Improving pasture management for horses

Final Report for LNE07-254

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2007: $60,210.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Rachel Gilker
UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture
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Project Information


Home to more than 35,000 horses, Vermont has at least that many acres in horse pasture. Horse owners and equine operation managers are seeking information to guide their management of horse pasture, and this project set out to provide assistance, demonstrations, and resources.

Because horses need regular, or daily, turnout, they are often put on wet pastures that soon turn to mud. One or two pastures on a farm are usually sacrificed for turnout, becoming a “sacrifice” or “high traffic area”. The project team worked with a farmer partner to renovate a high traffic area as part of the farm’s pasture system. The farmer improved drainage by installing a buried perforated pipe to move water from low spots, and put down geotextile and gravel in an excavated area to allow rainfall and snowmelt infiltration for year round firm footing for the horses.

The project team developed a series of educational activities. Eight workshops were held around the state, supplemented by 5 television programs (Across the Fence, aired on WCAX-3 in Vermont, with an audience of more than 10,000 per show). Four presentations were given at the annual Everything Equine event. More 260 farmers and agricultural professionals attended these activities.

To share information and provide resources to guide on-farm work, the more than 260 participants in project activities received information packets. One farmer stated exuberantly, “This is the best resource packet I have ever received.” A site was also developed on the Pasture Program webpage to share materials and resources.
The project team created a full-color instructional publication to explore installation and use of a renovated high traffic area, and to provide more refined pasture management techniques. This publication has been distributed to more than 150 farmers, and remains in distribution. More than 250 packets and publications have been shared with agricultural professionals for farmers in NY, RI, CT, NJ, and MA.
Reaching more than 250 horse owners and equine operation managers directly, and many more online and through television programs, more than 90-94% of evaluation respondents have found the information shared to be very valuable. Three quarters of respondents stated they intend to make at least one change based on workshops and project materials. Anecdotal evidence shows this is a realistic outcome. The project team received follow-up calls from participants telling of 2 renovated high-traffic areas being installed. Nineteen of the 25 farmers receiving on-farm assistance made improvements during the project period. Fifteen began clipping weeds in an effort to reduce invasive species. Seven have resized paddocks, using new fence and/or temporary fence to limit horses’ access to already-grazed pasture. Fifteen have used soil test results to monitor soil quality and take appropriate steps, when recommended. With pasture acreage ranging from 5 to 25 acres, these nineteen farmers affected the management of more than 200 acres of pasture.

This project has had visible impact on equine pasture stewardship and management in Vermont and throughout the northeast. Horse owners and equine operation managers must meet a careful balance between the needs of horses and of pasture. It is clear from the responsive nature of the audience that more education and demonstration of techniques is needed to build on the practice adoption already underway. If and when more incentive-payment contracts for these practices are available to horse farmers through agencies such as USDA NRCS, there may be more widespread adoption.


This project was developed to address the needs of horse owners and equine operation managers in Vermont, with extension of the informational resources throughout the northeast. Horse owners have been facing rising costs for the care and feeding of their animals, and are aware that pasture and forage are available, yet underutilized resources. Because horses require regular turnout for exercise, pasture is typically fenced off to accommodate this need. However, the daily turnout and large pastures result in muddy high traffic areas and pastures full of weeds and over-grazed desirable forage plants.
Renovated high traffic areas can alleviate mud, erosion, and runoff, and improve other pasture by concentrating turnout on the renovated area during inclement weather. Demonstrating the use of a high traffic area on a working equine farm and boarding operation, the project team also included management techniques to balance the exercise needs of the horses with the smaller pastures needed for even grazing for better forage and soil quality.

On-farm pasture workshops supplemented by presentations and television programs, materials and online resources provided a range of venues to reach the audience. Visits to the demonstration site, having host farmers and participants share their experiences and tackle problems with horse and grazing specialists, and on-farm technical assistance led many farmers to advance their pasture management.

Performance Target:

Milestone 1: Renovations will be made to parts of high traffic areas in several paddocks on a boarding stable. One month. Achieved- as one larger high traffic area, with a different farmer than the one identified in the original proposal (see Appendices).

Milestone 2: Photographic records will demonstrate effects of changes in horse pasture management. Eighteen months. Achieved.

