomed to the lush forage dramatic side effects can occur.
The horse’s digestive system does not adjust to changes rapidly or easily. Horses fed erratically in both amounts and types of digestible items tend to develop problems that can occur in the consequence of colic or founder. A horse not use to eating apples can develop colic if suddenly a bag of apples is consumed. Innocent people think they are giving the horse a treat when they feed them large amounts of carrots or throw the fresh lawn clippings over the fence for the horse to chomp on; when actually they could be causing a harmful chain reaction.
One method of gradually introducing the horse to grass is to begin with small controlled periods of grazing of 15 minutes a day for a few days. Increase in the following days an additional ten minutes each turn out until the horse has adjusted to a 3 or 4 hour period of grazing time. Then maintain this 4 hour period of grazing for a two week period before giving the horse total turn-out on the pasture. This will enable the horse’s digestive system to accept the digestion of the fresh grass. Even with the most careful management of horse forage consumption ill effects can occur.
The actual horse owner or a well wishing bystander should always take notice of what is fed to the horse. If you don’t own the horse ask for permission before you offer, what you think are treats. Avoid letting horses consume other livestock’s processed feeds or silage. Even different types of forage plants can disrupt the digestive system of the horse. Consult with a veterinarian or a horse nutritionist when considering changes in the horse’s diet. Additional knowledge can be obtained by researching articles published on horse nutrition and pasture usage. Penn State provides on-line fact sheets for horse owners on many topics related to horse ownership such as pasture management and grass forage. These items may be located at: http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/Publications.asp or http://cropsoil.psu.edu/extension/facts/agronomy-facts-32. Many items are free to download or can be ordered for a nominal fee. For more information on managing the introduction to your horse to spring forage contact your local Penn State Extension Office.