The concept of stabling horses is one which was developed for human convenience. Horses were essential to everyday life and to warfare and it made complete sense to have them close to hand for when they were needed. It also enabled humans to keep refined horses in places where they would never have been able to survive naturally. Horses, however, are often utterly miserable if kept in a stable for any extended length of time (for example if they need box rest to recover form an injury). In spite of their thousands of years of domestication, the ability to roam and graze is fundamental to their happiness and wellbeing.
A horse’s entire digestive system is built to absorb food little and often. Their natural lifestyle and behaviour is built around this basic need. In the wild horses roam as herds looking for the best places to find food and shelter and moving on before any particular area becomes overgrazed. Although they may run if they feel threatened (or in play), they do not undertake the sort of arduous work which may be required of them by humans and so do not need the convenient, concentrated horse feed provided to domesticated horses. Even today many horses and almost all ponies can get all the nourishment they need from good grazing land for most, if not all, of the year.
If asked what horses eat in the wild, it’s probably a safe bet that most people would reply grass. This, however, is not strictly true. Horses do eat grass, but they also eat a variety of other plants as well. Each of these plants brings something extra into their diet, which helps to keep them healthy. In the wild horses can move from place to place to ensure they get the right balance of different foods. Domestic horses, however, have to stay where their owner puts them, which makes it important to ensure that the field in which they are grazed meets their requirements.
Those who understand pasture management see horses as more demanding on grazing than other animals such as cattle and sheep. First of all they like to stay close to each other in groups; this means that a lot of hooves trample a relatively small area, even when there is plenty of empty space nearby. Secondly they like to seek out the youngest, tenderest plants and are very adept at doing so. Thirdly the shape of their mouths allows them to bite off plants very close to the root, which of course makes it more difficult for the plant to regrow. The upshot of all of this is that areas grazed by horses tend to be overgrazed in patches and very little grazed in others, whereas areas grazed by cattle or sheep tend to be fairly evenly grazed.
The traditional rule of thumb is to allow an acre of grazing per animal. In reality this adage dates back to a time when horses were typically kept in large groups and would graze each part of a large field in turn, thus giving the rest of the field time to recover before the herd returned to it. Realistically owners with only 2 or 3 horses in a field would do better to think in terms of an acre and a half per horse, which would open up the potential for sub-dividing the field and allowing one half of it to recover while the other half was being grazed. Once owners start looking at groups of 4 or more then the acre-per-horse guideline can be applied. If pressure on land is such that horses can only be allocated a smaller amount of individual space then owners essentially have to treat their fields as exercise space rather than grazing land and be prepared to provide hay and, if necessary, hard feed, even in summer.
Many plants become dormant over the winter months (roughly speaking November to March). They come to life again in early spring; however there is a distinct possibility that the land will need time to dry out and recover from the effects of winter before horses can be allowed to live out completely. Mid-spring to mid-autumn is peak time for quality grazing and many horses will be able to get all the nourishment they need from the field during this period. Indeed some animals may have to have their grazing restricted to stop them from becoming overweight. After mid-autumn, however, not only will plants start to restrict their growth, but wetter weather leads to muddy fields. This not only makes for poor grazing but can also cause illnesses (mud fever) and lead to accidents. Colder weather in winter may harden the ground again, at least intermittently, but heavy rain and snow will both damage a field.
These days it’s becoming increasingly common for horse owners to rent grazing space rather than own it. In theory, unless a contract explicitly states otherwise, this should mean that the owner of the land is responsible for its maintenance. In practice it’s the horse owner’s responsibility to look after their horse, which means ensuring their grazing and exercise requirements are met. Maintaining fences, gates and other permanent structures such as field shelters and troughs should be taken care of by the field owner (although they may rely on their tenants to make them aware of it). Day-to-day management of the field itself will probably fall on the owner. The single biggest step most owners can take to keep their grazing land in good condition is to remove horse’s droppings on a regular basis, ideally daily. There are two reasons for this. Firstly although horse’s droppings make excellent manure, they do take a long time to decompose and they stop plants from growing underneath them while they are doing so. Secondly it helps to reduce the spread of worms. Some people with very large fields harrow them to disperse the manure and help it to break up more quickly, but this is less effective and does not really address the worm issue.