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Have you ever wondered why one field is already brown and seemingly died off and another field is still green? The fields are next to each other, same climate, same weather, same soil – and yet so different. Where does that come from?

Density and height of the plants

Of course, the frequency and intensity of grazing play a decisive role, i.e. how often and for how long I let my horses out to pasture and how much recovery time I give them in between. And very importantly: how far down is the grass eaten off!

But what happens in the field?

If the pasture has been eaten down to almost the ground level, the sun’s rays penetrate to the ground, and it heats up. Everyone knows this from a visit to an Al fresco restaurant: we like to look for a spot in the shade. The difference between a place in the shade and a place in the blazing sun is so great that it can determine the quality of your experience at the restaurant.

You can easily try this out in the field with a standard thermometer (even a medical thermometer will do): Simply place it on the ground in a field that has been grazed down and a field with long standing grass that hasn’t been grazed down, then measure both fields temperatures.

The results are often astonishing, you will find that the ground in full sun is easily over 15°C warmer than the ground under a dense stand of grass. A temperature difference of up to 28°C can be measured often on hot summer days (depending on climate, humidity, soil, vegetation, etc.).

The warmer the soil is, the faster it dries out. A difference of 3-4 litres of water or more can very quickly be absorbed from one square metre of soil on a very hot and sunny day. The equivalent of 40.000 litres of water per hectare of pasture lost through evaporation. This corresponds to the amount of water that a good rainfall drops onto the landmass in 2 hours.

Evaporation naturally decreases significantly over time, according to the motto ‘where there’s nothing to get, you can’t get anything.’ However, the warming of the topsoil has an effect deep into the soil if it is permanently exposed to the sun, and water can still be extracted from there.

The plants, especially the grasses, literally die of thirst here!

In times of climate change, hot, dry ‘Runaway years’ are increasingly becoming ‘Tearaway years’. The ‘summers of the century’ are the new normal. It is illusory to believe that we can now turn back the clocks and undo climate change in just a few years. Instead, we will have to learn to deal with the changed conditions.

It is therefore time to take a holistic approach to the issue of pasture management with a view to climate change so that we still have pastures and not steppes or semi-deserts in 10 years’ time.

‘Die Gute Pferdeweide’ (‘The Good Pasture for Horses’) is therefore now launching the ‘Climate Pasture’ project
Objective: Adaptation of existing pastures to the challenges of climate change and the needs of horses.

Step 1: Inventory and recording of already successful grazing measures in order to utilise existing experience.
Step 2: Development of standards and recommendations for practical, climate and horse-friendly grazing models.

What can we already record as influencing factors?

shadow takes away the sun’s power

Shade for the soil can be provided by using dense grass growing species that are well suited to the environment and soil conditions in the location we are looking to treat and manage to its best advantage. Pasture management is becoming increasingly more important due to the climate changes, therefore reseeding, perhaps even overseeding in some locations is becoming a necessity, the idea is to eliminate grasses that are resistant to very dry soil (caused by the climate) and replace these with herbs that will thrive and support the soil in its moisture management.

Non-toxic trees and shrubs also provide shade for the ground and horses. Traditionally either a walnut tree or a chestnut tree used to great you at every farmhouse. They create a wonderful microclimate, which the horses also like to enjoy when dozing in the midday heat. Their ability to repel flies and provide pleasant air conditions under their dense canopy like leaves.

Birches, willow trees or elderberry bushes are well suited to providing shade quickly: they are undemanding when it comes to growing conditions. Hawthorn bushes can also be easily integrated into a grazing environment for horses. Trees and hedges also break the wind, which also reduces evaporation, prevents soil erosion, and is often used by horses as shelter during summer storms.

Here are a few examples of hedge planting for horse pastures:

Group of cross bushes:

drawing of trees

The horses have four directions into the group of shrubs and three directions out again. Depending on which direction the horses prefer, you can allow the other directions to grow over.

Tree-and-bush avenue:

drawing of trees

The rule of thumb here is: plant across the wind direction if there is a steady wind (e.g. coastal regions), along the wind direction if there are many biting insects (e.g. wet fields) and two bushes per tree in between.

Horse square:

drawing of trees

With this type of planting, you can let the horses determine how the group of shrubs develops. This allows them to form the optimum shade, wind, and insect protection.

Dense forests and groups of trees are often not so well accepted by horses as a source of shade. Despite the heat of the sun, the herd often prefers to stand together somewhere near the fence instead of taking advantage of the cool the forest has to offer. Horses are flight animals and want to be able to watch from all directions. Loosely scattered trees in the pasture, on the other hand, are more than welcome.

Shelters are more suited to horses then being exposed to direct sun light. Anyone who has moved from a shelter to the forest and back will instantly notice the difference in climate change If there is no wind through a shelter that is closed on three sides, the air inside can become quite stuffy. In addition, the roof keeps out both sun and rain, so although a small part of the ground is shaded, nothing grows here.

Conclusion

When we think about our horse turn out fields in the face of climate change, there are two points of view.

Strengthening the pasture as an organism and making it more resistant to weather extremes – and that requires more than just green grasses.

To offer our horses the most species-appropriate environment possible in accordance with full filling their needs and requirements.

We achieve this through intensive and attentive observation of the horses and the pastures, by experimenting with new ideas and approaches, it’s an ongoing learning process.

Guest author Helmut Muß from Die gute Pferdeweide (The Good Pasture for Horses)

Helmut Muß