Winter Horse Pasture and Paddock Management

Winter Horse Pasture and Paddock Management

Don't let your lush paddocks turn into muddy messes--for your horse's sake as well as the ground's.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Protecting your turnout now can help ensure green pastures later

Winter: The word could call to mind images of toasty fires and delicious hot chocolate—or mucky mud and frozen troughs. (Your perspective all depends on how many consecutive days you’ve had to thaw gate latches and plow the driveway, right?) With a little preseason legwork, however, winter at the barn can be much less miserable … hey, maybe even rather nice. The goal? Keeping outdoor enclosures and other horse-keeping spaces as ice- and mud-free as possible, which will help make way for productive pastures come spring.

Designate Off-Limit Areas

For your horse to enjoy quality grazing in the warm months, minimizing winter wear-and-tear on your pastures is a must. Wet and frozen pastures must be no-go areas if you want healthy plant growth later.

Deep roots and a strong soil base are crucial for healthy pasture plants. Horse traffic on wet ground both compacts the soil and diminishes water filtration, causing runoff, depriving the plants of winter moisture, and impeding growth. This disruption can also destroy the top soil layer, leading to erosion. 

A few other factors contribute to the perfect storm of paddock problems.  

“First of all, the grass in the winter is not actively growing. It has to rest,” explains Ann Swinker, PhD, professor of equine sciences and horse Extension specialist at Penn State University, in State College. “Grazing in the nongrowing season damages plants down to the crown and tears up the roots. The plants won’t recover, and you’ll end up with a lot of bare spots and undesirable invasive weeds” taking over those areas.

“Without desirable grasses, legumes, and forages, you’ll have a poor-quality pasture,” she continues. “You have to manage your pasture like a crop. In the semi-arid climate in the West, you really have to follow the ‘take half/leave half’ (i.e., percent of plant removed) grazing principle, or you’ll reduce the stand or eliminate it; the pasture stand is then very hard to re-establish. In the Northeast, the climate is a little more forgiving (plenty of rainfall), but you don’t want to push it. It’s very expensive to renovate and reseed, and the pasture requires significant recovery time while the roots establish.”

Other plants besides your desirable pasture grasses go dormant during the winter, too, and certain ones pose health risks after the first hard frost of fall. “There are plants that change chemically when the leaf is disrupted by frost,” says Swinker. “Some become toxic—the prime example is wild cherry leaf, but there are also other plants that can change their chemical compounds. For example, the common weed Johnsongrass under certain conditions can develop high nitrates,” which, when consumed in large amounts, can cause colic and diarrhea in horses. Here, being familiar with the plants in your pasture is key; your local equine Extension office is a valuable resource.

Meanwhile, pastures in warmer climates look very different. Horses might continue to enjoy winter grazing on areas that farm owners “rested” to make way for dense regrowth in late summer and early fall. “In the South, ‘stockpiling’ 6 to 8 inches of pasture grass or annual ‘small grain’ grasses lets horses graze into winter,” says Swinker. 

Perfect Prep: Overseeding and Fertilizing

Another way to prime pastures before the winter for optimal spring growth is overseeding, which adds other plant species and reintroduces overgrazed desirable plants, says Swinker. This can be expensive (ranging from $200 to $600 per acre), so she recommends splitting seed and fertilizer applications into fall and spring to distribute the cost throughout the year. 

“We recommend overseeding pastures that you want to make more productive,” says Krishona Martinson, PhD, associate professor and equine Extension specialist at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis. For fall overseeding, be sure you get started early enough that plants have ample moisture to establish before the first frost. 

In the fall, “we recommend first grazing the grass very tight—this is the only time we recommend actually overgrazing the pasture; new seedlings need sunlight, and they can’t compete with existing forage if it’s really tall,” Martinson says. “Seeding with a slit-seeder, a no-till drill for pastures, gives good soil-to-seed contact without tearing up the grass you are trying to save.”

She suggests keeping horses off the overseeded area, allowing the new seedlings to grow to about 4 to 6 inches before mowing them down to around 3 inches. “Do that cycle two to three times, which simulates grazing and helps roots get established,” she says. “Then gradually let horses on the pasture. Horses graze with a lot of force, so if you don’t allow roots to establish, they can completely pull new seedlings out of the ground.

“If you have a pasture that is very rocky, has a lot of trees, or is really too difficult to get equipment in to seed, we recommend frost seeding,” says Martinson. This involves overseeding or broadcast seeding pastures in early spring, when fluctuating frost and thaw conditions cause the ground to expand and contract, allowing seeds to work down into the soil; spring rains then help seeds germinate. “Frost seeding has only about a 20% success rate,” she adds. You will be spending a lot of money on seed for very little benefit. The biggest thing with seeding is good soil-to-seed contact, and you just can’t ensure that with frost seeding.”

Martinson goes on to say that all newly seeded pastures need about a six-month window when they are not treated with herbicide. “Those newly growing grasses are pretty susceptible to herbicide damage,” she says. “Your best bet in that first year is to just rely on mowing until new plants are fully established.”

