Fall Horse Pasture Management Guide

As summer gives way to autumn, horse owners need to turn their attention to managing their pastures for the health and well-being of their equine companions. Fall is a critical time-period for horse pasture management. This is not only when owners can set the stage for the quality of forage and the overall condition of their pastures during the colder winter months, but also has lasting impacts on the quality of forage into the next year.  

How to Assess Your Fall Pasture Forage

The first step in managing horse pastures during the fall is to conduct an assessment on forage availability. The nutritional content of the grasses and plants changes as they go through their growth cycle. It is important to note that the quality of forage usually goes down in the fall. With decreasing day length, cooler nights, and other factors, your pastures will transition from growth of warm-season to cool-season forages.

With cooler nights and soil temperatures dropping, warm season grasses, like Bermuda Grass and Bahiagrass, are less productive. These forages are most productive when soil temperatures exceed 65°F (18°C). Thus, as temperatures drop, these plants will grow slower and then eventually cease, giving way to your cool season forages.

Cool season forages, like Ryegrass, Kentucky Bluegrass, or Timothy, will start to germinate and grow best when soil temperatures drop below 65°F (18°C). Thus, as the days get shorter and temperatures drop, they will start to sprout and take over from the warm season forages.

There are many factors that will determine when this happens. In the higher latitudes, like in Canada or the northern states in the USA, pastures will transition much earlier in the fall. In the southern USA, pastures generally do not transition until much later in the year.

How to Best Manage Your Fall Pastures for Horses

There are steps you can take to make the best use of your pastures in fall and to plan in case they prove to be less productive. Conversely, there are steps owners should take in case their cool season grasses have a sudden growth spurt and produce abundant young, lush green forage.

Horses on fall pastures should be managed like any time of year. The typical rules for managing horses on pasture would include:

  • Only allow horses to graze when the plants reach a minimum height of 6 inches (15 cm).
  • The height of the plants in your pasture generally should not exceed 8 to 9 inches (22 cm).
  • If average pasture plant height exceeds 9 inches (22 cm), the pasture should be mowed down to this height.
  • Plant height across most pastures should not be allowed to be grazed below 3 to 4 inches. This ensures plants can recover and prevents overgrazing.
  • Stocking density is generally recommended at 2 acres per mature adult horse. However, this will vary on the region you live in and abundance of plants available.
  • Have a sacrificial area available in case horses need to be pulled from pastures and fed hay. This allows pastures to recover, and prevents overgrazing and/or trampling. It will also allow cool season forages to get established before grazing.

The other major consideration for horse owners is properly introducing horses to the young, green growth often seen in fall pastures. Similar to how horses are managed on spring pastures, caution may be needed in the fall. The new green growth of the cool season forages is high in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) and a horse’s digestive system may need time to adjust. If not, it can lead to digestive disorders, such as colic, equine metabolic syndrome or even laminitis.

It would be worthwhile to review our Introducing Horses to Spring Pasture article to learn more.

If horses are being transitioned on to pasture in the fall, basic tips include:

  • If feeding hay, maintain their current diet that can be slowly decreased as the horse transitions to the fall pasture.
  • Allow horses to graze for only 15 minutes for the first three days.
  • Begin to add 15 minutes each day from Day 4 to Day 16. On the final day, allow horses to graze for 3.5 hours.
  • After Day 16, if horses are doing well, they can be turned out full time on the fall pastures.

More often, horses are well acclimated to grass after spending the summer on pasture. Caution needs to be taken on allowing access to pastures to horses that are sensitive to dietary NSC when days are sunny and nights are cool, as this weather pattern causes NSC to accumulate in the grass. Pasture induced laminitis is less common in the fall, compared to the spring, but it is still a risk for certain horses.

Best Practices for Managing Horse Pastures in the Fall

Fall is a time of year when many owners can take steps to ensure their pastures are productive in the coming year. There are many suggestions, including:

Fertilizing Pastures

  • Healthy soils are critical to a healthy pasture.
  • Fall is an optimal time to conduct a soil test to assess soil pH levels and nutrient content.
  • If needed, adding lime or fertilizer based on soil test results are often recommended to be done in the fall.
  • The addition of lime and/or fertilizer often takes many months to fully see the results, and the effects are often observed in spring pastures.

Weed Management

  • Fall is also an ideal time to address and treat any weed issues your pastures may be experiencing.
  • Weeds can compete with forages for soil nutrients, can reduce the overall quality of the pasture, and can be toxic to horses, if eaten.
  • Your local extension office can help identify the weeds common to your area and often can come and walk your pastures in helping to identify any problem weeds.
  • Weed treatment could include mowing, spot treatment with herbicides or even complete removal of weeds in problem areas.


  • Fall is a great time to seed pastures for optimizing pasture growth in the spring. This allows seeds to develop strong root systems and help them withstand grazing in the coming year.
  • For tired or low producing pastures, seeding would be recommended, and horses kept off the pastures throughout the winter.
  • Which species of plants to seed will depend on your area of the country and your local extension office can help guide you.

Manure Management

  • Regular removal of manure in pastures helps control parasites, fly populations and prevents nutrient overload in the soil.
  • Harrowing (dragging) of your pastures can help break up fecal balls, distributing manure and expose parasites to the environment. However, too much harrowing can damage the new growth of the cool season plants.

Take Home Message

Fall is an optimal time for owners to spend time managing their pastures. The investment and effort given in the fall will pay off for your horses in the coming months and years. It is also a time to exercise some caution, as horses transition off a summer diet of warm season plants and/or hay to cool season plants. If you have any questions or concerns about your fall pastures, you are encouraged to contact your local extension office for any advice or help. You can also contact us with any questions you might have.

Article By: Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.
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