Different approaches to keeping horses at grass can improve the health of the animals and the land.
Grazing the same paddock 24/7, 365 days a year, is known as continuous grazing. The paddock size can be small, such as an allocated field at livery, or a large field just for yourself. The key point is that the horses are always on it, regardless of time of year.
Horses are selective grazers - they will generally find the best tasting patch of grass, and eat. And eat, and eat and eat. This means that the pasture does not get evenly grazed, but instead is overgrazed in some areas and left untouched in others, resulting in the pasture having a "patchy" appearance.
Furthermore, the desired forage species will have been eaten, whilst uneaten species flourish. This applies to paddocks that are small or large, with the only difference being the size of the grazed/ungrazed patches.
This is quite a common environment for horses at grass livery, where an allocated patch of land is supplied for sole use.
Strip grazing is a technique where the paddock boundary is moved little and often, revealing a fresh "strip" of grass.
Typically used to limit grazing on larger paddocks, it is a good way of maintaining weight or managing those with metabolic issues during sensitive times, such as spring.
Some strip grazing systems move two boundary fences, so that as a new strip of ground is revealed, an equivalent amount is taken away, thereby allowing a period of rest for the grazed pasture. This also keeps the paddock size consistent, without it gradually increasing over time.
Giving a paddock a period of rest is greatly beneficial in rejuvenating grazed pasture. Dividing a paddock into two or three separate lots can improve the health of the pasture by preventing overgrazing and allowing management to be done on fenced-off paddocks. The rest period also hinders the competition from weeds that would overtake pastures that have been overgrazed.
The period of rotation can be anywhere from a several days to several weeks, depending on how much land is available.
Clever design of the lots means that shelters or hard standing areas can be shared regardless of the lot the horses are in.
Also known in the UK as Track Systems, the concept was championed by Jaime Jackson in an effort to mimic the environment and feeding habits of wild/ feral horses he observed in the Great Basins of America.
"A PP will encourage movement even on small acreages. It allows horses to live more closely to the manner nature intended, moving freely 24/7 and eating in a more natural way by having constant access to the right kinds of food placed strategically throughout their track."
"The principal goal of PP is to facilitate health and soundness - both physical and mental - in our horses."
A paddock is divided into lanes, or a track around the outskirts of the field, and the horse moves around the track whilst grazing.
Grass is generally limited, either through choice or the gradual reduction of species through trampling and over grazing. This is an important element of Paddock Paradise, as if the grass was long enough, the horses would not move as much to find the next mouthful. As such, people who use a track system generally supplement hay daily, placing it at positions around the track to encourage movement.
The grass that the horse is not grazing (in the middle of the track) can be hayed, or saved as foggage for the winter.
One of the best examples i have found on the internet of a track system being proved to increase movement vs. conventional grazing approaches is outlined on the Dutch Hollow Acres site. Confirmed by GPS, they showed how the distance their horses typically travelled more than doubled from 1.41 miles per day to 3 miles per day, when loose hay was distributed around the track. That is over 100% more movement, and therefore exercise, that the horse is doing.
Rockley Farm also uses a track as part of it's approach to rehabilitation.
They found that horses have grazing "bouts" that last for around 3 hours, then typically change their behaviour ie drink, socialise, loaf. This approach encourages all non-grazing activities to be done off the pasture on a central yard, where the water troughs, hay feeders, shelter are located.
In this approach, rotational grazing is used to keep horses off the pasture until it is around 8 inches tall, and then grazed upon until it's around 2 to 3 inches tall. At this point, the horses are removed from the pasture until it has regrown to around 8 inches again. This gives the pasture chance to recover from previous grazing bouts, but more importantly, provides forage that is higher in fibre than short grass.
The horses are able to choose when they graze, and allowing unrestricted access to pasture prevents behaviour often found in forage-restricted horses, such as gorging when returned (or escaped!) onto pasture.
Soil health is at the centre of this approach. By optimising soil health, everything connected to it will also improve in health. The relationship between plant roots and naturally occuring funghi in the soil (the mycorrhizas) are dependant upon the health of the soil - so resting, rotating, and spreading manure, will all improve the soil health, and therefore pasture health.
The healthier the pasture, the healthier the horse.
This approach works well with Dr Juliet Getty's principles of constant forage access leading to intake regulation, and in some cases (through careful monitoring), the reversal of metabolic issues that may have forced an owner into keeping a horse on short, stressed grass - conditions that according to Dr Getty, may preclude and even create the metabolic disorder to begin with.
Initially, cell grazing appears quite similar to rotational grazing. However, a cell system follows at least 3 of these 6 principles:
The most common approach, time-limited cell grazing, turns the horses onto a new grazing cell every day or two. A small cell has a high number of horses in it, for a brief period of time, before they are removed onto a new cell shortly after. Horses are turned onto new cells as frequently as possible, sometimes rotated to different paddocks on the same day.
Grazing cells do not have to be small, although the smaller they are the shorter amount of time the horses spend in it. Cells also avoid "bare dirt" paddocks from overgrazing, and aims for there to always be a ground covering of forage.
The environment you use is largely determined by your situation. With appropriate permissions you have much more freedom and flexibility to create a more stimulating environment. However, even without permissions, you can still very easily take elements of a system and incorporate what you can.
For instance, rotational grazing can be achieved by simply dividing your pasture with electric tape into three paddocks. If the horses are kept on each paddock for 2 weeks, then that means each paddock is rested for 4 weeks.
You may find that you use one of the above systems only when the need arises. For instance, using strip-grazing when recovering from an injury or to manage a metabolic issue.
If you already have a barefoot horse and have improvements in the foot have reached a plateau, or you do not have the time to exercise the horse enough, then systems that incorporate surfaces can improve the foot whilst you are at work, at home etc. Setting up this kind of environment before you transition to barefoot will greatly accelerate the transitional process and result in a healthier foot much quicker.
1)Cell Grazing - The First 10 Years in Australia by Terry McCosker, published in Tropical Grasslands (2000) Volume 34, 207-218
2)Managing Established Horse Pastures Krishona Martinson PhD & Paul Peterson PhD, University of Minnesota