How many Horses per Acre?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was one cut and dried way to do things with horses?  Whenever I hear someone make a blanket generalization about horses I think to myself – you haven’t been doing this very long. Because the one thing you can count on with horse people is if you ask 10 of them a question you will get at LEAST 10 different answers and often you’ll get more!

Whether you call it stocking rate or carrying capacity one of the most important things you need to determine for your farm is just how many horses you can sustainably keep on your property.  There are many variables to finding this answer.

  1. Management practices – Are your horses stalled all the time, only turned out occasionally or on pasture continuously. Can you improve sustainability by improving design?
  2. Type of pasture – To you have access to irrigation water or are you dependent on the weather?
  3. Type of soil – What can your soil support
  4. Health needs of your horse – Insulin resistance or other health issues may limit the amount of time your horse can be on grass.

Many localities have zoning requirements that limit the number of horses allowed per acre. Typically, this varies between one to two acres for the first horse or two horses, dropping the acreage back to ½ acre per horse as the numbers of horses rise, allowing a higher stocking rate as your number of acres increases.  While this is a good place to start it is not that cut and dried.

When I worked in California as a land use planner we were frequently called upon to regulate show horse and veterinary facilities with large barns that housed horses that were turned out only in dry lots. These facilities were generally run by professional horsemen who had a very good grasp on the level of exercise and care the horses needed and didn’t need acres of pasture for the horses’ wellbeing.

Here in Maryland people are much more apt to want to see their horses turned out on grass for at least part of their day. This is made possible here because the climate is one that has some form of precipitation throughout the year helping grass to grow without the need for irrigation; unlike the Mediterranean climate in the West.

This is one of those areas where you will never get complete agreement – some horse owners will insist keeping a horse in a stall with only work and occasional turnout is cruel and detrimental to the horse – others will argue that this has been done for centuries without the horses suffering if done by knowledgeable horsemen.

But each has its challenges. The lack of water in the West means that turnout is generally on limited grass or dry lots and therefore it is much easier to prevent over feeding. Here in the East horses are turned out for long periods of time on fairly lush pastures and this can create some different problems.

Everyone likes to see their horse in a beautiful green field just as they like to see their children enjoying ice cream but it may not be what is best for them. I am not comparing ice cream for children to grass for a horse (the former is a treat and the later the basis for the animal’s diet) just that over indulgence is a problem for everyone!

Both coasts and the land in between have challenges when it comes to dealing with erosion. In the next few weeks we’ll talk about some tools you can use to help you decide what your soil is best suited for, what kind of grass to consider, and how to adjust your management to benefit your horse. Because ultimately you are the best judge of the number of horses you can best house on your property.

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Shelly Ingram

I am a third generation horsewoman; My father operated a 50 horse boarding and training facility in northern California, where he specialized in re-training spoiled horses. I was his demonstration rider and general assistant in all aspects of running the ranch. I went on to work for several major show and race horse trainers, eventually opening my own barn where I focused on Junior and Amateur riders. I have trained numerous champion horses and riders on all levels and in variety of disciplines. I have also worked as a journalist and have more than a decade of experience in land use planning.

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