Grass and Grass Management




The key to maintaining a horse's health is 24/7 turnout with a hay based diet but this is not without issue. The equid has moved from a sparse harsh environment to a candy factory, a sugar rich environment with processed foods and rich pastures. I believe we all want happy, healthy, sound horses and most owners that come to barefoot are owners who put their horses first so it is not hard to convince them that their horses would be better off with more turnout and most have already addressed the minefield of diet. The major problem for me is owners getting the quality turnout their horses need. Then there is the added problem of our land being mostly ryegrass and managing the laminitis risk. I must sound like a doom and gloom merchant sometimes. The saying from the frying pan into the fire comes to mind here. 


There is no doubt that laminitis kills many horses and rightly scares many horse owners. The reason it scares owners is most do not understand its causes and do not recognise the signs. One of its common causes is too much high sugared grass and hay. Not many owners realise that hoof wall separation is a sign of laminitis and usually a horse as had these signs for years before they have a laminitic attack. I have plans to produce an in-depth document on laminitis and the signs but first I feel a more pressing issue is to educate owners on how to manage their horse’s grazing. The answer is not to keep our horses in stables this kills and foreshortens more horses lives than laminitis. We need to give our horses as much freedom, movement, and natural lifestyle as possible to enrich and prolong their lives. Most horses are kept imprisoned in a stable or left in founder traps. This is the horse world they live in. There is a solution to this problem and a very good one and that is the track and paddock paradise systems. However, the sad fact is we are not going to see most of our horses on these systems anytime soon, not in my lifetime anyway. Therefore, this article is about managing your grazing the best you can, understanding when sugars are high and what type of grasses are best. This is a really complicated subject but I’m going to try and help to cut through it from a horse owner's point of view. However, I'll say this up front, for most owners there is not an ideal solution. In theses cases, you as an owner need to understand grass. I can here some non-horse owners saying “It’s green and it grows.” Well yes, I wished that was all we needed to know as well.


Before we get into the detail let’s blow a couple of myths out of the water. You can not tell how much sugar is in hay by looking at it or smelling it. Most of the time this is also true of grass. Yes, sometimes we can look at a moorland and say it’s not as lush as most horse pastures. However, can you tell the difference between one pasture and another or the same pasture on a different day or the same pasture at different times of the day? Yes, with a knowledge of grass and previous weather condition we can. Even without this knowledge sometimes your horses will tell you. I know when the sugars are high in the grass during winter, our horse will leave their hay and start eating the grass again. This next point is very important. Shorter grass contains more sugar, so if you had a choice between leaving your horse on long grass or a short neatly nibbled paddock I know where I would leave mine. Longer grass has more fibre therefore, it is better for your horse. Ok, this is it, the crunch to understanding grass is understanding when it’s high and low in sugars. If you take nothing else away from this remember that short stressed grass is full of sugar. If there has been a long warm spell or cold nights and sunny days there is a build up of sugars. This is the reason you will find your horse choosing to nibble at the already grazed grass rather that longer stuff available. This, in my opinion, is why strip grazing does not work how you would like it to.


How does grass grow?

Grasses accumulate NSC’s (Sugars, starch and fructan known as non-structural carbohydrates) throughout the day, with the highest concentrations achieved late in the day if the sun shines. If temperatures are above freezing and adequate water is present, NSC is converted to cellulose and other structural carbohydrates overnight, resulting in very low sugar concentrations by daybreak. If this process is disrupted by drought or freezing temperatures overnight, NSC concentrations can increase significantly and this will continue to build until condition change.


These are the most common grasses in the UK. From left to right Ryegrass, Timothy, Orchard, Fescue.





















Grass has developed around our dairy and beef industries and these grasses stimulate fermentation and utilisation of nitrogen. However, to complicate matters NSC’s are produced in high quantities will depend on the stage of development, environment and type of grass. Meaning that ryegrass when grown in the UK is really high in sugar, but when grown in a warmer climate is similar to other species. Also, many warm season kinds of grass go dormant under stress where cool season grasses such as ryegrass increase its NSC’s when under stress. Unfortunately, these NSC rich cow pastures have now become our horses homes and a problem for horses that evolved on sparse fibre based warm grasses. No grass in the UK is safe for our horses, we have to understand when our fields are prone to high rates of NSC’s and move them off when necessary. Ryegrass is the highest producer of NSC and in the UK type conditions average a ⅓ more than most other types.


Those of you who are lucky enough to own your own land and grow your own hay will be able to control your quality of hay and sugar levels. To make your pastures better quality please reads Supplements page. Mixed meadow grasses are best for hay and are best cut late in the season so it’s higher in fibre and early in the morning so it’s lower in sugar. Also, rainfall a few days before will help to reduce the sugars and the longer it’s left to dry more of the sugar is reduced.


Ok, now we understand how it grows what can we do about it?


The best solution is to have a dry lot or track system and feed hay during danger periods.


Alternately if you don't have a track system you could. :-


Use a grazing muzzle not pretty but very effective.


Put your horse on a pasture of longer grass where it contains more fibre. With a bit of forethought fence off an area and have longer grass available to use when you need it.


A reasonable plan if you have enough land is to never let your horse graze grass less than 4 inches long.


Not as good, but an alternative nevertheless is to let them out at night rather than during the day when sugars are lower.


You will need to understand how to recognise danger periods or you could purchase a laminitis app that you can download onto your phone that does this for you with a traffic-light system.


There are a number things you can do besides the above to help your horse cope better with the sugars.


Exercise! A good idea is to get your horse to burn more sugars through exercise. Add an extra hack or a few extra mile on each hack can help. Better is to burn the extra sugar each day by an increase in their workloads. This is where even a simple grass track systems can help, where it encourages your horse to move between 12-20 miles a day. This is the beauty of a track system it exercises your horse for you.


One simple way to also help your horse with grass is to give them something to manage their blood sugars. You could add cinnamon into their diet. Ginseng is another option. I’m not sure which is best but Ginseng is more expensive. You could also add both and some products do contain both. There is a product called Laminesse from Thunderbrooks which is excellent and contains both but is more expensive again and It’s a good idea to feed horses during springtime. However, this will only help and is not a solution.



To conclude there is no safe grass and ryegrass is really cow grass designed for high milk yielding cows. You should be able to recognise danger times and act appropriately. Ideally, you would have a small non-grass track system available for these occasions. Remember that laminitis/founder very rarely just happens, the signs will have been there for years. Therefore, don’t bury your head in the sand and wait for the day when it happens to your horse.


Just a thought, it would be great and make sense if every yard had a track system available for laminitic horses and for danger periods. Time to have a word with your yard owner. 


© Copyright 2015 Chris Simpson