While acres of lush green fields seem like the idyllic setting for a horse farm, constant access to high-quality pastures isn’t always best for your horse’s health.

Space limitations and environmental conditions can also make grass turnout impossible for some equine facilities. A dry lot provides an alternative turnout solution for horse owners in these situations.

Dry lots are small paddocks that contain little to no vegetation. These turnout areas, also called sacrifice lots, are designed to withstand heavy use, even during increased rain or drought. A dry lot protects pasture health by allowing grass fields to rest.

In addition, bare or sparse paddocks are safe turnout options for horses that need a controlled diet due to metabolic conditions or other health concerns.

This article will review the benefits of dry lots for horses and discuss how to implement a dry lot at your facility.

Benefits of Dry Lots for Horses

Dry lots keep animals confined to limit grass access or prevent pasture damage. The area can be used for winter turnout, feeding, resting pastures, and a safer turnout option in wet conditions.

Some horses require dry lot turnout year-round due to health conditions, including laminitis, obesity and insulin resistance. These areas also help control grass intake while horses adjust to pasture turnout in the spring.

Regulating Grass Intake

Due to metabolic issues, certain horses may need to avoid unrestricted access to rich pasture grass. Turning your horse out on a dry lot enables exercise and movement while avoiding the over-consumption of calories and sugars from grass.

Examples of health concerns that might require dry lot turnout include insulin resistance, Cushing’s disease, equine metabolic syndrome and PSSM. [3] Easy keepers and overweight horses may also benefit from turnout on a bare or sparse paddock.

Dry lots give owners complete control of their horse’s diet when they have unique nutritional requirements. [3] The forage provided on a dry lot can be carefully selected and tested to ensure it is appropriate for your horse.

Pasture Health

Heavy traffic from horses congregating around feeding and watering areas can create mud and damage pasture vegetation. Overgrazing and increased moisture during the winter decrease soil strength and make the entire field more susceptible to damage. [1]

High foot traffic in wet conditions increases compaction and reduces soil aeration, making it more difficult for vegetation to grow. The ground cannot absorb the water and nutrients necessary for healthy grass growth, allowing weeds to thrive. [2]

Turning out horses in dry lots support pasture health by limiting this damage and allowing pasture grass to rest and regrow. Proper pasture management with dry lots saves horse owners the time and money required for weeding and repairing overused pastures.

Pastures generally require rest when the grass is less than 4 inches tall or when vegetation stops growing in the winter. [3]

Avoid Overgrazing

Horses on overgrazed pastures consume more of the grass stems in the 3 to 4 inches of growth closest to the ground. This is where the grass plant stores most of its reserve carbohydrates. [3]

Excessive consumption of non-structural carbohydrates can contribute to digestive and metabolic problems in horses. High NSC levels can reach the hindgut and disrupt microbial populations. [4]

During the spring, cool-season grasses produce extra sugars to support growth and store them overnight when the temperatures cool. [5] Dry lots can help horse owners manage spring grass intake and transition gradually to pasture.

Consult your veterinarian and equine nutritionist when choosing the best turnout option and schedule for your horse. You can learn more about safe grass management in our articles about spring grazing and pasture laminitis.

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Building a Dry Lot

Dry lots are usually separated from pasture by fenced boundaries. These areas can also serve as a hub for several paddocks.

When constructing a dry lot, horse owners must consider several factors impacting function and safety of the turnout area.

All horses need constant access to appropriate shelter, food, and water in every housing situation. Other design factors such as location, size, fencing, and footing depend on dry lot use.

Location

Dry lots should be located in a flat, well-drained area. Building a dry lot in an elevated location can promote good drainage and prevent the formation of ditches from water runoff.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends building dry lots as far as possible from natural streams. These streams can collect contaminated runoff from the dry lot and introduce pathogens from manure to the water supply. [6]

Size

Turnout benefits equine welfare by allowing horses freedom of movement that mimics their natural living conditions. Dry lots should provide adequate space for animals to move freely, drink, eat, and socialize. [7]

Size requirements vary depending on the number of horses housed in the dry lot. An average-sized horse should have a minimum of 400 square feet of turnout space. But providing 1000 sq ft or more per horse will encourage movement and better herd dynamics. [7]

Optimal dry lot size will also vary depending on the age, temperament, and breed. For example, large, athletic horses will require more space than others.

Fencing

Fencing safety is critical in smaller paddocks and dry lots. Corners, sharp edges, and metal t-posts can be dangerous for horses and handlers in crowded living situations. Safe fencing for your bare paddock should be tall, strong, and easily visible.

