To harrow or not to harrow…

To harrow or not to harrow…

A harrow is one of the tools of ‘good pasture management’ that just about every traditional land management resource recommends.  Yet very few of us know when to use it, or why we’re even using it in the first place.

A good pasture is what we should all be striving for.  Properly managed, it can provide our horses with a sustainable, welfare-friendly, attractive home that meets their critical behavioural needs…which are {microphone to the audience} Forage, Friendship, Freedom!  Woo hoo you got it!

Oh, and an ideal complete diet..bonus!!!  Now you’re talking my kinda horse feeding and housing!

But, before you go on a pasture management neglect guilt trip, let’s first consider if it’s the best thing to be using on your pastures, and what your alternatives may be.

Trot on over to the tool shed with me and we’ll get kitted out with the why what and how of harrowing.

What is a chain harrow?

Now, you may be forgiven for thinking chain harrows are a cleverly camouflaged leg trap for busting your ass on in a pasture (feel my pain?).  Or to add to your vet’s suturing and lower limb lameness repertoire.  However, they’re actually tool that you can pull out from your land management toolkit (and they should never be left in a pasture!)

When they’re not buried in grass, they look like this.

A chain harrow

A chain harrow

We have many tools at our disposal that we can apply with human creativity to influence our ecosystems.  A chain harrow is classed as a tool of technology. The ones we humans luuurve to use the most!

As with all tools, you need to know why, what and how you’re going to use it.

The wrong tool used the wrong time can have serious detrimental consequences to your delicate ecosystem and an even bigger knock on effect to the surrounding environment.

Know thy why of tools!

Why harrow?

There are many things to take into consideration before deciding if a harrow should be your tool of choice.  This will be entirely dependent on your own unique situation, which can be radically different to your next-door neighbour, or even from paddock to paddock on your own property.

With this in mind, the first and most important thing you need to ponder is “What do I wish to achieve by harrowing?” ….because whether you do or you don’t, you will have an effect on your pastures, so make sure it’s a desirable one!


  • What is my climate and landscape? …is it wet/humid or dry (brittle tending or non-brittle tending)?
  • What season are we in?…spring, winter, etc., growing season, non-growing season, drought
  • What are conditions like at soil surface?…this will have a BIG impact on the plants in the horse paddock and whether harrowing is the ideal choice.
  • How effective are all 4 of my ecosystem processes currently? (water, mineral, community dynamics (biodiversity), & energy flow)  Will harrowing improve upon this?
  • What am I using the land for? (if other than grazing and housing).
  • Are you only grazing horses on the land or do you have other grazing animals to consider?
  • What are your environmental values and land management vision?  If sustainable, biodiverse and eco-friendly are at the top of your list, a harrow will most likely not even be on it.

So, there’s a lot to think about (and that’s only just a few of the considerations to think over)!

Let’s default to some of the standard textbook info on the subject.

Harrowing can be used to create 3 major effects:

  1. It helps to move around surface material such as dead vegetation, poop etc.
  2. It pulls out dead grass, light rooted weeds, helps to aerate the soil/short grasses, and also spreads out seeds etc.
  3. If it lightly disturbs the soil, nitrogen can be mineralised (freeing it so the plants can use it) giving it a bit of a nutrient boost.

It’s often used to help control the trademark of poorly managed horse pastures i.e. distributing the poo piles to help eliminate lawns and roughs (we all know what they look like!), and thus helps to return the nutrients to the soil in a more even manner.

[With this in mind, consider “am I really addressing to the root cause of the problem?”  Could there be a better way to manage the animals and land to negate the necessity to harrow?]

How and when to harrow

Timing is key. A planned, monitored and controlled recovery period is essential to harrowing happiness.

[As a side recovery is also used as part of the tools of grazing and animal impact, which can be fantastic ways to effectively manage our land.  More on that in another blog.]

Depending on your own situation, you may need to keep horses off for about 6 weeks or more. This is needed for 3 reasons:

  • It takes this long for the horses to accept the grasses again after being spread liberally with pee and poop….cannot say I blame them!
  • Harrowing spreads worm larvae. The hotter and dryer the better to desiccate the little blighters.  While in the peak, dry summer days in South Georgia or SE Queensland that would take about a day :), this can take way longer in more favourable mild and wet conditions that a Blighty summer is used to.
  • It allows the plants and other critters that you’ve just raked over and uprooted, time to recover and re-establish.

