Last week I talked about the slow feeding movement, and this week I’d like to talk about ways to create a more natural environment in your pasture or paddock. The paddock or pasture design that a horse owner will choose will largely depend on the qualities of their land. This includes topography, size, and the ability of the land to sustain horses. For every size and shape of property, there are ways to maximize benefits of the land and provide a more stimulating environment for the horses.

Horse owners that are lucky to have enough land to pasture all of their horses have the advantage of being able to provide the most natural type of environment. Horses on larger pastures undoubtedly engage in more natural behaviors such as grazing for longer periods, participating in mutual grooming and play activities, and simply moving more than horses that are kept in confined spaces. Because of these natural habits pastured horses are less prone to many illnesses. For example, pastured horses have a lower incidence of gastric ulcers since constant grazing prevents the stomach’s pH from dropping. In comparison, horses only fed a couple meals a day experience drastic drops in gastric pH within a short time after they finish their meal. In addition, by walking and living on uneven terrain the horse’s legs are exposed to more varied stress which makes them  less prone to lameness from a misstep or slip.

Even with large pastures there are management and design issues that need to be kept in mind. Large areas of land still need rest periods to recover from the wear and tear of horses. Especially in drier areas of the country it is important to have the ability to confine your horses to one area or another to let the other parts of the pasture rest. In this sense it is usually better to have several small pastures than one big one. Rotational grazing systems have been proven to reduce parasites, reduce the amount of weeds in the pasture, and increase long term fertility of the pasture.

For horse owners who have smaller properties, creating a stimulating environment is still possible with some imagination. One relatively new idea that has been gaining popularity is a “track system.” In a book called Paddock Paradise, Jaime Jackson outlines how adding an interior fence to an existing paddock or fencing can create an environment that has many health benefits for the horses. He suggests that the track be approximately 15 feet wide in most cases and that along the track the horses have different spots for different purposes. The health benefits include more movement, better hoof wear, and more herd behavior. On smaller properties this system can be beneficial because the track will become worn and grassless, but the remainder of the property will be preserved. If the horses were to have access to the entire property in a basic square pasture design, the pasture may not be sufficient to remain in good condition and therefore a larger amount of the property would become overused.

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-written by Rachel Burmeister, Internship Coordinator, 2011-2012