Where to Start?
The first thing to find out about is the type of soil in the field. If the soil is heavy clay, this will become waterlogged in the winter and bake hard in the summer. It may be necessary to keep the horse stabled in the winter to prevent the ground becoming 'poached', or sacrifice an area of the field to keep the remainder in good condition. Light sandy soil is free draining but does not retain water during the dry periods, therefore the grass will not grow and it may be necessary to supplement the horse's diet with hay, even in the summer.
Heavy clay fields can have drainage pipes put underground. This is expensive but long lasting. Alternatively the field could be sub-soiled which is relatively inexpensive and will allow the water to move more freely off the ground. However, this has to be repeated every 2 - 4 years. Sub-soiling aerates the ground and breaks up the 'pan' to a depth of about 45cm (18inches).
This is a 7-furrow sub-soiler, a little large for a horse paddock but the only one I could photograph! A 2/3/4 furrow would be more suitable for a small area.
What Type of Grass?
The grasses in the paddock should be: -
Persistent - able to withstand grazing
Hardy in winter
Should flower at different times of the year
Even yield - too high may cause digestive upsets. If too low hay may be needed to supplement the horse's diet
Digestibility - too much or to little fibre in the grass may also cause digestive problems
Improving the Grass
Horses are picky eaters; they do not like long grass or grazing near their droppings. The grass in the field will become uneven, the sweet grass is cropped short and the unpalatable grass left.
There are several things you could do for immediate improvement:-
Remove all droppings from the field.
Mow the long rank grass, nettles and thistles. This could be done by a contractor or for smaller areas, if the field is level, by a ride-on lawn mower. Use a strimmer for the areas which are too rutted for the mower.
Harrow the field to remove the dead grass and 'aerate' the ground to allow the grass to breath - again this could be done by a contractor. A small set of harrows can be towed behind a vehicle. Harrowing should be done when the ground is fairly dry. This will allow any worm larvae to be exposed to the sun, killing them, which will reduce the number in the field.
Rolling the ground requires equipment, done at the right time it levels out the ground, flattening all the 'foot holes' made by the horses over the winter. It is best done when there is 'a bit of give' in the ground, too soft and it will make the ground worse, too hard and rolling will make no difference. Rolling works best on good going.
Re-seed bear patches by forking over or rotavating the ground; then sprinkle some grass seed (pasture mix). Try hand spreading grass seed over the grass that is already there, even if only some grows it will improve the quality of the grass available to your horse.
Fence off a section of the field and spread fertiliser. Do not put the horse onto the fertilised area until after a good rain storm has washed the fertiliser into the ground and a thorough check has been made to ensure it has all gone.
Spraying is not recommended for paddocks due to the risk of horses eating the dying plants thus ingesting some of the weed killer. Some poisonous plants become palatable to horses when wilted or dead. If the field is weed ridden or there are large clumps of nettles, thistles or another identifiable weeds then temporarily fence the area or move the horse to another field. Spray the clump and remove all dead foliage before returning the horse to the field.
This ground is too hard and the ruts are too deep to roll. This patch really needs digging or rotavating, then re-seeding.
This patch of thistles has grown around a patch of stones which also need to be removed, these thistles could be dug out, the ground forked over and re-seeded, then this area would be grass and edible!
Any untended field will eventually become overgrown with weeds and annual grasses, which are less nutritious species.
For this reason farmers plough and re-seed their fields with grasses bred for a particular purpose; early grazing, late grazing, haymaking or silage making. Some fields are sown with only one variety and others are sown with 4 or 5 varieties including some clover.
We as horses owners do not have the resources to plough and re-seed paddocks every few years, but we can with a little bit of hard work keep a good sward.
Unfortunately there are no quick fix solutions to paddock maintenance, no 48-hour makeovers from rubbish tip to immaculate garden. We have to work with nature and what is already there and nature takes her time.