Dry lots are permanent, so owners shouldn’t use electric tape or temporary fencing to enclose the area. Horses in dry lots are also more motivated to reach through fencing to get nearby grass.

Regular maintenance and repairs are often necessary to mitigate increased pressures on dry lot fencing. Running a strand of electric wire along the top of the fence can help discourage horses from reaching over.

Footing

Heavy hoof traffic in concentrated areas easily damages small grass paddocks. Constructing a dry lot with suitable footing can help the site stand up to frequent use.

Building a dry lot may require hiring a contractor to evaluate your local soil’s stability, texture, and permeability. Your contractor will recommend footing material that controls erosion and promotes good drainage. [8]

Most dry lot construction begins with removing the topsoil and grading the site before laying down a base layer of gravel or crushed stone. [8]

Common surface layers used in dry lots include stone dust, sand, shredded rubber, wood chips, and pea gravel. Your veterinarian and farrier may recommend specific surface footing if your horse has hoof issues.

Horses without access to soft surfaces can suffer from sleep deprivation. No matter what dry lot footing you choose, remember to provide sheltered areas with soft bedding to encourage horses to lie down. [9]

Dry Lot Management

Whatever footing you choose, every dry lot requires regular maintenance. Some materials can increase the risk of respiratory problems or digestive issues without appropriate management.

Effective parasite control and waste management are also essential for herd health when keeping horses in smaller spaces. Since these areas don’t have natural vegetation for horses to graze on, owners must ensure they provide adequate forage in dry lots.

Minimizing Dust

Dry lots help prevent exposure to wet footing, but dry surfaces can produce dust when horses move or stomp their feet.

Dust can irritate the horse’s mucous membrane and lead to respiratory issues such as inflammatory airway disease. Some footing materials, such as sand and stone dust, produce more dust than others. [10]

Watering the dry lot during periods of drought every other day can help manage dust levels and limit the risks of respiratory problems. Plant oils can also help control dust when water isn’t available, but they are messy if horses lie down and roll in them.

Mud and Wet Ground

Dry lots without appropriate drainage and footing can become wet and muddy. Excessive moisture can compromise hoof strength and increase the risk of hoof problems such as thrush. [11]

If your dry lot is not in an ideal location for good drainage, rain gardens and swales can help collect and redirect water from the area. You can learn more about managing mud in our guide to Managing Mud in Your Horse’s Paddock.

Sand Ingestion

Horses in dry lots that consume hay on the ground can accidentally ingest dirt or sand. When horses lack access to free-choice forage, they may eat dirt intentionally – a condition known as geophagia.

Dirt ingestion can lead to sand colic when particles accumulate in the horse’s digestive system and block intestinal motility. Ensuring horses on dry lots always have access to free-choice forage and feeding off the ground can reduce the risk of impaction or sand colic. [12]

Placing rubber mats in feeding areas can also help minimize sand ingestion. If your horse lives in a dry lot, your veterinarian or equine nutritionist might recommend a psyllium-based supplement to help move sand through the digestive tract. [12]

Parasite Control

Flies are pests to horses in any living environment. Removing manure and preventing standing water from accumulating in dry lots supports effective fly control strategies.

Many equine internal parasites rely on forage plants as part of their lifecycle, so horses in dry lots often require less frequent deworming. However, proper manure management is critical for minimizing exposure to larvae in crowded living environments. [13]

Waste Management

Manure accumulates quickly in dry lots. Daily waste removal will help preserve footing integrity, control parasites, and support hoof health.

Horses in dry lots often prefer to urinate in the same area. Urine can degrade the footing and lead to excess moisture, odours, and ammonia in the latrine area. Add absorbent materials where your horse urinates and remove soiled bedding to minimize these effects. [14]

Herd Health

Space restrictions can increase contact between horses in concentrated living situations. Confining horses in shared dry lots increases the risk of infectious disease outbreaks because of these close-quarters living arrangements. [15]

Adhering to routine vaccination schedules and carefully monitoring the health of individuals can help preserve herd health in horses living in dry lots. Owners should separate horses exhibiting signs of infectious disease from the herd to prevent the disease from spreading. [15]

Relieving Boredom

Horses in natural environments spend intermittent periods grazing throughout the day. When horses aren’t given access to free-choice forage in dry lots, boredom can cause behavioural and management issues. [16]

Slow feeders in dry lots can help alleviate boredom while managing calorie intake in obese horses. Spreading hay throughout the turnout area can encourage horses to exercise while moving from site to site.

Turning horses out together in dry lots also discourages boredom by fulfilling the horse’s need for social interaction. If group turnout isn’t possible, social contact over a shared fence line can also fulfill this need. [16]

Not all horses like toys, but toys that double as slow feeders can provide additional enrichment for horses in dry lots. [16] You can also reduce boredom by installing self-grooming tools, such as scratching pads, in the paddock.

