Soil Testing

Testing the soil is a valuable process for long term soil treatment but it’s very limited in terms of helping to determine what to feed and supplement to correct imbalances/ deficiencies and excesses in a horse’s intake.

Balanced Equine is all about calculating as accurately as possible the amounts of nutrients a horse receives when eating grass or hay. Soil tests are not a tool for this. Soil tests will only indicate what is in the soil, not in the pasture. Plants differ from uptake of minerals based on species, growth stage, soil pH, moisture, oxygen and nitrogen levels. Plants regulate uptake of many minerals.

Even if your soil test results say your soils are excellent, this does not mean that the grass will be providing a balanced intake. Of course, these soils will be better than highly acidic or alkaline soils. It’s always interesting to compare the results of a soil test to the results of a pasture test and it’s nice to know the soil pH, as it can be very helpful to explain pasture test results. Levels of minerals in soil can be to a degree fairly insoluble or unavailable for uptake in plant roots, depending on soil pH and other factors.

Emil Truog did some outstanding work over 60 years ago and his conclusions on how pH affects the availability of nutrients are still widely used today. For most plants, the ideal pH is slightly acidic, neutral or slightly alkaline. Links are at the bottom of the page.

First let’s look closer at the pH range

The lower the number the higher the acid and the higher the number more alkaline, also known as basic.

Image sourced from
Nutrient availability and microbial activity as affected by soil pH; the wider the band, the greater the availability or activity. Adapted from Truog, USDA Yearbook of Agriculture 1943-1947 -

Plants can and do regulate uptake of many minerals from the soil. For example, it’s normal for plants to have much higher potassium levels than sodium. Too much sodium in the soil can kill plants unless the plants have adaptations to deal with the high sodium (halophytic species like mangroves). Potassium is essential for growth, can be around 25:1 K:Na depending on the plant portion tested and stage of growth (higher in young, growing grass or during regrowth).

Hair and blood testing

Unfortunately hair testing for working what nutrients are deficient or in excess or balance has been shown to be unreliable. Read about hair testing and what the research shows. Blood testing is for non-nutritional wellness states, it’s extremely limited for nutritional analysis.

Pasture or hay testing

The best way to find out what your horse needs is to find out what nutrients he is getting already from the main source of fibre, also known as roughage. Pasture or chaff/hay is the foundation of the diet. The horse’s digestive system evolved over a very long time to a design that is geared to extract available calories from high fibre foods by hindgut fermentation. The base of the diet for EVERY class of horse should be pasture or chaff/hay.

Grass or hay (preferably grass unless the horse is insulin resistant) is the best food for horses as this is what their digestive systems evolved to eat. Grass contains so many nutrients that horses need and is very high in fibre. This includes protein, carbohydrates, fat, minerals and vitamins. You may be surprised to read that there is fat in grass. In fact, if your horse did not have access to grass and was mostly on hay instead then the horse would need supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids essential for the immune system. These cannot be manufactured by the horse, they have to come from the diet. Read more about the best source of omega-3 fatty acids: linseeds.

Collecting a pasture sample

Many pastures contain grasses, especially pasture improved species like Kikuyu that are high in protein and energy. Some may think you always need to supplement protein for horses, but the pasture may be supplying 2-3 times their protein requirements or even higher. To be able to know for sure what amounts of each nutrient/mineral your horse is getting it is best to have a sample of your pasture tested in a laboratory. If only a small amount of hay is in the diet then Balanced Equine can use average figures for your preferred type of hay but the most accurate way is to test a representative sample. Of course, some horse owners buy small amounts of hay from different sources so testing in this situation is not realistic.

Testing is not costly, especially if viewed as a way to find out what just how nutritious your forage is rather than guessing. Unfortunately, looking at photos of pasture cannot tell us what the nutrient levels are. Even with a specific grass like Teff hay, the nutrient levels can vary significantly, let alone ‘grass’ or ‘meadow’ hay.  Learn more about the value of pasture and hay testing, and what the values mean in a test.

You can learn how to do this yourself by enrolling in NRCPlus presented by Dr Eleanor Kellon VMD. All links are below.

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