Thursday, November 8, 2012


On Monday morning I looked everywhere for my sunglasses. It was the first day I needed them since the 24th of October! Our valley has a tendency to get trapped under a thick blanket of gray clouds that can't be burned off. I ride in all weather, everyday, sunny or cloudy, but I find it difficult to do the farm chores that I am supposed to do when it is icky outside. Finally, the sun came out and I felt inspired! 

The horses had yet to be turned out in our large, middle pasture and Monday was the big day! This is the area where my friends helped us plant over 300 tree seedlings at our Kentucky Derby seedling planting party in May 2011. The tree seedlings are tall and so are the fabulous "weeds" and grasses. As I learn more about horsekeeping, my views of pasture management and what is desirable has changed and evolved. Previously, I used the term "Pasture Management" - like everyone else - to mean the system employed to keep pastures lush and weed free and manicured and not overgrazed. My current stance on healthy horsekeeping has me thinking very differently about Pasture Management. My goal now is not to see gorgeous, green, lush grass. Instead, I relish the sight of our "prairie" that is slowly growing into a forest. It is full of diverse grass species and weeds, like thistles, that horses nibble for variety. 

There are "dangerous" things in this space too. My fear of poisonous trees and weeds and groundhog holes and fox dens is real. Yet, I am learning to observe nature and relax and welcome some new ways of thinking. I have discovered that in large spaces with other choices, horses do not choose poisonous trees and weeds. I try to think about horses in the wild. There may be some who die because they ate the wrong plant, but on the whole, most horses choose to eat the plants and tree bark that are safe to them. Of course, I worry that one of my boys might pick the wrong plant one day, but it is unrealistic to think that I could eliminate every dangerous species from pastures this large. 

The same is true of our groundhog and fox dens. Initially in other pastures last spring, I did what I thought was "right" to mark the holes for the horses. I mowed the grass and weeds around the holes so the dangerous openings were visible and then clearly marked the area with caution tape. But, out there in the unused pasture, marking danger spots made me notice and think about what was naturally occurring without me. Around all the den entrances (before I got to them with the mower) I noticed that there were thorny berry shrubs and bushes growing up, protecting the groundhog and fox holes. Talk about a successful cycle in nature! The animals eat berries and then defecate the seeds outside of their dens which, in turn, plants the shrubs and bushes. The sharp, thorny bushes discourage invaders. If you look over our pasture you can easily see the places to avoid. Are these shrubs a telltale danger sign to the horses too? All those times when I mowed the shrubs over so the holes were exposed and "perfectly" visible - was I just messing up the system like we humans tend to do? 

Above, you can see a hole that I marked on Monday. Sadly, I mowed down the warning shrubs last summer, so there is only tall grass around the hole. Hopefully, in time new berry bushes will grow.

This system might explain how horses turned out on large, relatively "unmaintained" pastures can avoid falling in holes. And, yes, I realize, just like the eating of poisonous plants, horses in the wild do fall in holes and get injured. But, no matter how diligent we are with maintenance, groundhog burrows sometimes erupt overnight and I believe that horses probably have a built in mechanism to avoid them. So on Monday, my sunshine chore was to walk around without the mower and mark the openings I found in the thorny shrubs even though I truly believe this is a "human" task that is surely redundant.

The three boys watched me intently and I am certain that Sovereign knew what was up. Finally I opened the gate and allowed the horses into their new space. They didn't run and play too much. They looked around cautiously for a few minutes and then got down to serious grazing. Therein lies the real danger in this pasture. The grazing. I used to mow trails through this area. Mowing, I am learning, isn't always the best thing to do for horses. My early teachings in "Pasture Management" told me to mow frequently to keep weeds at bay. Pastures that are mowed often are fabulously green and orderly and lush and...a terrible place for horses like Pie - probably all horses. The more my human aesthetic likes a pasture - one that is green and neat and lush - the less diverse in nutrients and more prone to high fructans, or grass sugars. This has been a tough lesson as Pie became more rotund all summer on our lush, gorgeous, mowed pastures. Finally, I stuck the horses out in sparse, wild spaces with a variety of weeds and long, older hay and Pie's figure and athleticism returned.  Relearning what is a healthy body shape for horses too, has been part of learning about pastures. Firm and round and fully packed Hunter-type show ponies look so healthy to my human aesthetic. In reality, Foggy and Sovey's thin frames are carrying the proper weight. 

Foggy says, "Who me?"

So, as to avoid more rotundness in Pie, the boys have only been permitted to graze for a short amount of time each day in this new pasture because my mown paths are lush.

This little imp who is kissing my phone and face, above, was quite a handful for a bareback ride on Tuesday. AND...since the magic of the sunshine continued for more than a few hours, I got to ride a sweet new horse bareback, on a special path near my house, but that is a tale for another day.

Sneak preview: 
Who is this mystery horse under me with the Tobiano white mane and spots? Could this be Rocky? 


  1. Juliette, How interesting to learn more about pastures and how to think about various facets in a pasture. So interesting.

    Buckshot currently lives in a pasture at the borading farm and I watch his pasture a lot- looking at the grass/weeds/shrubs. It gets mown only twice a year. At times it looks a little scrubby but he is doing fine on it (he gets grain and hay also).

    At the barn I used to ride, and where he lived for many years before he became my special horse, the pasture, for 10-12 race horses, was quite scrubby. I'd look at it and wonder what in the world the horses were eating. But the horses were in fine shape, so I realized I can't tell - a pasture may look rather scrubby,even barren, and may be fine. And yes, lush grass is deceptive - we so want our horses to have a huge field of it, but it is quite a danger to horses, with way too many calories or sugars.
    So interesting about the natural hideaways of the critters!

  2. I loved this post for two reasons. First, the way you describe what is going on in your pastures is totally captivating. I see a lot of pastures and inspect them all carefully, but not even close to how you are watching them. I loved reading about the weeds and the little creatures all living out in the pasture together. They must know how to get along--we humans ought to take a few lessons from them! And the second thing that made me squeal is the tobiano!!!! What in the world is going on?????? Ooooh, I can't wait to find out!

  3. Pasture management--always interesting to hear everyone's views. We managed to mow three times this year to keep down noxious weeds, ie milkweed and thistle, but the fence lines harbor enough seedlings for them to multiply without eliminating them entirely. The mowing did allow for much better grasses this year compared with little to no mowing the previous year. Finally--the tractor was running! :)
    So who's the mystery pony?

  4. Humans have such a hard time leaving well enough alone...

    Great discovery of the symbiotic relationship between foxholes and berry bushes! It seems when there is enough pasture, and we let it be, there's no need for chemicals - to feed or kill.

    A few months ago I planted my newly empty paddock with pasture rye. It's small enough that I was able to handpick some really terrible noxious weed that must have come in the boarder's crappy hay - spiny amaranth. Val is eyeing the new grass longingly... he'll only get a few hours at a time though. :D

  5. What am I missing?! WHO is Rocky!?
    and regarding the poisonous plants, etc so just you are more comfortable, we have in our pasture hoary asylum which can cause laminitis. Talk about panic!! BUT I just breathed and read and Laz and the others do not eat it.
    They know so much more than we do. I see them through the winter nibble at tree tips, bark and pine trees, all the while they have hay. Must be for 'something' :)

  6. Juliette, thank you so much for the kind comments you left on my blog. It is such a compliment to me!!


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