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Most horse owners in full boarding stables rely on the stable operator to manage all aspects of the stable, turnouts, and pastures. However, an increasing number of horse owners are forming owner communities to establish small (open) yards for their own horses. Additionally, some are leasing small or larger yards to offer their horses and a few boarders a primarily species-appropriate environment. While many ‘non-farmers’ put considerable thought into their stables, creating turnouts or even paddock trails with features like salt licks, shelters, raised herb beds, and various ‘slow feeders’ such as hay nets and hay balls, pasture care often remains neglected.

The belief that ‘Don’t fertilise horse pastures, you only do that with cow pastures’ is as common as ‘The horses will know what they should and shouldn’t eat, so poisonous plants in the pastures aren’t a problem,’ and many other similar sayings. The consequence is often the deterioration of green areas, where poisonous plants like ragwort spread, as well as the proliferation of plants undesirable to horses, such as sorrel. Especially after the last summers, which were extremely dry in most regions, it is essential to take steps to improve your pasture if you want to maintain decent grazing areas in the long term.

A few practical tips for preparing the pasture:


When most people hear the word ‘fertilisation’, they immediately think of the farmer’s slurry trailer and, consequently, the image of bright green, high-performance meadows. But that’s not the point. If biomass is removed from an area, whether in the form of hay or through direct grazing by horses, it’s essential to replenish the nutrients that were removed with this biomass. In the wild, a group of herbivores will typically arrive in a region and feed on their preferred plants there. The herbivores leave behind faeces and urine before moving on. Their faeces act as fertiliser for the soil, enriching it with nutrients to support the growth of a new generation of plants. This is why manure is considered one of the traditional fertilisers. The more biomass is removed, the greater the leaching of nutrients from the soil, requiring the addition of more nutrients.

If you want to maintain pasture in a species-appropriate manner, accounting for both the needs of the horse and pasture ecology, you should expect to allocate 1-2 hectares per horse.

In most stables, it’s common to allocate 2 hectares of land for 20-40 horses. Many pastures suffer from overgrazing, resulting in soil nutrient depletion that requires replenishment. A soil analysis precisely identifies the nutrient needs of the soil. This analysis is conducted by agricultural laboratories and ideally should be performed every 5 years, typically at the end of the growing season (i.e., in autumn). But better now than never. Using the soil sample, the laboratory then provides recommendations on fertilisation. These fertilisers are available from agricultural retailers, and for small areas, a fertiliser spreader, such as those found in garden centres, is often sufficient. Alternatively, you can enlist the help of a farmer to spread the fertiliser on larger areas. If horse manure is to be used as fertiliser for horse areas, it must either be stored for at least 2 years (which is often impractical due to space constraints) or it must undergo hot composting to ensure the destruction of worm larvae. If you simply spread the manure on the fields that you have collected over the past year, you could have left directly anyways without collecting it first because it will be splendidly enriched with worms for the coming summer. An alternative approach would be to exchange manure with a cow or sheep farmer, as worms are strictly host-specific. This means that horse worms will die in cows, and cow worms in horses. The manure can then also be spread after only short or incomplete rotting. However, it’s crucial to ensure that the cattle or sheep herd is free of liver flukes, as these parasites can also infect horses under certain circumstances.

Removing poisonous and unpalatable plants

Horses have the ability to recognise and avoid many poisonous plants in pastures. This is learned behavior: The horse eats from a poisonous plant and subsequently experiences abdominal pain, nausea, circulatory problems, or similar symptoms. In the future, it will avoid plants with this flavor (aversive conditioning, ‘one-trial learning’).

But not all poisonous plants have such an intense flavor that horses can select them. In addition, there is hunger when the pastures are grazed.

By late summer or autumn at the latest, there is often not much left for the horses to eat on the pastures. And this is usually the point at which they start to eat the sycamore or nibble on the ragwort. Of course, you should either close the pasture or alternatively offer hay in the pasture if the pasture has been overgrazed. But to be on the safe side and, above all, to prevent the poisonous plants from spreading further, they should be removed regularly. Sycamore trees should be fenced off so that the horses cannot reach the leaves or seeds.

