Splendor in the Grass

Horses love grass; glorious, sumptuous grass. They love its aroma; they love its taste. They love its softness, and they love to roll, rest, and romp in it. Horse owners love it because it really brings out the shine in his coat, the brightness in his eyes, and the energy in his every step. It also lessens the need for hay. Grass is a very nutritious and natural food for the horse. It is readily digestible and utilizable, and unless the horse's system is not accustomed to a grass diet or if there is an underlying health problem, grass is probably the healthiest and best-liked food there is.

Horses obtain their nutrient requirements from many plant sources, most of which are fibrous plants such as grass. Roughage such as grass contains varying amounts of carbohydrates (sugars and starches), both the soluble and insoluble kinds. Glucose is what ultimately provides energy for the horse. To digest the grass, the horse chews and grinds it, mixing it with saliva to start the digestive process. The swallowed grass mixes with the stomach's digestive juices for a short time and moves on into the small intestine, which absorbs the grass's soluble carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients providing the body with a usable form of the food.

The insoluble carbohydrates, not so easily digested, move on to a pouch-like structure called a cecum to be broken down. In the cecum, enzymes produced by various microorganisms break down and ferment the insoluble carbohydrates producing fatty acids, carbon dioxide, proteins, digestive enzymes and bacteria, and certain vitamins. The fatty acids, when properly absorbed, provide a useful source of energy for the horse; the carbon dioxide is gas, and the intestinal tract ultimately carries out the wastes.

Lush pasture with rich grass, even though it is a horse's natural food, can cause problems if it isn't digested efficiently. Grass founder generally occurs when the grass contains higher levels of sugars, which, though a great energy source, can be harmful to the system if the horse is not accustomed to them. Cool nights with warm days provide ideal conditions for the build up of sugars, especially after rainfall when growing conditions are good. If the sugars are not digested quickly and completely, before reaching the bowel, they ferment rapidly in the bowel, which can lead to an abundance of bacteria and a build up of fatty acids. This excess acid is the first step in the development of grass founder. The chances of founder depend on how much grass the horse eats, how quickly he ingests it, and how efficiently he digests what he eats before the fermentation process in the gut sets in.

What a grass or legume plant looks like above the ground is what it looks like below the ground; it is a mirror image. If the grass is continually grazed and kept too short, the root system can't grow any deeper than a few inches, and in turn the soil dries out more readily. Pasture should not be grazed shorter than 3 inches, and it should not be allowed to get taller than about nine inches. The best arrangement is to rotate pastures so that while one is growing and the roots are getting longer, another is being grazed. Grazing shortens the grass, which 'shocks' the plant so that the root system dies back to match what is above the ground surface. The dead roots then become organic matter to retain moisture and provide nutrients to new roots. Rotational grazing builds soil, thus enhancing the pastures.              

Grass growth slows down in the summer, mainly due to the lack of moisture and heat tolerance of the individual plants. Moisture is key to any plant's growth. Soils with a thick layer of root, humus and good bacteria lessen the chances for soil compaction and will hold the vital moisture longer, allowing for maximum growth. More organic matter in the soil means less external moisture needed. Irrigation is sometimes resorted to in areas of low rainfall and can make the difference between the life or death of a pasture. Irrigation can be very beneficial, if the soil drains well; too much moisture, however, can be as harmful as not enough. It is best to irrigate at night in hot weather to avoid scalding plants such as clover and alfalfa.

Pastures do best when they are not overgrazed. Too many horses on not enough acreage is what kills pastures. Sometimes pastures are inadequate for the situation, and rather than overgrazing and risking destroying what pasture there is, hay should be fed. Horses can be kept in a 'sacrifice' lot and fed hay when needed to give the pastures time to recuperate.

Grass contains a long list of nutrients that vary from species to species and plant to plant. Plant tissue analysis, or foliage testing, provides a reliable assessment of what a particular field of grass contains. Soil testing is also useful for determining which nutrients are lacking (or exist in excess) in the soil, and may reflect forage needs. Regular soil analysis provides vital information for planning pasture management, however, some nutrient levels such as selenium, are more reliably determined by the forage test.

Also, weeds can tell part of the story. If an area is plagued by an abundance of certain types of weeds, it indicates an imbalance. A variety of herbs or grasses may indicate healthy soil, but when certain ones overtake the area, there is a problem. A good soil specialist can probably tell what the soil needs just by knowing what weeds are overtaking the field.

The use of organic fertilizers can do much to reinstate the health of the soil because it allows and encourages earthworms, healthy bacteria, and beneficial microorganisms to thrive. Chemical fertilizers may produce a quick greening and growth spurt, but it is at the expense of damaging the soil and its beneficial inhabitants, thus decreasing the pasture's productivity for the future. Natural fertilization is safe and will bring much better all-around results.

There is no substitute for fresh, green grass as nature makes it. Managing pastures wisely will allow for abundant grazing, nutritious grasses, maximum health benefits, and more hours in the grass, in splendor.