All pastures are not equal when it comes to equine nutrition. Several types of grass and combination of grasses provide the proper nutrition for quarter horses. According to Acreage Equines, pasture grasses without supplemental feeding meet the needs of most mature horses when the right type of pasture is provided. While it may be tempting to simply turn a horse out into any pasture, it is important to understand what types of grasses are appropriate for horses. For example, big stem grasses, such as Johnson grass, cause nerve damage in horses. Many types of grasses have been improved over the years to provide a quality forage for horses.
Bahia grass (Paspalum notatum) originates from South America, ideal for the warm climates in the Southern United States. Used extensively in pastures in Florida and along coastal regions, the seeds establish slowly. In some cases, it may take up to two years to establish a quality pasture. However, overseeding may help to speed up the process. Once established, bahia is easily managed, drought resistant and withstands high traffic and close grazing. Bahia provides around 14 percent crude protein for horses and other grazing livestock.
Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon) provides one of the most important forages in the United States for horses, according to the University of Florida IFAS Extension. Approximately 30 million acres of bermuda is grown for livestock usage. Bermuda functions as a perennial, forming a low-growing, dense sod. Planting may occur through both sprigging and seeding, being fully established in 60 to 90 days. By spreading by rhizomes and stolons, bermuda fills in a pasture area regularly and has the ability to survive close grazing. Numerous varieties exist, ranging from the common bermuda to varieties improved for cold tolerance.
Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) grows in dense clumps in sunny and shady areas. Often mixed with other types of grasses, tall fescue is grown in 80 percent of the United States. According to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, approximately 35 million acres are planted in fescue. This perennial forms clumps and provides a hardy grass that establishes easily, handles heavy traffic, survives drought conditions and tolerates close grazing. However, scientists have determined that a specific endophytic fungus, N. coenophialum, can infect fescue. Horses grazed on infected fescue suffer from a variety of ailments, including stillborn births, low growth and laminitis.
A type of bunch grass, rye (Lolium multiflorum) is available as both a perennial and an annual. Planted by seed throughout the United States, many pastures feature a mixture of rye with other forage grasses. Considered a cool season grass, rye germinates and grows quickly. Special care should be taken to plant only rye grass varieties that have been developed specifically for livestock forage, such as Gulf Annual or Passerel. Other varieties may feature a higher susceptibility to an endophyte fungus similar to the one found in tall fescue.
Widely planted across the United States, orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata) is primarily found throughout the Pacific Northwest and growing from the Dakotas to Southern Kentucky. Performing well in poor soil, orchard grass thrives in both sunny and shady areas. Used for both pasture, hay and silage, orchard grass is often grown in combination with other types of forage grasses. Growing up to 4 feet tall, orchard grass reproduces from both seeds and short rhizomes. Although considered a long-lived perennial, southern plantings may have stands that last only four years.