The idea behind using a harrow is to give a leg up to your mineral cycle.  By breaking up dung and helping the process of decay this can potentially release minerals into the soil.  However, a thick stand of pasture grass can create an efficient microclimate that will do that job beautifully…again negating the need to harrow.

Should you choose to harrow while your plants are in a dormant phase, such as in a non-growing season or during drought, and you have a poor water cycle and thus soils, you run the risk of minerals being lost from your pastures.  They are easily washed out into waterways and/or your next door neighbour’s land (and cannot just go ask for them back!), instead of being taken up by growing plants and being returned to your soil.

So, if you’re going to harrow, the growing season is ideal.  If you’re not sure what yours is, ask a farmer or local land care group.

Cautionary fallows into which you can fall

In a pasture where you have a lot of species diversity (important note: this is what we should be aiming for!) harrowing can be tough on the more sensitive species.  These also tend to be the preferable lower NSC (sugars & starches) grasses.

You also run the risk of disturbing the delicate biodiversity that is (hopefully) already resident, and could greatly impede your attempts to introduce more.  Think ants, spiders, small mammals, frogs/toads, nesting birds, worms, dung beetles etc…they are all an invaluable part of your horse’s pasture buddy network!

[If you’re lucky enough to have a resident dung beetle crew at work for you hang a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the pasture!]

Depending on the vehicle you use to pull the harrow (preferably use a small tractor, ATV, or horse :)), you can create compaction issues….thus defeating what you’re trying to achieve.

Consider also environmental and sustainability issues that come along with motorised vehicle use, as well as the energy use and impact to make and distribute the chain harrow in the first place!

Less harrowing harrow alternatives

Use your horses to do the work for you!

Harrowing is designed to mimic the natural behaviour of densely packed grazing animals as they move across grasslands.  By using horses, cows, goats etc. in a planned holistic grazing system, all that you are trying to achieve with harrowing, and more, can be attained by applying the tools of animal impact and grazing.

It’s sustainable, much better for the environment, can help to regenerate grasslands quicker by improving all 4 ecosystem processes, and you get to spend more time in the saddle than the tractor seat!

Still itching to pull that harrow out?

As one of my brilliant Holistic Management mentors* so eloquently summed it up for me … “a set of pasture harrows is like a loaded gun.  You only use a gun when you know what the outcome of the use or action is.

(or at least those of us in the UK and Australia, the US has a way different approach to loaded guns!!) 

Understand that harrows, and the choice of vehicle with which they are being dragged behind, have the potential to cause a considerable amount of damage to a landscape.

If you don’t know why you are doing it and the right time to do it, then don’t do it!

Go find yourself a nice arena to play in.  They do a beautiful job on leveling sand and other surfaces!

Have a plan!

Assess your current situation, and determine what you are trying to achieve.   Your values and vision will ultimately influence your tools of choice, and the effects you will have on Mother Nature.  The reins (or steering wheel) are in your hands.  Just be sure to make a plan, monitor, and control and replan if necessary.  Don’t let your harrowing be harrowing!


Do you harrow?  What methods of pasture management do you routinely use? Do you feel confident you’re doing the right thing for your land, horses and planet, or is it all just a bit overwhelming? I’d love to hear about your pasture pearls or perils!

Leave a comment in the box below, shoot me a message to or canter on over to Facebook and join the herd.

Chat soon,


*Huge thanks and shout out to Jason Virtue from Land Life Education for his thought provoking discussion and contribution on this subject.




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Recurrent colic – risk factors identified

Colic instills fear into the heart of horse-owners worldwide, and so it should. Despite all that we know regarding prevention and treatment, it still remains the number 1 killer of horses.

While a number of management factors have been repeatedly implicated in increased risk of colic, there is little information as to how these risk factors affect the risk of recurrent colic.

Researchers in the UK recently investigated factors that placed the horse at greater risk of recurrent colic bouts (in this study, defined as a second bout of colic within 48 hours of the first colic being resolved).  In particular, they identified that increasing the amount of time spent at pasture decreased the risk of recurrent colic.

This supports findings reported  in previous studies and likely reflects the combined benefit of grazing, hanging out with friends in a more natural environment, and moving around…i.e. Forage, Friendship, Freedom.

