The Perfect Paddock

Here are tips to make the most of your fields, pastures and paddocks.
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Picture it—acres of level land covered with lush grass, and not a rock or a patch of mud in sight. Now open your eyes. Odds are that your horse farm’s reality won’t quite match that fantasy. All the same, your horses must have turnout.

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To help you get the most out of what you have, we turned to Erin Petersen, equine extension specialist and coordinator of the equine business management program at the University of Maryland, and to two specialists in equine facility planning—architect Tom Croce of Lebanon, Ohio, and landscape architect Linda Royer of Oregon City, Oregon. Their tips cover everything (except fencing), from design and layout to dealing with mud.

Work the Numbers

How many paddocks do you need? How big should they be? That depends on the amount of usable land and the number of horses you have, the number to be placed in each paddock at one time, and whether they’ll be out for just a couple of hours each day, all day, or all the time. Another factor is whether you’re counting on grass to provide some nutrition.

“It’s always a challenge to find a balance between giving the horses enough turnout and maintaining the pasture,” said Croce. 

If the goal is simply to get horses out of the barn to stretch their legs for a couple of hours, a half-acre paddock (about 150 feet per side) is fine for one or two companionable horses, he suggested. For longer or heavier use, you’ll need more space. 

“As a division of pasture, I don’t think paddocks for horses should be less than one acre due to their desire to run and play,” said Petersen.

Royer favors barns with outdoor runs, partly sheltered by an extended roof, leading off the stalls. Runs give horses a chance to move around and see other horses, even in bad weather. But they are just 12 feet wide and 24 feet long—intentionally too small to let horses get running—and don’t fill the need for larger turnout space.

Follow the Land

Rectangular paddocks are easiest to fence and maintain, but you’re not bound to that shape. 

“Avoid tight corners—no less than 90 degrees, or horses may get trapped,” Petersen said. He added that rounded corners are safest and are more aesthetically pleasing. Keeping that rule in mind, lay out paddocks to follow the terrain and minimize drainage and erosion problems. Prevent problems where you can by keeping horses off steep slopes and swampy areas.

Fence the contours,” said Petersen. “Horses like to follow the fence line and often leave the soil bare along it. If you run your fence lines straight up and down a hill, you’ll end up with washouts along the fences.” 

Although your image of a dream paddock might include a stream or pond, you’ll do better to fence such riparian areas off limits, she added. 

“Horses can do a lot of damage to these areas. If you choose to use this type of water as the main source for your horses, make sure they have only limited and protected access—a fenced-in graveled area, for example.”

Keep It Safe

When you’re laying out the paddocks, think about safety and convenience.

Put gates in the middle of a fence line, far from corners that could trap people or horses. At least one gate in each field should be 12 to 16 feet wide to accommodate farm equipment. If gates face alleys or farm lanes, try to align them so that it will be easy to drive a tractor from one to another. 

“Easy maintenance gets done,” said Croce. If the paddock fronts a road, locate the gate at least 40 feet from the shoulder. 

“This will allow you to park farm equipment off the road while you are opening the gate,” said Petersen. Set gateposts in concrete for strength, she added.

Alleys between paddocks keep horses from fighting over fencelines, but they’re not necessary in every situation. 

“Space between paddocks can help in situations where there’s a high turnover or if some horses are aggressive. For stallions, alleys are definitely required,” said Croce. 

Make alleys wide enough for mowers and other maintenance equipment—usually 16 feet—but not so wide that you encourage horses to jump the two fences in sequence, like an in-and-out.

What will happen if a horse gets loose on the way to or from his paddock? Plan the fencing so that the perimeter of the farm is enclosed, Croce recommended.

Underfoot

Grass is lovely, but it isn’t always best. It can be too rich for some horses at certain times of year. Shod feet can destroy turf when the ground is soft. And if small paddocks get heavy use, it will be hard to maintain grass in them at any time of year. Then you’ll have bare earth—and mud. 

Solve the problem by building one or more “sacrifice” paddocks, with an all-weather surface. Sand works in a dry climate. Royer uses several other surfaces in the Pacific Northwest, where winter rains make pasture turnout impractical for months at a time. 

A simple option starts with a fast-draining layer of compacted crushed rock, topped with coarse angular sand. Like an arena, an all-weather paddock should be graded so that water runs off. 

“Regardless of what surface you use, you should have a grassy area surrounding your sacrifice area to act as a filter strip for any run-off,” Petersen notex.

Provide the Basics

Keep in mind at any equine facility you need to provide the basics of life.

Water: A year-round water source is essential. Lucky you if you can equip your paddocks with frost-free automatic waterers. Otherwise, look for ways to minimize the chores of checking, filling, draining and cleaning troughs. In a small facility you can locate a single hydrant centrally to serve multiple paddocks, Croce suggested. Another option is to place troughs so that they span adjacent fence lines.

Horses might congregate around troughs and waterers, Petersen noted, so locate them away from corners and gate areas. 

Hay: Even if you have ample grass, you’ll probably need to feed hay at some times of year. It’s best offered at ground level, Petersen said. Using some sort of feeder will minimize waste—but avoid feeders designed for cattle, as they can trap horses.

“It is okay to feed hay on the ground, but you should always have more piles of hay than you have horses to prevent them from fighting,” Petersen said. “When I feed like this, I try to move the feeding spots around so that one area doesn’t get too much use.” 

In a sandy dry lot, where sand colic could become a concern, put down nonslip rubber mats at feeding areas.

Shelter: Horses on full-day or full-time turnout need free access to some kind of shelter, such as a run-in shed. Locate shelters so that they protect horses from the prevailing winds in your area, said Petersen. Make them large enough for all the animals in the field—144 square feet per horse (a 12-by-12-foot area) is a general rule of thumb. Some areas have shelter requirements, so check with both local and state authorities before you build.

Manage Mud and Manure

Death and taxes might be life’s only certainties for some, but anyone who keeps horses can count on mud and manure.

Minimize mud by directing runoff from roofs and paved areas away from paddocks using gutters, French drains, grassy berms, and the like. Your local Soil Conservation District might be able to help you develop a plan, Petersen said.

Mud is always worst in high-traffic areas—around gates, waterers and feeding areas. Don’t locate these features in low spots where moisture will collect, Royer said. You can also construct heavy-use pads at these areas.

Pick up manure often. There are two reasons, Petersen said: Horses won’t graze where they defecate, so manure piles decrease your available pasture; picking up controls the spread of internal parasites. (Horses can pick up parasites by grazing or eating hay off of contaminated ground.)

Horses are “area defecators” and tend to go in the same spots. In a large paddock or small pasture, you might find that one area is the “bathroom.” Pick up that area weekly to keep it from getting ahead of you.

In large fields, you might not need to pick much up at all; but regular dragging (at least two to three times per year, and preferably every time you mow) with a chain-type harrow will break up and spread out manure.

Whether you have limited acres or fields of pasture, maximizing what you have will pay off for both you and your horses.

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