Mud Management

Flanders and Swann, a singing comedy team from the United Kingdom, once penned a song that went like this:

"Mud, mud, glorious mud,
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.
So follow me, follow,
Down to the hollow,
And there let us wallow
In glorious mud!"

Of course the song was written from the perspective of a hippo.

For that animal's distant cousin, the horse, mud also has its attractions--but for the horse's handlers, it is anything but glorious. Every spring and fall (or virtually all year round if you live in the Northwest!), your dapple gray turns seal brown--with clumps--and threatens to disappear into the quagmire that has materialized around the paddock gate. You lose count of the number of times your rubber boots have been sucked off your feet, to say nothing of the multiple lost horseshoes. Getting the wheelbarrow to the manure pile is a daily struggle. You cringe at the way your grazing land gets churned up by horses negotiating their way through the goop, and you have to give up riding for weeks because your ring is dangerously slick. And then there's your trailer, buried to the axles.

What's not to like?

In addition to being a giant pain, mud and pooled water are health risks to you and your horses. They provide an ideal breeding ground for many types of flies and mosquitoes, especially those that carry various types of encephalomyelitis (including West Nile virus). Slick footing can lead to injuries when humans or horses wipe out. And mud also harbors bacteria and fungi that can contribute to scratches (a.k.a. mud fever) on pasterns, rain rot on rumps and backs, and thrush and canker in hoof crevices.

Finally, manure from your paddocks, mixed with water run-off, can be swept into nearby streams and ponds, where it can compromise the aquatic organisms that live there. Or it can find its way into the water table and eventually pollute your well (or those of your neighbors) with coliform bacteria.

If you really want to avoid currying dried cement from your horse's coat on a daily basis, you could, of course, confine him to quarters for the duration of the muddy season. But restricting turnout, while likely to save the grass, tends to breed discontent and encourage the development of boredom-related vices, in addition to costing you considerably more in terms of bedding and time spent mucking out stalls. Besides, even if you keep your critters indoors, you'll still have to navigate the area around the barn yourself--preferably without the assistance of hip-waders.

To some extent, mud is unavoidable. But its presence on your property isn't completely uncontrollable. Are there better strategies for channeling water away from your barn and paddocks, keeping the footing firm and usable for riding, and providing your horses with some outside time without sacrificing the grazing you're counting on for the summer months?

Yes, gentle reader, there are. Here are some tips for mud management that should help see you through the rainy season(s). Some require some pre-season preparation, while others are simple routine changes you might not have considered.

A Recipe for Mud

Water plus soil equals mud, as we all know. But what determines whether surface water, from snow melt or rain, stays on the surface and mixes with the soil to create a problem, or drains away, leaving your footing firm and usable?

The composition of your soil is one major factor. Those lucky enough to have sandy soil enjoy good drainage--in other words, surface water percolates down into the earth fairly quickly instead of sitting on the top. Heavier clay soils, on the other hand, hold rain or snow-melt on the surface and are a guaranteed recipe for mud when top layers become oversaturated.

Wherever there are horses, you have to factor in manure. One of the reasons manure is a popular additive to flower gardens is that it helps retain moisture. But that same quality can have a definite down side when it comes to your paddocks.

There's also the lay of the land to consider. If your barn occupies the deepest valley on your property, you can bet that water will find its way there from the surrounding high ground. Figuring out your property's natural watersheds is essential preparation before you build--bearing in mind that some streams are seasonal events, invisible in mid-winter or summer, but all too evident in the spring and fall!

Finally, there's traffic, as in the concentration of human and equine feet stomping over a certain area. Ever notice how the areas around your paddock gates are the first to get squishy and swampy during the rainy season? That's because soil compacts there thanks to the repeated pressure of hooves and becomes impervious to water absorption. Puddles pool on the surface, horses churn it up, and presto, you have mud.

With all of these elements working together, it might seem like you're fighting a losing battle. But there are things you can do to limit the impact of pooling water.

Simple Strategies

Good pasture management is an important mud reducer. Keeping horses off rain-saturated land is critical if you want to save your pasture plants and preserve grazing for the good weather. Constant pounding from hooves compacts even wet ground and can suffocate the roots of the grasses--and heavy traffic on winter-
dormant pastures can be more than some grasses can recover from.

Although it might seem handy to have a natural pond or creek on your property to water your horses, it's better to fence your animals away from these sources and provide a trough or automatic waterer for two reasons: First, when rainfall makes the soil around ponds and creeks soft, and horses stand on the banks to drink, they churn up the footing and soon create a muddy bog; second, manure on the banks soon filters into the water, contaminating not only your property's water, but areas downstream as well.

