By Michael Hipp
Ah, spring….the snow is gone, the sun is shining, the grass is growing, the horses are licking their lips and pacing their paddocks waiting for you to open the gate and let them out on that beautiful, lush pasture you have limed and fertilized and protected all winter. Before you open that gate and let them run free, however, there are three things you must make sure are ready – the soil, the grass, and your horse.
Is The Soil Ready?
Western Washington is home to 81 different types of soil and each soil performs in different ways when it comes to its ability to absorb and transport water. With the history of the land being filled with mostly forests, much of the soil here has been naturally adapted to holding water near the surface for our native, more shallow-rooted trees and plants. A lot of soils also contain a hardpan, which can slow down how fast the water moves through the soil and creates ponding in the later months of the winter and early spring. These are reasons why one of the biggest dangers we face with horses on these soils is compaction.
Compaction occurs when a heavy animal, human, or machine – tractor, vehicle, etc. – contacts the surface of wet or moist soils and compresses them. When most soils get compressed in that manner they normally do not rebound to their original state and remain compressed until we use a mechanical device of some kind to loosen up the soil and start over growing a new pasture, or we must allow the grass and vegetation roots time to loosen the soil up naturally, which could take years. It is one of those cases where the problem occurs quickly, but the solution takes exponentially longer.
Avoiding compaction is both easy and hard. The easy part is deciding when to allow your horses, your tractor, or even yourself, out onto the sensitive soils. To make that decision simply take a walk, and make sure you go to the normally wettest parts. If you are leaving footprints when you walk it is too early. Even if you are just barely sinking in, or maybe not, but feel the soil is still pretty spongy, remember – you weigh about 1/10th what your horse does in most cases. And the hard part? We all know what that is when we look into the eyes of our horses longing for that first taste of spring grass, don’t we? But we must be strong and be willing to say no in the short term so we can say yes the rest of the time.
Is The Grass Ready?
Once the soil warms up to the right temperature and the days get longer providing more light in early spring, the grass will begin to “wake up” like I do after a good cup of coffee in the morning and we will notice it begin to produce new shoots and grow. The process of waking up, however, is a vital one and we must give the grass time to not only wake up but to ready itself for what lies ahead. Grazing - and even our foot traffic - cause stress upon the grass plants. To be ready for that, the grass must have a strong root system and have a large enough and strong enough body to endure it all.
While it can be tempting to turn our horses out when we see the grass start to grow, even when the grass looks like a front lawn that needs mowing, we must wait. For the grass to be ready for what lies ahead the rest of the season we really must wait until it is about 6 – 8 inches before we turn out. This will assure the plant has enough surface area to produce enough nutrients for its root system to strengthen it for the long season ahead.
Just as important as waiting to turn out until the grass is long enough to graze is making the decision to remove your horses when the grass has reached its limit of grazing, which is 3 inches. Leaving the grass height at least three inches is vital for its survival and continued performance throughout the grazing season, so monitoring your pasture grass height should be a daily task to make sure you don’t miss this important step.
Is Your Horse Ready?
Yes, I know…the licking lips, the longing looks, the pacing in the paddock…my horse shows all those signs, too. And I can sympathize with him. When they have been confined all winter on gravel eating hay that is basically a dried, crunchy version of the real thing, we can all understand how they must feel looking at and smelling that nice, fresh grass coming up right before their eyes. But before we give into our heart and give them what theirs desire we must, for their protection, make sure they are ready.
As horse owners we all know the one thing that accompanies every spring – colic. No matter where we go we hear stories of one of our friends having to call their vet in the middle of the night because their horse has suffered colic. The primary reason for colic is in the grass itself. That is the sugar fructan, which is at higher levels in the spring. Fructan is formed when several fructose molecules in the grass are bonded together, creating chains that are resistant to the digestive enzymes in the stomach and small intestine. When fructan passes into the hindgut it skews the pH balance as lactic acid production rises. This then produces an inflammatory response which is a common trigger for colic and laminitis.
To help prevent colic and help our horses adjust to the fresh grasses of spring we must introduce them to it gradually and on a limited basis. Start by only turning them out for 15 minutes the first few days, adding an additional 10 minutes each day until they have adjusted to a three to four hour grazing time. Maintain this four hour grazing period for about two weeks before providing them full turnout time.
Taking Care in Spring Makes a Better Winter
By being aware of these three things, not only will your horse have a better experience this spring but so will you. And not just this spring, either. By taking care of your soil and pasture grasses throughout the grazing season, your job this fall of preparing your pastures for the winter will be even easier, and your normal struggles through the winter with rain and mud will be even less. It’s all connected.
If you have questions or would like further assistance in preparing your pastures for grazing this season or setting them up for a less stressful winter this coming year, please contact us any time. We are always here for you!