Transition to Spring Pasture

It is no wonder these guys are asking to be let out onto the lush spring grass after such a long and trying winter.  What horse owner could resist those molten brown eyes and soft whisper-nickers, as if saying ‘Let me out, I’ll be good…I promise!’   

We work hard and do our best to provide our horses what they need; pasture seems all too natural to resist. It’s only when you understand the unique nutritional properties of early spring forage, that you can feel better about saying ‘not yet’!

If your horse survived the winter on hay, a hasty  introduction to ‘rich’ spring grass can cause a shock to his digestive system.  If at all possible, keep your horse off grass during the initial growth period by designating a ‘sacrifice’ area or dry lot.  The size of the dry lot will depend on your available land, but generally should be large enough to allow your horse to move about freely and stretch his legs. The sacrifice area serves to protect your emerging pasture as well as allowing you an opportunity to ease your horse’s digestive tract onto new-growth grass. If he is kept in a dry lot during this time, you may consider hand walking, lunging or additional work sessions to keep him from becoming too fresh. 

So what is different about spring grass that we should heed warning? As the strong spring sun warms the earth, the grass in your pasture emerges from its winter dormant state. The first few blades have a critical job of transforming sunlight into food, a process called photosynthesis, that starts the growth of the plant for the rest of the season.  This food is in the form of plant sugar (fructans) and is essential for the plant to grow into a productive pasture contributor for the remainder of the season. 

When overnight temperatures are cool (generally 40 degrees F) the stored energy created during the day is used to grow additional leaves and roots. Extra food not utilized overnight is stored in the plant tissues.  If overnight temperatures drop below 40 degrees F, the plant will not invest in growth and the sugars will remain in the leaves. This is when the new grass is of concern for horses.

Therefore, it stands to reason that when overnight temperatures remain above 40 degrees F, it is the ideal time to start acclimating your horse to the fresh spring grass, because the level of fructans in the grass are likely to be the lowest.

The transition to pasture should be slow and gradual, starting with a period of 15-20 minutes of grazing.  Gradually increase until you have reached your ideal turnout length of time; this may take the better part of a month.  During this time, it is important to monitor the output of your horse; loose, unformed stools indicate digestive upset likely correlated to the increased fructans. For horses with metabolic issues prone to digestive upsets, transitions should made later in the growing cycle onto mature grasses.  In addition to restricting time on pasture, a grazing muzzle can be used to further control intake.

I probably don’t need to tell you that a pasture full of healthy, green growing grass not only looks wonderful, it is  an investment in your horse’s nutrition. Allowing the early grass to grow and flourish, then gradually transitioning to grazing is an investment in your overall nutrition program. Armed with this information, don’t you feel better telling him to wait?

17 thoughts on “Transition to Spring Pasture

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  3. Thank you, this is the most helpful and digestible article on acclimating horses on to spring grass I’ve found yet… and I’ve been researching for quite awhile.

    • Hello Denise,

      Thanks for reading! And, I’m with you – it’s tough to deny them! But I always try to remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! Now….if only spring would actually arrive this year!

      Here’s to some warmer weather!
      Megan C.

  4. I feed hay in slow feed nets until they stop eating it. They need the hay to balance the grass. I let them be in the pasture year round so they stay in shape to be ridden. A dry lot is too small to keep them in shape. I do keep them off 2 fields that I rotational graze them on. Luckily my pastures are a little hilly.

  5. I just purchased a 7 year old pony who I was told has never been on pasture only feed hay and grain…..I was also warned that he may flonder if I let him go on the grass so I purched a grazing muzzle…I am now worried as to should I grain him also..and should I remove the muzzle for small periods of time so he can graze naturally…I live in NW Indiana and winter will soon be here…already confused as to what to do when spring comes around…can I slowly get him on pasture or will he always need to be muzzeled. Any help would be so appriciated.

    • Hello Barb,
      Great question. They key to any feeding transition is to do it slowly. For your pony, you should absolutely be able to transition him to pasture come springtime, but you’ll want to introduce him to it gradually, and the use of a grazing muzzle can absolutely help with that. Short periods (20-30 minutes) of access without the muzzle, and then “playtime” in the pasture while muzzled, are a great way to do this. Over the course of 7-10 days, you can lengthen out those un-muzzled access times as his gut adjusts to the grass.
      Once he is accustomed to the grass, the key is then to keep an eye on his body condition. It’s possible he was restricted in the past due to weight control issues – if he gets overweight quickly, as ponies are known to do – then you will want to incorporate the muzzle in order to allow him time out in the pasture to exercise while limiting his feed intake.
      Hope this helps – let us know if you have more questions! Thank you ~ Gayle R.

