Grazing Management by Species: Horses

Although equines are not native to the Great Plains grassland ecosystem, the horse has been well established throughout the region for centuries. Free-roaming burros, on the other hand, tend to be restricted to desert regions.

Horses are almost exclusively grazing animals, consuming grass in even greater percentages than cattle (about 90% of their diet).

Donkeys are quite different from horses, being browsers from arid climates. They consume a higher percentage of weeds, brambles, and tree branches. (In fact, they love tree branches so much that they can be quite destructive, so keep them away from trees that you value!)

Grazing Behavior

Unlike cattle, sheep, and goats, horses and donkeys are not ruminants. Equines not only have mobile lips, but they have both top and bottom incisors. This means they can graze quite close to the ground. They also tend to be selective in their grazing. Without proper grazing management, equines can easily expose bare patches of dirt while allowing less palatable plants to go to seed.

One of the peculiarities of equine behavior is that these animals typically prefer to leave their manure in one specific place. This makes them very tidy in a sense, as it gives them the rest of the pasture or paddock to freely graze in. However, it does mean that manure buildup can be a problem without care.

Periodically, donkeys will take a break from grazing to dust-bathe. Donkeys spend a surprising amount of time on their backs rolling around.

Nutritional Needs

A light horse is 1.25 animal unit equivalents (A.U.E.), while a heavy horse is 2.0 A.U.E.

Horses kept on pasture year-round should start the winter with a body condition score (BCS) between 6 and 7 to give them some extra fat reserves. The rest of the year, they can be maintained at a BCS between 5 and 6, although breeding animals should come into the breeding season between 6 and 7 due to the extra energy required. Easy-keeping breeds should have no difficulty reaching these scores.

Grass founder is a problem in some easy-keeping horses (particularly ponies) and donkeys, as are obesity, laminitis, and other metabolic issues. Foundering occurs when the animal consumes particularly lush grass. With horses, this is less likely to be an issue on native pastures that are not fertilized, but donkeys have special needs because they are not native to temperate climates. Donkeys need plenty of roughage in their diet. Therefore, even when your donkey is on pasture with plenty to eat, always provide him with very mature hay or, better yet, straw, which has less protein and calories than grass hay but plenty of roughage. Donkeys may also benefit from being on pastures that have gone to seed due to the lower sugar and higher fiber content of mature forages.

Equines seem to be generally more susceptible to poisonous plants than other types of livestock, so it is a good idea to take the time to identify any suspicious weeds prior to introducing animals. Special measures may be necessary to control poisonous plants. To further reduce the risk of poisonous plant consumption, never force horses or donkeys to graze pastures too low. Remember, equines are selective grazers and will do better when allowed to choose their favorite plants.

Salt is very important to donkeys, so be sure to provide a mineral supplement. An increase in tree bark consumption may signal a need for more salt.

System Selection

Common grazing systems used with horses include:

  • Limited turnout. Some people keep their horses in a barn or stable, or perhaps turn them out for exercise with a grazing muzzle, to more tightly control their forage intake. Limited turnout can be detrimental to equines, as they need plenty of exercise as well as forage in their digestive systems to prevent acid buildup. However, limited turnout is one way to protect donkeys, ponies, and easy-keeping horses from metabolic issues associated with improved pastures. Limited turnout is also used to protect pastures when the horse owner is keeping more horses than the land can support.
  • Continuous. Continuous grazing at its most basic involves giving the horses the run of the pasture. A common variation is to give each horse a private paddock in which it lives in year-round. The problem with both of these systems is that the selective grazing preferences of horses will degrade the pasture over time as the most desirable plants die out, allowing weeds to take over. Trampling is also a threat to pasture health over time. However, continuous grazing requires little maintenance, and fencing costs are relatively low.
  • Rotational. Rotational grazing is used to protect pastures from too much selective grazing and from excess trampling. When the horses exit the paddock, it is usually mowed to even up the stand. Properly managed pastures in a rotational grazing system tend to maintain their quality well. However, the smaller amounts of space may not provide enough room for young or energetic horses to exercise. More fencing will be required than with continuous grazing, and you will also have to be prepared to spend time monitoring forage height and moving horses around. (Be aware that the term “rotational grazing” is sometimes used incorrectly to describe a limited turnout situation.)
  • Strip. Strip grazing seems to be more common with donkeys than horses, although it is enjoying increasing popularity with the latter. The equines are given narrow strips of paddocks at a time and moved frequently. Strip grazing provides a good alternative to limited turnout on lush improved pastures where metabolic issues are a risk, and it also limits the opportunities for selective grazing (be sure to control poisonous weeds first). Because temporary fencing is used, it is also less expensive than building many small paddocks, and it allows for all subdivision fencing to be completely removed for haying or pasture maintenance.

