The best performance and work horses are different from the rest. Have you ever wondered why?
Is it something in their muscles? Yes — partially.
What about their living arrangements: is it because the best horses’ owners provide a clean and cozy stable? Also, partially yes, but there’s also something missing in this puzzle.
That’s grass and forage. Healthy horses eat a rich and abundant diet of healthy forage.
That isn’t by accident: their owners had the foresight to provide it to them. And the great news is that it’s pretty easy to learn how.
Wondering where you can find the best grass for horses? If you’re in search of greener pastures and better grass for your horse, we’ll walk you through the best grasses and forages, factors that make (and break) their nutritional value, and must-have tools and processes you’ll need to grow the best grass for your equine friend.
Let's dive in.
Warm- vs. cold-season grasses
When it comes to pasture for your horse, the best grass species come in two different categories: warm-season and cold-season grasses. Cold-season forages do best in — you guessed it — colder, wet climates (usually 60-80° Fahrenheit).
They tend to grow in spring and fall and drop off in winter and summer. Tall fescue, orchard grass, Kentucky bluegrass, and timothy are just a few examples.
For those living in warmer climates, warm-season grasses are available. Warm-season forage thrives in hot, dry climates (usually 75-90° Fahrenheit) and grows mostly during summer. Bermuda grass, Bahia grass, big bluestem, and Indian grass are all examples of warm-season forage.
Cold-season forage can be found in the Northern half of the United States and warm-season forage in the Southern half of the continental U.S. We didn’t leave you out, though, Kentucky residents.
The middle section of the U.S. sandwiched between Northern and Southern states is considered the transition zone. A mix of warm- and cold-season grasses grows in states — like Kentucky — in the middle part of the U.S.
The best grass starts with various seed types
You might be thinking at this point, “Yeah, but if I don’t live in the middle half of the United States. Can my horse thrive off just warm- or cold-season forage? And if not, how can I grow the pasture and grass my horse needs?”
You’re correct: your horse will need a variety of different pastures throughout the year. The good news is that with so much technological innovation, we now have the ability to provide the variety horses need regardless of where we live in the world thanks to modern-day transportation.
Finding the right grass requires the right seeds. The two most common types of seeds on the market for growing grass and pasture include commercial seeds and common seeds.
Commercial seeds refer to varieties of grass and pasture that are well-known and include just one type of seed. These seeds tend to be a bit more expensive than common seeds.
Common seeds, on the other hand, are often mixed with other seeds and organic matter that did not perform as well in past seasons. These seeds tend to be cheaper than commercial seeds.
Choosing the right seed is a calculated decision that relies on your expert knowledge of a horse (and pasture). At the end of the day, you know your horse and pasture best.
(Note: As always, if you need a third opinion, don’t hesitate to reach out to us, as we’d be happy to see how we can help.)
Other factors affecting the quality of pasture grass
In addition to what type of seed you use, two other major factors affect the quality of pasture grass: the maturity of grass as well as its growth profile and characteristics.
The maturity of a plant is one of the most significant factors in identifying the nutritional value of a grass.
Generally, denser grass and pasture mixes have higher energy and protein content, whereas mature grass becomes more fibrous as it ages, and quality tends to decrease.
Taking a look at a grass’ characteristics can also help horse owners find the right forage for their horse’s needs.
Growth profile and characteristics
When it comes to a pasture’s profile, there are two ways to classify a grass’ characteristics: how a grass grows up and down (in bunches) and how it spreads from side to side (in sods).
In general, Bunch grasses tend to have a high yielding, growing taller and thicker than sod grass. When it comes to close grazing, sod grasses fare better than bunch grasses.
To meet your horse’s nutritional needs and preferences, you might decide on bunch, sod, or both types of grasses. Either way, it’s important to figure out which type of grass grows most in your area — and at what time of the year — to establish the right plant mixture for your horse’s needs.
Grass and forage types
Speaking of mature forage, many different types exist. The most common forage species fall into two categories: cool-season and warm-season grasses.
Of those two categories you can find the following common types of forage species:
- Annuals (cool- and warm-season)
- Cover crops
We’ll mostly stick to talking about perennials and annuals, as these make up the bulk of forage material in today’s current market.
You likely won’t find these in Midwest horse pastures, but will likely find them in the middle sections and temperate zones of the United States. As of the date of publication, The following cool-season perennial grasses are some of the most commonly used and wonderful pasture selections for adult horses:
- Red clover
- Forage chicory
- Tall fescue
- Orchard grass
- Perennial ryegrass
- Kentucky bluegrass
- Smooth bromegrass
- Reed canary grass
For its exceptional productivity as a grass and legume, alfalfa comes first on our list. Horses love it, and it’s drought-resistant, deep-rooted, has a long shelf-life, and does well during the hot, dry summer months.
It’s no wonder alfalfa is sometimes considered the gold standard when it comes to horse grasses. Like gold, alfalfa is also extremely delicate: this grass requires fertile soil with high pH levels and a well-functioning drainage system.
In other words, alfalfa can be tough to maintain. However, if you’re willing to invest the time, effort, and resources into raising alfalfa, you’ll have one of the most fruitful, top-quality forage materials on the planet for your equine friend.
