The Pasture Problem

One thing I can say about my property is that it has plentiful grass. Lots and lots of grass. For most of the time that I have been a backyard horse keeper, my equine residents had free run of a few acres of that grass pasture.

This came to a screeching halt six years ago when my now recently deceased horse, Bear, developed laminitis. It became impossible to prevent him from having repeated laminitic flare-ups while on full-time pasture. His access to all that grass had to change.

It was then that I started horse-keeping in a much smaller, corded-off section of the pasture with a run-in shed. I did turn the horses out on the richer section of pasture, but usually with a grazing muzzle and for only a couple hours a day. Otherwise, they stayed in the smaller paddock section.

For the last six years, every horse, including a series of foster from a local rescue, shared this arrangement with Bear.

Truth be told, I hated transitioning them to a paddock. Once you’ve seen your horses enjoying a larger area, downsizing can be a disappointing adjustment.

It disturbed me to limit their freedom of movement and freedom of choice to an even smaller area. No longer could they select their preferred sections of the pasture for eating. They couldn’t access the softest areas for laying down. The best trees and bushes were no longer available to them for shade and windbreaks. They didn’t putter around as much as they used to.

It really struck me as sad to take all that space away from the horses. So sad that it actually robbed me of some of the joy of keeping horses at home. To add insult to injury, it also increased my workload and made horse-keeping more expensive.

For example, when the horses were on full pasture, poop piles were distributed over a wide area. They easily broke apart and got absorbed into the grass or were reduced when I mowed over them. But in their paddock, I have to remove the manure myself to keep the area from turning into a mucky mess. This results in huge manure piles that I have to figure out how to get rid of periodically. Everyone talks about how great horse manure is for growing things, but nobody seems to be interested in coming to pick it up.

The manure management can be back-breaking work, even when you keep just a couple of horses. It is estimated that an average size horse produces about 50 pounds of manure a day. So I am picking up and moving 100 pounds a day using only my manure pick, a bucket and a wheelbarrow.

Keeping my horses in a smaller space is also more expensive than keeping them on full-time pasture. Previously, I only had to buy about four months’ worth of hay as their pasture grass was usually lush from April through November. I now have to feed hay year around so I need to purchase three times as much hay as I used to. All that free pasture grass goes largely to waste.

It is more physically taxing and more expensive for me to keep and feed TWO horses in a small paddock than it was for me to keep and feed FOUR horses on a few acres of pasture!

Despite all the difficulties involved in keeping my horses on a smaller area, I committed to doing what I could to keep Bear as healthy as possible for as long as he lived. But I knew that I would happily go back to giving my horses full-time access when Bear eventually passed on.

Those of you who have read the blog for awhile may recall that Bear died in September 2022. And yet despite my original intentions to have my remaining horses return to full-time pasture, it is looking like that will not be possible.

As it turns out, Shiloh and Piper are both easy keepers. Piper is fatter right now than Shiloh, but Shiloh is no light weight himself. If I return them to full-time pasture, I run an increased risk of them developing the same painful and debilitating health issues as Bear.

I thought I could maybe bridge the gap with grazing muzzles, but that has not proved as useful as I had hoped. I started putting a muzzle on Piper last year when I turned the horses out onto the pasture outside their paddock. Piper had some difficulty getting used to the muzzle, but you can see that by Winter, he could even eat hay with his muzzle on.

In the past, Shiloh has worn one too, but since Piper arrived, Shiloh no longer seems to need one. I have noticed that Piper is a faster eater than Shiloh, and I suspect Piper ends up with a bigger portion at the end of every meal.

Over Winter, there was a new development. Shiloh began taking off Piper’s grazing muzzle in the course of their spontaneous play sessions. In one instance, the stitching came out, and I had to completely replace the muzzle.

I never did get evidence of the removal on camera, but here’s a little video clip (get out your magnifying glass- sorry) taken this January showing what usually happened just before Shiloh pulled off Piper’s muzzle.

I kept trying different configurations to keep the muzzle on, but it wasn’t working. I eventually decided to stop turning them outside of their paddock. They haven’t been on the grass pasture at all since February.

Now we are coming into the Spring season when the grass starts growing like crazy. It’s not the best time to turn out fat horses. So in the paddock they stay, much to their consternation as they try to grab every blade of new Spring grass under the fence lines and look longingly over the gate towards where they used to graze. I cringe every time I see them do that.

This pasture problem is just something I never anticipated at the start of my backyard horse-keeping journey. I remember being so excited to bring my first horse home to live in my backyard and watch as new additions arrived over the years.

It was such a pleasure to observe a small herd enjoying a grassy, open space and just being horses. Eating, playing, snoozing and being beautiful. My workload and expenses were minimal and I had access to my horses at all times.

I thought for sure that after Bear died, I would turn out my horses full-time again and likely add another riding horse or two. It would be the return of the glory days with a pasture full of happily grazing horses. But no. Neither of those things is likely to happen anytime soon. Adding more full-sized horses just doesn’t seem the best option right now when I look at my situation.

I do still hold out hope that I will eventually incorporate a miniature driving horse or two, but I definitely can’t turn out miniature horses on my lush grass. Minis are even more prone to weight gain than full-sized horses. I will need to provide a different setup for them, and I am still thinking through how I might go about that.

It’s funny the things that happen to you in life that you don’t expect. I can definitely say that when I began my backyard horse-keeping journey, twenty years ago this May in fact, I never thought that having too much grass would ever be a problem. It has definitely rearranged my horse life in more ways than I ever anticipated. I just never saw it coming.

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