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Transitioning Your Horses to Spring Pasture: A Guide to a Successful and Healthy Transition

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Transitioning your horses to spring pastures requires careful consideration and management to ensure that your horses remain healthy and your pastures stay productive.

Taking the necessary precautions and slowly adjusting your horses’ diets can help ensure a successful and healthy transition to the new season.

Factors to Contemplate Before Introducing Horses to Pasture

Spring is just around the corner, and for many horse owners, it’s time to start thinking about transitioning their horses back to pasture.

However, this process is more complex than opening the gate and letting your horses run wild. There are several factors to consider to ensure a smooth and successful transition.

Laura Kenny, an equine extension educator, emphasizes that the type of transition your horse will need depends on its winter housing situation.

If your horse has been out on pasture all winter, it will require less management during the transition period. However, a slower and more gradual transition will be necessary if your horse has been confined to a dry lot or sacrifice lot.

During the winter months, it’s crucial to keep horses off pastures to protect the forage plants and encourage rapid spring growth.

Horse hooves can easily damage soil and plant roots, leading to slower pasture recovery in the spring. Instead, consider using a sacrifice lot, a small area not intended to grow forage, for turnout during the winter months.

When the pastures are ready to be grazed, starting with short grazing periods of 15-30 minutes per day for the first few days is essential.

Gradually increase the grazing periods by an additional 15-30 minutes per day until the horse is grazing for three to four hours daily. This process will help prevent digestive upset and ensure that the horses gradually adjust to their new diet.

If your horses have been confined, you will need to wait until pastures have grown to a minimum of 6 inches before grazing to allow the plants to recover and grow new leaf tissue.

Once the desired grazing time is achieved, you can adjust turnout periods as necessary, preferably after feeding hay or grain to prevent horses from being too hungry when offered grass.

Spring is a great time to let your horse graze in the open pasture. However, it’s crucial to note that changing your horse’s turnout management may require a gradual transition, not only in spring.

For instance, if you bring a new horse with poor pasture experience to a farm with high-quality pasture, you should ease it into the new feed source.

Horses who spent winter on pastures will adjust to spring grass as it grows. At first, the grass will be sparse so that the horses won’t consume much of it.

As the grass grows, their digestive system will adapt to the new feed source, but feeding hay into the spring is essential to help with the transition.

While it’s not ideal from a plant biology and pasture health perspective, most horses will be okay to turn out while the pastures are greening up in the spring.

Laminitis-prone horses with equine metabolic syndrome or insulin dysregulation are exceptions to this rule, as the NSC content of spring grass can cause undesirable health issues. It’s best to consult with your veterinarian when making pasture grazing decisions for such horses.

For horses that were kept off pastures during winter, it’s tempting to let them out to graze as soon as the grass grows. However, sudden changes in diet can cause health issues. Therefore, it’s best to make the transition gradual.

Horses grazing in pasture
Horses grazing in pasture

Guide to Introducing Horses to Lush Spring Pastures

Suppose you’ve moved your horse to a new barn with grass turnout this spring, and your horse hasn’t grazed on pasture before. In that case, it’s essential to make the transition gradual for their digestive system to adapt.

Abrupt changes in diet, such as moving to pasture, can cause colic and laminitis, whereas a gradual transition allows the digestive tract to adapt to the new feed source.

Your horse’s digestive system secretes different types and amounts of enzymes depending on their diet. The same applies to the bacteria in your horse’s hindgut microbiome.

Abrupt changes in diet can cause feed components that should be digested and absorbed in the small intestine to reach the hindgut instead, disrupting the microbiome microbial population.

This can result in gas production, hindgut pH reduction, die-offs of specific bacterial populations, and toxin release, all of which can lead to colic and laminitis.

It’s crucial to make a gradual transition when changing your horse’s diet, whether it’s the introduction of grain, a hay change, or a move to pasture. This will ensure a smooth movement to spring pastures and keep your horse healthy and happy.

Spring pastures offer a veritable feast for grazing horses, brimming with moisture, protein, and nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC), which include sugars, starches, and more complex fructans.

However, NSC-rich diets come with potential pitfalls. A sudden shift to high NSC intake can cause hindgut disruption, while horses with metabolic issues, like insulin dysregulation and equine metabolic syndrome, may develop laminitis and founder.

Therefore, to prevent digestive disturbances and other serious health problems, horses with metabolic conditions require a gradual introduction to pasture to avoid digestive disturbances and other serious health problems, and some may not be suited for grazing.

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Before embarking on this project, assessing your horse’s suitability for pasture is crucial. Assuming that your horse is a suitable candidate, it’s essential to ensure the fields are well-established before introducing your horse to graze.

Grazing on unestablished pastures can be tempting, but waiting until the pasture has at least six inches of grass growth is best. A helpful guideline is to avoid grazing pastures below four inches, allowing the plant to maintain itself, prevent overgrazing, and minimize the spread of weeds.

If your pasture has a minimum of six inches of growth, it’s time to introduce your horse to grazing. Start with 15-minute grazing periods, which may require hand-grazing to limit intake.

Gradually increase the grazing time by about 15 minutes per day until your horse is grazing for four hours per day. After a week of grazing for four hours daily, grant your horse unlimited access to the pasture.

