A little bit of rain and a horse in a field equals a whole lot of mud. Whether you have grass or dirt in the paddock, managing mud can be challenging. Not only is it uncomfortable for your horse, it makes your chores that much harder.
Building a horse area from scratch gives you the benefit of pre-planning. However, you can fix existing issues with some well thought out improvements. I’ve used a variety of materials over the years in my paddock in an attempt to stop the mud. Some definitely work better than others.
So, what is the best way to fix a muddy horse pasture? More importantly, what is the fastest and easiest way to solve this problem?
In my experience, a muddy pasture is the result of compaction and poor drainage. The best solution is to add drainage in high traffic areas using gravel and french drains. Avoid turning out your horse on grass pastures during wet weather. Also, direct rain from barn roofs with gutters into gravel culverts connected to french drains.
Obviously this answer is a little oversimplified, so keep reading and I’ll go over the details to fix this dirty mess.
What causes mud in the first place
Your horse pasture might be nice during the summer months but as soon as it starts to rain, the mud builds up. The actual underlying issue is the layer of ground below the mud. When this ground becomes too compacted, water can no longer drain through it fast enough and remains on top, mixing with the loose dirt and forming mud. And nothing seems to squish and mix mud better than heavy horse hooves.
Water naturally flows downhill so areas at the bottom of a slope or flat ground in general, will hold more standing water when the drainage is bad.
Combine all this and you have the perfect recipe for mud pie. Now, let’s discuss how to go about fixing the problem.
How do you fix a muddy field
There are several things you can do to prevent mud in a new pasture or fix water issues in an established one, at least in high traffic portions. Some fixes are simple and inexpensive while others will take a bit more cash and time.
If you are starting with a clean slate, you should consider a couple things before you build that barn or outbuilding. Analyze the lay of the land. If there is a natural slope on the property, make sure to build all buildings on the highest point. Also, place gates, feed stations and water troughs on the uphill side since these are high traffic areas that will compact quickly. Don’t make your horses congregate in the low spots.
If your property already has erect buildings, you can still analyze gate and trough placement. Taking a day or two to move an existing gate to a mud-free spot is well worth the work.
Next, you should check that all buildings have gutters and install them if they don’t. Rain is going to saturate the entire pasture but don’t overlook the volume of water that concentrates and drips off a roof line. Water can only seep into the ground so fast. Even highly efficient areas can get overloaded in a downpour.
Digging a simple 2 foot wide by 3 foot deep hole under each gutter downspout allows the water to immediately drain below ground level. You can get fancy with a concrete frame and metal grate or you can simply fill it with larger rocks topped with gravel. Attaching a french drain system to these culverts will also dissipate the water underground along a greater surface area.
It is a well known fact that vegetation is immensely important for erosion control and water drainage. A grassy field will absorb more water and be less wet than bare ground. However, pasture grass can only suck up so much water. It can be trampled into mud quite quickly, especially if more than one horse is allowed to graze nonstop during wet weather.
The best way to preserve a grass pasture during the wet, muddy season is to not allow grazing. Even one horse can trample wet grass into a mud hole, especially if they are on it 24/7.
If you only have one pasture and still want to graze, create temporary sections and follow a rotation schedule. Allowing a pasture to rest for a few weeks or more between grazing will revitalize the grass and allow it to naturally dry out.
Spending the time and money digging out an entire pasture to create adequate water drainage is not practical for most people. However, picking one or two strategic places for extra drainage will help larger areas stay drier. If you have grass pastures, these are called “sacrifice areas” because the grass will no longer be able to grow there. If you have bare ground paddocks, you aren’t sacrificing any grass but it’s still a good idea to install some.
The basic principal of a sacrifice area or drainage field is to dig out the compacted soil and replace with well draining, dense-grade, gravel. 3/8 inch minus is a great size because it’s small enough to fall through a manure fork and won’t bruise your horse’s hooves.
Start by digging out 8-10 inches of soil in the area of your choosing. You can make this sacrifice area any size you want. However, the bigger it is, the better it will drain.
Once the hole is dug, line just the bottom with non-woven geotextile fabric. This construction grade fabric will keep the dirt and gravel separate, preventing compaction that doesn’t allow water through.
Fill the hole in with 3/8 inch minus gravel and compact throughly. You can rent a compactor from Home Depot or other rental stores. A 2 inch layer of class I sand or agriculture lime can be added to the top if you don’t like the idea of your horse standing on gravel. Personally, the gravel alone has never caused any issues with my horses.
If you have extremely wet conditions, also consider connecting at least 2 french drains on the downhill end of the sacrifice area to further help distribute the water.
Obviously, it’s easier to make this drain before the rainy season. If you wait until it’s wet, you may have to scrape away the muddy layer and then 8-10 inches of the hard packed soil beneath. Save yourself the trouble and do this when the sun is shining.
