First published in Michigan State University News May 9, 2016 and revised in April 2021.
Identifying the factors that are contributing to the creation and occurrence of mud on your horse farm may require some “out of the box” thinking and management.
Water accumulation and mud occurrence from a downhill slope close to a gateway. Image: Tom Guthrie, MSU Extension
It is that time of year; spring is here, so bring on the mud…or not. If you are a caretaker of horses, you will be more than likely dealing with mud. It is well known why mud can become a problem for horses. However, it should also be noted that mud is not all bad and can have some benefits for horses and their hooves. Reasons mud can become a problem for horses and the humans that are caring for them can range from creating various horse health issues (mud fever or scratches, thrush, abscesses) to being unsightly for your farm and neighborhood to impacts on the environment caused by runoff of sediments and nutrients to just being a nuisance for caretakers when trying to accomplish chores.
Reiners aren’t the only horses that can leave sliding tracks! Hoof tread damage is caused by horses running (Image A) and stopping (Image B) in a wet pasture. Images: Tom Guthrie, MSU Extension
Michigan State University Extension recommends the following considerations:
Identify the pattern: To appropriately address the issue of mud, it is important to understand how mud is occurring. Below are a few questions to ask yourself:
How does water flow across your property? The increase of surface water means an increase recipe for mud.
What type of soil is present? Clay based soil will not drain as well as sandy soil.
Know how the water drains or doesn’t drain from respective areas. Low lying area compared to gently sloping area.
Where does the rainwater go from barn surfaces? Rain gutters, along with drainpipe extensions should be designed to divert water a good distance from the barn and sacrifice/turnout area.
Are identified muddy areas just around gates, waterers and high traffic areas or is it an issue across a larger area? In high traffic areas, compaction of the soil may occur which creates an impervious surface and leaves water nowhere to go.
High traffic areas like gates and water sources are prime sources of mud accumulation in the pasture. Image: Tom Guthrie, MSU Extension
Long term vs. short term fixes: Sometimes, financial resources and/or time come into play and there may be only so much that can be accomplished at any given time, so try to plan ahead.
IMPORTANT: Allowing organic matter such as manure, wasted hay and shavings to accumulate on the ground accentuates the creation of mud. For this reason, as well as creating a healthy environment for the horse, it is well advised to keep the area picked up and free from this sort of debris during any season.
It’s important to first identifying the factors that are contributing to the creation and occurrence mud. Once these factors have been identified, you can develop solutions to minimize the occurrence of mud on your farm. The following options offer both short term and long-term solutions to manage your mud.
Using rock in a washout for fill and to eliminate mud. Image: Tom Guthrie, MSU Extension Potential solutions to minimize or eliminate mud issues on your farm:
Over-seeding in high traffic areas.
Short term: Annual ryegrass (cool season grass) establishes quickly and is relatively inexpensive. Can be broadcast on top of the ground and still germinate. Best to keep horses off seeding for as long as possible.
Long term: Seed Kentucky bluegrass into a prepared seedbed. This grass is suited for high traffic areas. However, it may take up to several months for seedlings to fully establish which means keeping horses off of the seeding.
Improved footing by selecting “hoof friendly” materials.
Short or intermediate term: Scrape off accumulated mud, manure and other organic matter and replace with new footing. Options may include sand (two to four inches deep) or rock (six to eight inches deep for it to last as it will migrate into the soil). The size of rock used needs to be small enough for horses to comfortably stand on and safely walk across; wood chips may work in some cases (six inches minimum, 12 inches for longer longevity). However, it is recommended to avoid wood chips that contain walnut.
Long term: Layering footing material (rock, sand, etc.) along with a geotextile fabric (synthetic filter fabric with small holes that water can pass through but not soil particles) will likely require some degree of excavation. Excavating contractors will be able to help you identify what sources of layering material may work best and are locally available in your area.
Establish and utilize vegetative filter strips as mud managers.