While cribbing and windsucking have been previously linked to increased risk of colic, this was the first study to report an association between weaving behavior and an increased risk of colic.

Weaving has generally been considered a locomotory stereotypy that arises when movement is restricted. However, if we consider HOW a horse grazes, it is not surprising there is a link between inhibiting this behavior and the development of colic.

Interestingly, the researchers in this study also found that horses who had fruits and vegetables in their diet (i.e. variety!) showed a decreased risk of colic….succulents were always something we were advised to feed back 30+ years ago, yet we seem to have moved away from this.  However, the amount/type/frequency was not defined in this study, so don’t go too wild at the farmer’s market this weekend!

In short, the horse is meant to trickle feed on a huge variety of fresh green stuff.  We can create an environment that better meets his nutritional and behavioral needs, and in doing so, we can significantly reduce the risk of the incidence of colic, and other such management and feed-related maladies.  Be aware that any sudden change in nutrition or management can bring with it an increased risk of colic.  Make changes gradually and seek professional help if you are at all concerned or worried.

I’ve included the link to the full paper here, for anyone that would like more in-depth info.


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Can my horse eat Kale?

Can my horse eat Kale?

So, my wholesome herd of well-fed fillies, you know a superfood when you see one…just in case you don’t I’ve included a pic of a fresh bunch I picked up from the markets this morning!

Fresh bunch of Kale from out local markets - yum, get in my tum!

Fresh bunch of Kale from out local markets – yum, get in my tum!

I’m all about adding forage vitality and variety to our own and our horses’ diets, and I often get asked if ‘human’ foods are also appropriate to feed to our horses.  For the most part, horses can eat just about anything we do (they’ve even been documented as eating meat and fish…I know, I was shocked too!) BUT it doesn’t mean to say they always should!

Kale belongs to the ‘cruciferous’ family of vegetables, along with things such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, turnip, Brussel sprouts, to name a few (oh how I LOVE Brussels!).  It’s low in saturated fat, and very low in cholesterol (not a big deal for the horse).  It’s a good source of Dietary Fibre, Protein, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Folate, Iron, Magnesium and Phosphorus, and a very good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Vitamin B6, Calcium, Potassium, Copper and Manganese. 

Now, while it is packed full of nutrients and is touted as a superfood in the human diet, it has been shown in studies to affect iodine metabolism which can lead to thyroid damage over time.  True hypothyroidism in horses is very rare, however, we do not have any controlled studies on the effects of feeding kale in large amounts, over long periods of time.

So, add it in for a bit of variety…sure, but limit it to occasional ‘treats’ of about 2-4oz (60-120g) per day, or about half of a typical bunch (2-3 stems), to avoid any potential issues with feeding it in large amounts.  Make sure you change it up in your own diet too!



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The most common missing nutrient in your horse’s diet

We all want to do the best for our horses, and feeding is no exception.

We go to great lengths and expense to carefully construct our horse’s meal plan…striving to balance a diet that in reality, only the horse holds the key to.

The feeding and supplement industry is a multi-million dollar global industry, yet the health and well-being of our horses continues to spiral downwards, and we’re battling an epidemic of overfed-undernourished horses.

Despite all of our advances in feeding technology and nutrition research, we’re still overlooking the most fundamental ‘nutrient’ in our horses diet, and I’m going to share with you what I believe that is.

But first, let’s talk monkey business!

What the heck have primates got to do with feeding horses I hear you ask, well pull up a hay bale and  indulge me for a few, all will become clear!

Some years ago, Dr Richard Patton, my favorite all-species nutritionist, was asked to help figure out an issue with the primates at a zoo in the US.  Despite providing what they thought was adequate nutrition, the zookeepers were faced with an entire collection of primates, with poor quality hair coats.  From a nutritional perspective, this is a pretty common problem and a relatively easy ‘fix’ so Dr Patton did his usual protocol, convinced this would take care of the problem.  Except it didn’t, and despite a correctly formulated diet, hair coats were unaffected.  They remained dry, brittle and thin.  Dr Patton was puzzled as to why his ‘hair coat’ cure hadn’t worked!

One day, a zookeeper forgot to include the peanuts in the daily ration for all the primates.  He decided to save time and just thrown them into each of the enclosures and what happened next, in each and every cage, revealed a very simple, yet profound insight and solution to the problem.