Fertilizing is heavily dependent on both regional climate and individual pasture health. Have your soil tested to gain a clear picture of how and when to fertilize; soil sample results are good for up to three years, says Martinson. 

“Doing a soil test allows you to know what nutrients are needed. Your pasture’s nutrients should be balanced, just like your horse’s diet,” says Swinker, who also recommends applying properly composted manure to help replace organic matter, enhancing soil quality and microbial population (remember that pasture is like a crop and, as such, it removes nutrients from the soil). As an added bonus, composting also kills internal parasite eggs and larvae living in the manure. 

Implementing Runs and Drylots

When pastures are unsuitable for turnout or are resting for regrowth, you need a sacrifice area; this all-weather paddock or run is the perfect solution to winter turnout woes. 

“We always recommend a run off the stalls,” says Matthew Johnson, BS, PC, architect and owner of Equine Facility Design, in Portland, Oregon. “It’s really the first line in maintenance, ease, and durability. You have an all-weather turnout area that provides a better life for the horse; they can go outside if they choose and have a more social experience. It also gives you that ‘stall-plus’ area. From there you can feed out to paddocks of varying sizes.”

Designing a paddock or run to be all-weather means coming up with appropriate drainage and footing solutions for your setup. Start by choosing a location that drains well, the ideal being high ground with a very gentle slope. Layers of drainage gravel installed beneath the footing you select allow water to seep into the ground naturally. You might also install a drainage pipe that directs water to another location. 

A run with these features stays durable as long as you are mucking it properly, says Johnson. “In the paddocks, we generally have a mix of all-weather sacrifice areas and grass,” he says, “so that as you rotate the herd through, you have the best grass growth with minimal erosion and damage.”

A buffer area of grass and shrubs filters runoff from sacrifice areas to avoid contaminating nearby surface water (streams, ponds, etc.). “In some states, a green buffer that catches nutrient runoff from corrals is mandatory by state regulations,” says Swinker. 

All-Weather Footing

Be sure to top off the well-draining base layers in your paddocks, runs, and high-traffic zones with all-weather footing. Options suiting various budgets run the gamut from crushed stone traffic pads to geotextile fabrics and stabilization grids. 

Install all-weather footing such as crushed stone around high-traffic areas to prevent mud issues.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

“Mud management as a whole covers the spectrum, from pretty basic to the more expensive and also more durable,” says Johnson, outlining pros and cons of different scenarios:

  • At the simplest level, scraping away grass and mud before applying a layer of crushed rock, sand, or hogfuel is an inexpensive route, but over time it deteriorates and turns to mud as the footing mixes in with the soil.
     
  • A permeable geotextile fabric sheet isolates soil from the footing material on top of it. Nonwoven feltlike fabrics are your best option for horses, as woven fabrics are slick if the horse penetrates the material. Heavier-weight fabrics are more durable but more expensive. Compacted gravel over geotextiles creates a hardened surface for heavy horse and machinery traffic zones, while softer footing, such as sand and hog fuel, provides a forgiving surface for equine living areas such as runs. Cover geotextile fabric in living areas with enough footing to prevent horses from ripping or pawing the fabric.
     
  • A more costly option, stabilization grids, are structures placed over a rock drainage base. The gold standard in all-weather techniques, stabilization grids protect the drainage layer while creating a foundation for the footing layer, in addition to spreading the horse and machinery weight over a wider area, reducing soil compaction. Commonly used at gates, around water sources, and along traffic alleys, some grids can also be left exposed without a surface layer. 

Most farms opt for a mixed approach, with different footing types serving different locations on the property, such as compacted rock at water sources and sand over crushed drain rock in runs.

Whatever system(s) you choose, keeping areas manure-free is key to long-term viability. Good horse keeping protects both your horse and your property investment.

“We’ve seen a lot of success stories with high-traffic pads,” says Martinson, which combine a variety of the approaches described. “Essentially, you remove the top 8 inches of soil; put in a sloped drain tube (that drains into the buffer or filtering area) if the location has poor drainage; lay down landscape fabric, which keeps layers separated while allowing moisture to move through; then add a series of coarse rock, followed by another layer of landscape fabric, followed by some finer pea gravel or stone dust. We recommend this basic high-traffic pad anywhere you have a mud issue, such as in lanes going to pastures, around gates and waterers, and where you feed hay. It can be expensive, so we recommend it in problem areas.”

Take-Home Message

You can find detailed instructions for constructing appropriate hardened surfaces and buffer zones, as well as personalized pasture management programs, through county Natural Resources Conservation Services, Conservation districts, and county/university equine Extension programs. With good management techniques, you and your horses can stave off the mud monster while making way for a beautiful, green spring.

About the Author

Natalie DeFee Mendik, MA

Freelance journalist Natalie DeFee Mendik is a multiple American Horse Publications editorial and graphics awards winner specializing in equestrian media. She holds an MA in English from Colorado State University and an International Federation of Journalists' International press card, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists. With over three decades of horse experience, Natalie’s main equine interests are dressage and vaulting. Having lived and ridden in England, Switzerland, and various parts of the United States, Natalie currently resides in Colorado with her husband and two girls.

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