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Grazing Benefits Horses and ManagersBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · October 9, 2014

Good-quality pasture forage can meet the nutritional needs of many equines, especially idle and lightly worked riding horses as well as some broodmares during pregnancy and lactation. For pastures with a mixture of cool-season and warm-season grasses with some legumes, crude protein concentration can approach 20%. Though content of some minerals varies by region, levels of the fat-soluble vitamins A and E are usually high. Fresh pasture forage also has an excellent supply of omega-3 fatty acids.

Horses that are turned out on pasture generally have fewer vices, lower rates of colic, and a decreased incidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease compared to horses kept in stalls. Free-choice pasture exercise is necessary for proper development of the skeletons of young horses and decreases signs of arthritis in older horses.

Horse owners whose equines are turned out can spend less money for hay, grain products, and nutritional supplements; put less time into barn chores like stall cleaning and manure disposal; and purchase, handle, and store a smaller quantity of bedding material.

Properly maintained pasture land reduces soil runoff into streams and also decreases greenhouse gas emissions compared to cropland. Manure produced by horses may reduce the need for inorganic fertilizer application. More study is needed to clarify these benefits to property owners.  

No management system is perfect for domestic horses. Grain may need to be added to the diets of pastured horses that exercise heavily, and less labor for stall-cleaning may be offset by periodic maintenance on pasture fences and gates. Overall, however, the benefits of turnout are greater than the downside for both horses and owners.