Short term: If you have identified how water is flowing or accumulating, fence off a particular area to allow the vegetation to remain (not grazed or overgrazed). This may assist with capturing some of the water or possibly diverting it to a more desirable location.
Long term: Establish permanent vegetative filter strips (up slope and down slope from high use areas) which may require the reorganization of current farm layout (fencing, shelter location, access to drinking water, etc.).
Utilize a sacrifice area.
Confine horses to a designated area that is higher and dryer with improved footing. Utilizing a sacrifice area will also help with pasture management by keeping horses off of pastures during inclement weather, avoiding hoof-tread damage to pasture plants and providing pasture resting periods for forage regrowth.
Sacrifice Area Explained
No matter what size of horse farm, utilizing a sacrifice area for your horse(s) is essential when making the most of resources. A sacrifice area can simply be defined as a relatively small and non-grazable area that allows freedom of movement and/or exercise for a horse. This designated area is different from what may be termed as a turnout with the opportunity to graze or an unmanaged pasture that is used extensively or overgrazed.
A sacrifice area is a small paddock without grazing where horses can exercise. A sacrifice area will usually include a water and hay source. Image: Tom Guthrie, MSU Extension
One goal of a sacrifice area is to protect pastures in times of inclement weather. When considering pasture productivity, this area can be utilized in many different ways including routine maintenance of pastures such as clipping, dragging and fixing fence; keeping horses off of pastures when the ground is muddy; and resting pasture areas for regrowth of vegetation and allowing pastures to rest during non-growing seasons such as winter. Additionally, a sacrifice area may also serve the purpose of keeping horses in a secure area while barn stalls are being cleaned. The following is a list of key considerations when setting up a sacrifice area.
1. Site Location: When selecting a site location, take into consideration the location to other buildings and accessibility to pastures. Avoid wetland areas or any area that is in close proximity to surface waters or wells. A level area is preferred to prevent potential runoff of sediment and nutrients. If possible, locate the sacrifice area in a south or east facing area. This will aid with drying out the area as North and West facing areas tend to be more shaded.
2. Size of area: Keep area size to a minimum as this will be your “mud” area. Sacrifice area sizes vary dependent on the length of time and how they are used. The Midwest Plan Service Horse Facilities Handbook recommends providing at least 1,000 sq. ft. per horse for an exercise area.
3. Amenities: Provide appropriate fencing, shelter, ample room to feed hay and a water source. Electric fencing, high tensile wire or barbed wire fencing material is not recommended in small areas for horses.
4. Maintenance: Provisions should be made to collect manure accumulations and runoff (Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development Manure Utilization Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices). Removing manure on a regular basis will aid with parasite and potentially odor control. Frequency of manure removal will depend on concentration of horses housed in the area. Storm water collected from buildings in close proximity should be diverted away from the sacrifice area. It is most ideal to have a vegetated filter strip or a thick stand of grasses such as pastures surrounding the sacrifice area to filter sediments and nutrients that potentially get washed away from the area.
5. Surface: It will be difficult to maintain vegetative cover in a sacrifice area. Therefore, providing an improved foundation such as sand or crushed rock around high traffic areas may be beneficial when dealing with mud during wet weather.
Remember: Mud management solutions may require evaluating your respective situation from a different perspective that differs from past management practices. Innovative thinking and planning can help reduce the detrimental effects of mud on a horse farm and protect both your pasture’s productivity and your horse’s health.
This article was originally published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit https://extension.msu.edu. To have a digest of information delivered straight to your email inbox, visit https://extension.msu.edu/newsletters. To contact an expert in your area, visit https://extension.msu.edu/experts, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).
Franze, Carol et al. Soil Stabilization Options for Horse Owners. LSU Ag Center and Research Station. https://www.lsuagcenter.com/~/media/system/e/2/a/8/e2a8b319a9d9bcb6f595db997dc91eda/pub3128hsoilstabilizationoptionsforhorseowners709l.pdf