Staying High and Dry

Horse farms seem to be a haven for both dust and drainage issues. Here are a few ways to solve these problems.

If you own or lease horse property, chances are you’ve got a dust problem or a drainage problem. Often, you’ve got both. During dry weather, areas of your facility with high equine and human foot traffic are likely to be dusty. Entrances to arenas, turnouts, paddocks, driveways, and aisleways are all potential dustbowls. Then during wet weather, many of these same areas can collect water and are potential mud pits.

More and more, horse facilities are coming under state and local regulatory scrutiny because of the environmental hazards that excess dust and water runoff pose. In addition to be being an uncomfortable nuisance, dust can be a respiratory health hazard to humans and horses. And it can hamper horses’ performance. Likewise, water buildup in wet weather can be dangerous because it can cause slippery conditions. Stagnant pools of water in warmer weather also attract mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects.


According to Raymond Skinner, a certified California engineering geologist and principal at Engeo, Inc., a San Francisco Bay Area geotechnical engineering firm, horse facilities are uniquely susceptible to problems with drainage. This, Skinner explains, is because horse facilities have very large “hard surface” areas where natural water absorption is impossible and water is prevented from reaching soil and vegetation. Hard surface areas include roofs, driveways, arenas and paddocks. Barn roofs and covered arenas are much larger than typical single family dwellings, and therefore produce much more runoff. This water has to go somewhere.

Often, it migrates to paddocks, walkways and arena entrances, areas that receive some of the most concentrated foot traffic at horse facilities. These areas tend to be close to barns and arenas—hard surface areas where storm water runoff is most likely. This creates the perfect recipe for flooding and muddy conditions. Flooding is also more prevalent on flat surfaces with no grade and no vegetation (which absorbs water), such as uncovered riding arenas or turnouts.

Skinner says that often where you have a dust problem in dry weather you will have a drainage problem in wet weather. Loose dusty soil conditions are inherently prone to erosion and producing sediment-laden runoff.

According to Eric Bowman, a professional geologist with 15 years experience managing, designing and building horse facilities, dust is always a concern with horse properties. He agrees that paddocks, walkways, entrances to arenas, driveways, and any area with a high volume of traffic will be susceptible to dust if precautions are not taken. The traffic pulverizes the ground surface, eliminating any vegetation which would naturally minimize or eliminate dust in lower-impact areas.


Bowman and Skinner agree that dust and drainage should be taken into consideration in the planning phase of a horse facility—before it is ever built. With more and more public attention on environmental concerns, government agencies are likely to require plans for managing dust and drainage from property owners before issuing building or land use permits. This is because excessive runoff causes erosion in lower elevation areas. Also, sediment and other contaminants like manure or urine can harm the habitats of plants and animals living at lower elevations.

Being scrutinized by government agencies is not necessarily bad news. A little planning can go a long way toward minimizing maintenance costs such as footing replacement, structure repairs, erosion repairs, and dust control once a horse facility becomes operational. Skinner and Bowman suggest retaining a geotechnical engineering firm, like Engeo, or a civil engineering firm to make recommendations when planning a horse facility. A little professional advice in the beginning can go a long way later on. Generally, says Skinner, a consultant will cost around $150 per hour. A site visit and preparation of a very basic plan outlining recommendations could cost as little as $1,000. A full-blown written report with hydrology calculations, plans, and details could cost much more.

Skinner explains that a geotechnical or civil engineer helping to design a horse facility would typically study the drainage pattern on a particular property, then recommend various layout options which would reduce the potential for flooding on the property and runoff and contaminants flowing off the property. One common recommendation is a good storm drain plan. Any good storm drain design carries excess water away from hard surface areas and high traffic areas, says Skinner, to places where quality and quantity of storm water runoff can be controlled.

One way to do this, especially on smaller properties, is to direct water from gutter downspouts or sub-surface drainage pipes into a “rain garden” or underground filtering system. Skinner explains that this is much simpler and cheaper than it sounds – sometimes only a few thousand dollars. A rain garden or underground filtering system is simply a catch basin with loamy material and plants or microorganisms which digest or trap deleterious material in the runoff. Once water passes through such a system, the volume of water can be controlled with the size of pipe carrying water away from the system.

Another common fix for excessive water runoff, says Skinner, is to grade, during construction of a facility, surfaces which border barns, arenas, turnouts, and paddocks slightly away from these structures downhill toward a swale or other lower-elevation area with vegetation. Grass and plants, he explains, will slow the flow of water and catch sediment, contaminants and debris which might otherwise cause dust buildup during dry weather or leave the property to cause contamination in a lower-elevation area.


But what if you aren’t lucky enough to design your own horse facility from the ground up? While it might take some thought and planning, says Bowman, fixing dust and drainage problems on an existing facility may not be as expensive or overwhelming as you might imagine. He advises that having a comprehensive plan for the whole property before making “stop-gap” fixes will save time and money, and be more effective in the long run. It can also increase your property value.

If you have more than one barn or arena you may want to observe your facility closely for at least a year before finalizing your dust and drainage plan, since the presence of one structure will likely affect dust and drainage near another structure, especially at smaller acreage facilities. During very wet weather and periods of snow melt, Bowman advises, walk your property and take notes as to where there is pooling of water or large volumes of water flow. Take photos to remind you where the flooding is worst, since you will most likely fix the issues in dry weather.

One of the easiest and cheapest fixes for drainage problems, Bowman says, is maintaining gutters on barns and covered arenas—particularly where outdoor paddocks or walkways line the perimeter of these structures. Gutters should be cleaned at least once a year, and if they rust or crack, they should be replaced. Leaky gutters will quickly cause erosion and dust in the aisleways and the paddocks next to them.

Another inexpensive fix can be to regrade paddocks and walkways by adding and compacting gravel with a slight grade away from the barn or arena which they border. Simply add more gravel closer to the structure and less as you move away from it, then compact with a vibratory plate or other type of compactor. The new grade causes water to flow off the walkway or paddock naturally without causing erosion. Compacted gravel will often minimize a dust problem in paddocks and near arena entrances; placing rubber mats over the gravel will insure its integrity and virtually eliminate dust.

Fixing pooled water in turnouts or arenas can be a little more involved, says Bowman. When this is an issue, he recommends filling and compacting low areas with gravel. Then he suggests placing an underground perforated drainage pipe as close to the perimeter of the flooded area as possible, to capture and redirect water into the storm drain system.

If water is pooling in an arena because of an uneven grade, Bowman says it may be worth regrading and resurfacing the arena’s base. Adding more footing, or dragging an arena more frequently doesn’t solve the problem and can actually make a dust or flooding problem worse, he warns.

Redoing the base of an area involves removing the overlying footing and reworking the hardpacked surface underneath. The hard surface must be even and slightly sloped to drain toward a drainage pipe or swale. This will keep water from pooling after the footing has been replaced. A complete regrade and compaction of an arena may be very expensive. But when maintenance, the cost of footing, the horses’ health, and property value are taken into consideration, it may be worth the expense.

The cost of fixing drainage and dust problems or addressing them before building your facility may seem onerous—especially in tough economic times. But the dividend in both time and money over the long term may be well worthwhile.






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