Milestone 3: A publication detailing water quality effects from renovated high traffic area will be prepared and distributed to more than 3,000 people, including attendees at Everything Equine Expo and the annual VT Grazing Conference. One month. Ongoing. Publication topic was adjusted to meet the needs expressed by audience. Delays in publication and family emergency slowed production, and higher printing costs reduced overall printing to 2000. More than 250 have been distributed, with 1500 to be distributed in January-April, 2010.

Milestone 4: Workshops will be held on 3 grazing horse farms. A total of 100 will attend the 3 workshops, of which 50 will be horse owners, 20 stable operators, and 30 agricultural professionals. Owners will be instructed on grazing plan development. Discussion will include creative solutions, including leasing and grazing unused pastures, night grazing, etc. Photographic evidence of renovated and non-renovated high traffic areas will be shared. Six months – overlap with Milestones 1 and 2. Exceeded: eight workshops were held around the state over the course of the project, as well as 4 presentations. More than 260 members of the target audience attended and participated.

Milestone 5: Follow-up visits will be made at least 25 horse farms. Six months. Achieved.

Milestone 6: A phone survey of attendees to the 3 workshops will be done to measure changes in pasture management and find out if any questions have arisen. One month. Achieved where phone numbers were provided, or done in follow-up visits/meetings with participants.

Performance target: More than 1,000 people will be reached through publications, publicity, mailings and workshops. Of 70 horse owners and stable operators attending workshops, more than half will make changes to pasture management resulting in improved forage quality and reduced environmental degradation. Twenty agricultural professionals will feel able to support horse owners’ pasture management needs. Achieved, as seen through evaluations and follow-up conversations with activity participants.


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Materials and methods:

To put the practice of high traffic area renovation to the test for horse farms, and to demonstrate to others how well high traffic area renovation works (or doesn’t), we collaborated with a horse farmer in Colchester to develop a renovated high traffic area and improved pasture management. This farmer, Patty Hart-Ahonen, is representative of many horse farmers and equine operation owners in Vermont. She uses pasture, and is interested in improving pasture for her horses, but is rooted in the need to provide turnout and exercise for the 20+ horses in her barn.

Working with Patty, we assessed her current pasture layout and management, and made several suggestions based on the farm’s resources and labor. A large high traffic area near the barn was renovated for turnout year round. An adjacent paddock was not renovated, as a comparison. We photographed both areas in a range of weather conditions, noting that the renovated area provided stable footing, while the neighboring area was muddy and slippery from rain, snow, and ice.

Using Patty’s experiences installing and using the renovated area, as well as a range of refined practices for improved pasture management, we developed a series of workshops and materials, as well as a publication for farmers to use on their farms. The approach of farmer-to-farmer sharing of experiences yielded a receptive and engaged audience, whether the information was conveyed in a story or through a publication. Farmers were interested in other farmers’ experiences; farmers expressed interest in stewardship issues, but financial constraints kept them from applying practices solely for reasons of environmental protection. When we posed the ideas of pasture management practices with an economic rationale, farmers were more apt to regard these ideas as adoptable.

Research results and discussion:

One of the project milestones was 100 attendees to 3 workshops. The project was altered somewhat by smaller groups attending on-farm workshops. Because attendees stated they found the workshops to be so valuable, and because we were able to access funds to host more workshops, we increased the number of educational activities from 3 to 8. We also brought in experts from further afield, Drs. Krishona Martensen (of Minnesota) and Carey Williams (of New Jersey). Each presented to two workshops, and was a part of an Across the Fence television program.

The project’s publication was produced with pictures of the demonstration renovated high traffic area, and with observations by the collaborating farmer. Because of unforeseen obstacles to production, the publication was not available until the last few months of the project. This resulted in fewer copies distributed during the project period than planned. However, the project team has made arrangements to distribute the remaining copies to members of the target audience through online requests and at 2010 conferences and workshops.

Implementation of the improved pasture management practices and renovated areas was the performance target, and within the 2-year project period we found that at least 2 participants renovated high traffic areas. As this is a costly investment, we felt this demonstrated the value perceived. Of the more than 25 farmers we worked with directly, more than 75% implemented improved pasture management techniques after consultation and participation in project activities.

