Improving pasture management for horses

2008 Annual 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

Improving pasture management for horses


In 2008, Vermont’s horse owners were faced with problems seen by livestock owners nationwide. Rising costs for fuel, feed, and bedding, along with growing interest in improving land stewardship brought more horse owners and equine operation managers to view pasture as an asset to be valued and enhanced through proper management. To support this audience, the SARE project hosted three more workshops, using leveraged funds to bring in an expert on horse pasture weed issues from Minnesota for the workshop held at the demonstration site and the one in St Johnsbury. Two presentations were also given at the annual Everything Equine event, which attracts an audience of more than 8,000. Information on the project and equine pasture management was shared at the workshops, online, on the air, and in written media.

The demonstration site was monitored throughout 2008, with photos taken to document the effects of usage and inclement weather on the area. Under icy and muddy conditions, horse turnout was still possible where the renovations had been done, as snowmelt and rainfall infiltrated the geotextile and gravel “sandwich”, providing firm footing and reducing runoff and nutrient pollution. These photos and farmer experiences were shared at workshops and will be included in the publication under production.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Equine pasture management teaching and learning went on throughout the year in many ways, from the written word to streaming video, and everything in between. Gilker and Greene led a number of presentations and workshops to share information on equine pasture management with more horse owners and other equine professionals. Resources from those events were shared online.

Two sessions were held at the Everything Equine event held in April at the Expo. One session was led by Dr. Gilker, and the other was done with a panel of the collaborating farmers, Patty Hart, her husband Tim Ahonen, and her father, Jerry Hart. At those sessions, approximately 60 attendees learned about pasture management and the methodology incorporated on the demonstration site on the collaborating farm (Enniskerry Farm, Colchester, VT).

Three more workshops were hosted over the grazing season. One workshop was held in Thetford, with 15 attendees (7/1/08). In addition to a pasture walk and ideas from Gilker and Greene about grazing management for horses, Extension Agronomist Sid Bosworth shared information on toxic and forage plants. NRCS field staff discussed conservation practices for equine operations, and the host farmer and Betsy Greene shared critical barn and farm safety tactics. A second workshop was held at the Enniskerry Farm, with approximately 35 attendees (9/11/08). This workshop was led by project leaders Gilker and Greene and featured University of Minnesota Extension horse and weed expert Dr. Krishona Martinson, as well as a complete explanation of the installation and use of the renovated paddock area. Collaborating farmer Patty Hart explained how they thoroughly appreciate the turnout access afforded by the renovated area, and are planning to install more renovated areas after the project is completed. Betsy Greene and Krishona Martinson held a similar workshop in St Johnsbury, VT, at a local equine business for 15 participants (9/12/08).

Information on the project is being shared through a range of media outlets. Project leaders Gilker and Greene were interviewed in the studio and the 9/11/08 workshop was covered by local UVM Extension-run TV show “Across the Fence”. A link to the streaming video of the show (approx 20 minutes) along with other resources and presentations from the project are online, through the Pasture Program’s website, at the project’s webpage: Additionally, Betsy Greene and Krishona Martinson talked about issues important to equine pasture management and the ongoing projects on a separate “Across the Fence” Show.

The written word is a critical link in education. An article on the collaborating farm also highlighting their pasture and the project’s work appeared in the Center for Sustainable Agriculture newsletter, also available online:
A publication on the farmer’s experience and behind-the-scenes tips and ideas in installing and using a renovated high traffic area as well as other innovative horse pasture management plans is being developed for distribution in early 2009.

And, not least of all, to help farmers on-site, Gilker and Greene made visits to 20 or more horse farms and equine operations in 2008. Although the nature of horses makes rotational grazing challenging, these horse owners and managers and many others are seeking ways to make it work!


More than 100 horse owners, equine operation managers and agricultural professionals participated in our presentations and workshops this year. Our project goal was a total of 100 attendees, and it was wonderful to see that interest exceeded our earlier estimates. Responses to these events were very positive and are detailed in the next section.

Farm visits were made to 20 or more equine operations and horse farms. Pasture management and forage quality issues were addressed.

The project team has been monitoring the renovated area since its intallation in fall 2007. Gilker and Greene are completing a publication detailing the positive effects and sharing additional tips related to the renovation process and pasture management. Plans are for early 2009 distribution.

Currently, more than 1000 have been reached by this project, through newsletters, workshops, presentations, online resources, on-farm visits, and television broadcasts. Evaluations at workshops have shown plans to adopt many of the pasture management tools described. Further evaluations will be carried out as the project concludes in 2009.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Gilker and Greene have found responses to be very favorable, and attendees have reported they are making changes as a result of what they learned from this project.

With more than 130 project event participants, and attendees owning and managing anywhere from 1 to 35 horses and 2 to 100 acres, the changes being adopted as a result of this project has the potential to impact hundreds of acres of pasture. Greene incorporated the Colchester-based workshop into her university-level equine science course, with very positive responses from the students.

Here are some of the responses we’ve been getting:

After one session at Everything Equine, a project leader was approached. The session attendee said, “This was the best session I’ve been too, and I wish more sessions were like this. This was the best how-to explanation I’ve ever had.”

Participants are reporting that as a result of the workshops, they:

– learned how to distinguish grass types and quantity,
– know about what resources (expertise and/or financial) are available for small-scale agricultural enterprises,
– can better determine where to site fences and how to better construct them,
– how to size paddocks for forage availability and horse needs,
– can better time grazing based on changes in forage quality over time.

Most striking of all, attendees are reporting that they are making changes as a result of what they have learned from Gilker and Greene’s presentations and project events and materials.

A participant in the September workshop held at Enniskerry Farm is working on her own farm’s construction. She emailed a project leader to say “I was very impressed with the seminar today and came home and showed the brochure to my contractor. He loved the detail and we’re going to use it for the highest traffic gate entrances instead of the plastic pavers.”

Other attendees have also reported that they are planning to adopt pasture management strategies shared by Gilker and Greene. One attendee told the story of her horse, and how it had twisted its back in a muddy turnout area. The resulting vet bill rivaled the cost of renovating a turnout area. The potential for more vet bills as a result of muddy and icy turnout conditions are a real incentive to her to improve her pasture and high traffic areas.

Another attendee shared the story of her childhood horse, whose injury in a muddy turnout area led to its death. She recounted the story, and said that had they had such a renovated area, she fully believed the horse would be alive today.

Learning about cost issues of unimproved turnout areas, effects on horse health, and benefits to pasture, environment, and equine operations overall, project event participants are invested in making improvements to their pasture systems.


Jennifer Colby
UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture
63 Carrigan Drive
Burlington, VT 05405
Office Phone: 8026560858
Betsy Greene
Extension Equine Specialist
UVM Extension
Deptartment of Animal Science
570 Main Street
Burlington, VT 05405
Office Phone: 8026562108