Feeding & Nutrition

Mature horses should consume 2% of their body weight in total feed per day. Horses on pasture can achieve this by grazing, but horses in dry lots rely on hay as the cornerstone of their diets. [17]

Horse owners should provide free choice hay to horses in dry lots to mimic natural grazing behaviours. For horses on a restricted diet, slow feeders and hay nets prevent the over-consumption of hay while extending meal time.

The best type of hay for your horse will depend on his physiological status, work level and overall health. For horses with metabolic conditions, choose mature grass hay with lower energy and NSC content and consider feeding high-fiber straw as part of the ration.

Other forage substitutes for horses on dry lots include hay cubes, pellets, and haylage. [17] Some horses may require soaked hay to further reduce their intake of sugars and carbohydrates.

Vitamins & Minerals

If your horse is on a restricted diet and has limited pasture access, chances are high that their diet is deficient in one or more key vitamins and minerals.

For example, horses on a hay-based diet may not consume enough vitamin E, an antioxidant usually abundant in fresh green grass. Vitamin E deficiency is associated with neurological disease and a weakened immune system. [18]

Other common nutrient deficiencies in the equine diet include:

The best way to avoid nutritional deficiencies is to feed your horse a balanced vitamin and mineral supplement, such as Mad Barn’s AminoTrace+.

AminoTrace+ is a comprehensive pelleted supplement specifically formulated to meet the needs of horses with metabolic syndrome. With a low feeding rate, no fillers or added sugars, AminoTrace+ correctly balances a wide range of forages and provides the nutrients required to support optimal health.

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Summary

  • Dry lots are small paddocks without vegetation that provide a turnout alternative for horses when grass pastures aren’t available or practical.
  • Turning horses out in dry lots allows grass pastures to rest and regrow while limiting damage to the topsoil.
  • Dry lots are the only safe turnout option for horses that need to avoid rich pasture grass due to metabolic disorders.
  • Appropriate construction and management are critical for keeping horses safe and healthy in dry lots.
  • Horses without access to pasture need free choice hay to meet their forage needs and require supplementation to fill nutritional gaps.

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References

  1. Raper, R. Agricultural traffic impacts on soil. J Terramech. 2005.
  2. Unger, P. et al. Soil Compaction and Root Growth: A Review. Agronom J. 1994.
  3. Watts, K. Forage and pasture management for laminitic horses. Clin Technique Equine Pract. 2004.
  4. Julliand, V. et al. The Impact of Diet on the Hindgut Microbiome. J Equine Vet Sci. 2017.
  5. Jensen, K. et al. Seasonal Trends in Nonstructural Carbohydrates in Cool- and Warm-season Grasses. Crop Sci. 2014.
  6. Robbins, J. et al. Stream Pollution from Animal Production Units. J Water Pollut Contr Fed. 1972.
  7. Majecka, K. et al. Influence of Paddock Size on Social Relationships in Domestic Horses. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 2018. View Summary
  8. Yannopoulos, S. et al. Evolution of the Materials and Methods Used for Subsurface Drainage of Agricultural Lands from Antiquity to the Present. Water. 2020.
  9. Pederson, G. et al. The influence of bedding on the time horses spend recumbent. J Equine Vet Sci. 2004.
  10. Clarke, A. A review of environmental and host factors in relation to equine respiratory disease. Equine Vet J. 1987. View Summary
  11. Hampson, B. et al. Effect of environmental conditions on degree of hoof wall hydration in horses. Am J of Vet Res. 2012. View Summary
  12. Hotwagner, K. et al. Evacuation of sand from the equine intestine with mineral oil, with and without psyllium. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr. 2007. View Summary
  13. Nielsen, M. Sustainable equine parasite control: Perspectives and research needs. Vet Parasitol. 2012.View Summary
  14. Lamoot, I. Eliminative behaviour of free-ranging horses: do they show latrine behaviour or do they defecate where they graze? Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2004.
  15. Weese, J. Infection control and biosecurity in equine disease control. Equine Vet J. 2014. View Summary
  16. Winskill, L. et al. Stereotypies in the stabled horse: Causes, treatments and prevention. Curr Sci. 1995.
  17. Muller, C. Long-stemmed vs. cut haylage in bales—Effects on fermentation, aerobic storage stability, equine eating behaviour and characteristics of equine faeces. Anim Feed Sci Tech. 2009.
  18. Finno, C. et al. A Comparative Review of Vitamin E and Associated Equine Disorders. J Vet Intern Med. 2012. View Summary