You bring your horses in from turnout only to find their legs and hooves coated in mud. You know that mud is bad for your horse, but why and what can you do about it?
Hosing down a muddy horse may be an all-too-common experience for equestrians that live in rainy climates, low-lying regions or areas with clay soils.
Not only is mud a nuisance to clean, but muddy conditions also increase the risk of injuries, infections and health conditions such as cellulitis or lymphangitis.
Tack shops are stocked with products promising to prevent mud-related diseases in horses and there is ample discussions online about whether these products work.
But rather than trying to prevent mud-related disease in your horse, let’s take a step back and instead focus on ways to prevent mud formation around your barn and in your pastures.
This article is a practical reference guide to managing mud on horse farms. We will discuss the causes of mud formation and management strategies to help fix muddy paddocks.
Is a Muddy Paddock Bad for Horses?
A muddy paddock exposes your horse’s legs to excessive moisture and a plethora of microbes, including bacteria and fungi.
Mud forms when water mixes into soil. As the ground becomes muddier, oxygen is less able to penetrate the soil, shifting the bacterial population.
Many beneficial microbes depend on oxygen in the soil to survive but become less abundant as mud forms.
Anaerobic microbes thrive in low-oxygen environments such as mud. Some anaerobic microbes are pathogens (disease-causing organisms) that can enter damaged hoof or skin tissue and cause infection. 
Excessive moisture also makes your horse’s hooves prone to damage. Hoof wall samples show changes in fracture toughness when tested at different moisture contents.
Hooves typically have a moisture content of 75% relative humidity. When moisture is above or below 75%, hoof samples fracture with less pressure applied. 
Health Problems Linked to Mud
Equine health conditions associated with muddy environments include:
- Hoof abscesses
- White line disease
- Pastern dermatitis (mud fever, scratches, greasy heel, rain scald)
Muddy paddocks also make for slippery footing, potentially causing injuries or tendon and ligament strains in the legs.
How do I keep my Paddock Dry?
The best way to prevent mud from accumulating in your horse’s environment is to keep their paddock dry by collecting and redirecting water.
You may also need to support the ground in high-traffic areas by installing geotextile footing.
Collect Water Before it Reaches your Paddock
Install a rain garden
Rain gardens are similar to traditional gardens, but are dug several inches or feet into the ground to collect water.
Aesthetically pleasing, they are also an important part of stormwater management planning in many cities.
To install a rain garden, dig a hole resembling a pond. The size will depend on how much water needs to be collected.
Fill the garden’s base with well-draining soil before adding native plants to help eliminate water pooling in the surrounding area. Avoid plants that are toxic to horses.
An effective rain garden should hold water for no longer than 24-48 hours.
- Low maintenance
- Installing well-draining soil mixed into the base helps to fix areas with slow-draining soil
- Native plants absorb and filter water
- Needs to be planned and installed by skilled labor
- Upfront investment of time and money
Install a Rain Barrel
A rain barrel collects the water run-off from a surface such as your barn roof.
The downspout(s) of your gutters can be directed to drain into rain barrels to stop the water from running into your paddock.
To collect rainwater for drinking, invest in a rain harvest system, which is equipped with a filtration system and pump.
- Inexpensive – often free at local wastewater management facilities
- Easy to install
- Limited capacity
- Must be monitored to prevent overflow
Redirect Water in your Paddock
Install a Swale
A swale is a grooved structure dug into the ground that runs downhill to divert water to a designated drainage area.
As long as the swale can maintain a gentle downhill slope along its length, a swale can reach distant drainage areas.
Swales range from several inches to several feet in width, depending on the volume of water that needs to be displaced.
Swales can be lined with grass, stone or other material and can be subtly blended into the landscape. Grassed swales must be temporarily protected following installation while the grass reestablishes.
- High water capacity
- Low maintenance, if planned properly
- Planned and installed by skilled labor
- High upfront investment of time and money
Avoid Dumping Water Troughs
It’s important to clean and empty out your horse’s water trough before filling it with fresh water.
However, dumping your horse’s trough in your paddock can contribute to mud formation. Instead, consider using a submersible pump to remove dirty water from a water trough instead of dumping the water on the ground.
A submersible pump can discharge water in an appropriate drainage site away from your horse’s paddock.
Take extra safety precautions and prevent horses from accessing the water trough when a submersible pump is being used.
- Useful for flooding emergencies
- Requires access to power source
- Can be inconvenient
Support the Ground
Install a Geotextile System
High-traffic areas in your horse farm are more susceptible to mud formation. Foot traffic repeatedly compacts the soil, mixing in any standing water and causing mud to build up.
A geotextile is a specialized cloth with a cellular structure that can be installed as a supportive footing in high-traffic areas. Geotextiles reduce soil compaction and prevent water from mixing into the soil.
Geotextiles may be a good option in regions with high annual rainfall or when consolidating heavy traffic to designated paths on your farm.
- Low maintenance
- Water drains through textile
- Diverse application
- Textile panels are expensive
- Site prep is extensive
- Suggest professional installation
What Causes Mud to Form?
Mud formation is a simple process: add just the right amount of water to the soil, and then mix thoroughly.
Your horse’s pastures are more likely to become muddy if certain elements that add water and/or increase mixing are present.
Soil characteristics also affect how much water and mixing are needed for mud to form. Some soils are better at draining water than others.
Roofs and pavement are impervious surfaces that do not absorb water. When water falls on these surfaces, it flows to other sites resulting in runoff.
A quarter inch of rainfall over a one-acre area saturates the ground with 6,789 gallons of water. Any impervious surfaces within that area will produce runoff.
