Horses could run and graze for 24 hours a day. They then have the choice of what they graze on, whether it is a herb species that supplies their mineral requirement or a carefully considered grass species delivering the energy they need.

To maintain the health and well-being of our horses requires the implementation of a proactive approach to the management of paddock grass, and not putting up with what you have!

Here is a thought for you: If you stand on the grass that your horses eat and look down, do you see soil? If you do, your horse is going to struggle to maintain its health and wellbeing.

So, what can happen if the sward (upper layers of soil covered in grass) becomes unbalanced in relation to its environment?

Equine Grass Sickness…

A shocking and usually fatal disease that is caused by the spores of the soil-borne bacterium Clostridium botulinum being ingested. The ingested spores produce toxins in the gut that are similar in effect to the clinical signs of botulism.

My late father encountered many cases during his veterinary career. The unfortunate animals ranged from majestic draught horses to donkeys that were retained to protect flocks of sheep. As a child it was tragic and disturbing to witness the rapid decline in these animals.

The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies says: “The disease is thought to be triggered by a change in nutrition, which is followed by either a vast increase in the number of Clostridium botulinum type C organisms and / or there is a massive production of toxin within the gut.”

Even apparently low levels of the toxin stop the natural peristaltic action in the horse’s gut. As a consequence, ingested food can’t be moved through the intestine, rapidly causing distress and extreme discomfort.

As an Equine Agronomist I have thankfully only encountered a handful of cases. What was apparent in all situations was that the sward had been in a dire state for a considerable time, and that the soil in the field had recently experienced excessive disturbance for pipe laying, drainage or a similar operation.

This reflected my impression of the equine environments that I had travelled to with my father when he was called out to suspected cases of Equine Grass Sickness.

My deduction is that along with other pathogens, Clostridium botulinum naturally exists in a wide range of soil types. This only becomes a problem when the sward is allowed to become imbalanced and as a consequence the naturally occurring beneficial pathogens are suppressed generating the ideal conditions for Clostridium botulinum to thrive and sporulate.

Old grassland lacking vigour means that the horses inevitably graze close to the soil and ingest the Clostridium botulinum spores and as a consequence develop Equine Grass Sickness.

Effective paddock management will help to maintain the health and wellbeing of our horses, and ensure that you can grow happy horses!

Effective Paddock Management: Seven-point plan

  1. Don’t over-stock the paddocks.
  2. Chain-harrow all grassland in the spring and autumn: Probably the most cost-effective way to maintain grass productivity.
  3. Find out what is happening in the soil by analysing the Cation Exchange Capacity and available trace elements. This will enable a remedial strategy to be implemented to ensure that grass and soil are communicating, resulting in healthy nutritious grass for your horses.
  4. Don’t be afraid of Rye Grass! Just ensure that it is in appropriate proportions in your sward with the essential fescue species that balance the total energy value from the grass.
  5. Use the appropriate form of nitrogen to gently and steadily ensure grass productivity
  6. Maintain a good density and mixture of grass species in the sward
  7. Crucially, incorporate Companion Species that allow the horse to self-medicate and access essential minerals for their general health and wellbeing.