How to Move Horses to a New Pasture

May 10, 2022

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How to Move Horses to a New Pasture

The biggest question I had when building our horse farm? How exactly should I prepare both the horses, and the pastures for the horses? Our horses will be moving from a mostly dry lot to acres and acres of pastures, which can be tricky for a horse’s health. Here are the best practices for how to move horses to a new pasture. 

Table of Contents:

Transitioning a Horse from Hay to Grass

When moving horses to a pasture, you may feel tempted to just turn them out to the open grass. After all, this is what horses would naturally do in the wild right? Well, the process is not this simple. There are a few things to keep in mind to ease transitioning a horse from hay to grass. Here’s what grazing techniques to know when learning how to move horses to a new pasture.

You want to protect both the health of your horses and the health of your pasture. To do this, hold off on grazing in a new pasture until the grass has reached 6-8 inches in height. This prevents you from grazing too early and risking the re-growth of the grasses. If you try to graze too early in the spring, for example, your grass won’t be able to grow. Photosynthesis that occurs mostly in the leaves of plants will be stifled in small sprouts that do not have enough leaves to support growth during grazing periods. Once a pasture is grazed to 3-4” in height, you should stop grazing. Horses can then be rotated to a new pasture.

For horses that are not prone to laminitis or similar conditions, there is a standard process for moving to a new pasture. If your horses are accustomed to feeding on hay instead of grazing on grass, start by allowing just 15 minutes of grazing per day for the first few days. For two weeks, increase this time by 10-minute increments every day. Do this until your horse can safely graze for 3-4 hours. Keep the grazing period to 4 hours for about two weeks after reaching this point. It’s also important to give your horses access to their typical hay or feed during the first week before turning them out for their allotted time each day.

Horses need this transition period because grass and hay have different properties. The microbial population that ferments food in a horse’s hind gut needs time to adjust to the new feed. This is because fresh contains much more moisture (70-85%) than dry hay (10-20%). The young grass in a new pasture is much more soluble than hay. This means it will be fermented to a greater extent. This sudden change in the processing of food will throw off a horse’s energy levels.

how to move horses to a new pasture

When is The Best Time for Horses to Graze?

The best time for horses to graze depends on your individual horse and the season. This is because the sugar content of the grass changes with the weather and time of day. You want your horses to graze when the sugar content is lowest to minimize their daily sugar intake.

Temperature and sunlight are the major factors that determine the amount of sugar that grass has built up. The grass uses its sugar levels accumulated over the course of the day to grow during the night. This means that the sugars will be used up by morning, resulting in the lowest sugar levels just before dawn. In general, when temperatures are moderate, the safest times for horses to graze are before dawn until about 10 a.m. Then again at night after about 11 p.m. You can also have the grass in your pasture tested for non-structural carbohydrate levels (accumulated sugars and starches.)

Spring and Fall Grazing

Grazing patterns may need adjusting as sugar levels in your pasture change with the weather. In the spring, when night temperatures reach 40 degrees Fahrenheit and above, the lowest sugar levels occur before sunrise. Grass will contain the most sugar in late, sunny afternoons.

When nights get cool again in the fall (40 degrees Fahrenheit or below), sugar content rises to dangerous levels. This is because cold temperatures slow the growth of the grass. Therefore, they convert a smaller amount of sugar to energy. When this happens, it’s best to slowly allow more grazing time. Supplement their diet with dry hay that is preferably low in sugar. Beware of brown, dry grass, too. Even if it looks dead, it can contain just as much if not more sugar than fresh, green grass.

Winter Grazing

Make changes to grazing patterns as gradually as possible. In other words, you should continue to turn out your horses in the fall and winter whenever possible. A slow transition avoids colic and other digestive ailments. However, the transition from grass to hay is more natural as the fall temperatures naturally dry out the pasture grass to have a moisture content more similar to hay. 

As the moisture in pasture grass dissipates, you need to make sure your horse is staying hydrated. Access to clean and relatively warm (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit) drinking water is essential. To encourage increased water intake, consider giving your horses access to a salt block. You can also try adding a bit of salt to their feed. 

Remember that it is normal for a horse’s weight to fluctuate as seasons change. If they seem to have enough energy and aren’t struggling to move around, don’t worry too much about the loss or gain of a few extra pounds. Just monitor their weight to make sure it’s not bordering on obesity or coupled with more problematic changes in behavior.

