On a bright, sunny day, with green grass springing underfoot, it’s hard to imagine that your facility could have a drainage problem. But with the first sustained rains or heavy snowfall, the mucky truth reveals itself. Water has to go somewhere, and all those low spots around your gates and pathways are turning into shoe pullers and tendon tweakers. But fixing the problem can help prevent injury, temper tantrums and lots of dirty shoes.
The Right Tools for the Job
The key question is whether certain areas drain nicely or hold water that gets deeper by the hour. Aside from the inconvenience of slimy ground, an area that holds the moisture too long has an impact on the safety, health and soundness of your horses. Muscles and ligaments can be damaged in an instant from slips in mud or on slick concrete, shoes peel off in deep muck and you run the risk of injury to someone if a rowdy horse acts up in the mud and the handler can’t get their feet moving quickly enough to get clear of flying hooves.
To tackle the problem, there are four key options you can use, sometimes in combination:
- Swales are open drainage systems that divert water to areas of less traffic. They are typically installed uphill of barns, walkways or arenas and are gently graded alterations of natural slopes, often hardly noticeable to the casual observer. Used in combination with a French drain, these can almost invisibly resolve many water issues.
- French drains are closed ditches in which a perforated drainpipe has been installed over a bed of gravel. It is then backfilled with rock and sand.
- Dry wells are called “soak aways” in Britain. They are large, rock-filled holes that serve as catch basins for excess water. They work best in sandy or other well-draining soils, but will back up when placed in ground that is primarily clay as the incoming water exceeds the outflow.
- Additional gravel, sand or even concrete can be used to raise the level of high-traffic areas such as gateways, shed entrances or water troughs.
In assessing your property with a drainage-critical eye, your first question should be, “where will the water go?” You don’t want to improve one trouble spot only to create another. Look at the lay of the land, and work to follow the natural grade, combining drainage tools wherever possible. If, for example, you’ve got a pancake-flat square of land between the barn and the turnouts, you probably DON’T want to point your barn gutters toward it without first ensuring that you’re not going to create a quick duck pond. Look beyond the initial few feet and at the porosity of your soil, and make plans that will pay off in the long run. Consider bringing in a bulldozer for a little strategic soil pushing. You can create a broad, gently graded swale that will carry all the barn-area water out into the pasture, into a dry well or toward landscaping, away from traffic areas.
Quick Fix is Sometimes the Best Fix
Revamping the entire facility may be your goal, but even if you have to work in small stages, you can make a big difference in the high-traffic areas. First, if space is available, have several truckloads of crushed rock and sand delivered to an out-of-the-way location, and you’ll always be able to trundle a tractor or wheelbarrow load of “instant footing repair” into place as needed. For quick-fixes indoors, keep a spare trailer or stall mat handy as instant coverup for holes and wet spots.
Your quickest emergency repair is to add sand or gravel to gateways and walkways. These are the areas you and your clients will notice first, as they’re the key “choke points” for soil wear and tear. The gateway footing will sink a bit each year, creating a potential swamp. Add a good stone base that extends at least 10 feet to either side of a gateway, edged with railroad ties or pressure-treated 6-inch lumber to help.
If you’re dealing with a gate that’s at the base of a hill, however, simply adding gravel isn’t going to help. Moving the gateway to higher ground may be the only logical step. Then you can tailor the gravel footing on either side to keep the area dry and draining well.
Whether it’s a gateway or a walkway, you need to start by stabilizing the ground. It might call for some aggressive trenching to move water out of the saturated area and then compacting the base soil with a heavy roller. For a more professional look, edge the walkway with railroad ties or large rocks, but be sure to allow trapped water a way out. Then, to keep the area free of grass and weeds, line it with a layer of weed-proof landscape cloth (the porous type that drains, not black plastic). Pour in a load of “crusher run” or whatever your local gravel supplier calls it, to form a firm, elevated pathway. Use broken stones of at least an inch or two across (not round stream gravel) that packs into a firm, draining foundation for your walkway. Follow up, if possible, with a weighted roller or even just your truck tires, driving slowly back and forth to compress the stone so your pathway is smoother and easier underfoot. Adding sand on top is entirely optional. Just remember that you can’t simply lay sand over a wet, soft base and create anything other than a swampy, deep mess, so you need to have a foundation that both elevates your traffic above the mud and creates spaces through which moisture can escape.
Another option that’s come on the market in recent years is a nonwoven, tangled-fiber product known as “mud shield” or “mud matting” and other trademarked names. These geotextiles, fabrics designed to work with soil, form a cushioned layer between your horse and the mud, allowing a top layer of sand or bedding to be held above the dampness for drier feet all around. They appear to hold up well, several years at least, and can serve as the equivalent of one of your layers of medium rock in water-distributing ability. For the best results, manufacturers recommend preparing a firm base first, then placing the fabric. But in emergencies, they say, the material can be placed over any reasonably flattened and level surface.
Shed Your Worries
Entrances to sheds and outside-facing stalls take a beating from constant stamping feet, and dirt floors can get lower and wetter over time. Since you’ve built sheds to encourage horses to spend time in the shade, a good “front porch” will allow plenty of use without turning into a swamp. As with gates and walkways, use broken rock, not round river rock, if you want it to pack firmly and stay put. Consider laying the rock base at a slight (3 percent) grade away from the shed entrance, so that moisture flows either to the side or out away from the entry.
You may have additional water buildup where the roof drains, so consider adding a French drain beneath the roof’s dripline, approximately 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep. If there’s a little grade to the ground, you can bring the piping out away from the building to the downhill side, further avoiding saturating any of your foundations. To further protect the base of the building, bring in sand and gravel and establish a sloping apron away from the walls at an angle of half-an-inch per foot of slope, extending 8 to 10 feet out from the structure’s walls.
Between horses loafing around the waterers and the occasional overflow, it’s quite likely you’ve got another drainage issue, and it gets worse every time a hoof squishes down into the mess. If you can relocate the waterer away from low spots and corners, where horses can trap one another, that’s a start. However, you’ll end up with soft ground, even if the spot drains well. A good layer of gravel, firmly packed, may do the trick. But if you have non-draining soils beneath and a heavy burden of equine traffic in that field, you might need to install a broad, concrete apron extending at least 8 feet out from the water tank, firmly bolstered with reinforcing bar and edged with gravel to further distribute excess moisture.
There’s no reason you and your facility have to suffer an eternal case of wet feet. But just remember, moisture overload isn’t something you can get rid of for free—you’re buying time with a bulldozer, ditchwitch or shoveling crew, and at least a truckload or two of stone and sand. But when the choice is between perennial mud and muck or clean feet and safe handling areas, you’ll probably find drier footing worth the effort.