Low Mud Winter Paddocks

Here in the northwest, horse owners face the problem of mud in the winter. We wanted to address this winter mud problem when we expanded Shadysprings Farm, which boards 36 horses. In addition, we were concerned about our muddy runoff into our watershed. I looked into the subject and discovered there was little concrete information and lots of opinions! There was information that included everything from hog fuel to elaborate drainage studies. I decided to test what works "on the ground." Working with the West Multnomah County Soil and Water Conservation District and a grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, we did a pilot study to test different footings and to find out what the cost/ benefit ratio was for each. We think we have found some good ideas and want to share them with you.

Here’s how we installed our different footings. First, we prepared the site, which cost about 20 cents per square foot of preparation. Preparation may include leveling the site and installing drainage with culverts, drainage ditches, or drain tiles. In preparing the site it is a good idea to know how water drains or doesn't drain off the area. If the area has high water runoff during the winter months you should lay drain tiles under the site or ditch the water away from your paddock.

On our farm, we have sloping ground. We chose to divert water away from the turnout paddocks by putting in drainage ditches and terraced slopes between the turnouts. We caught water in a drainage ditch uphill of the turnout, ran the water into a 12-inch diameter culvert pipe buried under the turnout, and outlet the water into a vegetated swale below the turnout. We seeded our ditches to slow run off and prevent sediment movement. Another option would have been to place drain tiles under the site moving the water away.

When we created our terraced slopes, a lot of the topsoil was used to level the turnouts. We used manure and shavings from our horse stalls on the slopes to add organic matter back to the soil and to prevent erosion during the winter months. A benefit to having these terraced slopes between paddocks is that we created a buffer between adjoining paddocks and fighting horses. This buffer not only prevents injuries, but saves your fence as well. We ended up putting a six-foot strip in between two attached turnouts so any horse could be placed next to one another.

On sloping or flat ground, remember that slopes can be deceiving and you don't want the water to move the wrong way. So be sure and check your site with a laser level or other instrument to determine elevations. If your not sure about drainage, you may receive assistance through you local Soil & Water Conservation District. If they cannot assist, they can generally guide you to other sources of information. Information maybe available from an OSU or WSU Extension livestock agent.
After installing level turnouts, terraced slopes, and drainage, we were ready to install our different footings. The following is a description of the four footings we installed and the cost for materials and labor to do a 36 by 100-foot site.

The first type of footing was the least expensive footing: fill sand directly on a leveled site with fairly good drainage. I personally like this footing and have had much success with it. We have an outdoor arena that has poor drainage. Although it has puddles of standing water, the footing is quite good since the fill sand has worked into the dirt over the years and has created a firm surface that isn't hard on the horses. Every couple of years we add some more sand if it starts to get muddy. When it comes to sand we have tried fill sand, dredged up sand and finer sands. We like the fill or coarser sands best. If you are not sure of what to ask for, look for a coarser sand that is used in concrete work. It tends to pack better and doesn't move as much as finer sand, also important in high wind areas. Make sure when you put down sand that it is not deeper than 4 inches. If it is too deep you could injure your horse and end up with a bowed tendon or other injuries. The other thing about sand is DO NOT FEED ON IT. You risk having a horse with sand colic. We don't feed on our sandy areas and have not experienced any problems with colic. This footing cost 15 cents per square foot, or about $540.

The second type of footing was a six-inch layer of 3/4 minus gravel on a prepared surface and four inches of fill sand on top. We have found that some of the gravel moves up into the sand layer, but we haven't had any bruising, abscesses or other problems. I suspect that the sand cushions the impact when they do step on the rocks mixed in with the sand. It does appear that the gravel is packing down and that you see less of it each month. I think this would be a good footing for areas with a slight slope since the packed gravel may slow the movement of the sand downhill. The cost for this was 36 cents per square foot $1296 for the site.

The third footing type was six inches of 1 1/2 inch minus gravel on a prepared surface with six inches layer of cedar wood chips. Within a month the chips worked into the gravel and started to breakdown. We currently are adding another six-inch layer of cedar chips on top to see how they hold up. It appears that you would have to add new chips yearly and possibly remove the old material. While it isn't holding up as well as the aggregate and/or sand sites, if you plan on feeding on the site, this maybe the way to go. If you use just wood chips use at least a 12-inch deep layer. Even then you may experience breakdown and mud if there is heavy use. I was told that heavy layers of wood chips might be bad for streams producing a lot of acid (leachate) in the soil. The cost for this has turned out to be 40 cents per square or $1440 for the site if you include the additional wood chips.

The fourth footing type was the most expensive: laying down a woven geotextile fabric on a leveled surface, spreading a 6 inch layer of 3/4 minus gravel and then a 4 inch layer of fill sand. In area with heavy impact of 11 weanlings and yearlings all winter, I used 8 inches of gravel on top of the woven geotextile fabric and then the sand which came to .54 cents per foot. I thought this site would be in poor condition by now due to the impact. It doesn't look much different then it did in October. When you look at the babies you can even see their white hooves. No mud at all! This cost 48 cents per square foot or $1944 for the site.

I have "seen the light!" Before installing the turnouts, the pastures were mud lots in the winter and dusty dirt lots in the summer. This has been a mild winter. I don't know how each turnout would look with heavier rainfall for long periods. They all have held up under high precipitation in a 24 hour period. Even then, after installing the turnouts, we have kept the horses from muddying pastures in the winter. As a result, the horses are keeping their shoes and are free of mud, mud fever, and other health issues. In addition, the pastures will have a lower parasite load and be much greener. This fall we seeded over the old pastures and the fields are looking good. We are also composting our manure and shavings (which kills parasite eggs) and plan to place it on the fields this spring. Healthy grass fields handle more nutrients from the compost, provide feed for the horses, help keep dust down during the summer, prevent soil erosion during the winter and protect water quality. And green pastures and clean water will add value to your property and make you proud to present your facility to others!

This project will continue to be monitored for two years to see how the footings hold up and the amount of maintenance needed over the long haul. We are also doing photo monitoring and water quality testing of our streams and ponds to see if good horse management works for the environment. You can reach us at (503) 621-6932 if you have more questions. Were happy to share what we have learned. Managing you land with conservation in mind is a win-win situation. Not only do we help protect our watersheds but we have healthier, happier horses as well.
By Karin Hunt