“There are several things you can do to reduce mud problems, such as installation of geotextile pads in high traffic areas, or use of slag or crushed gravel in those areas, to provide better footing and drainage,” said Karen Waite, Extension Horse Specialist, Michigan State University.
Heavy use geotextile pads are helpful in high traffic areas, such as around the feeders or water tanks, or a gate. These can be created wherever horses congregate, and where there is nothing you can do to keep grass growing. “Heavy use pads are great because the water can go straight down through them instead of collecting on top; they keep the soil from mixing with the water,” she said. That means the top surface stays drier.
“There are some places on every farm where this is your only option to keep those areas from becoming deep mud," said Installed correctly, layers of geotextile fabric and different gravel sizes will maintain the soil below the pad and give water a place to collect between the gravel particles,” said Laura Kenny, MS, who was the Program Associate in Animal Science at Rutgers University.
Another tactic is to add gravel or wood chips directly on top of a muddy area, but this is temporary. “These materials slowly mix with the soil and eventually need to be replaced. The geotextile fabric keeps the layers separate and increases the lifespan of the pad,” Kenny explained.
Dr. Bob Coleman, State Extension Specialist at the University of Kentucky, said people have been utilizing geotextile fabric as a mud retardant in cattle pens for years. The fabric acts as a base to hold several layers of rock, and this also works well in horse pens.
“Basically you are constructing a surface for the animals to stand on that is less likely to become muddy," Coleman said. "Horse owners need to decide where these areas need to be—going in and out of gates, areas where they want to feed, or located a round bale feeder or run-in shed, where horses spend a lot of time.
“One of the main issues when installing a high-traffic pad is making it big enough," Coleman noted. "It’s hard to make them bigger, once you’ve created them, so it’s best to make them big enough in the first place. Often a person gets one installed and then realizes they needed it another strip wider.
“At a gate, make it large enough that you can drive in and still be on the pad and be able to shut the gate behind you without getting stuck," advised Coleman. "You don’t want to be walking back to close the gate and see your vehicle sinking into the mud!”
Around a waterer, people often put a concrete pad that’s only about 4 feet square. The horse might get his front feet on it, but his hind feet will be in the wet area, churning up the soil and creating a bigger mud hole. “It’s best to have a pad that’s large enough for the whole horse to stand on while drinking," suggested Coleman. "You can put a high-traffic pad around the concrete area so that when horses are standing at the waterer they are not creating mud.
“Around the run-in shed, I suggest about 8 to 12 feet of area around the shed as well as inside it because this will help facilitate drainage of water coming off the shed, so it won’t create mud," he continued. "I’ve seen numerous run-in sheds that horses were reluctant to use after a big rain because there are several inches of standing water inside the shed. All the horse traffic over the years made the area inside the shed the lowest spot. Water comes off the roof and flows into the shed.”
Most pads are created using some kind of rock. Decide on the size of the pad, then dig that area down until you get to firm subsoil. If there’s rock underneath, scrape it down to the rock and start from there to build it up enough so that horses will be able to stand on an area that is higher than the surrounding soil, to keep it draining better and more likely to stay dry.
“After you dig it down, lay in the geotextile fabric, then start with some large rocks—about fist size—and put in a 6-inch layer," said Coleman. "On top of that, add a layer of smaller rock. The total rock pad depth should be about 9 or 10 inches. The fabric underneath will keep the rocks from sinking down over time.”
Unless there is a rock base under your pens, any rock you place in a muddy area will just keep pushing downward, and you’ll soon have deep mud again unless you use the geotextile fabric to hold it.
“The top layer (3 or 4 inches) can be smaller pieces of rock, gravel or limestone dust," said Coleman. "Then use a roller of some kind to pack it. Water it while you are packing it, so it will be dense and well-packed. This will make a firm surface for the horses and keep them up out of the mud."
If you’ve chosen smooth rock rather than sharp shale for your top layer, rocks in the feet won’t be an issue.
Most of the fabric comes in 12-foot rolls that can be obtained from conservation districts or some farm supply houses. “You can get a plastic weave or a felt-like material," noted Coleman. "They both seem to work well. You often see some of this along areas of road construction where they are putting rocks or gravel along a hillside to hold the soil in place.”
Different regions will have different kinds of rocks, so you need to find out what is available. “Several types work well, as long as you have the larger size on the bottom and smaller rocks on top,” Coleman emphasized.