The best strategy for wet-weather turnout is to choose a "sacrifice area," which might be a small paddock you just accept is going to be trashed in wet weather. When conditions are muddy or frozen, using your sacrifice area for turnout will save the majority of your pasture for better days. If you don't have a suitable small paddock for this, consider marking off one section of your main pasture with portable electric fencing.

The location of your sacrifice area is key. Ideally, choose an area on higher ground, away from natural streams, seasonal surface water flows, or wetlands. For the sake of convenience, it should be fairly close to the barn (after all, you don't want to have to hike half a mile to rescue your critters from a storm!). Well-drained, gravelly soils work best--the idea is not to expect this area to grow grass, so it's not a priority to have lots of rich, organic material here.

If your sacrifice area is adjacent to the barn or other buildings, pay attention to the way rainwater drains from the roofs. Are your gutters and downspouts doing their job, or is water pouring down right where your horses will be standing? If so, some repairs or re-engineering might be in order. Remember to protect your downspouts so that your horses can't destroy them (think heavy PVC or hot wire if they have to be situated within the fenced area). You might want to position them so they fill the water trough, thus killing two birds with one stone!

United Kingdom resident Sue Grocott, no stranger to mud, says, "The ideal situation for paddocks is to set aside separate winter and summer enclosures. Save the higher ground for winter. The use of electrical tape is very prevalent here for fencing--it's portable and easily moved around. That way, if you haven't got the geography for separate paddocks, you can limit the use of your paddock space and save some grass for summer. I've seen one place where they extend the winter grazing literally a foot at a time to keep giving the horses something to eat."

Population density is another factor to keep in mind. Alison Utting, who battles mud on a regular basis at her home in the Pacific Northwest, says. "I think the number of horses in a given area and how quiet they are play a part. Two horses walking quietly in and out will not cause nearly the trampling effect of six rambunctious horses using the same area."

Because manure acts like a sponge, plan to pick up droppings in your sacrifice area every few days if you can. Although this might seem high-maintenance, there's a health benefit--you'll reduce the impact of internal parasites in a small, confined space. Furthermore, the less organic matter breaks down in the paddock, the less raw material will be available for mud formation.

If the natural flow of water on your property after a heavy rain still means water is collecting in your paddocks or riding areas, you might have to resort to some ecologically friendly means of diverting the excess. Swales, ditches, and drains can help, especially if they're well seeded with grass. In fact, the roots of any kind of vegetation help absorb excess water, so consider doing some landscaping. One mature Douglas fir, for example, can drink up to 250 gallons of water a day, and evergreens keep using water in the winter months when deciduous varieties are dormant. Water-loving shrubs and trees, such as cottonwoods, willows, and dogwoods, are also useful additions. However, they're best planted outside the reach of your horses to protect them from root compaction and bark-chewing, and to keep the "drip zone" from the ends of the branches from contributing to even more rainwater pooling in your paddocks.

What's Underfoot

If, despite all your best efforts, mud remains as persistent as a telemarketer at dinnertime, you might find it better to revamp your footing to protect what nature has given you to work with.

In the Pacific Northwest, chipped or shredded wood products added to the surface of turnout areas or riding rings are popular choices. Variously known as pole bark, peelings, stump grindings, wood chips, or "hog fuel," they're readily available in areas where there's a logging industry, and usually they are competitively priced. (Sometimes they're even free from construction or power companies looking for a place to dump their stump grindings.)

Whether you use chips, hog fuel, or bark peelings, these natural wood products will break down and need to be replaced periodically, but they do a decent job of soaking up excess moisture. As they compost, they contribute to the breakdown of equine manure and urine, keeping aromas to a minimum and reducing runoff to your property's watershed. As they break down, the particles will get smaller and smaller, so that after a few years there will be a buildup of organic fines that will have to be removed, either by shovel or with the help of a front-end loader during the dry months. Otherwise, you risk it contributing to the mud problem come autumn. It's not a total loss, however--the fines will enrich your compost pile or garden.

Avoid any wood footing product that contains hardwood shavings (most hog fuel is a mixture of cedar, pine, fir, and hemlock) or comes from a construction site where sharp metal objects (such as nails) might have gotten mixed in. The wood pieces should be soft and the pieces of a reasonable size--too fine, and it will decompose before winter's end; too large and manure-picking will be a nightmare.

