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With nearly a million horses living in the UK, this animal plays a vital role in ecosystem restoration. Horse owners and land managers alike can use equines to replace some of the functions of their wild ancestors, which used to roam this landscape.

However, many horses are currently living on overgrazed, nutrient-enriched pasture, which is not only damaging to biodiversity, but also to long term productivity and horse health. In this article, we’ll look into how to manage a pasture in a way that regenerates the soil, restores plant diversity and improves quality of life for your animals.

Health Effects of Conventional Pastures

With summer droughts increasing in severity and winter rains becoming more intense, horses are beginning to suffer. The conventional way of managing pasture tends to result in poor quality grazing, and waterlogged, muddy fields through winter months. With such a valuable investment, horse owners are looking for alternative systems of management that keep their pastures healthy.

Rich Pasture

When hooved animals like horses have a diet that’s rich in water-soluble carbohydrates, they can develop laminitis. This is a painful condition which causes inflammation of the hoof area, and lameness in the long term. These carbohydrates are found at high levels in rich pasture, which has been fertilised, or seeded with clover and rye grass – this land also tend to be low in minerals and micronutrients. That’s why it’s many horse owners place a high value on nutrient-poor wildflower meadows.

Rich pasture is Modified Grassland. If you have this kind of habitat on your land and your horses are at risk of laminitis, it may be worth looking into ways of reducing the nutrients. The habitat guide to Modified Grassland provides details of how to do this.

Treating Laminitis 

Reducing symptoms of laminitis in horses can also be achieved through a number of different owner interventions. Most of these recommendations will create and maintain a healthy paddock:

  • Turn horses out from late at night to early morning
  • Restrict access to pasture in spring and autumn
  • Graze on pasture with young leafy growth, not mature stems
  • Avoid grazing on drought-, cold-, or frost-stressed pasture
  • Combine horses with other livestock – especially cattle and sheep
  • Rotate paddocks regularly to avoid overgrazing
  • Maintain a healthy horse weight and avoid grain bins in paddocks
 
Horse on grassland habitat
Pasture is considered overgrazed when the sward height drops below 5cm - this limits the health of the ecosystem

Herbivore Guilds

Horses are native to Britain and, though the wild ancestors of our modern breeds were closer in appearance and behaviour to the Exmoor Pony, our domestic animals can still be a valuable part of a healthy grassland ecosystem. It’s just a matter of managing them effectively – with cattle, we say ‘it’s the how, not the cow’ (perhaps there’s a similar expression for horses?).

The healthiest horse paddocks are also shared with other livestock. A diverse mix of animals that performs lots of different functions is described as a ‘herbivore guild’. We cannot overstate the benefits of mixing cattle, pigs, sheep and even deer in with your horse grazing system.

The pigs will reset dense, matted sward by turning over the turf, creating patches of exposed soil that allow wildflowers to become established, and ploughing wallows for drinking water (low density stocking is key). Cattle are generalist grazers, which are not as selective as horses, reducing the dominance of ‘horse weeds’ like dock and ragwort. Sheep are selective grazers with different tastes to horses, and are best suited to maintaining nutrient-poor grasslands.

Each one of these different types of livestock could be a source of income or homegrown food, in the form of dairy products or meat. For vegetarians, the biodiversity benefits alone may be enough to convince you of the merits of this system. A diverse herbivore guild tends to create wildflower-rich meadows and, at low stocking densities, scrubby mosaic grasslands, rich in wildlife.

Horse on heathland habitat
Sturdier breeds of pony are more well-adapted to harsh conditions and browsing scrubby vegetation

Hedgerows & Trees

A wild grassland habitat would contain pockets of woodland, isolated trees and scrub. But in our fields, there is often little shelter for a horse in harsh conditions. Horses typically seek out shelter to escape not only strong summer sunlight and heavy rain, but also biting insects, which are more of an issue in the sun than in the shade.

Creating Healthy Hedges, Scrub & Trees

Managing hedgerows in certain ways can create more shelter for horses. A wedge-shaped profile will reduce the breeze travelling through the bushes, and create a calm area in the lee of the hedge. This means changing the cutting frequency, and cutting at a shallow angle, rather than slicing a vertical wall.

Emergent trees appear through the top of hedgerows, and these, particularly on the South and West side of fields, can provide protection from sun, rain and wind. Allowing some trees to grow through the top of the hedge means avoiding cutting the ‘crown’, or leaving it in some places. Leaving it for too long may result in the bottom of the hedge becoming gappy, so this is a balancing act.

Scrub is an extremely biodiverse habitat, that can also be browsed by horses, but it needs a low grazing density to get established. That means it may be worth fencing off small areas – islands in the pasture or around its edges to allow the hedge to expand outwards into pockets of scrub. These patches will be highly beneficial for nesting birds and other wildlife. They also create more interest for the horses – a varied pasture which is more enjoyable to live in!

Planting individual trees within the field is a good step towards a healthier ecosystem, and one with more shelter for your horses. However, it is worth consulting an expert before doing this in a valuable Acid, Neutral or Calcareous Grassland. When planting trees in pasture, consider:

  • Native species that will maximise biodiversity
  • Trees which aren’t toxic to horses  – avoid Oak, Yew, Privet
  • Protecting trees with multiple stakes and wire, or parkland guards
  • Avoiding species with root suckers, which colonise the pasture (e.g. Aspen, White Poplar, Blackthorn)
 
Structural diversity
Ponds can have enormous benefits for biodiversity, but may be negatively affected by high densities of horses

Ponds

Healthy ponds can be a valuable source of water, especially during dry periods. They are extremely useful in larger projects where horses may roam across the land and not be concentrated in one location. Ponds reduce the local air temperature and restore water reserves both in the soil and in below-ground aquifers – useful when you’re pumping well water.

