For urbanites there are five seasons: fall, winter, spring, summer, and construction. For rural folk and horse people, we swap out construction season for mud season.
Springtime (and even fall) often bring a deluge of rainfall; the old adage April showers bring May flowers comes to mind. But the ensuing mud can cause all sorts of issues including health-related ones for equines such as thrush, mud fever, and other bacterial and fungal problems. Horses can damage tendons or fall and injure themselves, not to mention lose shoes in the bottomless muck. There’s also the damage to footing and grass that comes from turning horses out on soft ground.
Who hasn’t had to cope with swampy ground at gates or feeders? There are some short-term and long-term solutions to make mud season less of an issue.
Stay Inside: It might sounds a bit drastic, but for some horse farm owners the most cost-effective and simplest solution is to simply leaves horses in their stalls. This saves the grass and footing in paddocks, but is only suitable if you have access to an indoor arena or outside ring with good footing to exercise your horse, or a smaller all-weather round pen to use for turnout until the ground dries.
Trench Warfare: For smaller pools or water or soggy sections such as at a gate, you can dig trenches downhill away from the water-logged area, then fill the trench with gravel. But if you have an issue around a turnout shed or feeder, you may be forced to turn to heavier equipment to contour the ground around the area to provide a “natural” runoff.
Rubber Mats: Consider using rubber mats, like you do in stalls, for run-in sheds. Water will run off them and you can hose them easily to keep them clean.
Traffic Jam: Gravel can be used in the heavy traffic areas such as around the gates and water troughs. As Les Smith, a professor of landscape architecture at Ball State University who specializes in equine facility planning, told The American Quarter Horse Journal, “Add a crushed stone of a fine consistency – it’s often called ‘quarter down’ because it is quarter-inch in diameter down to dust-sized. After some years of adding this stone, you’ll end up with a crushed stone path – a sacrifice area because the ground will probably never recover with vegetation.”
Avoid using sand because it dries hooves out and also can lead to tendon or ligament injuries if too deep, and if ingested, can cause sand colic. Instead, if your budget allows, opt for high-tech footing such as those made from rubber or other specially designed materials. Once again, using this technique around gates etc., will result in the vegetation not growing back.
According to Equine Guelph’s Mud Management Horse Care Help Sheet, wood chips (not shavings) also work well and “provide a very stable platform for your horse to stand and walk on.” The chips will break down, however, and require replacing periodically. Equine Guelph’s Help Sheet also mentions that all footing materials work most effectively when they are placed on top of landscape filter fabric or geotextile fabric (see below). “The filter fabric prevents the footing material from sinking down into the soil, reducing the firmness of the footing. Footing materials should be placed at least 6 inches deep so that footing stability is maximized.”
What NOT to do: Despite what you’ve perhaps seen on some farms, do not add manure, hay, straw or shaving to the mud, thinking that it will form a good temporary barrier. All this organic material will do is mix into the mud and worsen the mess.
Soil Stabilizers: Soil stabilizers can be used in high traffic areas, such as gates, to reduce mud. There are also a number of commercially available soil stabilizing grid systems such as geotextile fabrics. The majority of these geotextiles are produced from polypropylene material that is woven and are used to separate the soil from the rock, allowing the water to pass through, keeping soil and rock in place. In addition to geotextiles, there are other types of soil stabilizers including a “geogrid” which is made from materials such as recycled polyethylene and polypropylene. These grids lie on top of the high-traffic area such as the Mud Control Grid from Ontario-based System Equine, and are anti-slip, easy to assemble and remove, and water-resistant.
High Traffic Pads: This is a solution that is more permanent and requires farm owners to excavate and level out a base, add various layers of crushed rock, geotextiles, and crushed stone surface layers. This guide from the Louisiana University AgCenter or LSU College of Agriculture is easy to follow, but you need to do your research into the exact type of soil on your land. The University of Minnesota also offers free tips for building such an area on their website.
Rotate Paddocks: If you have multiple paddocks, you need to plan to rotate the horses from one to the other over the course of the grazing season, or even allow one paddock to “rest” for an entire year if possible. You can also consider sectioning off parts of a larger field (for example, with electric fencing) to create “rest” spots for the grass and footing to recover.
The Province of Ontario’s website offers some tips such as rotating horses to a new area or paddock every 5-6 days, stating that “plants should not be grazed below 2-3 inches.” They also recommend that pastures are given time to regrow until plants and grasses are between 8-10 inches high. “Bluegrass can be grazed at 4 to 6 inches and alfalfa at 12 to 16 inches. The number of days required for rest differs over the grazing period. In the spring forages grow at twice the rate than during the summer. If the pastures get ahead of the horses, they can be used for hay production.”
Sacrifice Paddock: This is the small paddock you’ll use during rainy season or while you’re waiting for grass paddocks to dry out. If used for turnout, consider having multiple ones, depending on the size of your herd and if it can be done safely. Various materials can be used for footing, and the University of Massachusetts has written a paper on the pros and cons of wood chips, gravel, gravel and sand, gravel and stone dust, with or without geotextiles.
Whichever footing you choose to lay down, know that this paddock will never yield grass again, hence the name. But it is a safe place to allow your horses to be outside and avoid all the pitfalls of mud.