In places where hog fuel and shavings aren't readily available, many horse owners rely on sand, gravel, or stone screenings. "Fill" sand (the coarse type used for concrete work), spread on a leveled site, can provide a great all-weather riding surface, and it's an option to consider for mucky paddocks as well. If you use sand for a turnout area, however, do not feed your horses hay from the ground, because sand colic will become a risk. Instead, invest in a standing feeder that keeps hay and grain off the sand and reduces wastage.

Gravel also comes in several grades, and as with hog fuel, you want something neither too big nor too small. The five-eighths size often used for driveways is preferred by many horse owners. Although it's usually used to help fill in paddock quagmires, it shouldn't be ruled out as a riding footing. Pam Burke, of Havre, Mont., says, "While I live in a part of the Great Plains referred to as high-plains desert, I do have to deal with mud every year. My problem is that I live on top of 75 feet of solid bentonite clay. So when we get rain (or when the snow melts in spring), I have a skating rink that takes forever to soak up water.

"My solution is, oddly enough, a gravel pad," she says. "On top of my bentonite I happen to have enough gravel to run a gravel pit--this pit has been open off and on for decades. One of the gravel businesses crushed gravel, so I actually have a large bed of it from what they left on the ground. This gravel is no bigger than a half-inch; it was used by paving crews to chip-seal roads. It's too hard, gritty, and rocky to use when the ground is dry and hard, but when we get rain the water drains through it, so it rarely has standing water, but the footing softens while the gravel helps with traction. By the time the gravel pad hardens again, my usual arena in the barley field is in perfect riding condition."

As Burke's durable gravel pad demonstrates, one of the advantages of using gravel or stone screenings is that they don't break down like hog fuel and won't need to be replaced nearly as frequently. In most locales, however, it's considerably more expensive than other types of footing.

You might find that the best solution on your farm is to use several types of footings, alone or in combination, depending on what's available locally and at what price. You might choose fill sand in a riding arena, for example, hog fuel in your sacrifice paddock, and gravel at the entrance to your run-in shed and at the paddock gates.

For the ultimate solution, however, consider investing in geotextile fabric, also known as filter fabric or landscape cloth. Often used in heavy construction projects, this plastic-based material is perforated with tiny holes that allow water to drain down, but not sand or silt to filter through. It's available through landscaping supply centers, farm supply retailers, and some larger hardware/do-it-yourself stores, in various weights and thicknesses, widths, and lengths. Choose the most durable one you can afford--one that can withstand penetration by your horse's shod hooves.

The time to install geotextile fabric is during the summer, when conditions are dry. You'll need a backhoe to help dig down and remove about four inches of topsoil, level the site, then roll out the fabric, making sure the edges are well-buried. Depending on the area you're covering, you might need to lay down parallel strips, overlapping them by about a foot on each side. In high-traffic areas such as gates, plan to place the fabric across the width of the trouble spot and at least 20 feet into the paddock. Over top of the material, you'll place a layer of crushed rock or gravel, or a sand/gravel mix depending on the soil type (consult a landscape expert for his/her recommendation).

All of this sounds like a lot of work, but many horse owners have found it to be well worth the effort. Says Missourian Jeannine Walter, "When I put my arena in, the excavator moved the dirt from the site to up around the barn. This was good in theory because that leveled out the addition I had put on, but bad in reality since all the junk he moved up was lovely Missouri clay. I went through one winter and that was it. My mare had a ball of clay in her tail that must have weighed five pounds. I had to cut her tail to get it out.

"So I removed all of the clay, put down a geotextile fabric, and laid down 220 tons of screenings and rock. What a difference! The horses still manage to get dirty, but no more clay! And the footing stays firm even when wet. So no missing shoes and no sore tendons. I am thrilled."

Linnea Mathews of Taylor Farm Connemaras in Fayette, Maine, who used geotextile fabric to improve drainage in her riding ring, agrees. "The sand and gravel need to be replenished every three to five years, depending on the site characteristics and use, but the geotech fabric and grading are set for life if properly done," she says.

If you're looking for a permanent solution to a serious mud problem on your farm, geotextile fabric is likely the way to go. It can be applied in any high-traffic area--under gates, near troughs or automatic waterers, around run-in sheds or barn entrances, or under a riding surface--and its initial cost will pay off in the un-chapped heels and unlost shoes of your horses. After all, mud can be glorious, but only if you're a hippo.

How Do You Handle Mud on Your Farm?

Curse it and wait for dry weather: 332 (39.86%)
Install drainage system/materials in wet areas: 198 (23.77%)
I don't know what to do with it. Help! : 138 (16.57%)
Move horses to another pasture: 119 (14.29%)
I don't have any. (lucky you): 46 (5.52%)


About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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