However, ponds may be polluted with chemicals, nutrients, pharmaceuticals or sediments, and infested with disease or parasites which make the water unsafe to drink. This is particularly the case when they drain large areas of urban or agricultural land. They may be dangerous to access, especially the muddier edges, or during icy conditions. The water and banks are breeding sites for biting insects, particularly in summer.

Horses can also degrade water quality through defecation, erosion of banks, consumption of marginal plants and disturbance of sediment. Their activity may create ‘poached’ edges which are of low value to biodiversity and slippery in wet conditions.

While a low density grazing system like a nature reserve can certainly benefit from a pond, most horse owners on smaller sites will likely find that these habitats are best fenced-off. However, filling in an existing pond can have extremely negative impacts on local biodiversity, and could leave you liable for a prison sentence and unlimited fine in England. Digging new ponds may be funded in some areas through a ‘Great Crested Newt grant’.

Horse grassland
With larger herds of horses, grazed at lower density on larger projects, there is no need to be concerned about removal of manure.

Good Pasture Management

Maintaining a healthy pasture isn’t just beneficial for biodiversity – it will also keep your horse grazing in good condition for years to come. These are the top recommendations from professionals in the (ahem) field…

Avoid Overgrazing

Maintain at least a 5cm grass height year round. If you’re using the field for hay, then remove the horses from the area to be cut from early April until the cut in mid June or July. A maximum of 1 horse per acre (averaged across the whole project) is recommended for healthy levels of grazing – in reality we often see stocking densities many times higher than this.

Rotate Pastures

Even on fields grazed at the correct stocking density, grass and soil will degrade over time if the land is in continuous use (‘set stocked’). Horse owners across the UK have begun shifting to a multi-paddock system of grazing, known as ‘adaptive grazing’. 

Adaptive grazing copies the natural grazing pattern found in grasslands, where large herds pass through and then the land is left to recover. This system creates strong roots, which binds together the soil, encourages worm activity and creates dense grass growth. The key here is ‘adaptive’ – there shouldn’t be a set period of time for grazing, but rather each paddock (separated by fencing or hedges) should be grazed until it needs to be rested.

This grazing period will vary depending on sward height, waterlogging, season, stocking density etc. But you’ll get a feel for how long each area can safely be grazed on your patch with trial and error. Adding in a more diverse mix of plants will increase the resilience of your grassland to drought stress – horse pasture seed mixes are available (‘herbal ley’ or ‘herbal’ is the typical term used for a diverse mix). The Cattle guide has more information about Herbal Leys.

Pull Horse Weeds

If you aren’t able to get a mix of livestock on the land, the alternative is keeping common ‘weeds’ like Ragwort under control. However, herbicides are extremely damaging to soil biodiversity and again to stream and river health when they wash away. Horses won’t eat Ragwort unless the field is overgrazed and/or Ragwort is present at very high density. However, if it is present in hay, it can be a serious danger – pulling individual plants is a relatively easy way to control this problem.

Remove Dung in Small Fields

In the wild, horses go to the toilet in ‘latrines’. These areas develop high nutrient concentrations and become eroded due to regular use. In larger fields and projects this is less of an issue, and can control parasite load, but in smaller fields it can be a problem, creating eroded or nettle-infested patches. Daily removal of dung may be required in these cases.

By constantly removing nutrients, nitrogen levels in soil will slowly decrease over time. They may need to be ‘topped up’ every few years by strategic muck spreading, but follow government guidance to reduce nutrient pollution in nearby watercourses.

Avoid Fertilisers and Supplementary Feed

When grazing horses in pasture, avoid providing supplementary feed as this will create erosion around the trough. The additional nutrients from the feed will also increase risk of laminitis and increase nitrogen levels in the soil. Fertilising the pasture (especially with artificial fertilisers) is also not recommended, as this will increase nutrients in the soil, increasing laminitis risk and reducing plant diversity. Muck spreading is a viable alternative if nutrient levels become depleted, but this should be very infrequent.

Replicate Pigs with Chain Harrows

If you can’t get pigs onto your land, then avoid ploughing, as this simply degrades the soil health. Instead, consider chain harrowing sections of the pasture, which breaks up matted grassy sward, encouraging the growth of a more diverse wildflower community. This should take place in the second half of the year, outside of bird breeding season and before early plants begin to grow.

Manage Wet Land Carefully

Horses will ‘poach’ moist soils if they’re left in the pasture during wet periods. This leads to increased waterlogging, reduced grass quality and increased growth of weeds. The value of your land and the number of horses it can support will decline over time.

Draining existing pasture is bad for biodiversity, both in the pasture and in watercourses, contributing to nutrient, chemical and sediment pollution, and increasing the likelihood of local flooding. It is better to use higher ground for grazing during winter, or feed horses hay and keep them off the land throughout winter wet periods.

Reduce Nutrients with Hemiparasites

Hemiparasitic plants suck the nutrients from grass roots, reducing their vigour, helping to minimise the risk of laminitis. Yellow rattle is one of these plants – while it is slightly toxic to horses, like most toxic plants, they avoid eating it.

By sucking nutrients from grass roots, this plant also reduces the dominance of rye grass, and encourages a diversity of other wildflowers, improving the nutritional quality of hay and pasture. Yellow rattle populations can be controlled easily by mowing/topping before it goes to seed.

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