We are often contacted by owners asking about the feasibility of growing a mixed pasture of grasses and herbs in their horses’ paddocks. It’s a great idea, as it increases nutritional variety and it’s true that horses seek out specific medicinal herbs when needed. It can be tricky to accomplish in the dry Southern African climate though, and the fast-growing tropical grasses commonly used in grazing paddocks here tend to crowd out other plants. Overseas it’s quite a different story, as herbs will grow perfectly happily in amongst their seasonal native grasses. In Germany, the standard commercial bale of hay is naturally a mixture of native grasses and volunteer field herbs such as Calendula, Dandelion, Fennel, Mint, etc, which is so totally unlike here where monoculture hays are the norm. Especially in the Western Cape where Veldt hay is barely available at all.
Getting back to the herb paddock subject, a problem most people find when they try to grow mixed herb and indigenous grass pastures in SA is that our grasses (and the non-indigenous but extremely widespread invasive Kikuyu grass) grow extremely voraciously whenever there is regular water available. The herbs need plenty of water in order to grow in our country’s mostly dry climate, but then the grasses tend to grow right over the top of any other plants and completely crowd them out, so its very hard to keep the right balance of herb and grass mixture for any period of time. If you are planning to do a smaller area and keep it entirely grass free, it would give the herbs a much better growing opportunity. Although there is a major drawback to this option: just a couple of horses can do a LOT of damage to a patch of herbs in a small area in a very short amount of time. A better idea is to establish a quality grass paddock surrounded with a 1-2m wide grass-free herb bed, planted around the outside of a 1 m high post and rail fence. This way the horses have free access to the herbs, but won’t trample them.
In the herb beds I’d recommend growing a mixture of herbs such as Comfrey, Liquorice, Dandelion, Chamomile, Golden Rod, Echinacea, Vervain, Red Clover, Parsley, Mint, Marshmallow, Calendula, Fennel, Fenugreek and Nettle, all of which are great for maintaining healthy horses and also grow well in our climate. Plant the shorter growing varieties closer to the rail, and the taller ones further away where the horses can stretch over to reach them.
Ensure that you plant the English Comfrey (Symphytum officinale), not the potentially toxic and much hairier Russian Comfrey (Symphytum uplandicum). The Dandelion must be the true medicinal Taraxacum officinale variety, not the commonly confused False Dandelion (Hypochaeris radicata) which is toxic and can cause a stringhalt type lameness if eaten in large quantities. Our local weed variety of nettle (Urtica urens) is fully interchangeable with the British type (Urtica dioica), and the horses will usually gobble them up if you cut the plants and leave them to wilt in the sun for a couple of hours (in order to neutralise the stinging hairs) before offering to them.
A couple plants each of Yarrow, Thyme, Rosemary, Lavendar, Wormwood and Sage are excellent additions. These particular herbs are quite powerful, containing volatile oils which have anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, vermifige and vermicidal properties. Horses would only very rarely choose to eat these herbs, and in limited quantities as and when necessary. Too much of these herbs for too long can cause toxicity issues, but it’s highly unlikely that horses would ever free willingly over-eat on any of them.
Indigenous herbs and shrubs which are safe for horses are excellent additions. These include Sutherlandia, the various types of dekriet, creeping saltbush, the Polygala’s, and the Hermannia species (except the toxic H. tomentosa), buchu, pelargoniums, aloes and wild olive.
Good border herbs which are incredibly safe and extremely healthy for horses to nibble on, and are ideal to grow around the outside edge of paddocks as a hedge for natural shelter, are Hawthorn (botanical name Crataegus oxycantha) and the Dog Rose (Rosa canina), which grows particularly successfully in a clay or partial-clay soil. Horses particularly like eating the Rose’s red fruits, called hips. Hawthorn is ideal to grow on the southern border as it’s evergreen, whereas the deciduous roses are ideal for the western border.
It may take quite some effort to establish and maintain a herb garden for your horses, but should be very well worthwhile in the end! Once or twice a year, when it comes time to neaten up the garden with a bit of trimming, spread the cut herbs thinly over the grass in the paddock so that they dry out in the sun, as horses often prefer the taste of dried herbs to fresh.
The Purpose for this Garden Layout – to have interlinked paddocks with the same arrangement, hence the hedge planted in the middle. If only one herb paddock was needed, then the hedge can be planted right against the outside boundary (then the shorter type herbs planted on the outside would not be required), and then the hedge borders would only need to be 4m wide.
Tips for planting: