As one of a rare breed of Equine Agronomists, I have increasingly come to realise just how important my late father’s holistic approach to managing the environment in which we keep horses is and to realise just how inspired his ideals were.
A horse’s preferred mixed diet means that a carefully structured sward (upper layers of soil covered in grass) management plan should be developed to generate a self-sustaining environment to allow the horses to thrive.
This sward should include a range of grasses to meet the energy output of the horses, whether they are used for hunting / competing or just used for those contemplative hacks we all enjoy.
Some key points to remember when selecting grass species:
- Tetraploid Ryegrass: High Dry Matter output for Silage / Haylage. Two year productive life-span
- Diploid Ryegrass: High Dry Matter output for Silage / Haylage. Two year productive life-span.
- Italian Ryegrass: Grazing / Silage / Haylage. Three years productive life-span
- Perennial Ryegrass: Perfect grazing material, with at least a five year productive life-span. Ideally this category should include varieties that have varied flowering date so that productive value can be maintained throughout the growing season. Therefore a mixture of Early, Intermediate, Late flowering dates to ensure that peak demand is met for the horses. The rate of inclusion will be dictated by the energy requirements of the horses.
- Timothy: Excellent forage value from the second year onwards. It starts growing earlier in the spring than ryegrass, and also has a late growth period in the autumn. Useful perennial variety in challenging environments.
- Cocksfoot: Excellent feed value, the same as perennial ryegrass but also has the advantage of an infinite life-span. Grown in all pastures throughout the United Kingdom prior to the 1940’s breeding programme for ryegrass. A bunch-type grass that has a massive root mass which is ideal for stabilising soil and extracting nutrients. The bunch-type nature of its growth is not visually appealing for some horse owners, but the horses love it!
- Fescue Spp: A diverse genus of grasses that confer some useful attributes into any grazing environment. Relatively low dry matter content, but invaluable for the horses to browse on and maintain their internal peristaltic action.
- Meadow Fescue: Tolerates acid soil with ease
- Creeping Red Fescue: Develops underground rhizomes that stabilise and populate the sward for increased productivity.
- Sheep’s Fescue: Generates its own mycorrhizal fungi on its roots. These fungi are crucial for maintaining a viable soil environment, and therefore this species helps to maintain the viability of any mixed sward that is growing in a less than ideal environment.
So, how does an Equine Agronomist work? This is an evolving process based on fundamental comprehensive soil analysis, combined with an evaluation of the present grass species and their condition.
Finding out what is happening in the soil is crucial to allow me to balance the soil for the benefit of the grass, and therefore ensure that the horses are eating nutritious food rather than green lignin! (Just as an example, lignin is a constituent of tree bark).
Once soil and grass are efficiently talking to each other, incorporating Companion Species into the sward compliments the whole improvement process. I utilise many herbaceous and complimentary plants depending on the prevailing environment and the requirements of the horses and the objectives of the land owner.
As an example, Trefoils Lotus Spp look fantastic, and as they are leguminous they generate a ten-fold increase in grass productivity. Free fertiliser in a natural form that compliments grass growth, but without adversely increasing the sugar content of the grass. Perfect.