Participation Summary


Educational approach:

Through this project, we were able to host a series of workshops (8), television programs (5 shows on Across the Fence), and online site housing resources for horse farmers, and presentations at Everything Equine (4). These activities were geared to sharing farmer experiences, answering participant questions, and providing a range of techniques from the simple to the complex for pasture management.

Respondents to surveys were positive, stating they found the information relevant, and 75% intended to adopt ideas shared. Follow-up calls and emails showed that this seems to be the case.

No milestones

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

One major component of this project was the installation and use of a demonstration renovated high traffic area on a working horse farm. The demonstration site was extremely effective as a high traffic area and turnout area for this farm. The farmer partner thinks so highly of the renovated area that she is interested in renovating another high traffic area on her farm, and in renovating laneways using similar methods. Because of the renovated area, she was able to do turnout year round without fear of injury to herself or the horses. The renovated site had no standing water or ice, and was not slippery for the farmer or horses. The un-touched site was muddy and wet during much of the year, or was compacted and did not support any forage growth.

Through this project we have reached 250 farmers directly, and visited more than 25 farms. We have seen farmers change their pasture management in simple and more drastic ways. More than 75% of project participants have stated they intended to make changes recommended. For example, one farmer we had visited at the outset of the project has since built new fence, subdividing larger pastures to make better use of the available forage and allow adequate regrowth. Another farmer is clipping pastures after her horses graze them to reduce the growth of invasive species. By cutting down weed plants before they go to seed, and reducing their leaf mass and photosynthetic area, she will help the desirable forage plants re-grow and compete more effectively.

We calculate that at least 5-10 more than the proposed 70 farmers have made changes to their pasture management, from changes as simple to moving their horses off pastures with forages shorter than 2-3” to the more complex changes mentioned above. Many more (20-50) are interested in changing their practices as well, and looking into practices and how to implement them.

News of impacts continues to come in, and in the weeks since the project has officially ended, we received word from a participant who wanted to let us know of a source she found for geotextile for the renovation of the high traffic area.

Economic Analysis

No assessment of economic repercussions was done for this project. The costs of the high traffic area renovation are estimated in the range of $2,000. One workshop participant noted that having a turnout area with stable footing would have prevented back injury that her horse experienced. The vet bills were more than $1000. Another workshop participant shared the sad news that her farm had had to put down a beloved horse because of an injury in a muddy turnout area. The financial losses due to these injuries show that there is a real economic benefit to farms able to have renovated high traffic areas with proper drainage.

Farmer Adoption

As farmers adopt the practices demonstrated and shared through this project, they have better forage in their pasture, lowered feed bills, and easier management with a safe turnout area. The renovated high traffic area has simplified management greatly for those who have implemented it. Farmers have recognized the increased confidence it gives them in turning out horses in muddy and otherwise slippery, treacherous conditions. This greatly improves the business of running an equine operation, where turnout is a daily event, and horses require the chance to burn off excess energy to stay in condition and be prepared for riding classes with younger or less-experienced riders. Having the renovated area is seen by the farmers who have installed it, as an asset both for farmer and equine operation alike, as it increases safety for the farmer and horse.

The renovated area and improved pasture management also lead to better stewardship. As Vermont and other states face water quality challenges, horse owners in visible locations may be targets of new policies and regulations, excluding livestock from waterways. Improved management of pasture and renovated areas will demonstrate better stewardship and decrease nutrient pollution from muddy and eroded high traffic areas. Managing pastures for better forage production will also reduce the likelihood of runoff and erosion, as sod in the pastures supports infiltration and retains soil.

With understanding and implementation of these practices, horse owners can be the stewards of the land they so enjoy, and help their neighbors do the same. We have seen this transfer of knowledge and increased understanding and implementation over the course of this project. We see that of the responding farmers implementing new practices, an estimated 75 horse owners or equine operation managers have adjusted their pasture management for long-term benefits. We anticipate this number will grow, and hope we have the opportunity to support this.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

The practices this project demonstrated and promoted are somewhat supported by USDA NRCS. However, NRCS has not yet offered incentive payments for renovated high traffic areas to horse operations. Further communication may help provide this assistance, bringing the practice into more widespread adoption.

Horse owners and equine operation managers have shown they are interested in and willing to adopt better pasture management practices. However, more education is needed for this receptive, yet sometimes reluctant, audience.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.