A happy, healthy horse. Pasturing holds many benefits including exercise, foraging, and play.
Photo © Daniele Musella
Safe Turnout and Pasturing
A horse turned out to pasture regularly, or allowed to live outdoors year-round, will be far healthier than a stabled horse. The reasons for this are behavioral as well as physical. (Even the metabolic disorder horses need turnout and exercise, although grass intake is risky.)
Studies have determined that horses and ponies forage and graze for 16 hours a day. They have small stomachs and therefore need to eat in small amounts, frequently. Little and often is the rule of thumb for horse feeding. Horses like to nibble; they are not ruminants like cows, and actually have a short digestive system which needs constant food intake.
Bad stall behaviors such as wind sucking (where the horse sucks in air to fill his empty stomach), tongue swallowing, and cribbing (chewing the wood of his stall) are the unhealthy outcome of frustrating the natural requirement of a horse to graze for her required 16 hours a day.
Pastured horses also get the added benefits of being able to lie down on soft matter if desired, exercise, and companionship, which is by nature essential to the extremely social equine creature. More than anything, horses crave the company of another horse. Denying herd animals the ability even to see other horses or ponies, whether stabled or pastured, is detrimental to their health and well-being.
Wood is a favorite among fencing choices, even though it requires the most upkeep. Photo © Mary K. Baird
Fencing needs will be determined by the type and number of horses you have, along with your uses. Do you have draft horses, or ponies? Will some paddocks be used for stallions? Do you want a "Paddock Paradise" system (as in the new book by Jaime Jackson)? How about mares and foals? A certified fence installer (CFI) is invaluable, as they undergo rigorous testing and evaluation every few years. CFIs can provide expert advice such as spacing of posts and rails, which are important considerations to keeping your equine family safely contained, as well as fencing material.
There are many fencing material choices:
Wood requires the most upkeep, but when well-maintained is a beautiful choice. Remember that wood rails must have screws, not nails which can fall out or protrude. Three rails are a minimum for any containment fence. Many wood fences are pressure treated wood - lumber treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA). CCA has been used for decades in the US as a wood preservative (copper acts as a fungicide; arsenate, a form of arsenic, is an insecticide; and chromium binds the ingredients to the wood). It is best to avoid these potentially hazardous heavy metals - arsenic is a known human carcinogen and can be toxic to animals as well. If your horse has any cribbing problems, use non-pressure treated wood. Newer and safer preservation methods are emerging, such as TimberSil, infused with sodium silicate, a melted mix of sand and soda ash. Split rail fencing is available in various types of non-treated and weather-resistant wood.
Vinyl fencing provides a longer-lasting alternative than wood and is available in various color choices. Vinyl involves less maintenance than wood, which typically needs to be painted or stained and checked regularly for splintering and wood rot.
Woven wire fence is extremely useful to keep small animals in, or out. Loose dogs can be a threat to pastured horses. Woven wire fencing can also be tacked against the outside of a wood or vinyl rail fence.
Woven wire fencing keeps small animals in, or out.
Pipe fencing is durable but not flexible upon impact.
And PVC fencing can break if impacted hard enough.
A newer style of fence is flexible rail. Sold in varying widths, these are thick, wide plastic bands covering high-tensile wires. If a horse impacts the fence, it can bend from 6-8 inches without losing its shape, preventing serious injury to the horse.
Electric fence, using visible tape, can be permanent fencing between solid posts, or temporary fencing between step-in posts, such as with rotational grazing.
Also, more than one set of fencing gives added protection. Each paddock can be self-contained with a perimeter fence around the entire pasture area in case of a loose horse. The perimeter fence is an ideal location to have woven wire as shown in the picture above.
Although horses can withstand inclement weather, they need shelter from sun and wind and severe weather. A large shady tree can provide some protection from sun and rain, but a three-sided enclosure is best (and probably required by local law).
Horses need shelter from wind, precipitation, and sun.
The back of your shelter should face the direction of prevailing winds. It should have a level or mounded cinder or dirt floor inside, with outside ground sloping away from the enclosure so that water and snow is carried away and not inside it. The entrance should be large enough for more than one horse, and the shelter should have enough room to fit all turned out horses comfortably. A center post in the entrance will make two ways to get in or out, thus minimizing 'trapping' of timid horses.
A source of fresh water must be available, ideally a freshly moving stream. Spring-fed and catch-basin ponds can be good sources of drinking water if properly cared for with natural non-toxic methods and respect for biodiversity. Soft-sided, self-filling water buckets and troughs are a good option; however, if you live where it is cold, make sure to check your buckets for ice formation every day and/or purchase heating devices.
Boggy areas in the pasture are undesirable; the pasture should be self-draining. Slot drains available at most hardware stores can improve boggy pasture.
Stone aggregate (crushed rock or gravel) or concrete at the banks of the water will help prevent hazardous, muddy patches. The below picture shows a concrete pond perimeter.
Ponds are a good natural water source; crushed stone can be used to firm up banks.
Visit the article "How to Have a Healthy Happy Insulin-Resistant Horse" in this issue of Natural Horse for tips on managing metabolic disorder horses. In brief, research has shown that high sugar (fructan) and high non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) levels in grasses are leading causes of laminitis.
Remember this rule: grass that is good for cows is not good for horses.
Check out www.safergrass.org and
have your grass and hay tested by visiting www.dairyone.com or
Mow your grass to keep it around 6-8 inches in height. The mowing will force the grass to tap into its own stored carbohydrates (those pesky NSCs) to produce new growth. Test and holistically feed your soils (stressed grass is higher in sugar), and initiate a rotation schedule between two or three pasture areas to prevent grass from getting run down and to break parasite cycles.
Mow pastures to keep the grass around 6-8 inches in height. Photo © Mary K. Baird
A Few Last Considerations:
Provide free-choice salt and minerals
Do not leave halters on horses when turning them out. Halters can get caught on fencing or branches, can get pulled askew and end up caught in the mouth, or can be grabbed by other horses. Front and hind hooves can get caught in loose-fitting halters. Halters that may slip off or break off can get caught around a horse's legs, and can ruin a mower. It is far better to learn and practice good horsemanship and teach your horse to come to you when called.
Anything the horse wears - fly masks, fly sheets, muzzles, etc. must be well-fitted and durable but breakable for safety. Monitor these horses at regular intervals.
Remove all trash and potential hazards. Metal scraps, baling twine and wire, old buckets and cans and tires are just accidents waiting to happen. If your pasture was formerly a livestock turnout, remove cattle guards. A hoof can get stuck in them, resulting in serious injury.
Also, do not turn out new horses into an established herd without introducing them first. Put the new horse in an adjoining paddock and introduce them to a quiet mid-ranking horse in order to make the transition smoother.
Take time out to check fencing regularly. A post or rail can become loose, split, or rotted. Plan on walking the fence line on a regular basis to check for potential problems.
a salt lick
• Research and avoid high sugar grasses
• Have a shade tree or shelter
• Provide a wind break
• Correct hazardous footing
• Provide fresh water at all times
• Remove barbed wire fencing
trash in the pasture
• Leave halters on horses
• Neglect to clean up droppings
• Forget to respect herd hierarchy
• Allow ground water to sit
• Neglect to correct a boggy field
Your horse will appreciate living closer to nature and having time to just be a horse.
Hopefully, your horse has the opportunity to be on pasture, even if it’s only for several hours every day. It can save your wallet from expensive vet bills and decrease your feeding costs too. Most importantly, your horse will be a much happier creature as you will be allowing her to live closer to how nature intended.