What the zookeeper noticed was that the primates went in search and found every one of the peanuts buried in the hay that lined their enclosure floors.  Even after all the peanuts were found and eaten the monkeys continued on their foraging crusade, driven by a repressed urge to behave like a monkey!  The zoo keepers were delighted by this show of ‘normal’ behavior and continued to scatter the peanuts in the enclosure.  Within one week hair coats began to improve, and within two months they were restored to their full lustre.

So, happy ending to monkey story, but what the heck does that have to do nutrient-related problems in horses?

Well, the missing ‘nutrient’ for these monkeys was behavior…the way they were being managed and fed was not allowing them to perform essential monkey foraging behavior.

Hooves down, behavior is the most common missing ‘nutrient’ I see in horses.

As with all species, the horse has highly-motivated, hard wired behaviors that he must be allowed to perform, in order to be a horse.  They are known as the 3 F’s, Forage, Friendship, Freedom, and they are the cornerstone of each and EVERY issue I am called in to help with:

1)      Forage – your horse is a fiber processing machine that engineers could only ever dream of replicating!   He needs lots of (preferably fresh) varied green stuff, available 24/7.

2)      Friendship – your horse gets by with a little help from his friends.  As a prey animal he relies on constant social contact with his buddies to keep him safe and to allow him to perform a variety of essential maintenance functions, such as sleeping soundly!

3)      Freedom – as a nomadic animal, regularly covering 80km a day in search of food, water and lurve, he needs to be allowed to move freely.  Also included in this is allowing him the ability to make choices in his own environment.

Nutrition problems are largely man-made problems, brought about by altering natural behavior.

If you are really seeking the very best for your horses, as I believe we all are, make it your mission to do everything in your power to ensure your horse has these  3 needs taken care of.

Ensuring the 3 F’s needs are met will give you the solid foundations for a happy-healthy herd that no amount of number crunching will ever offer you, and will keep a host of nutrition and management related problems at bay.

So, what measure have you taken or could you take to improve the provision of the 3 F’s for your horses?  Do you have your own 3F transformation story you’d like to brag on?

Be sure to  share them with us in the comments below, and sprinkle the 3F love far and wide!

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10 things you may not know about me…that I’m prepared to admit in public!

redhills profile pic

Things have been a bit stuffy around here lately so let’s freshen the air with a few things you may not know about me!

  1. My colleagues refer to me as Research Roberts – me and the research archives have a thang going on!
  2. I was an Equine Vet tech for 10 years, wrestling rednecks and rattlesnakes in the hot & humid swamps of South Georgia.  My souvenirs include a prized rattlesnake skin and a preserved 3 month old foetus, named Mr. Pickles!
  3. I am a down-to earth, practical mare that you really want around in a crisis.  I have been known to smoothly negotiate a bottle of triple-drip anesthesia, a surgically prepped testicle, and a gorked out horse…while grown men dropped like flies.  Where there’s a will there’s a way.
  4. I’m always up for a challenge (see point 3).  Taking on motherhood and a Masters thesis has to rank on up there as one of the toughest.  Never did I think changing diapers would make for a welcome break from research!
  5. I am officially a science geek and proud as punch I had my equine nutrition research published in one of the one of the most highly regarded academic equine vet journals.
  6. In reference to point 5, I’m not comfortable with claiming bragging rights, but apparently ‘It ain’t bragging if you done it.”
  7. My most favorite place on this earth is Cape Town.  If I ever go MIA check Table Mountain or a fine winery in the Stellenbosch region.  Come join me for a glass bottle!
  8. I abhor the practice of trimming horse whiskers.  You wouldn’t chop your child’s fingers off because they looked messy….why in the hell would you remove such critical structures off your horse’s face???   SERIOUSLY!
  9. My favorite bit of horse equipment is my Kieffer Ulla Salzgeber Rusty dressage saddle.  Diamonds don’t come anywhere close.
  10. I believe we should not be feeding (or eating) foods that began the process of digestion in the feed mill. Period.
  11. I have a strange and, some might say, twisted fascination with pus.  Horses tend to be really good at making it. I’ve expressed and expunged a lot over the years…including off my bare legs.  I find this to be a really interesting topic of conversation at dinner parties.
  12. I have always been a nutrition nerd, and technically I am an Equine Nutritionist.  However, that’s only a small part of what I do to keep our horses happy and healthy.  I also enjoy helping to keep their humans happy and healthy too!
  13. Yes, it was supposed to only be 10 things but I have always had a problem sticking to word counts!