Ragwort is a pioneer plant that can colonize particularly well where the turf has been destroyed, such as in the entrance and exit areas as well as on heavily frequented paths or sometimes on hills. In the first year, the plant forms a flat rosette, which cannot be selected by the horses and is eaten accordingly. In the second year, the familiar flower head grows from this rosette, which is usually only eaten when the horse is really hungry. It is therefore important to tackle the rosettes as early as possible and to reseed areas where bare soil is sticking out.

Hoary alyssum is a poisonous plant that continues to spread from Eurasia to Western Europe and North America. It is also a pioneer plant that particularly favours establishing itself in areas where the turf has been destroyed. As you can see, pastures should not be overused, even considering the presence of poisonous plants. Hoary alyssum is not actively avoided by many horses in the pasture, therefore, it should be manually removed without hesitation. The plant loves a dry climate and we can expect to find hoary alyssum on a large scale in a year following a dry summer.

However, not only do poisonous plants spread across the land, especially as they are typically left untouched by horses and therefore proliferate, but also many plants that horses simply do not prefer. This includes sorrel in particular, which you should definitely cut out before it flowers (and it can take root quite deeply!) to prevent its further growth next year. In consideration of the health of the horses and the biodiversity of insects, chemical agents (herbicides) should not be used to remove unwanted plants in horse pastures. Instead, they should be manually removed using a shovel. By announcing it in advance as a weekend activity, it is often possible to enlist fellow horse owners in the stable, and there are even the first stables that already include such ‘work assignments’ in the stable contract. If 20 people tend to the pastures over a weekend, more can be accomplished than if the stable owner has to do this daily, on top of all their other responsibilities. At the end of the day, the paramount concern is the health of our horses.

Horse behind long grass in the pasture
To prevent the poisonous plants from spreading further, they should be removed regularly. © Adobe Stock / Sven Cramer

Re-sowing bare patches, thinning out rich pastures, promoting species richness

Those who have leased a former cow pasture with fat grass from a neighbouring farmer to keep horses often think, ‘Oh, just refrain from fertilising it further, then it’ll be fine’. But this practice is notably erroneous. When nitrogen is depleted from the high-performance grasses, primarily used on cattle pastures, they become stressed. In such instances, the protein content decreases while the sugar content increases excessively.

Stressed perennial ryegrass can contain up to 36% sugar.

The endophyte content increases under stress as well. These have been studied quite extensively now, and it is known that endophyte toxins can trigger symptoms as diverse as laminitis or abortion. It is therefore important not to subject such areas to stress, but rather to use them sensibly. The best way to achieve this is by aerating the soil surface slightly, for example, by using a meadow harrow to loosen it. Afterward, you can sow the seed mixture and then roll the area to press down the seeds and cover them slightly with soil. This achieves excellent germination results and can be used to introduce more low-maintenance grasses and herbaceous plants to the area annually, displacing the high-performance grasses. Of course, fertilisation must also be adjusted accordingly. You can expect to need to reseed 2-3 times a year to achieve a visible result. An alternative is known as slot seeding, where the soil is opened, seeds are dropped in, and the soil is pressed down in a single operation. You use more seed per round, but you have to resow less often, so the results are comparable in the end. The method you use primarily depends on the size of the area and, of course, on the machinery available to the farmer who is reseeding the land. When selecting seed mixtures, it’s important to ensure that they contain little to no high-performance grasses and include a proportion of herb seeds along with the grass seeds. If the overall nutritional value of the area is suitable for the horses and there are only patches of bare spots resembling a moth-eaten blanket due to the previous summer, then the bare patches should be reseeded in a targeted manner. To identify such gaps, it’s best to use a standard folding rule and fold it into a square with an edge length of 40cm. This square made from the folding rule can now be placed on the damaged areas to determine the size of the damage. If the gap in the turf within this square is slightly larger than the size of your own flat hand, then approximately 15% of this 40x40cm area has been destroyed. If you discover large, extensive gaps in your field, they should definitely be reseeded (loosen the soil, spread the seeds, press the soil down). If the spaces are rather small and irregularly distributed over the area (for example, because the horses were once allowed to use the pasture as a racecourse and bucking area in winter), then you can often wait until the end of April or mid-May. If there are still gaps at that time, they should be reseeded. But many of them will close on their own by then. Before sowing seeds, it’s essential to keep an eye on the weather forecast. It’s not helpful if the seeds only receive rain once. Then they will begin to sprout, but if it remains dry immediately afterwards, the seedlings will wither again. You should therefore ensure that you sow when rainy weather is forecast for the next 2-3 weeks. It takes about 5 years after reseeding an area that has been ploughed up before you have a stable turf again. Therefore, reseeding is generally preferable to ploughing up and seeding anew. As herb plants are always the first to be eaten by the horses, it has also proven useful to create ‘herb patches’. These are fenced-off areas, where you can dig over the soil and sow specific herb mixtures. You can design them either as 3 x 3 metre areas distributed across the pasture or along the fence, but keep them protected from voracious horses by an extra fence. Herb mixtures for horse pastures are now available from any reputable seed dealer. The fence prevents the stem plants in this herb patch from being eaten away. It can flower from year to year, and its seeds often scatter to the other side of the fence, where they spread and can then be eaten by the horses.

