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Can Horses Live on Grass Alone? Healthy Eating Guide for Horses

Can Horses Live on Grass Alone

Surely if there are wild horses out there living off pastures of grass, domestic horses can live on grass alone as well?

So can horses live on grass alone? In short, yes, all horses can live on grass alone. Healthy grass for grazing needs to be rich in nutrients to keep a horse healthy. Optimal levels of Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K) need to be present in the grass. Some areas don’t have enough protein available.

If you’re planning to feed your horse off grass/pasture alone, we HIGHLY recommend you read further down to know if the pasture is suitable for sustaining a healthy horse.

If you’re going out riding, jumping, and doing other fun equestrian activities, you should be feeding your horse more than just pasture grass.

These extra activities require a lot more energy than simply walking around all day grazing the open pastures and so you will need to assist your horse in receiving extra energy with concentrates listed further in this article.

How to Know if Your Grass/Pasture is Big and Healthy Enough for Your Horse to Live off

Check Size:

Generally, if you have a pasture between 2 and 4 acres large it will suffice for 1 horse grazing daily. If it’s less than 2 acres, you will have to maintain the pasture through extra watering, fertilizing, etc. (You can measure your pasture size with Google Earth, just follow the link to measure your pasture size.

Soil Test:

All the forage including the grass is feeding off the soil underneath it. Soil can be very different from one farm to the next and we advise having your soil tested by a local analytical laboratory.

They will test the nutrient levels of your soil and also give you a pH figure which are the two most important aspects of “healthy soil” After they provide the results they should also give you recommendations on which types of fertilizers to use or how much Agricultural lime you should apply if your soil is too acidic.

Check The pH level:

Similar to checking the pH of a pool. The optimal pH number is 7, anything higher than 7 is considered basic, a pH lower than 7 is considered acidic. For your horse to live off this grass alone it needs to be around 6 to 7 pH. If the soil is too acidic like 5 or below, it will stunt or even stop the growth of healthy grass.

Acidic soils don’t contain enough nutrients. Agricultural lime also called “aglime” is basic in nature. You will need to add the appropriate amount of lime to the soil to balance off the pH to around 7. You will get these figures from your soil testing facility.

4. Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K)

These are the three main nutrients, which at the right level, make for healthy grass for grazing. Your grass needs just the right amount of each one of these nutrients to be able to grow and reproduce.

Here we provide a more detailed description of each of these three main nutrients and the optimal target of nine different nutrients in your pasture.

4.1 Nitrogen (N)

If there is sufficient Nitrogen (N) in your grass it will be dark green, full and bushy. If the grass is pale/light green or maybe even yellow and growing slowly, then it’s usually due to a lack of Nitrogen (N)

Adding too much Nitrogen (N) to your grass in one dose can be bad. It’s best to apply the total recommended amount over two or three applications. Ask your supplier for detailed instructions for the application of their product and how to spread it out.

4.2 Phosphorus (P)

Phosphorus (P) needs to be at the right level to assist with great root development. If the grass and other forage don’t have well-rooted systems, they will not get enough nutrients from the soil.

4.3 Potassium (K)

Potassium (K) is related to the hardiness of the grass and other forage. If your grass lacks potassium, it might not survive the winter conditions. It also might die off due to a lack of disease resistance. Slow growth is another sign of potassium deficiency.

What Are the Optimum Nutrient Targets For Pastures?

Common Plants in Grass That Are Toxic to Your Horse (With Pictures)

There are also toxic weeds and plants within some pastures. Here are the most common toxic weeds and plants found in pastures amongst the grass:

Ragwort

Ragwort

Ragwort has a bitter taste while it’s growing and horses will rarely eat it BUT once it’s dried out a bit, the bitterness decreases, and horses may eat it when the rest of the grass is lacking.

Ragwort contains toxins that will result in liver failure or even death. Consumption of only a few pounds over the horse’s lifetime can result in death.

Use herbicides or manual control in order to uproot, remove, and burn. Spray there when they are at the rosette stage, don’t wait for the stem to appear. Mowing and cutting ragwort will make it grow back more quickly.

Foxglove

Foxglove

Horses normally won’t eat Foxglove, but if it’s dried up in grass, it can be eaten without hesitation. Just 100g of this stuff dried up in hay could prove fatal.

Symptoms of foxglove poisoning include contracted pupils, convulsions, breathing difficulties, and death after only a few hours.