If you’re looking for grass that’s rich in nutrients for your horse, consider lush and nutrient-dense alfalfa.
This is another cool-season grass worth exploring. Similar to alfalfa, it is very easy to establish, has great yield and persistence, and tends to be more tolerant of less fertile soils.
The only downside is that it doesn’t tend to live as long as alfalfa (this grass lives about two to three years). After alfalfa, this beautiful red grass is our runner-up for best grasses for horses.
This perennial grass takes third place for the fact that it’s deep-rooted and drought-tolerant. Used more for grazing, this forage blossoms in summer and does well in well-drained soils.
The only downside is that it doesn’t live as long as some of the other grasses on our list. However, if you have a mixture of other forage material during the summer months, forage chicory's shorter shelf life shouldn’t ideally pose any problems for your master grass plan.
If you’re looking for a luscious, high-quality forage, this spinach look-alike works wonders for a horse.
This grass is a funny one. It comes in three different types: endophyte-free, novel endophyte-infected, and toxic endophyte-infected.
But first, what does “endophyte” mean? Oxford Languages defines endophyte as a plant — generally a fungus — that lives inside another plant.
Tall fescue that grows in the wild often contains little fungi, fungi which can be harmful to mares. So, on the one hand, these fungi are helpful in that they help make tall fescue more drought- and insect-tolerant.
On the other hand, toxic endophyte-infected grass can harm certain types of horses like pregnant mares. So, do you choose endophyte-free or novel endophyte-infected tall fescue?
Endophyte-free grass is safe for a horse but rarely lasts more than about four to five years. Novel endophyte-infected grass is the best of both worlds: it’s a drought- and insect-tolerant plant that is also safe for a horse to consume.
Which grass you choose will depend on weather conditions, how much flexibility you have with your resources, and your horse’s needs. As a whole, tall fescue can be a great pasture option for livestock and horses.
Considered a favorite by horses, orchardgrass is highly palatable, prolific, and persistent in fertile, moist soils. It mixes well with alfalfa and can grow very quickly.
The downside is that it’s very sensitive — both to overgrazing, cutting, and soil diseases and fertility. Since most of orchardgrass’ energy is stored in its stem, frequent trimming can deplete orchard grass of its nutritional value.
If you’re looking for protein- and calorie-rich grass for your horse, consider orchard grass for your pasture.
This perennial is for those who live in temperate zones. Plus, this grass does well in temperate climates.
This high-quality forage yield is palatable and grows quite quickly. The downside is its heat tolerance: perennial ryegrass can die off in hot, arid climates.
This grass is really outgoing: it has an uncanny ability to fill in bare spots of pastures without much effort. Plus, horses love it, and it’s not as sensitive to close grazing.
Unfortunately, Kentucky bluegrass doesn’t grow very tall, is not quite as productive as other species on our list, and doesn’t do well in hot or dry climates.
But if you’re looking for grass that will grow and fill in those awkward, bare spots in your pasture, Kentucky bluegrass has your back.
This dense grass is worth the wait. It tends to take longer to establish than other species on our list, but once it starts growing, this deep-rooted forage sticks around.
Best of all, it can survive through drought and extreme weather. However, if you’re looking for a steady yield that’s easy to establish during hot and arid conditions, smooth brome may not be your best bet.
But if you’re looking for a deep-rooted, long-lasting forage option made for cooler weather, smooth brome might be one of your best choices.
Reed canary grass
This forage option is for horses that graze in humid climates. Known for its ability to grow and persist in wet areas, reed canary grass will stick around through drought and floods.
The only downsides with it are that it tends to be more challenging to establish than other species and tends to be less palatable once it has reached maturity.
For a horse grazing near water — or in consistently wet conditions — reed canary grass is a great pasture option.
Cool- and warm-season annuals
Known for their quick growth, commercially available annuals are a good pasture option for property owners whose soil is impacted, whose forage is overrun by weeds, and who need a quick-growing alternative to perennials.
While annuals need to be replanted each year, if you’re looking for a forage option that grows quickly, annuals are your best bet.
Here are some of the most common cool- and warm-season annuals:
- Italian ryegrass (cool-season)
- Winter cereals (cool-season)
- Timothy (cool-season)
- Crabgrass (warm-season)
- Pearl millet (warm-season)
- Teff (warm-season)
- Bermudagrass (warm-season)
Italian ryegrass (cool-season)
First on our list of cool-season grasses is Italian ryegrass. This sophisticated-sounding grass is anything but: this high-quality forage is easy to grow, mixes well with other grazing material, and is highly palatable.
While it may be lower-yielding than its cousins, red clover or alfalfa, Italian ryegrass is a grass that horses will love. One last note: we’d hate to see your horse miss out on healthy nutrition.
To avoid issues accessing ryegrass for your horse, consider growing ryegrass away from taller forages, as taller forages can shade out the smaller ryegrass below.
Winter cereals (cool-season)
We’re not talking about porridge, grits, and cream of wheat. We’re talking about barley, rye, wheat, and triticale — body-nourishing winter cereals for the fall and spring growing seasons.