Repairing pasture fences

Yes, it’s a tiresome topic in every stable: the short lifespan of fences. Whether a tree has fallen on it during a storm, the strands have been torn by the weather, the posts have rotted in the ground, or a clever horse thought that with enough momentum it would hardly hurt to run through the fence and it could eat its fill on the neighbour’s lush meadow – there is always something that needs to be repaired. Even if the fence appeared perfect last season or was recently built just last year:

Before allowing a horse to enter the pasture, the entire length of the fence should be checked.

So, wiggle each post, check each fixture, and replace it if necessary, or reattach strands that have slipped out. The grass from last year, which often still grows under the fence and around the posts, should be mowed down. Do not simply knot defective strands, but repair them with a connector so that the fence is properly powered again. If everything is in order, then proceed to apply power and use a tester to check the fence to ensure it is properly powered everywhere. Checking the pastures in advance saves the hassle of catching horses when they are finally allowed to graze. And it doesn’t hurt to properly adjust the crooked gate or replace broken handles on the electric fence gate.

Ensuring the water supply

It is always a major point of debate between stable operators and horse owners whether water should be provided for the horses in the pasture. The answer is a clear: yes and no. It always depends on how long the horses spend on the pasture and the condition of the vegetation.

In the wild, horses do not have a water bottle on their belt from which they sip all day long. They go to the waterholes once or twice a day, depending on the water supply, and drink their fill.

Our horses also quickly get used to drinking their fill at the well or a large tub in the morning and evening before they go out to pasture, or when they come in from the pasture if there is nothing available during the day. However, it is important that the horses have large buckets or tubs with a closed water surface and plenty of water available from which they can drink in large draughts and without haste. A moderately flowing self-watering trough in the stall is no substitute here, as the horses do not drink more than is absolutely necessary. Even if the horses are only out in the pasture for 1-2 hours a day, you don’t have to worry too much about them becoming dehydrated immediately. Then there is the condition of the pasture: if the grass is green and lush, the horses absorb huge amounts of water through grazing. However, if the pasture in August is more like “hay on a stick” after a dry summer, this feed naturally doesn’t contain much water, so you have to pay more attention to the water supply. In addition, pregnant and lactating mares, foals, and senior horses have a higher water requirement and need to drink more regularly than average middle-aged horses. So you can see that it is always a case-by-case decision. For example, if the horses spend most of their time in the pasture and only come into the stable during the midday heat, then it is worth putting a water barrel in the pasture. The same applies to a breeding or retirement stable. But if you have overweight ponies that are only put out to pasture for an hour a day for their mental health, then you can do without a water supply. Water barrels are the perfect place for microorganisms in summer. Everything from algae to funny bacteria grows here. They must therefore also be cleaned thoroughly on the inside on a regular basis, ideally with a steam cleaner. There are also oxygen-based water tank cleaning agents that can be used after mechanical cleaning with a steam cleaner. You can often find those, for example, at motorhome suppliers, where they are also used for cleaning drinking water tanks. After the last rinse cycle, the next water filling will have decent quality again. More and more IBC tanks can be seen in the pastures (these are the giant canisters in grid boxes, usually on pallets). Algae particularly like to grow in them because they are translucent. It helps to either paint the tank a dark colour or to cover it with a simple UV-resistant cover, which is available from around 20 euros. If you invest a little more, you can even get (heatable) insulated bonnets, which will probably save you a lot of annoying water transport in the coming winter. Troughs and tubs in the pastures should be cleaned regularly before first use (and, of course, also during the summer). Especially after the frost, they should be checked for damage and replaced if necessary to prevent water loss in the summer.

And then the pasture season can actually start.