Simply pouring gravel over a muddy pasture is not the best idea. The gravel will eventually mix in with the soil below and start to spread outside the area you dumped it, reducing its draining capabilities. Water needs several inches of gravel to seep through, not a few rocks scattered on the surface.
If you like the idea of using gravel but can’t fathom digging that big hole to contain it, then check out this Pacific Northwest company. Lighthoof® has created a simple, yet effective, way to make a gravel base for your horse on top of the existing ground. The gravel won’t shift and you don’t have to dig any holes!
This might just be the best mud solution available for horse farms!
You can implement this system on your existing paddock surface. The flexible panels follow ground contours so prep work is optional. Filling major holes is a good idea. The gravel above the panels can be raked level so the ground underneath doesn’t have to be.
The installation steps are straight forward and simple! Check out their website at www.lighthoof.com and watch the video below.
The flexible, open cell design contains the gravel which in turn supports your horse. The gravel will not be displaced when you horse walks on it. And if an upper edge of the panel pokes above the gravel, it won’t hurt your horse’s hooves. After filling with gravel, you can even cover with wood chips or sand, whichever your horse prefers!
Each Lighthoof® panel costs $229 but you will save money on the gravel and equipment side. Even if their system only works half as good as they claim, it’s worth every penny to never have a muddy horse paddock again!
Quick fixes to dry out a muddy pasture
You really want to implement a gravel space and french drains in your horse pasture but it’s just too wet to do that right now without creating a bigger mess. Fear not! There are a few tricks to help dry out a muddy pasture until the weather turns better.
When the mud is thick and there is standing water in each of your horse’s foot prints, you can take a shovel or rake and dig small channels to help direct the pooling water. It’s messy work but when there’s a downhill slope, you can get a lot of standing water moving. Although, as soon as your horse tramples the waterways, you will have to make them again.
Cover with organic material
Spreading a thick layer of mulch, wood chips, sawdust or straw can help soak up water and keep the mud at bay for one season. Eventually, the organic matter and mud will mix together as your horse walks on it. Stay away from large wood chips that get stuck in muck forks. It makes for extremely frustrating manure cleanup.
Drag the paddock
Horses are heavy and in soft paddock dirt they leave indents in the ground, not just surface footprints. These compact holes fill up with rain water and then sit stagnant. Keeping the ground “smoother” will help the water runoff and soak in instead of getting trapped.
In small paddocks, a hand rake is sufficient. In larger areas or with clumpier dirt, dragging a metal grate over the ground will do a better job and significantly speed up the process.
Storm drains or something similar work great for dragging because they are heavy and the slits allow dirt to move through instead of piling up on top. Small motor vehicles like a 4-wheeler, ride-on lawn mower or tractor make the job much easier. Drive around pulling the grate until all the dirt is smoothed out!
Do mud mats actually work for horses
Solid rubber stall mats work great for providing your horse a place to stand out of the mud only if the footing underneath is stable. Slapping a mat down on existing mud is pointless. The mat will eventually sink into the mud or it will squish out along the sides when your horse steps on it. A muddy stall mat is a slippery one.
If the mud underneath the mat is deep and uneven, the mat will eventually mold into those uneven crevices resulting in the edges lifting up which is a tripping hazard. Now your horse has to contend with mud and a slippery mat that is sticking up.
The best way to utilize stall mats is to place them on top of a solid, level base above the mud line. Gravel is ideal because it compacts and drains water. I’ve placed 2x4s underneath my horse’s stall mats to keep them above the mud. Just make sure the wood is all the same height so the mat isn’t wobbly.
Rubber mats with holes will not work in muddy areas. As soon as your horse steps on the mat, the mud will squish through all the holes. These mats are better suited for concrete or dry ground where you are looking for relief from sore legs, not mud.
Is it bad for horses to stand in mud
Mud is messy and hard to move around in but the real concern should be for your horse’s health. The effects of standing in a wet, muddy pasture all winter on your horse is no joke. Thrush, pastern dermatitis (scratches, mud fever) and fly-borne diseases can all arise when your horse doesn’t have a dry place to stand. These conditions are painful for your horse and hard to cure when he can’t get out of the mud.
Continual exposure to water softens the hoof wall and skin along the pasterns, making these areas more susceptible to infection. Fetlock hair should be kept long during the wet months because it helps protect these sensitive area.
The truth is, dealing with mud is a lot of work. The climate where you live, property layout, soil type, and number of horses all contributes to how much mud you have to deal with.
By consciously directing water with gutters and drains, strategically planning high traffic areas and laying down gravel correctly, you can start creating dry ground during the wet months for your horse.
* This post is not sponsored by Lighthoof.® I truly believe this is a genius system and will most definitely install it the next time I need to manage the mud in my paddocks!