Transitioning your horse to pasture can be labor-intensive, but with creativity and teamwork, it can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience. You can fit in the initial 15-30 minute grazing periods before or after a ride, groom your horse while they graze, or spend some quality time with your horse in the pasture.

Schedule more extended turnout periods for weekends or days when you have more time and don’t hesitate to ask for help from friends at the barn. Following these steps can ensure a safe and healthy transition for your horse to the pasture.

Adapting Horses to Grazing

The changing seasons can pose unique challenges for horse owners. As the weather shifts, so too does the quality of your pasture.

Properly managing these fluctuations requires careful attention to your horse’s health and your land’s maintenance. Let’s explore how the changing seasons impact how you feed your horse and tend to your pasture.

Seasonal Fluctuations in Grazing Quality

While your pasture is constantly in flux, the most significant changes occur during extreme temperature shifts, such as transitions from winter to spring and summer to fall.

The type of grass you grow can also impact your pasture’s quality, with cool-season grasses and warm-season grasses, each having unique characteristics.

Cool-season grasses, such as creeping bentgrass, fine and tall fescue, and Kentucky bluegrass, thrive in temperatures ranging from 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

These grasses utilize fructans as their primary storage carbohydrate, which they store in vacuoles rather than chloroplasts. This allows them to hold more carbohydrates, but too much can be harmful to your horse’s health.

On the other hand, warm-season grasses, including Bermuda grass and Bahiagrass, prefer temperatures between 80 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit and rely on starch as their primary storage carbohydrate.

Unlike cool-season grasses, they have limited starch production and storage in their chloroplasts. Depending on the type of grass in your pasture, the nutrient content and growth will vary in spring and fall.

Transition hay pasture
Transition hay pasture

Spring Grazing Concerns

In the spring, cool-season grasses overgrow and produce a high amount of nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC).

While NSCs can provide energy for your horse, excessive amounts can harm your horse’s digestion and overall health. Additionally, fructans become abundant during this time, which neither humans nor horses can digest. This can lead to acid production in your horse’s large intestine, negatively affecting health.

Fall Grazing Concerns

In fall, pasture grasses soak up sunshine and warmth during the day and experience cooler nights, leading to an increase in sugar production. As the weather cools, the plants store sugars for later use, creating high sugar concentrations in the grass.

Although NSCs are less prevalent during this season, fructans are still abundant. Monitoring your horse’s consumption of fructans during this season is essential to maintain your horse’s digestive and overall health.

As a horse owner, it’s crucial to be mindful of the changing seasons and how they impact your horse’s grazing patterns. Properly managing these changes can help keep your horse healthy and ensure that your land thrives.

The Changing Seasons of Equine Diets: Nurturing Health and Wellness

The seasons transform your pasture and shift your horse’s diet from grass to hay. However, unlike humans, horses possess a finely tuned digestive system, and abrupt diet alterations can have significant consequences.

To maintain a healthy equine gut during diet shifts, two primary considerations are essential: adjusting gut microbes and managing weight.

The cecum, a component of the digestive system that breaks down fiber, houses a population of microbes that cater to your horse’s diet.

As a result, when alternating between hay and grass, it’s vital to allow your horse’s gut microbes time to adapt to the diet shift to support efficient digestion.

Additionally, maintaining a consistent weight throughout the year is necessary, as horses need to consume a similar amount of calories as they burn to maintain a steady weight.

Regulating your horse’s health and wellness throughout the year is essential for the animals and pastures. The following are best practices for maintaining a healthy diet and smooth transitions throughout the seasons.

How to Transition Horses from Pasture to Hay

As the weather cools and horses spend more time in the stable, they will likely receive most of their nutrition from hay.

The horse will require time to adapt to a hay-only diet from all-pasture grass. Fortunately, the transition from fall to winter is more natural than winter to spring, mainly because grass declines into its dormant stage.

Horses may continue to graze during the fall, but the grass supply changes. Growth declines, and the grass loses moisture, preparing the horse’s stomach for hay with lower moisture content than fresh grass. Allowing turnout during the fall and winter can aid the gradual transition.

When your horse switches to an exclusive hay diet, feeding high-quality hay can promote digestive health and provide adequate nutrition.

High-quality hay characteristics include a high stem-to-leaf ratio, small stem diameters, minimal blooms and seed heads, no musty smell or visible mold, and bright color.

Additionally, providing fresh and clean water is crucial, as hay is drier than grass, and horses require increased water consumption to compensate.

How to Reintroduce Horses to Grass

Acclimating your horses to grass when spring rolls around is crucial. Managing this transition is vital for pasture health and your horse’s adjustment.

To keep your pasture healthy, allow the grass to grow at least six inches before allowing your horse to graze. This growth will take approximately 21 days, providing ample time for the grass to photosynthesize and gather energy for proper regrowth.

Gradually introducing horses to grass is best, with a 15-minute grazing period for a few days, increasing by 10 minutes daily until the horse can graze comfortably for 3 to 4 hours. Maintaining a 4-hour grazing period for two weeks is recommended before allowing unlimited turnout and a complete grass diet.

Caring for your horses and pastures is paramount. By thoughtfully approaching seasonal changes, you can maintain your horse’s well-being and support smooth transitions throughout the year.

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