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Keeping horses on wooded property

From: Faris

Hi Jessica,

I'd first like to say that as new horse-owners my wife and I are very grateful for all the help that your newsletter have given us. There's just so much to learn and every day seems to throw more new information at us.

What I'm writing to you about is the possibility of and problems associated with keeping horses on our forest property. Right now we have a two-year old pure-bred Arabian gelding boarded nearby, and in the spring we hope to find a more mature Arabian gelding for competitive riding. Eventually we would like to move them to our property which is 16 acres of hilly forest bordering on approximately 500 acres of virtually untouched forest, perfect for trails and endurance training.

As there is very little in the way of pasture what is the efficacy of keeping horses on our property? Can a lack of pasture be properly substituted with foliage and hay? How much area is recommended for grazing under these circumstances? Are there nutritional supplements that we should be advised of for use in lieu of proper grazing? Should we be clearing a large area for them to roam or will the woods do? What other things should we be taking into consideration?

We would love to be able to have our horses with us all the time, but we are also very worried about any detrimental effects from having them in a space without pasture. If you could give us some guidance, we would be very much grateful.....Thank you so much for all of your advice in the past and I'm sure to come in the future.


Hi Faris! Thanks for the kind words. ;-) Many horses do quite nicely with no pasture at all, just drylot turnout and plenty of hay. Other horses are on pasture but get very little grass at some times of year because of the condition of the pasture; such horses need supplemental hay for half the year or more, depending on the amount of forage that the pasture can provide.

It's difficult to estimate how much pasture area would be needed -- this depends on where you are, and on the quality (and the management and maintenance) of your pasture. In some areas, one acre per horse is sufficient -- in others, each horse might need ten or twenty acres to get the same amount of forage.

If you have access to good-quality hay, and you can make this available to your horses year-round, the quality of your pasture will be largely irrelevant. Don't exhaust yourselves trying to create an acre or two of really wonderful pasture if your efforts are unlikely to be successful -- in any case, your horses will be better off with a larger area to roam and good hay to eat.

You WILL have to think in terms of clearing an area that can become a pasture/turnout/drylot/exercise field. A few trees here and there will supply the horses with shade and protection from inclement weather, but you'll need to be certain that you leave only the trees and other vegeation that will not poison your horses. Some trees, shrubs, and plants should not be in horse pastures, or indeed anywhere near them.

You probably already know about some of the fastest-acting toxic plants: a mouthful of Japanese yew will kill a horse almost instantly, and wilted red maple leaves will kill a little more slowly. These are particularly dangerous to horses, because it takes just a few experimental bites to do the damage. Acorns can also be toxic, if eaten in large quantities and over time, so if you keep a stand of oaks in your pasture, you'll want to dispose of as many acorns as possible.

Your best bet will be to contact your county extension agent and find out what sort of grazing your area will support, and what sort of trees you can safely leave in and near your (future) pasture area. There's no nutritional supplement that can replace a constant, steady intake of low-protein, high-fiber food -- horses are designed to consume grass around the clock. We can substitute hay (dried grass or legume), but the constant low-level activity of the digestive system is fundamental to horse health. Your extension agent and your vet will be able to advise you about your grazing and about the types of hay and grain (if any) that will best meet your horses' needs. Your veterinarian should be able to recommend a single vitamin-mineral supplement formulated for your area of the country. This, plus hay, water, and salt, should keep your horses healthy and happy.

For at-home research, I recommend that you purchase a copy of the "Horse Owner's Field Guide to Toxic Plants". It's listed and described in the "recommended books" section of my web pages.

When it's time to start making trails and thinking about endurance riding, you may want to subscribe to an endurance mailing list.

Good luck, and have fun riding through those woods!


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