What about you?  What quirky things would you like to share?  Add them to the comments section below; I’d love to know more about you!



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What came first, the hay or the grain…

“Feed hay before grain (pellets/course mix/concentrate/hard feed)”

I often hear people say that hay should be fed before grain…it’s one of those ingrained (no pun intended) misconceptions that continues to be a source of much frustration.  So when an article by Dr. Martin Adams, PAS Equine Nutritionist for Southern States popped into my inbox, talking about the very subject, I thought it was a good time to jump on it for a Monday Myth blast!

So what reason do people give for hay before grain?

1)  “It helps to slow down the horse’s eating rate so he does not to bolt his feed and choke.”

2)  “Feeding hay first slows down digestion rate and prevents the hind gut from becoming overloaded by starch”

However, as Dr Adams notes neither of these objectives is reached with this practice.

Despite what you may have been led to believe, horses are smart, and when it comes to such a highly motivated behavior i.e. eating, they get REALLY smart!!!  Your horse figures out quickly the candy is coming after the salad so they leave their hay and wait for the grain…and they become very impatient in doing do.  This actually results in the opposite desired effect and they will guzzle down their grain or concentrate even more rapidly, which puts them at risk of choke and colic

There’s been quite a bit of research done on the timing of hay and feed and we know that offering hay before grain does not slow down the rate of passage through the digestive tract.  In fact, if hay is eaten within a few hours before or after grain, it flushes the grain through faster.

Why is this?
A horse will drink more water when they are fed hay, compared to a grain or concentrate feed.  Horses need to chew hay more (about 4 times more) than grain.  As chewing stimulates saliva production and saliva is mostly water, this means the stimulus to drink more water increases…so they do just that!

In addition, hay results in a huge water shift in the digestive system…much more is retained in hind gut (which is a reason why forage only diets can be so beneficial for hydration status in travelling and competing horses).   So, the increase in water intake, plus the fluid shift due to hay consumption will result in grain being transported more rapidly through the GI tract.  This occurs regardless of whether you feed hay before or after grain.

Sooo, in short, “offering your horse hay before you give them grain has no advantage over feeding both hay and grain at the same time or offering grain first and then hay, which is the practice that most horse owners follow.

Why is grain being rushed through the GI tract so bad for my horse?
Ideally, you want starch to be digested in the small intestine, and there’s not much time for this to happen under normal circumstances.  If undigested starch passes into the large intestine, it is fermented by the resident gut microorganisms, and it will wreak havoc…think colic, laminitis.

The best way to maximize starch digestion in the small intestine is to leave the horse without hay for at least 1 hour prior to feeding grain. Then after feeding grain, you need to wait 2 hours before feeding hay…not very practical huh?  Nope, nor is it very considerate of equine behavioral needs, physiological health, or welfare.

So what’s the best way to feed?

…as nature intended.

Feeding starchy grains and highly soluble carbohydrate feeds (i.e. bagged feeds…often the equivalent of a bag of candy or a Maccy D’s :)) to an animal that has evolved to eat a variety of low starch, structural carbohydrate forages, and a lot of them, is an outdated, often dangerous and largely unnecessary practice that keeps feed companies in business and vets busy – believe me, we take no pleasure in emergency colic callouts. 

We’re competing horses on forage only diets, including pasture only, very successfully. Emerging research is demonstrating it has superior benefits in many respects, including faster exercise recovery times and improved hydration status.  Not to mention a healthier, happier horse! 

We have no reason to be feeding large concentrate diets with inadequate forage to our horses…at any level. It’s a deep seated tradition that needs to be drop kicked out of this industry. The more we take responsibility for learning about good pasture management and making friends with our conserved forage manufacturers…the better off our horses will be, and the less we will need to fret over timing of feeds and unnecessary vet bills.

Any efforts taken to provide a predominantly varied forage diet will pay you back exponentially and your horse will be forever grateful!

Your horse is a horse and needs to be fed as such…we can and we must do better.

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