Preventing Laminitis and other Health Complications

There are a few main health concerns when learning how to move horses to a new pasture. Laminitis, or founder, and equine Cushing’s disease are related to grazing concerns. Remember that the digestive system of a horse is meant to process small amounts of food over long periods of time. Here are some of the most common grazing-related health issues and how to prevent them.

Laminitis 

Laminitis is an irreversible condition caused by excessive sugar intake. It causes severely painful swelling inside the tissue of the hooves. It tends to peak in the spring and fall seasons due to the sudden fluctuations of sugar levels in the grass. Laminitis is also known as founder.

Horses sensitive to sugar should graze very early in the morning between about 3 a.m. and 10 a.m. This includes horses with a history of laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome, or insulin resistance. However, for colder nights that reach below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, at risk horses should not have pasture access. This is because the grass will still have high sugar levels.

It’s best to prevent laminitis before it develops because once the horse has the condition, they will become more prone to laminitis flare ups. Obesity will increase the likelihood that your horse develops laminitis, so aim to keep your horse slim by making sure they have a healthy diet and amount of exercise. Utilize the winter months to keep your horses’ weights down. Avoid over-rugging so the horse’s body will naturally use its fat stores to stay warm, slimming down in the process.

Make sure your laminitis prone horse has appropriate feed and safe forage. You can find feeds approved by The Laminitis Trust that help to balance the diet. Keep in mind the grazing tips from earlier and test your forage for carbohydrate levels. Also, be sure to keep a close eye on your horse’s feet for laminitis markings. They may appear as a white line or rings and general tenderness.

Equine Cushing’s Disease

More formally known as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID), Cushing’s Disease is when a tumor forms inside of the pituitary gland, causing an imbalance in stress hormones that lead to complications. Symptoms include weight loss, ulcers in the mouth, excessive thirst, abnormal shedding, and being more prone to infection. 

Ponies are generally more likely to develop Cushing’s Disease than horses, but if your horse is experiencing these symptoms you should have them checked out by a vet immediately. Horses with Cushing’s disease are also far more likely to develop laminitis, meaning their grazing time and fresh grass intake needs to be closely managed to avoid laminitis onset.

Talk to Your Veterinarian 

While standard processes and rules of thumb can be helpful tools for navigating how to move horses to a new pasture, they don’t work for every horse. The best way to transition a horse from hay to grass depends on the individual need of that horse. Talk to your veterinarian about how to move horses to a new pasture. Before allowing grazing in a grass pasture, find out if your horse has a metabolic issue like laminitis, Cushing’s or insulin resistance. One of these conditions might mean your horse should have very limited grazing time, if any at all.

Pay attention to changes in the weather and how that might affect your horses, even if they are acclimated to grazing in a pasture. The spring or fall weather changes might warrant adjustments to their normal routine. You can also ask your veterinarian about their recommendations for building up to grass grazing during specific seasons to prevent the onset of health issues. To further protect yourself and your horse from potential harm, consider getting an equine insurance policy.

Finally, muzzles can be a helpful tool when making the transition from hay to grass. They can also be incorporated into normal turn out routines. Muzzles simply slow the food intake of a horse in a given time period. This reduces laminitis risk caused by eating too much in a short period of time.

How to Make a Dry Lot

While moving your horses to a beautiful, wide-open pasture may be a dream come true, this may not always be the best environment for every horse or every pasture. While you may be wondering how to move horses to a new pasture, a dry lot could be helpful addition, too.

A dry lot is a great solution when your horses have grazed their current pasture down to the 3-4 inch mark, the grass in your pasture is sparse, or your horse needs limited access to fresh grass or other horses. If your horse is suffering from a condition such as laminitis and grazing has become too difficult, you may have to seek out pasture alternatives such as making a dry lot on your farm.

Step 1: Choose a Space

Picking a good location for your dry lot can benefit your horse and create more convenience for you. A minimum of 400 to 600 square feet of space per horse is a good rule of thumb when determining how much space you need for a dry lot. It’s also helpful to locate the dry lot in an area that may not have much pasture growth so you don’t have to sacrifice healthy forage.

A location close to your barn can make chores easy for you or you can prioritize proximity to the pasture fence to easily move horses back and forth. Keep in mind how easily accessible the dry lot gates will be. This can simplify moving supplies to the area and loading horses into a trailer. Being nearer to the pasture might put horses at ease when they need to be separated to the dry lot for any reason. 

