Taking care of horses is tough when you don’t have a lot of space. Not long ago I came across a prime example of this dilemma. As a riding instructor and horse-care consultant I make house-calls. One such call led me through the rolling green hills of the Palouse in Northern Idaho, out past the tiny town of Potlatch, to a house with three horses pastured on a total of about two acres of land.
Certainly not enough to go on! The optimum space for a single horse is two acres. These horses were underfed with their ribs showing and they kept on escaping from the pasture. The pasture grass had been grazed down to nothing and a lot of the area was just mud and manure. The electric fence was merely thin wires that, after shocking the horses one time, had stopped working. Out north of the property there were lightly-forested hills and miles of grassland. What horse wouldn’t want to get out of the miserable, cramped quarters to get at the grass?
I told the owners if they wanted to give their horses a better life they would need to take immediate action: they would need to maximize the use of a minimal space.
Their first concern was the horses escaping again. Indeed there had been rumors of a mountain lion sighting in the area within the last several weeks. They knew their dogs could scare it off but what if the horses decided to bolt?
Fencing and Cross Fencing
I recommended they get a new fence. There are plenty of fencing options, but I told them to kill two birds with one stone. At the moment they were thinking short-term, but in the long-term they would need to think about maximizing the use of their space. One way for them to do this was by getting portable electric fencing and temporary fence-posts they could later use to control their horses’ grazing habits.
The problem before was, the horses had been allowed to demolish all of the grass in the pasture and trample up mud. I told them that once they got to the point of re-seeding they’d need to keep the horses off the seeded portion with fencing. Then, once the grass was long enough for the horses to graze, they would need to fence off a section where the horses could feed until the grass was down to about three inches. The 3-inch mark allows grass to grow back quicker, helps control weeds, and keeps mud at bay. After the fenced-off area was chomped down to three inches they would need to rotate the horses over to an untouched area.
Getting Rid of Mud
One of my main concerns with the pasture was the mud, which they needed to deal with before any grass could grow. Mud mixed with manure is a big problem because it can result in bacterial infections, it’s a breeding ground for flies, it’s slippery and dangerous, and prone to weed-growth. The owners had been putting hay out on the ground which is a big no-no. The horses were liable to get worms from the dung mixed with the mud—that is if the poor beasts didn’t have worms already.
The owners needed to fence off a pen and mud-proof it. That involves putting down a bark, wood-chip, or post-peel surface about 8 inches thick. Then, I recommended collecting the manure and composting it.
This was about a year ago in late March and the spring thaw had come early. If they hurried up, collected the manure and threw it in with their yard debris and some compost starter (starter is essential when trying to create quality compost, fast) they could start growing vegetables with the compost. Healthy veggies like carrots, green beans, and celery make for great horse treats, which they could use to help train their ill-behaved horses.
After they’d provided the horses with a temporary, mud-proofed pen and picked up the manure to compost, they could get to work re-seeding the pasture. If the compost was well-tended and covered they could use it to assist grass-growth. They would need to seed immediately during the moist months and be on it with watering the grass because a single horse weighs an average of 1100 pounds and can go through about 4.5 acres of the stuff per year.
Grass is Cheaper Than Hay
Still, grass is a much cheaper option than costly supplementary feed, such as hay. To consistently maintain grass on such a small pasture they’d have to take advantage of fertilizer. Doing so would prove less expensive than the supplementary feed. The best fertilizer solution is to get soil and plant-matter analyzed by a fertilizer supplier to determine what type of fertilizer is appropriate. Then, replace manure with fertilizer and treat grass like a crop.
Again, a horse does best on about two acres of space, but one horse can do fine on ne acre. For three horses, three acres will do (if done right).
But if you don’t have the option of that much space, in the end, maintaining the rotation of the horses in the pasture according to grass-length is key. The pasture should not be allowed to go to mud.
In the case of my clients up past Potlatch who didn’t have enough money to afford more space, re-growing grass and rotating the horses was the answer. And, since horses love to run, I encouraged them to ride their horses as much as possible with the coming of the warmer months!
So what, you might ask, was the end result? Well, quite frankly, these horse owners weren’t properly equipped to be horse owners. I think my consultation with them helped them realize the gravity of the situation. The horses needed rehabilitation and the pasture needed a lot of work. They lacked the time and commitment necessary to make the changes. When I made a follow-up call they told me they’d sold the horses to a rancher outside of a nearby town called Deary. They assured me the horses would be well taken care of at the ranch. I hope they were right. From the sound of it, the rancher bought them for a price you would only pay for malnourished horses. He told the former owners he planned on giving the horses to his kids as a project to help educate them on horse care.
Not wanting to pry, I left it at that. I told them they had made the right choice. Taking proper care of horses is best left for those who are fully invested in the task. It is best left for those who can provide their horses with a healthy, caring environment.
Guest Article by Lisa Delany
– Lisa Delaney lives in Moscow, Idaho. She loves riding and taking care of her two Appaloosas, Bozeman and Eureka. For horse-care tips and consulting you can reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTE from Joni (website owner): Please do an internet search for “Pasture Paradise” for more information about keeping equines on small acreage.