In our part of the country, we had a pretty rainy fall, and it made it hard not to think about mud. There were muddy spots in the paddocks, muddy spots at the barn doors, muddy spots on the driveways, and a shocking amount of mud on the floor mats of my truck. In real life, I am Chief Agronomist for a company that operates a bunch of golf courses. The tolerance for mud on those properties is considerably less than the average horse farm, so we’re actually pretty good at dealing with it. Over the years, I’ve tried to apply some of those golf course management techniques at the barn.
The first rule of thumb is that avoiding the creation of mud is far easier than fixing the damage once it’s done. Mud is just wet soil. Whenever the ground is saturated by rain, snow melt or leaking water systems, there will be mud present. It isn’t normally visible, because the plants on the surface (usually grass) mask it, and the root systems hold it all together until the soil has a chance to dry up. What we think of as mud happens when some mechanical force results in the wet soil underneath being pushed up through the thatch layer and smothers the plants at the surface. If these plants die, it is nearly impossible to get them re-established without several weeks of barricades, tender loving care and yelling at people for walking there.
Human foot traffic generally doesn’t cause mud, unless it’s a heavily trafficked area, but hooves, or anything with wheels, are particularly good at it. The obvious thing to do is to limit traffic at times when the soil is saturated. There are simply times when a four-wheeler, tractor or even a wheelbarrow will do a substantial amount of damage. Hooves can do even more damage, and measures ought to be taken to keep horses inside or in a designated muddy area – like the “mud room” that most people have in their homes. Most established horse farms will have a “winter paddock” for this purpose. Keeping the traffic off the main paddocks for a few days (or even hours) can make a huge difference in the long run.
In the golf world, we spend a lot of our time trying to vary the flow of traffic – making sure that the wear patterns get spread around. If the horses are walked to the paddocks or to the barn on exactly the same path every time, muddiness will happen. If you’re building a new fence, put more than one gate in it, and rotate their use there’s no need to concentrate that traffic. I learned from my father on our dairy farm to constantly move the feeders around, so the animals aren’t always congregating in the same place.
If we find that we can’t vary the traffic enough to keep the turf from being destroyed, we build a path. Gravel, limestone screenings, recycled asphalt, wood chips – anything that will give the surface enough rigidity to keep the mud out of sight, and your feet dry. Then we yell at people for not walking on them.
My point is that I see a lot of mud on horse farms, and some of it is inevitable. But take it from a guy who grows grass for a living, there are many things that can be done to reduce the amount of it that you need to deal with.