Establishing and Managing Horse Pastures

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension

Pastures can be of great value to the horseman or horsewoman. They supply an important source of nutrition, a place to exercise, help control erosion and can be a source of pride and beauty to the owner.

A well-managed pasture can supply a high percentage of a horse’s daily nutrient requirements. Forages can easily be damaged or destroyed because horses graze closer than cattle, and tend to be repeat grazers, preferring to graze the same areas repeatedly, while scarcely touching other areas. Their hooves can also damage pastures, even those with established sod. The higher-traffic areas are the most difficult to maintain. These include areas around gates, fence lines, waterers, hay feeders and barns.

By following the proper establishment and management practices, one can maximize the nutritional impact of grass and increase the value of pastures to horses. Successful establishment depends on proper fertilization, species and variety selection, seeding date, rate and method and reducing competition. Long-term best management practices are improved grazing plans or rotations, periodic soil testing, annual fertilization, and weed control.

Starting with a soil test will provide you with research-based recommendations for lime, phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients, except nitrogen. Cooperative Extension has information on how to properly take a soil sample. You should take pasture soil samples for testing every three to four years.

Pasture grasses are different in their tolerance to grazing and traffic. Kentucky bluegrass and bermudagrass, which form tight sods, are the most tolerant. Orchardgrass is the least tolerant, and tall fescue falls somewhere in between.

Competition from weeds has been the downfall of many grass-seeding failures. Suppressing weeds by mowing or light grazing for a few months can help to control weeds in order to establish pastures. Only use herbicides on a newly established pasture as the last resort, because they can potentially cause harm to the seedlings.

Providing proper management will promote vigorous, healthy plant growth and extend a pasture’s productive life.

Damon Pollard
Extension Agent

Divide the pasture acreage into smaller pastures to establish a rotational grazing system. In most cases, rotational grazing is based on two- to four-week rest periods. Although, permitting time for forage re-growth and increased plant vigor varies with such factors as the stocking rate, season, rainfall amounts, and forage species used.


Try to remove horses from a pasture when tall fescue and Orchardgrass are four inches in height, and when Kentucky bluegrass and bermudagrass are two inches tall. Remember that taking pregnant mares off endophyte-infected tall fescue pastures two to three months before foaling helps to reduce fescue related foaling problems.


When pastures are wet and muddy, avoid grazing because horses’ hooves can be a detriment to both newly seeded and established pastures.


Clipping pastures after grazing promotes more uniform, leafy growth, which is more palatable and nutritious than tough, mature forages. Clipping reduces weed competition and eye irritation from mature seed heads, and makes pastures more pleasing to the eye.


You should apply nitrogen fertilizer annually to any predominately grass pasture. The amount used should relative to your yield goal for each pasture.


The best pasture weed control is a healthy, thick actively growing stand of grass. Fertilization, especially nitrogen, timely mowing, and good grazing management will help reduce weed infestation.

If a pasture is properly fertilized and receives proper grazing management, weeds will not be a prevailing factor. However, if weeds do become a problem, apply the appropriate herbicide to the infested areas. Always read and follow herbicide label recommendations.


We have several related publications at the Burke County Cooperative Extension office. Topics include lime and fertilizer recommendations, evaluating fertilizer recommendations, grain and forage crop guide, renovating hay and pasture fields, establishing forage crops, alfalfa, red clover, orchardgrass, tall fescue, Timothy and white clover.