Keeping horses at pasture Day 1

Horsewoman Helena Warren from Cadfor Equestrian and Murray Greys Pty shared her expertise with a group of participants over a two-day workshop in 2019. Day 1 of the workshop included pastures for horses, stringhalt and laminitis.

Pastures for horses

  • When planning your horse property, think about ways to minmise runoff and nutrient loss. This can include locating horse infrastructure away from water courses, fencing along contours, rotational grazing, using windbreaks and installing vegetation buffers. A two-metre fenced wind break can provide adequate ground cover to prevent significant erosion and water loss.
  • According to Helena, reseeding a pasture from scratch is a three year process that takes a lot of planning including soil testing, managing weeds, planting a break crop and final seeding. Refer to the DPI Primefact on Pastures for Horses for more information. When the cost of pasture establishment is compared to the ongoing cost of supplementary feeding, fertilising and maintaining pasture becomes financially viable.
  • Being able to assess your horses condition score and weight is a useful tool for feeding management and worming. The amount of feed a horse requires depends on their weight, activity, growth stage and body condition. The NSW DPI Primefact 928 Estimating a horses condition and weight gives a step by step guide on how to do this.
  • For optimum feed production, perennial grasses should be rested (ideally at the flowering stage) to allow them to develop their basal buds and roots. This will maintain the vigour of the grasses. Allowing native pastures to seed in autumn will also encourage the spread of these grasses in a pasture.
  • Helena described the optimum resting of pastures in a rotational grazing system as the ‘three leaf rule’. The three leaf rule allows the grass roots enough time to recover to maintain good production and for the grass to have the optimum sugar level for horses. The leaf stage of optimum grazing will depend on the species of grass. The Grazing Management Tool provides advice on how to grow more pasture and influence the species mix in your pasture.

NSW Local Land Services runs Prograze courses that can help property owners develop skills in managing their pasture. Contact your local office.

Stringhalt

Stringhalt is a plant poisoning syndrome that affects horses and is caused by the ingestion of flatweed. At the workshop over one third of the participants had horses that were affected by stringhalt. Helena recommended the Investigations into the Australian Causes of Stringhalt in Horses publication for managing horses with stringhalt.

Laminitis

After colic, laminitis is the second largest killer of horses in Australia. Laminitis is caused by overconsumption of grasses or feeds high in sugar, but it is often associated with some other stress factor. The critical point to remember when feeding a horse with a high risk of foundering is to keep the structural carbohydrates low. The availability of sugars in grasses is impacted by a number of factors including the species of grass, moisture stress, time of day and amount of shade in a paddock. The production rate of sugar in grasses is linked to photosynthesis.

Perennial pastures require resting to maintain their leaf production and to be safe for horses at risk of laminitis to graze. Continually grazed grasses at the 1 leaf stage are high in sugar and can increase laminitis risk. More mature grasses in the three leaf stage of production have lower sugar levels. Native pasture grasses are lower in sugars than introduced pasture grasses. The types of grasses suitable for horses are different to those suitable for ruminants. Cattle and sheep digest sugars in grass in the rumen to feed the microbes in the stomach. In horses sugar is digested in the hindgut, from here the sugar enters the bloodstream which can cause metabolic syndromes such as laminitis.

Weeds in hay

Helena recommends that you monitor your feed sources, especially hay, for weed contamination. Some pasture grass hay can be contaminated with undesirable pasture species and weeds.  If hay you are buying is cheap this is usually for a reason. If you are unsure of a grass species advertised you can look up the NSW DPI Weed Wise website and NSW Plant Net website.

More informaton:
Pasture Management and Laminitis Risk
Horse Property Planning Key Points
Healthy Horse Healthy Land Workshop Summary
Diagnosing and treating gastric ulcers in horses
How to discourage your horse from eating sand
Poisonous plants of horses field guide
Strategic planning for horse properties

This project received grant funding from the Australian Government through the National Landcare Program