Though keeping horses on pasture year-round is common in some areas of the country, care should be taken to ensure the safety of the horses and the quality of the grasses in the fields, says Dr. K Krishona Martinson of the University of Minnesota.
After the first hard frost, pastures grasses stop growing, though they may remain green. Horses should be kept off the fields for one week after the first frost, if possible. If it's not possible to keep all horses off the fields for seven days, special care should be taken with horses that have metabolic issues as frosted grasses have elevated nonstructural carbohydrate levels that can wreak havoc on these horses.
Pasture grasses should be about 3 inches tall when colder weather come on to offer some protection from harsh winter weather. Ideally, horses would graze the fields to the 3-inch height and be taken off the pasture; how rapidly they graze down the grass is dependent on how many horses are in each field, weather conditions and general pasture management. Once the grasses are at 3 inches tall, horses should be transitioned to hay and taken off the fields until the grass regrows to about 6 to 8 inches tall in the spring.
Horses can remain on pasture throughout the winter, but they must be fed hay as the grass has minimal nutrients to offer them. It should be noted that pastures that are not allowed to rest over the winter will tend to be overgrazed, slower to regrow in the spring, contain more weeds and be less productive.
Martinson recommends using a drylot or stalls for horses in winter months instead of keeping them on pasture. If this is not a viable husbandry options, owners and caretakers should be aware that the fields they use will be less productive in the spring and summer, especially if there are many horses on the fields.
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