Grazing horses properly - avoiding risks

19 May 2022 — by F. D.  

Proper grazing has to be learned. Every horse owner knows that horses should not go directly to pasture without a period of acclimatisation. But what dangers and diseases actually lurk in the fresh green?

Off to the meadow - but controlled

In spring, the grass sprouts from the earth again and everything turns green. This is especially pleasing for horses - after a long winter with only hay, the fresh meadows are temptingly delicious. But there are also dangers lurking in the pasture, which pose risks to horses' health. Therefore, as good as the young grass tastes, no horse should start the grazing season without a proper transition.

When grazing, small steps are especially important. If we were to ask the horses, they would go straight to the pasture for twenty-four hours a day. If you want to give your horse a healthy start to the spring grazing season, you have to be careful to increase the grazing time carefully from one day to the next day. This way, the digestive tract can get used to the unfamiliar fresh food after the winter and you can avoid illnesses.

Adjustment for the horse's stomach and intestines

In winter, the majority of horses eat mainly or even only dry roughage in the form of hay and straw, plus concentrate and mineral feed. Compared to hay, fresh grass has a particularly high energy and protein content, but is low in roughage - this means a big change for the digestive tract. When the meadows turn green in spring, the digestive tract has not seen fresh green fodder for months. This has a direct impact on the microbiome, which is not adapted to juice feed. With successive increases in grazing time, the microbiome can adapt more to fresh forage each day and re-establish digestive capacity for sap feed. Proper spring grazing is therefore very important.

Sick from grass

As a horse owner, you hear again and again that horses can get sick from not grazing. But what happens with too much grass without sufficient habituation?

Diarrhea and watery stools

Watery stools, often in combination with a bloated belly, can happen quickly from too much fresh grass. The juicy green fodder contains significantly more sugar compounds and proteins than roughage. In addition, the microbiome first has to model itself in order to be able to break down the grass into its components. As a result, some components of the feed cannot be absorbed sufficiently in the intestine, and osmotic forces draw water into the intestine, diluting the feces.

However, watery faeces can still occur, no matter how carefully the horse is reintroduced to grazing. If this is the case, the horse should be fed enough roughage despite grazing, and herbs can be supplemented as a support. Of course, diarrhea in horses can also have completely different causes. Worm infestations, infections, liver diseases and many other things can also play a role. Therefore, recurring problems should definitely be clarified by a veterinarian.


In the worst case, the horse's intestine can be so overwhelmed with green fodder that it can even lead to colic. Grasses are flatulent foods and can lead to bloating. If the intestinal passage is slowed down, the green fodder can also ferment in the intestine. The changing microbiome can be a reason for colic. Especially when grazing carelessly, individual bacterial species can multiply excessively and throw the system out of balance. Horses in general have a sensitive digestive system that tends to colic more easily than that of other animals. Therefore, even a sudden change in feed can cause colic in sensitive horses.

Horses that are prone to colic should therefore be accustomed to the pasture with particular care and in small steps. The preventive administration of preparations that support the intestines may also be useful. If there are signs of colic, the horse should be taken out of the pasture immediately and treated by a veterinarian.


Feeding too much green forage after incorrect grazing can lead to feed-induced laminitis. Laminitis is a painful inflammation of the hoof corium, i.e. the attachment between the coffin bone and the hoof, which can have many different causes, such as the toxins produced during the fermentation process.

Triggers in pasture-induced laminitis are mainly fructans and other multiple sugars in grasses - these are produced by the plants as energy storage. The sugars are broken down by bacteria in the intestine, producing lactic acid. This lactic acid causes other bacteria in the intestine to die. The decay products of these bacteria can enter the blood as toxins and damage the laminae on the hoof - laminitis develops. Again, horses are at risk if the intestinal tract is not yet sufficiently accustomed to grass.

The fructan content of grasses fluctuates. It is particularly high in spring, when the plants are full of energy from photosynthesis for growth. Not only does the content of polysaccharides in the grass fluctuate over the grazing period, it also changes throughout the day. It is particularly high in the morning hours after cold nights, when the sun warms the air.

There is currently a lot of research conducted on fructans and other sugars in grasses, as well as their influence on horses, and all the connections are yet to be discovered. It is important to immediately remove horses with laminitis from the pasture and to consult a veterinarian. Horses with laminitis can only be taken out to pasture with great caution and must be reintroduced to grazing in especially careful steps.

Tips for proper grazing

  • The most important thing: Take your time. Even though it may be time-consuming to go grazing every day with the horse in hand, it saves many health problems when the real grazing starts.
  • Be especially careful with ponies, fat horses and those prone to colic or laminitis. In many cases, grazing should be completely discouraged for horses prone to laminitis.
  • The content of fructans and other sugars is particularly high when the sun warms the air after cold nights. It is therefore better not to graze sensitive horses in the morning on sunny spring days.
  • Be careful with freshly mown meadows - there is also a lot of energy in the grass here, as the plants start growing once again.
  • Before grazing, the horse should eat hay. This way, the horse's hunger for grass is not quite as great and sufficient roughage supply is already ensured in advance.
  • For proper grazing, the horse must go to the meadow every day. If the horse has not been able to go out to pasture for a few days, it needs to be reintroduced to grazing again.

How do you graze horses properly?

The most important thing when reintroducing grazing is to increase slowly, especially at the beginning of the grazing season. In the first week, fifteen minutes a day from day one is sufficient to allow the digestive tract to acclimatise. Many horse owners exercise caution and prefer to increase grazing in five-minute increments. Here, too, the time should not be extended from 15 minutes onwards for a few days.

Special care should be taken with ponies, fat horses or those prone to colic. These are at particular risk of becoming ill due to incorrect grazing and should at first not graze for too long. After the first week, grazing time can be increased, preferably by having the horse go out to pasture in the mornings and evenings, and then over time reducing the period in between. Until horses are allowed to graze 24 hours a day, you need to increase the grazing time continuously for several weeks.

When horses can start grazing depends on the weather. Depending on how long the winter has lasted and what the weather is like in spring, the grass comes up at different times. Usually you can start grazing in April or May. By the way, you can't go wrong with grazing when it is raining, as the fructan and other sugar content remains particularly low on days with little sun.

A plan can help you to properly reintroduce grazing. You can download one online from many different websites.