Deadly Nightshade

Deadly Nightshade

Contrary to the name, Deadly nightshade is not normally deadly but may cause unconsciousness, dilation of the pupils, and convulsions. Also known as Atropa belladonna, commonly known as Belladonna.

Buttercups

Buttercups

Buttercups or Ranunculus are poisonous to horses if they are eaten fresh and in large amounts. Unlike the before-mentioned weeds, buttercups are harmless after drying in the hay.

Acorns

Acorns

Acorns are loved by many horses but can cause colic, a build-up of gas in the gut) Acorns drop in the Autumn and you should collect them off the ground or maybe even prohibit grazing around those trees until they have all dropped and been collected after Autumn has passed.

Yew

Yew

Yew is common in most pastures. The leaves and berries are just as poisonous as the plant itself, so make sure that none of these make it to your grazing area.
Just 500g of this can cause your horse to go into a coma-like sleep state and die.

Privet

Privet

Box privet is the most dangerous for your horse. Keep your pasture clean and clear of this.

Rhododendron

Rhododendron

Consumption of a small amount of Rhododendron can cause death by failure of the respiratory system.

Sycamore, maple and other acers

Maple Seeds

Helicopter seeds in Autumn and saplings in Spring contain hypoglycin-A that causes atypical myopathy in horses. Symptoms include muscular stiffness, reluctance to walk, muscle tremors, sweating, depression, high heart rate, dark urine (reddish in color). Your horse may appear weak and may have difficulty standing, breathing difficulties, but may still want to eat. If this happens, call your vet immediately.

Basic Guidelines for Feeding Your Horse

Roughage usually grass should be the bulk of the horses’ diet

For most non-competitive horses, roughage from the pasture or hay will be sufficient. Even if you do supplement your horses’ diet with concentrate, it should not be anywhere near the volume of grass feed. A horse should eat around 1 to 2% of its own body weight in roughage every day.

Horses normally walk around the pasture slowly nibbling away on the grass while slowly digesting it. Horses that spend a lot of their time in the stable should have access to hay for most of the day to replicate natural grazing.

This roughage constantly moving through their systems will be best for their natural digestive systems.

Grain and Other Concentrates Should be Fed in Small Amounts

If you need to feed your horse extra concentrates like grain, make sure to spread out the total dose over 2 or 3 meals during the day. This will ensure the proper absorption of the grain. It’s much better for the digestive system because it’s a more natural way to consume food.

  • The amount of food your horse needs depends on the size of your horse and on how much energy your horse needs to exert on an average day.
  • If your horse does get to graze on pasture, how healthy is that pasture? If your pasture is lacking in the ways mentioned earlier in this article, you will need to supplement the diet with additional hay.
  • The health of the pasture is very dependent on the season you are in. In winter you may need to supplement more, and in summer you might not need to supplement the diet at all.
  • With all supplements and concentrates, always start off with small measurements and increase if required.
  • As your horse ages and does different things, you should adjust the diet of the horse accordingly. It doesn’t remain the same throughout its whole life.

Any Change in the Amount or Type of Feed Must be Changed Gradually

A sudden increase or decrease in the amount or type of food you feed your horse can have very bad implications like colic or founder.

If you increase or decrease the amount of food or change the type of food, you can change 20 to 25% of the food with the new amount or type every day. Over six to seven days you will have a 100% food change in size or type.

Measure Your Concentrates Accurately and Regularly

A mature horse generally consumes 2-2.5% of its body weight in feed each day (on a dry matter, DM, basis). eg, a 1,000-pound (454-kg) horse fed hay plus grain concentrate (feeds that are about 90% DM) should consume about 20-25 pounds (9.1-11.3 kg) of feed daily.

For gastrointestinal health, horses need to eat about 1% of their body weight in hay or pasture grasses and legumes daily (10 pounds, or 4.5 kg, of DM intake for a 1,000-pound, or 454-kg, horse).

Depending on the type of feed you are using, it can have massive weight differences. Weigh your feed with a kitchen or postal scale if you don’t have a feed scale yet. Make sure it’s the right amount for your horses.

Follow a Regular Feeding Schedule

Horses thrive on routine. They have internal clocks that are very accurate. A drastic change in feeding times or intervals can trigger a colic episode in some cases. It’s better not to take the chance and change schedules slowly if necessary.

Don’t Feed Your Horse Shortly Before or After Exercise

It’s best to have at least one hour pass before riding your horse and even two to three hours if you’ll be running and jumping

After a strenuous workout, make sure your horse has cooled down and slowed breathing before feeding, around 30 to 60 minutes afterward.

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