Another factor to keep in mind is the distance from water or electricity sources if you want features like an electric fence or an automatic waterer. When considering water proximity, be sure to take drainage into account to limit erosion and runoff pollution from your dry lot into natural streams. Utilizing a buffer zone of native and deeply-rooted vegetation can be helpful for mitigating erosion and runoff issues.

Step 2: Install Fencing

While any safe pasture fencing that you might use already is generally suitable for a dry lot, horses will be more likely to try to reach through or over the fence in pursuit of vegetation close by. Consider reinforcing your fence with woven wire to prevent horses from reaching through and electric wire to avoid horses reaching over.

It’s important to regularly maintain the fencing for your dry lot because your horses will come into closer contact with it more regularly than pasture fencing. In other words, it will wear down faster. To reduce your horses’ contact with the dry lot fencing, clear out vegetation near the fence every once in a while, especially if these plants might be johnsongrass or another poisonous plant species. This way, they are less tempted to reach for a snack.

Step 3: Install Footing if Necessary

If your dry lot is going to be located on sandy soil or you just need to clear the few plants left in the area, this may be enough preparation. But, if you want a more long-lasting surface for your dry lot, you could install footing. A contractor could recommend options for reducing erosion and managing drainage with a variety of materials including sand, wood chips, or shredded rubber. They can also suggest design elements for a dry lot that’s easy on the eyes and doesn’t take away from the beauty of your pasture.

If you have a laminitic horse or just a horse dealing with hoof pain, ask your veterinarian to recommend footing options that support recovery. Inspections of your proposed dry lot will likely be necessary. Inspectors can offer suggestions for how to comply with local and state regulations if you inquire.

Step 4: Provide Sturdy Shelter

A reliable shelter is necessary for any turnout area, especially in storms and other harsh elements. One option is to build your dry lot near an existing barn so your horse has easy access to shelter. However, more affordable options like canopies can shelter your horse until a more permanent structure can be built. Make sure your shelter is big enough to protect all the horses that might be on the dry lot at a given time.

Step 5: Control Bugs

Controlling flies and other pests means controlling manure. If your horse is always turned out on the dry lot, you will need to clean out manure as often as you would for their barn stall. Flies may persist despite your best efforts to keep the dry lot clean. If this is the case, use fly sprays or fly sheets when necessary.

You can also engineer controls like hanging sturdy fabric such as burlap sprayed with fly spray over the entrance of the shelter. If you teach your horses to push past this soft barrier, the strips will brush flies off of the horses with the extra repellant of the fly spray. If your dry lot has electrical access, you can use fans to keep air flow up and fly levels down.

Step 6: Use a Slow Feeder

Just as transitioning from hay to grass is a big change, so too is the switch from pasture grazing to a dry lot. Consider using a slow feeder to mimic natural grazing and keep your horse busy. It’s important to spread the amount of feed into as many small meals as you can. Collaborate with your veterinarian, too, to develop a plan for managing weight and insulin resistance when transitioning to a dry lot. Veterinarians can also make suggestions for horses whose feed isn’t lasting all day. They can help determine if going on an empty stomach for parts of the day have lead or will lead to gastric ulcers.

Step 7: Provide Enough Exercise

Riding your horse a few times a week can give them the exercise they need and miss out on while being on a dry lot as opposed to a pasture. Your veterinarian can advise you on the appropriate amount of exercise for horses with health conditions like arthritis. Some horses may get by just by walking to multiple feeders spread out on the dry lot.

Step 8: Beat Boredom

A horse can quickly get bored if they are constantly turned out in a smaller area like a dry lot. Sometimes just having a friend such as another horse or a pony can reduce a horse’s stress levels. Your horse might be interested in playing with different types of toys, too. Adding forms of entertainment to your dry lot can help a horse stay happy and healthy, even if it’s not out on the open pasture.

Conclusion

The best practices for introducing a horse to grazing depend heavily on a horse’s individual health history and medical needs. Whether it be slowly adjusting grazing patterns or cutting out grazing altogether to introduce a safe dry lot, monitor your horse closely and don’t be afraid to ask your veterinarian questions. A simple change in grazing routines might make all the difference for your horse’s health. Keep these tips in mind for how to move horses to a new pasture!

Mentioned in this article:

Do You Need Equine Insurance For Your Horse?

Preparing pastures for horses

Poisonous Plants for Horses

What Should You Do with Horses During a Storm?

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