  6. How does this work in the Fall? I live in an area where much of the growing year the evenings are cooler than 40 degrees even though the grass is still growing…. just curious to know what the implications are during other times of the year. I’ve been fortunate to find a hay supplier who is knowledgeable about sugar conversion in grasses and appropriate curing times for hay-makes a big difference in my horses health and my investment in good quality hay. Thanks for the information!

    • Hello Farm Mom

      Thank you for your question! The temperature threshold remains the same during Fall, so as temps start to dip below 40 F at night, plants store the fructan in their leaves. These are general guidelines and information on the forage for your specific area should be available from your local ag extension office.

      The University of Minnesota does a great job with providing additional forage information. You can read some of the articles they post here: http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/pasture/#pasture

      Hope this helps!
      Megan

  7. I just moved my two horses from being stalled at a barn to my own property. They did not have a grazing pasture at the barn. I closed off about 1.5 acres and seeded them with oats and winter peas last year. At this time they eat on a bale of hay and I feed grain once a day. I would like to transition them to the pasture I seeded which is now lush and green. How do I go about that without harming the horses? Thank you!

    • Hello Connie, Thank you for the question. We suggest transitioning to new pastures slowly, just as you would use caution when transitioning feeds. While they may not be happy about the short times, start with just 20-30 minutes in the new pasture at a time, and then over the course of several days you can increase the amount of time they get to spend grazing on the new pasture. A grazing muzzle can also be useful in slowing their intake to allow them to graze for longer periods but limit their intake.
      Thank you ~ Roy J.

  8. We just purchased a 12 acre farm, I have one horse that has been pasture fed for her whole life. However I have 3 horses coming in. A mare 19 yrs old, a mini 8 years old and a gelding 9 years old. Non of these 3 have been pasture fed. Would I follow the same protocol of short grazing and extending time especially for the mini. I worry about founder and would hate to harm them by my lack of knowledge at this time. How would I go about taking part of my one pasture and turning it into a dry lot?

    • Hello Rita, Thank you for your question regarding introducing new horses to pasture. For horses that are not accustomed to pasture, it would be a very good idea to follow the same procedures for introducing them to grazing in terms of limiting their initial time and gradually increasing it. In addition, you may want to consider doing some additional temporary fencing so that you could rotate the pasture to avoid overgrazing certain areas. Depending on the type of pasture and weather conditions, 12 acres can provide a very substantial portion of the forage required for the horses. Dividing the pasture into lots and rotating where the horses can graze allow much more productive use of the pasture.

      If the new horses have never been on pasture or large turn out area, I would also include the steps of individually walking them around the perimeter fence so that they learn the boundaries and any hazards. This may help reduce the risk of accidents if they start running and playing.

      Dry lots can also be very important for keeping horses off pasture when weather conditions or body condition management require that the horses be off the pasture. The minimum size is 400 square feet per horse, assuming the horses get along well. There needs to be adequate room for a timid horse to get away from a dominant horse, so a larger area per horse may be required. Dry lots need to have safe fencing and adequate drainage as well as provide access to shelter, water and adequate feeding arrangements

      Your local extension service may have publications that provide useful information for your specific geography.

      The University of Minnesota Extension Service has published several very good short publications on pasture management, pasture rotation and dry lot construction. You may find it useful to visit their site at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/newsletter/

      Thank you ~ Roy J.

  9. I was told that maximum time on pasture per day in the Spring was 6 hours. Is that right or can they go to 10 hours? I live in North Carolina and we have mostly fescue grass.

    • Hi Katie,

      Thank you for your question about the maximum amount of time per day for horses to be on pasture. There are 2 main objectives when we introduce horses to pasture in the spring. First, we want to make certain that we do not cause an extreme sudden change in forage intake that will upset the microflora in the hind gut and cause digestive disturbances such as diarrhea and colic. Second, we want to make sure that we do not overgraze the pasture and damage the health of the pasture.
      A recommended procedure is to gradually introduce the horses to pasture by allowing them to graze for 15 minutes the first day and lengthen the amount of grazing time by 15 minutes each day until they are up to 4-5 hours. At that time, you can generally go to unrestricted grazing. In the process, you need to monitor the average length of the pasture, which can also be influenced by weather and time of year. A good recommendation is to not start grazing until the grass is 6-8 inches tall and to stop grazing when it is down to 3-4 inches tall. Allowing the pasture forage to be grazed too short will limit the pasture growth and life of plants. If you have limited acreage of pasture, cross fencing and rotating grazing may be useful.

      Dr. Krishona Martinson at the University of Minnesota has put together some nice pasture information which is available at http://www.extension.umn.edu/horse

      North Carolina Extension may also have some information available.

      Best wishes,
      Roy

  10. Hi
    We just purchased a large pony who was not out on grass before. We have large lush green paddocks, the grass is already long. We have just started introducing her to grass, as well as a bit of grain. We are also feeding hay. I am wondering by how much to increase her time out on grass each day? How slowly do we need to transition?
    Thanks

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