Question: How do we know when its time to stop grazing our pastures in the fall? Can my horse just remain on the pasture all winter (like wild horses), or will that hurt my horse and/or pasture?

Response: This is a common question. After the first killing frost, pasture forages essentially stop growing, although they can remain "green looking". We recommend pasture forages have about 3" of regrowth going into winter so the plants have some protection from our harsh winters. After waiting 7 days after the first killing frost (due to elevated nonstructural carbohydrate levels), horses can resume grazing until the pasture forages are, on average, grazed down to 3". How long this takes depends on the stocking rate (number of horses per acre), weather conditions, productivity of the pasture, and general pasture management. Once the pasture is grazed down to 3" in the fall, horses should be transitioned to hay, housed in a dry lot, and kept off the pasture until the following year when pastures regrowth is 6-8". This is no different than practicing rotational grazing during the growing season. However, during summer months the forage continues to re-grow, whereas in the fall, the growth has stopped and housing in a dry lot over winter is recommended.

People frequently reference wild horses and their ability to graze throughout the winter months. However, we have to consider the major differences in wild and domesticated horses and the pastures they graze. Wild horses graze on poor, sparse pastures and tend to travel many miles a day in order to obtain enough calories and nutrients. Pasture are rarely over-grazed and wild horses tend to lose a substantial amount of bodyweight over winter months. In contrast, we tend to house many domesticated horses on small and improved pastures (e.g. calorie and nutrient dense), have high stocking rates (many horses per acre), pastures tend to become over-grazed and sustain substantial hoof-traffic and grazing pressure, most domesticated horses have "a job" (vs. survival for a wild horse) that require higher quality diets are fed, and are not allowed to lose substantial bodyweight during winter months. Interestingly, researchers in Colorado found that pasture grasses under snow cover were highly variable in nutrients, but tended to be higher in nonstructural carbohydrates. This can be detrimental to horses diagnosed with laminitis or other metabolic diseases, and showed this forage should not be relied upon for nutrition during the winter months.

Do people house horses over the winter months on pastures - yes. Do those pastures tend to be over-grazed, weedy, slower to regrow in the spring, have a shorter lifespan, and less productive over the summer months - yes. This question is often about managing risks while balancing turnout space, workload, and other aspects of horse management. Will grazing pastures over the winter months hurt your horse and pasture - maybe not, but perhaps. It is more "risky" than housing horses in a dry lot and feeding them hay - certainly. Bottom line, if you have a dry lot, use it over the winter months. If horses have access to pastures over winter months, owners should expect a less productive pasture, especially if they have high stocking rates.

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