Pasture Management

Also see: FAQ Pasture Management

We believe that a traditional pasture is like gold dust and that it should not be ploughed. It is a fact that an old and well-managed pasture has built up a massive store of fertility and goodness which, if broken up, will contribute great productivity to subsequent crops for two or three years. However, its unique balance and biodiversity can never be replaced in our lifetime. The old adage was voiced for good reason:

To break a pasture makes a man; to make a pasture breaks a man“.

If a pasture requires refreshing, we advocate undersowing with a variety of different and traditional indigenous grass species and herbage, without damaging what’s already there. The variety of species is important to allow for the varying needs of the grazing animal, to allow for seasonal differences, to provide different growth phases so that supply is more even and to balance nutrition. Furthermore, different rooting patterns can exploit the deeper soil layers and bring up important trace minerals.

As in so many walks of life, it pays to take a holistic view.

1. HORSES & PONIES (also Donkeys)


Modern horse pastures suffer two common problems. The first is that they are often over-grazed by horses, usually without the benefit* of other grazing herbivore species during the year. The second is that, in the post-war thrust for home food production, the idea of grassland ‘improvement’ has been to spread artificial nitrogen on grassland, to use herbicides both to discourage ‘weeds’ and to encourage grass and to plough up and reseed with a narrower band of grass species. The main advisory bodies and colleges have inherited their basic culture from this government-led self-sufficiency drive for farm land and, now that farming has declined in the UK and horse-keeping has increased, such organisations are turning to advising on horses, for their income. Sadly, the policy has not changed, to recognize and to take into account the crucial differences in dietary needs between simple-stomached herbivores, such as the horse on the one hand and ruminant herbivores, such as cattle, on the other. The result is that colleges, advisory bodies and current farming wisdom propose using artificial nitrogen to promote grass growth. It does promote grass growth very well indeed, but at the expense of wholesome nutrition in the case of horses. It can even cause toxic side-effects for horses.

Horses are known to very well on extremely short and brown pasture, so long as they have a good water supply (see photograph)

*Other non-equine species will have different grazing patterns, thus promoting more varied grassland management. They will also reduce the level of parasite infection in the grass for both species.

Practical Application

What actually happens is that the rich diversity of plant species, once a feature of traditional grassland, is giving way to a very limited number of species, mostly selected grasses (e.g. ryegrass** – Lolium spp.). This grass is then top-dressed with artificial nitrogen, which displaces the trace mineral cations (e.g. copper, zinc, manganese) from the clay micelles of the soil (this is a known chemical effect). The very next rain washes away those minerals (this is a demonstrable consequence of such management). Furthermore, the soil microflora has been damaged. Yes, the grass looks green. Yes, the grass is thick and lush. It is, however, nutritionally nowhere near in the same league as traditional grass, even ignoring the tragic loss of species diversity and the absence of essential, deep-rooting herbs. The topsoil has been increasingly impoverished over the years, as a result of such short-sighted policies. Knowing the importance of minerals to nutrition and health, we can easily predict what a disaster for the horse this process is. Another important penalty is that non-structural carbohydrates in grass are increased and non-protein nitrogen compounds (both potentially toxic families of compounds) are increased, while important fibre (structural carbohydrate) is decreased, in response to artificial nitrogen application.

One clear result of all this, apart from the poor nutrition that ensues, is that ponies (and, to a lesser extent, horses) are much more prone to laminitis, when grazing such ‘improved’ grassland.

Furthermore, Potassium levels in rapidly-growing grass are increased, while Magnesium levels are decreased. This can result in more excitable, jumpy horses, showing greater anxiety and unpredictable behaviour. Muscle health will also suffer.

We have heard it argued that ‘we have to fertilize with artificial nitrogen to produce grass’. However, while artificial fertilizing will produce more grass it will produce less nutrition per acre (per hectare). It looks good (and green) but will support fewer horses.

Herbicides (weed killers) appear to be very dangerous for horses. We have even had several bad cases of laminitis following application of a common ‘livestock safe’ herbicide to nettles. The problem appears to occur when horses eat the wilting nettles, days after they have been sprayed.