System Design

Equine water needs tend to be more modest than those of cattle, with ponies drinking about 5 gallons of water per day, light horses 10 gallons, and heavy horses 16 gallons. Donkeys drink about 6 gallons per day.

Horse fencing should be highly visible, have no sharp edges, and present a low risk of entanglement to minimize accidents. Barbed wire is not the best option for equines due to the injury risk. Post-and-rail is safe for use in permanent boundary fencing, although donkeys may chew on it. Likewise, for temporary fencing, use polytape, never sheep or poultry netting. Take particular care to keep the fence properly charged if using electric fencing with donkeys, as they are very intelligent and will soon learn to escape if something is amiss.

A horse that has not been clipped should very rarely need to be housed indoors. Stabling typically benefits the owner more than the horse (although it can certainly make horse care safer and easier in blizzard country). Most horses will cheerfully stand outside of their own volition in a snowstorm, although they may benefit from a three-sided shelter to protect them from wind and rain. With donkeys, this simple shelter is a must, as their coats are neither rain- nor cold-resistant. Shelter for donkeys should be built on a solid surface that will not get wet, as they can develop serious hoof problems if they can’t escape the mud. Wood chips (not black walnut, which is toxic) are an excellent choice, but temporary rubber mats can be used in or just outside the shed, as well.

Special Considerations

Although multispecies grazing is possible with horses, their flighty behavior may be stressful to other types of animals. Cattle and goats can usually handle it, but more timid livestock, particularly poultry, should be kept in a separate paddock. Likewise, females of any species due to give birth soon should typically be kept away from horses. Another issue that can occur in a multispecies system is that horses that are handled like pets may impede progress when moving the whole herd due to their inquisitive and sometimes mischievous nature.

Donkeys interact differently with other livestock than horses do. Young donkeys (weanling age up to three years old) may want to roughhouse more than is safe with smaller animals, but this will cease to be an issue after the donkey matures. An adult donkey should be introduced to herdmates carefully, usually by keeping it in a corral within the paddock where the rest of the livestock are so that the animals can interact without risk of injury to smaller stock. Once the donkey has accepted its herdmates, it can be turned out with them to protect them, but keep in mind that a few donkeys (usually intact jacks) never learn to tolerate other animals. Donkeys do not usually protect other animals directly, but instead work by defending their territory, which means that they are most effective on brush-free paddocks where they have a good range of vision. Vulnerable animals like sheep will quickly learn that they are safe when the donkey is around, however, and will cluster nearby when a threat has been sighted. Donkeys may harass newborn animals and should be removed from the herd during the birthing season.

The primary concern with keeping cattle and horses together is that they will compete for palatable grasses. One way around this is to use the cattle as a substitute for the mowing that is typically practiced to keep horse pastures in good condition. Allow the horses to lightly graze a new paddock first, then follow up with the cattle to harvest the forage more evenly. Cattle are not susceptible to equine parasites, so they will break up the life cycle of these undesirable visitors. Keep in mind, however, that you will want to watch out for horn flies, which may be initially attracted to the cattle but then decide to check out the horses, too.

One thing to watch out for with donkeys kept specifically for weed control is the potential of seed spread. When grazing weedy pastures, start grazing new paddocks before the weeds go to seed. If this is not possible, mow the pasture first to prevent the donkeys from consuming and spreading seeds.

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Grazing Management by Species

Grazing Management by Species