A heavy period of rain can easily turn a horse-inhabited property into a muddy mess. You may not be able to control the rain that’s falling, but you can control what happens once it reaches your farm.
Rainwater management is an aspect of responsible land stewardship that’s often inadvertently overlooked by equine professionals. When planning a property from scratch, you’ll probably include drainage systems; when you’re taking over an existing facility, though, the water flow issues can be more challenging, although not impossible, to manage.
Here, agronomists and extension specialists provide seven basic ideas for rainwater management.
1. Manage surface water
When the water hits the earth, gravity ushers it to the lowest point in its path. The planning and installation of diversion ditches—saucer-shaped channels in the land—is a common method to move water away from buildings, pastures, and driveways.
For diversion ditches to be most effective, all of your land should slope toward a ditch and your ditches should slope toward collection sites.
“The middle of your pasture, in an ideal world, would be the highest point,” says Mark Russell, Purdue University Extension equine specialist and horse owner of nearly 40 years.
Looking at your pasture, you might not even notice the slope of the land because it is so subtle.
“You want enough slope so water doesn’t sit,” but not so much that the flow of water will cause erosion, says Purdue University Extension agricultural engineer Don Jones, Ph.D.
If you have a low-lying pasture, you might bring in soil or large-grade rock and a top layer of soil to raise this area. If your building site is in a low-lying area, you can create a slope away from the building that goes toward a nearby diversion ditch.
“A rule of thumb for buildings is you want six inches of (slope) in the first 25 feet away from the building,” Jones says.
2. Control runoff
Your impermeable surfaces—paved driveways and asphalt roofs, for example—create runoff that needs to be managed.
Diversion ditches alongside sloping driveways are one approach.
Another is the use of gutters to divert water away from buildings and horse areas. Some in the colder climates don’t like gutters because they require wintertime maintenance when “ice dams” falling from the roof cause damage.
An alternative to gutters is to divert the water falling from the roof once it reaches the ground. Jones recommends excavating around the drip line below the eaves and burying a tile line that will drain away the water under the soil without saturating the ground.
Drainage tiles are porous clay pipes or PVC pipes with tiny holes that allow water to pass through. On top of the tiles, you’ll put large-diameter rock, and on top of that, you’ll put finer rock and finally your top soil, creating drainage strata.
The tile line and diversion ditches can move water to a creek or a water basin, such as a retention pond like those in housing developments.
3. Create sacrifice paddocks
The thought of turning out thundering hooves on saturated soil makes stomachs turn. Even with a great rainwater management program and pastures built with sloping terrain, horses can easily damage the ground.
You can spare much of your property from mud-bogged damage by setting aside sacrifice paddocks—one or two areas for turnout when the ground is wet.
“You basically have said, it’s never going to have grass growing in it,” says Steve Welle, owner of Cornerstone Landscape and Agricultural Services in Allentown, New Jersey.
The horses’ hooves will create divots and water will fill in the mud holes. It’ll become a sloppy mess, but at least your horses can spend time outside and your other fields will be spared. You can employ drainage and footing ideas here that are discussed in tip number four.
The opposite of a sacrifice paddock is one that can be used when the ground is frozen.
“We have a paddock that is only used when it’s frozen,” says Russell, who currently has 10 horses on his West Lafayette, Indiana, farm.
The monster “mud bergs” that form when the divots freeze can wreak havoc on horses’ joints and soles. Russell likes having one flat area that his horses can romp in when the ground is hard.
4. Reinforce high-traffic areas
High-traffic areas, including around water troughs, gates, and run-in sheds, require special maintenance because of the concentrated use. Under these paddock areas, install drainage tiles using the process discussed as gutter alternatives in tip number two.
Laying down rock or wood chips will also fend off mud for the short-term, but after a few weeks or months, hooves will cause enough churning action to bring the dirt—then the mud—back to the surface. Putting down a top layer like this works much better if there’s a drainage system in place underneath.
If using a rock or wood chip cover, an option for corralling all of this material is to lay down geotextile plastic underneath. It’s available for one-third to one-half of the cost of concrete and makes a stable area so your top and drainage layers don’t easily mix.
5. Maintain healthy pastures and paddocks year-round
“The ideal ratio as far as pasture space for the animals is one acre per horse. You can fairly say 75 percent of livestock owners don’t have that luxury,” Welle says.
In this case, pasture rotation is key to limiting mud, controlling erosion, and maintaining healthy forage. Healthy grasses will assist your water flow program.
“Forage agronomists would recommend that we take our animals off the pasture when we get down to four inches,” Russell says.
Grazing several horses in small paddocks—a quarter to a half an acre—for four or five days and then keeping the horses out of that area for a few weeks will keep the grasses’ root systems strong and allow continual growth.
During the summer, keep pastures mowed so weeds don’t take over. Like grazing, though, you don’t want to mow too low or you’ll risk damaging the plants.
Fall is the ideal time to do pasture maintenance. A soil test will tell you what nutrients need to be added, and reseeding should take place now, too.
“(Farm managers) need to be aggressive. A lot of it they can do themselves,” Welle says.
6. Curb erosion
Poor forage growth, steep-sloped property, or other conditions that cause soil erosion need to be corrected. Soil loss and movement can have a big impact on the movement of water on your property.
The National Resources Conservation Service provides a free service through its local offices to educate and assist land owners in this process.
“These people can actually come up with a soil management plan that will help in cutting back on soil erosion,” Welle says.
7. Reclaim water
Water conservation is becoming a larger issue in our world. More regions are experiencing crippling droughts and more people are working toward leading “greener” lifestyles. It’s not unheard of to capture and use your rainwater.
“Some of the buildings are quite large, and they tend to concentrate water coming off the roof,” Jones says.
Gutters might already divert this water, but go one step further, and those gutters can funnel the rainwater from your roof into a cistern or a rain barrel. A roof washer diverts the first part of a rainfall away from your water reserve to rinse dirt and debris from your roof surface, and what you’re left with is usable water.
Have the water tested annually and talk with your veterinarian about the results to see if it’s OK to use as horse drinking water. If it’s not, it should still be safe enough for bathing horses, watering plants, and other non-potable purposes.
We don’t often think about rainwater management until we’re already getting our boots sucked off in the mud. That’s not the best time to remedy your situation, however.
“When it dries out in the spring, we have to have a plan,” Russell stresses.
The rainy season is a good time to assess the extent of your rainwater issues. Map out where you have mud, where you have standing water, and the places you have water you’ve never seen before. Armed with this information and some help from an Extension officer, NRCS agent, or agronomist, you can be prepared to improve your rainwater management strategy.