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General Horse Pasture Management

General Horse Pasture Management

Key factors in management of horse pastures are proper liming and fertilizing, manure management and stream fencing.

Test the Soil

An inexpensive soil test, available from Rutgers Cooperative Extension (, can help you determine the type and amount of fertilizer and lime needed for good pasture growth. This will help prevent nutrient runoff from overfertilized pastures and reduce the cost of fertilizing by applying only what is needed. Test soil at least every three years to determine fertilizer and lime needs and prior to seeding.

Manage Manure

Manure clumps are a major cause of spotty pasture growth. Horses will not graze in areas where manure is present. Manure piles can be scattered by harrowing or dragging, which helps the pasture by distributing the nutrients. It also reduces some parasite problems by exposing the parasites to sunlight. Dragging can be done with a spike-tooth harrow, flexible-chain harrow, or a section of chain-link fence. Dragging should be done in sunny, dry weather to help kill the parasites in the manure. For safety, only drag pastures when they are not occupied by horses. Then leave them unoccupied for at least two weeks before returning horses to the pasture or paddock.

Dry stack manure storage structure in use

Do not store piles of manure in places where runoff may enter streams or where floodwaters might wash the manure away. Manure piles should be at least 100 feet from streams, ponds and wells. Also establish and maintain grass buffer strips between water sources and manure piles.

Cover manure piles to keep out rainwater, or consider building a manure storage structure or composting bin. These structures protect stockpiled manure from runoff until the manure breaks down and can be used as fertilizer. There are many benefits to setting up a small composting facility. Composted manure makes an excellent, slow-release pasture and garden fertilizer, and it is an excellent soil conditioner.

Composting produces a relatively dry product that is easily handled and reduces the volume of the manure by 40-65 percent. Composting at proper temperatures kills fly eggs and larvae, pathogens and weed seeds. Virtually no viral diseases are transmitted between horses and humans through fecal material, but some bacteria and protozoan, (such as E. coli and Giardia) can be transmitted in this manner. Therefore, handle manure carefully to prevent disease transmission.

Keep Horses out of Streams

If horses must cross streams, construct a proper crossing to provide a safe, easy way.  Use fencing to encourage horses to use the crossing instead of crossing the stream at will. This allows vegetation to stabilize streambanks and to reduce sediment pollution.

Characteristics of a Good Horse Pasture

  • Palatable and nutritious forage.

  • Weed-free, leafy and with few seed heads.

  • Relatively smooth surface with thick forage- Horses' hooves are more damaging to sod than hooves of other animals. Do not allow horses to graze in muddy pastures because of the severe damage that will result. In addition to damaging the pasture, the uneven surfaces created can cause injury to horses.

  • Easy to manage and large enough to provide quality forage and room for exercise

  • Well-drained; not in a marsh or in swampy areas. Avoid floodplains, drainage areas and tracts with long, steep slopes.

  • Include an adequate supply of fresh water year-round, shade during summer months, and shelter for times of adverse weather.

  • Free of poisonous plants, and free of hazardous objects such as wire, stumps, junk, rocks and low-hanging limbs.

  • Properly fenced. 

Establish a Sacrifice Lot

Barren Sacrifice lotWhen pastures are muddy, when grass growth is very slow due to extended dry weather, or any time you don't have a paddock ready to graze, move your horses to a sacrifice lot. A sacrifice lot is an exercise paddock or riding ring on which you don't expect to keep a grass cover. The area may have grass, wood chips, stone dust or just soil. The intent is to sacrifice a small area of your property in order to give your pastures time to recover.

Locate sacrifice lots on high ground, as far away from waterways as possible. Install buffers or other erosion-control measures to filter runoff. In areas where soils are poorly drained or deep, consider adding a packed layer of rock or limestone screenings to keep the area from becoming muddy and to help prevent injuries caused by slippery conditions. Placing a geotextile fabric under the rock layer will reduce future maintenance needs.

Commercial erosion- control pads or geotextile fabric also can be placed in sacrifice lots and covered with soil or other materials.

Know When Not to Graze

Perforated mats used in sacrifice lot to minimize damage from rain and pawingA common mistake made by horse owners is grazing new pastures too soon. Wait until the forage is at least 6 inches tall before placing horses on newly seeded pastures; this could take up to 12 months.

If the soil is wet or when rain is expected, do not turn horses into pastures, especially newly planted ones. Horses’ hooves do considerable damage to forages and to the soil, even in established pastures, when the soil is wet.

Provide Clean, Fresh Water

Clean, fresh water is essential for good animal health. Horses can consume between 8-12 gallons of water per day when the average temperature is 50 degrees Fahrenheit. That amount increases to 20-25 gallons per day when the temperature climbs to 90 degrees Fahrenheit or when in an exercise program.

Horses should not have to travel more than 800 feet for water. As you divide your acreage into paddocks, establish separate water sources for each paddock or a single water source that is accessible from all paddocks. Water can also be piped to a trough in each pasture.

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New Jersey Pasture Management Guide for Horse Owners

Pasture Management Guide for Horse Owners (PDF, 2.15 MB) - entire document