Apart from the benefits to botanical and invertebrate biodiversity and to the dependent ecology in general, a variety of herbage in the sward is valuable for grazing horses. Deep-rooting ‘weeds’ can bring up all-important minerals from deeper soil layers. Dandelions, for example, are very good at this and are very palatable. Nettles are a good ‘weed’ to have around the edges of the pasture. They act as host to various butterfly species and, when cut, offer wonderful nutrition, including minerals, to horses, being very palatable when wilted.

Conserved forage is also subject to similar problems. Hay, haylage and dried grass will vary in suitability for horses, depending upon the management during its growing period.

Contrary to current popular belief, horses will fare better on meagre unfertilized traditional pasture than on lush, productive ‘modern’ or ‘improved’ pasture. Horses are accomplished fibre-converters and dried-looking pasture in late summer is much more beneficial to them than its luxuriant, well-fertilized counterpart.

The AVMC is very willing to advise on grassland management for health and on nutritionally compensating the horse for the ill-effects of the above methods, should the client wish.

**Italian Ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) is generally recognized as the highest yielding species but only provides two-year leys. Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne) is a very common and often dominant species in pasture seed mixes. Neither species is to a horse’s advantage.


Although the grass loses nutritive value (vitamins and minerals), in response to top-dressing with artificial nitrogen, grass bulk production increases. Ruminants are better able to handle the resultant non-structural sugars and non-protein nitrogen compounds than horses, so they become more productive, when grazing this sort of pasture. They become more prone to hypomagnesaemia (grass staggers), however, when the grass responds to fertiliser application.

Modern production animals now require massive supplementation with trace minerals, to compensate for the lowered nutritional value of ‘improved’ grassland, if they are to remain healthy. Relative deficiencies of manganese, zinc, copper, cobalt, iodine and selenium are common and widespread problems. The application of modern chemicals to grassland not only directly depletes the soil of trace minerals and major minerals but it also narrows the species diversity, especially of deep-rooting plants, thus exacerbating the problem.

We have seen a cow with rumen atony, which eventually died, following ingestion of sprayed nettles (despite the chemical being labelled ‘livestock safe’).

It is this obsession with producing more grass for ruminants which has spilled over into the mindset of those who advise for increasing land usage for equine grazing, to the disadvantage of the horse, biodiversity and ecology.

Grazing ruminants and horses together (or successively) on the same land, is of benefit to both species.


A horse (and other species) will benefit from shelter in an open field, whether from hedges, trees or man-made shelter. Fencing should be safe and effective. Trees and hedges provide browsing material, quite apart from their ability to provide shelter and shade from the sun.This widens the horse’s choice of forage but can lead to trouble from poisonous plants if the grazing is insufficient for the horse’s appetite. Specific trees receive mention in the articles on beneficial plants and poisonous plants. It is worth mentioning, in view of the increase in land being given over to horse and pony grazing, that we should consider the aesthetic, visual and ecological impact, if possible, of paddocks, fencing, shelters etc.


Take especial notice of ragwort (Senecio spp.), which is particularly poisonous to horses, causing serious liver damage (scirrhosis/fibrosis). Horses will usually give it a wide berth but, if it is pulled or crushed and wilted (or even included in hay), it can become attractive to them. It is a biennial plant, having a low-profile rosette in its first year (see gallery above) with a tall aerial inflorescence in the second year (characteristic yellow flowers in summer – see image to left). Either should be carefully removed, if seen, and burned. Fortunately, the leaf shape is particularly recognizable (see image).

Ragwort poisoning may be treatable using homeopathy, depending how much damage has been done, how soon a case can be treated, how much ragwort has been taken and for how long. N.B.: Garden escapes of ornamental ragwort species are also dangerous


Poaching of grassland and paddocks, by having horses or other species standing or treading too much in a given area when the ground is wet, should be avoided where possible. It leads to compaction of the soil, decrease of grazing value, degradation of grasses and proliferation of undesirable plants (weeds). The similar things can happen with overgrazing by a given species of herbivore (e.g. horses). Dock, pineapple weed, knot weed, thistles, nettles fat hen and other species will begin to dominate such areas. Compare the photograph to the right with the grassland photographs above, to see clearly what a lasting effect such damage has. Affected areas may have to be aerated and re-seeded with a varied friendly grass seed mix.


It may be annoying to find that paths have been forged into your pasture land by your grazing animals. It’s best to come to terms with this, as it is part of normal behavior!

See also:

In summary, we believe that it is important for our horses’ health to seek an alternative to the modern intensive approach to pasture management.