The field or paddock that your horse lives in serves a number of different purposes; food source, exercise area, latrine and a secure environment for him to socialise with other horses. Whether your horse lives out 24/7 or is turned out for a few hours a day, pasture management is of the utmost importance to your horse’s health and welfare. Your horse will be pleased to know that this list of yearly paddock maintenance tips should help to keep his paddock a safe place with plenty of tasty grass for him to graze on.
Decent Drainage A well-drained field makes all the other jobs much easier and helps to make your field more productive. You need to make sure the water can get through the soil to the drainage pipes and that the drainage pipes themselves are clear. Finally make sure the pipes flow out into a free flowing stream or river.
Soil Structure Soil structure is very important and fields that are not part of a rotational crop system…that pretty much covers all horse pastures…may need some extra work to keep the soil structure up to scratch. Sub-soiling from time to time can help drainage and keep your soil in tip top condition. The sub-soiler effectively lifts the surface of the ground up and drops it back down. This breaks apart and loosens the soil below the level of a plough or other traditional tillage equipment. This allows both air and water to move through the soil more efficiently, which aids plant growth and drainage.
Harrowing Harrowing rips little chunks of grass and moss out to allow a place for fresh grass to grow. You do this by dragging either chain or spring tine harrows behind a tractor or ATV. Harrows are similar to a large heavy garden rake. They can often be adjusted to allow you to choose between a harsh raking action or a lighter one. In the case of chain harrows this is normally done by towing the harrows in the opposite direction which causes the hooks to dig into the ground less.
Fresh Grass Seed If you have a lot of bare patches in your field, a good plan can be to top up your pasture with some fresh grass seed. It’s simple to do, just sprinkle some on after harrowing and before rolling. If you’re lucky, you could get a local farmer as he may have a set of spring tine harrows with a seeder attached so that it’s just the one job. Alternatively, you can do small areas by hand. Specialist seed mixes are widely available for equestrian pasture. An equine nutritionist or seed mix supplier will be able to advise on the appropriate mix for your horse. Seeding can be done from April to October providing adequate moisture and irrigation is available. A light dressing of fertiliser 2/3 weeks before sowing will help get quick establishment of the sward.
Rolling Rolling does a few things, it flattens out bumps, helps bed in the seed if you’ve spread it and it also pushes stones down to stop toppers and mowers from damage at a later date. Timing is everything with rolling, you need to do it when the ground is damp. If the ground is too dry the roller just bounces over the top of rocks and bumps and if it’s too wet you’ll make a mess with the tractor and make the field worse.
Fertilising Fertilising the ground can be done by using manure or man-made fertilisers which are spread with a fertiliser spreader. Soils that are deficient in various nutrients will produce little grass and this will be of poor quality. The main nutrients required for plant growth are: • Nitrogen- promotes rapid, leafy green growth and builds plant material • Phosphorous- helps the plant produce seeds and root growth • Potassium- improves quality and disease resistance If the above nutrients are deficient then a fertiliser can be applied to the soil. Specialist slow releasing fertilisers are available for equine pastures and contain the correct ratio of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Vital nutrients for plant and animal growth such as sulphur and magnesium are also often included in ready balanced fertilisers. Too much, or the wrong type of fertiliser (such as a nitrogen based fertiliser) will produce rich grass, which may cause digestive tract problems, laminitis or obesity. It is always sensible to seek expert advice regarding seeding and fertilising pasture.
Soil PH Soil PH can also be worth checking if your pasture is not performing. You can add lime to the ground to adjust the soil PH to suit your needs. Contacting a specialist is usually a good plan as lime spreading and soil analysis is a specialist job and is best done by a professional.
Weed Control & Poisonous Plants Horses are more likely to eat weeds and poisonous plants when food is in short supply. Supplementary hay should be provided when pasture is low but paddocks should be checked regularly for weeds and poisonous plants throughout the year. Any poisonous plants should be removed immediately or the horses prevented from grazing the area until the plants are eradicated. Some poisonous plants, such as Ragwort and Foxglove, become more palatable but remain equally toxic when dead and dried. Good pasture management will help to prevent the emergence and spread of weeds, which often thrive on overgrazed pasture. The method of control to eradicate poisonous plants and control weeds is likely to depend on the size of the area affected. A small number of plants can be effectively pulled by hand or by using an ingenius invention called a Ragfork! This pulls up weeds by the roots and saves lots of backache. Always wear gloves and dispose of any plants appropriately. Plants such as docks, nettles, thistles, chickweed and buttercups are common weeds. Buttercups need to be controlled, as they can be an irritant to the skin and are potentially harmful when eaten. They are, however, harmless when dried in hay.
Yearly Paddock Maintenance Plan Spring
- Analyse soil and fertilise accordingly.
- Harrow your field.
- Re-seed poached and bare areas.
- Roll if necessary.
- If you use a portion of your field to grow your own hay or haylage, now is the time to cut it.
- Re-seed in late August if necessary.
- Address the pH balance of the soil again.
- Make provision to rest your paddock or at least a portion of it over the winter.
Happy Horses! Maintaining your paddock might not be the most fun job in the world but the more you look after your paddocks the more you’ll get out of them. If you get into the habit of carrying out maintenance regularly, it shouldn’t take up too much of your time. Just keep remembering that good quality paddocks = happy, healthy horses!