Wastewater is another source of runoff on horse farms. Wastewater includes water used for cleaning, water used to soak or steam hay, and drinking water being disposed of.
Wash stalls can generate 90 gallons of water from 10 minutes of cold hosing. A daily cold hose regimen produces over 600 gallons of wastewater a week.
A major contributor to mud formation, runoff cannot always be eliminated, but it can be relocated to a suitable drainage site.
Surface water is absorbed into the ground through a process called infiltration. Water then drains through the soil to the water table or is absorbed by plants.
The water drainage rate is determined by the soil type.
Quick-draining soils containing sand are less prone to mud formation. Silt and clay-based soils drain slowly and are more likely to form mud.
The soil composition in your horse’s paddocks can be analyzed by a local farmer’s co-op or university extension program.
Water infiltration into the ground is also affected by flow rate: areas of fast water flow across the ground have worse drainage than areas of slow flow.
For example, infiltration is impaired by large changes in ground elevation across short distances, which speed up water flow.
Textured surfaces such as grass improve water infiltration by slowing water flow.
As water flows across the ground the force generated carries soil away, a process known as erosion. Because eroded soil is not settled, it is easily mixed to form mud.
The amount of soil erosion changes with different surfaces. Runoff from an impervious surface washes away 3-5 times more soil than runoff from bare soil. 
Grass can help decrease mud formation from erosion and foot traffic by decreasing ground saturation and improving soil stability. However, severe erosion and heavy traffic can destroy the grass.
Heavy hoof traffic from horses walking along the same stretch of ground can cause mud to form by mixing soil and water.
If the soil is sufficiently wet, even light hoof traffic can cause mud to form.
Conversely, drier soils compact with heavy hoof traffic to slow drainage.
Troubleshoot a Muddy Horse Paddock
You can troubleshoot mud in your horse’s paddock by identifying sources of excess water and soil damage.
Consult satellite images of your facility from Google Maps to find important elements that affect mud formation, such as buildings, trees and grass.
Also consider changes in elevation on the property, including hills and slopes.
The image below shows a horse farm with three potential issues contributing to mud formation. In the following section, we will discuss ways to address these problem areas to fix a muddy facility.
Issue #1: Paddock fence line at the base of a hill
The following elements may contribute to mud formation in this location:
- Rainwater or melting snow runs downhill towards the paddock fence line.
- The ground outside the paddock fence line is nearly level, causing water to settle along the fence line.
- The horses in this paddock regularly pace the soggy fence line, causing the wet ground to mix and form mud.
Consider these management strategies to fix mud caused by hoof traffic and downhill runoff of rainwater and meltwater.
Install a Swale
A swale is an effective way to address downhill water runoff. In this scenario, excess water can be diverted to a drain accessible at either end of the fence line.
A contractor will evaluate the downhill slope along the fence line to ensure the elevation change is sufficient to carry water away. This solution does not address heavy traffic but reduces mixing by keeping the soil drier.
Installing geotextiles along the fence line can reduce mud formation. This option requires a higher budget to implement.
Geotextile footing prevents hoof traffic from mixing the soil but allows water to drain through the cloth.
Issue #2: Barn roof gutters drain into paddock
Runoff from roof gutters on the barn can contribute to mud in the following ways:
- Gutters drain at each corner of the barn.
- Two gutters drain uphill from a nearby paddock.
- Paddock gate and shelter are located directly downhill from the gutters, creating a high-traffic area where water and soil are mixed to form mud.
The following management strategies can be used to collect water runoff and stabilize the ground in high-traffic spots.
Rain Garden or Rain Barrel
Installing a rain garden or rain barrels at the base of the gutters will reduce mud formation by collecting runoff and possibly addressing soil erosion.
Predict the total volume of water to collect by using the area of the barn roof and the average rainfall totals. This will tell you how big your rain garden needs to be or how frequently rain barrels will need to be emptied.
Keep in mind that a rain garden will drain within 24 – 48 hours, but a rain barrel relies on evaporation and manual draining.
Install a geotextile to prevent hoof traffic from mixing the soil and water.
The darkest brown areas seen on the map are at the paddock gate and around the shelter. These are the muddiest areas and need stabilization.
Issue #3: Small paddock with no ground coverage
The following elements contribute to mud formation in this paddock:
- Rainwater or melting snow runs downhill from the neighboring property into the paddock.
- The water trough is located near the barn on a flat section of the paddock where it is continually dumped
- Horses have limited space leading to high hoof traffic which can damage the ground and grass and create poor draining soil that is continually mixed.
You can address these mud risk factors by supporting the ground and avoiding dumping out the water trough in the paddock.
Stabilize the Ground
The flat section of this paddock would benefit from soil stabilization by installing geotextiles. However, tree roots prevent installing a geotextile system in the remaining paddock.
Pumping Out Water Troughs
Pumping out the water trough using a submersible pump will reduce erosion and excess water in this paddock. This requires accessing an electrical source at the barn.
Also, consider moving the trough to a better draining location in the paddock that can withstand heavier hoof traffic.
Reducing water accumulation and supporting the ground are the main ways to address common issues contributing to mud formation.
You can fix muddy paddocks on your horse farm by identifying the specific factors causing mud to form and implementing some of the solutions listed above
A rain garden or swale are not your only options. Many other strategies work based on the same principles presented.
Consider solutions that are manageable for you and your barn staff and that fit within your budget. Projects that require additional materials, such as geotextiles or drainage pipes, increase costs considerably, but they are not the only solutions.
Effective mud management will not only make your equine facility run smoother but will also keep your horses healthy, clean and happy.
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