Oats, especially, contain a high composition of essential amino acids that make up the much-needed protein that is found in most winter-cereal forage. Winter cereals also provide a wealth of water-soluble carbohydrates which are key in supporting a horse’s overall well-being.
Just be mindful not to feed a horse only winter cereals, as this can be detrimental to their health and well-being. But a little winter cereal can go a long way in helping a horse live their best life.
If you need a large amount of upfront forage material to use for storage, Timothy might just do the trick. Timothy grows in abundant quantities at the beginning of the year, and then it becomes less productive as the year wears on.
Unfortunately, Timothy needs to be well-maintained to flourish. It’s fragile, doesn’t do well in hot and dry conditions, is short-lived, and has diminishing nutritional returns when cut often.
On the plus side, though, if you’re looking for a one-time alternative hay that sprouts and grows in abundance for short periods, Timothy will do the trick.
In contrast to cooler Midwest horse pastures, crabgrass might be one of the most suitable forages for warmer climates. This high-quality, warm-season annual grows quickly, reseeds if given the opportunity, is drought-tolerant, and blooms in a variety of different soil types and compositions.
When grazed by horses, crabgrass offers protein — among other essential health nutrients — necessary for a horse to live healthy and well. If you’re considering a potent warm-season annual that’s highly versatile, look no further than crabgrass.
Often found in Midwest horse pastures, teff is high in fiber, is quick-growing, and produces huge leaves. Like crabgrass, though, its small seed sizes and sensitivity to weather can make it a challenge to establish.
But don’t let that stop you from trying out this awesome grass. Once planted, it will grow quickly and keep your horse’s metabolic processes chugging along.
Bermuda grass (warm-season)
Rounding out our list of the best grasses for horses is bermudagrass. Once planted, this grass will flourish and persist.
The only downsides are that it requires a great deal of fertilization, and it doesn’t grow well in the winter (or at all in spring and fall). If you need a grass that can tolerate the heat and heavy grazing pressure, look no further than this resilient and awesome forage.
How to choose the right grass for your horse
Let’s step back for a moment. We’ve covered the best forage for horses, which grass is best for different climates, and the advantages and disadvantages of several forages.
All that’s left now is to learn how to select and prepare your preferred forage. Then, you’ll be well on your way to providing excellent nutrition for your equine friend.
To help you choose the right grass, you’ll want to follow these four best practices for seeding and choosing quality forage.
1. Match your grass to your pasture’s soil profile
You’ll want to make sure your plants closely align with your soil’s characteristics. That means analyzing your soil for the following characteristics:
- pH levels (how acidic or basic your soil is)
- Topography (the location and type of landscape of your pasture)
- Fertility (how rich and capable the soil is)
By extension, consider how well your soil holds moisture. Half the battle of growing great forage lies in making sure all of Mother Nature’s finest elements align.
Once you’ve noted your soil’s profile, you’re ready to identify how you’ll use your preferred grass type.
2. Identify how you’ll use each grass type
You’ll want to be very selective when it comes to choosing your forage material. Before making your purchase, ask yourself the following questions: what time of year is it? Will my grass thrive at this time of the year and in this climate?
What type of system do I have for rotating the forage on my property? How about permanent or temporary growth: will you choose perennials or annuals?
By reflecting on the features of your pasture, preferred forage, land management system(s), and your horse’s overall health, you'll be able to find quality grass for your horse’s needs.
3. Match each grass type to your horse’s needs
Adult horses have very different nutritional needs than young colts or fillies (Genetics are funny that way.). Prior to finding the right grass, consider your horse’s age and dietary needs.
In general, nursing mares and workhorses will need to graze on a greater density of plant material to satisfy their needs. In contrast, stable horses may need forage that’s a bit lighter on the protein.
Consider any factors — behavioral, biological, and physical — related to your horse’s lifestyle that could affect your search for the right grass for your horse’s pasture.
4. Choose your preferred base grass and forage mixes
Once you’ve determined your soil profile, the intended use of your forage, as well as your horse’s needs, now comes the fun part: choose your base grass and forage mix.
Most people choose one to two base forages and a mix of grass and legumes — and/or opt for other high-performing forage varieties that better suit the climate and terrain of their pasture.
Once you’ve planted your mix, all that’s left to do is allow mother nature to do her work. You’ll soon be well on your way towards a better pasture for your horse!
As always, you can always reach out to us to help answer any ongoing maintenance questions or concerns for your horse and pasture.
- There are two main categories of grasses: cold-season and warm-season grasses.
- You can raise these grasses from either commercial or common seeds.
- Grass maturity can positively (or negatively) affect the yield and persistence of your forage.
- The four main types of forage include perennials, annuals, legumes, and cover crops.
- Common forage types include perennials and cool/warm-season annuals
- The right forage requires knowing your soil, your soil’s function, and your horse’s needs; most people mix 1-2 forages with their forage mixtures.
Forage or not, if you’re looking for the best nutrition for horses, reach out to us or any of our equine specialists anytime. We’d love to know if we can be of service in helping you and your horse live the best life possible.