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   Mud, Mud, Mud!    By Rebecca Bentley

Horse Talk...

It seems mud is inevitable; here it is again. There’s an old ranchers’ saying; “You have to have mud in the corrals if you want to have grass in the pastures”. True, but it would be nice to have as little of it as possible. Besides being miserable to get around in, it can lead to thrush, scratches, lost shoes, and even injuries to tendons and ligaments if very deep or slippery.

What is it exactly? Dirt, water, and a way to stir it up. If we mix the ingredients in a bowl, it’s easy to recreate it exactly. Add in some manure, urine, shavings, and hay and it’s perfect barn mud. So how to minimize it? Take away one or more of the ingredients. The first and
Mud Photomost important to be rid of is water. How? Drainage. How? When building pens or improving a highly impacted area, it’s vital to divert the run-off from the area. This can be done with ditches, drains, or some combination. Improvement can often be made with some work with equipment, or even a shovel, to change the way the water is running during heavy rains. A ditch-witch can be rented at a local equipment rental place for a fairly nominal cost. Gravel (drain rock) and perforated pipe go into the ditch, and voila! Less water. The top of the pipe should be at least a foot under the surface of the pen. Raising, and crowning or sloping a pen or areas around gates and water troughs helps, too. This can be done with the addition of drain rock with road base or blue shale over it. Talk to your local quarry about the products available in your area.

Maintenance of highly-impacted areas makes a big difference. It would be nice to do it once and be done with it, but unfortunately it doesn’t work. With all the forces of water and horse hooves mixing up the surface, holes need to be filled and material added periodically. It’s helpful to have a back-up supply of gravel available for quick access with the tractor bucket or wheelbarrow. “A stitch in time...”

Using shavings outside just doesn’t work. They are too absorbent and end up making worse mud in the long run. Bark or wood chips can be used if desired. When selecting wood chips it is important to avoid black walnut and any mixture that contains sharp pieces. Many types can be seen at your local landscape materials seller. Cedarest is a product designed to be used outside; their ads can be seen in many horse magazines.

A big factor in making mud more or less stinky and miserable is how much organic material it contains. Imagine sand mixed with water - drains well and packs hard. There is no organic matter in it. Sand does make a good corral footing, if one is very careful not to feed on it. That can be hard to do. It’s doable if the horse is fed in a stall, and the adjacent pen is separated by a curb of some sort from the stall. Some horses will pick around in the sand quite a bit. Feeding psyllium may very well help, but it’s still risky.

A clay soil with sand and gravel is the best base. If manure is picked up regularly and the drainage is good, it will not get terribly muddy. Filling in holes that occur from peeing or pawing will help, too. Keeping hay, manure and shavings out of the dirt keeps the  dirt from being as absorbent.

So we’ve minimized water and organic matter... what else? The stirring action of hooves. That can be done by making highly-impacted surfaces as hard as possible with the addition of gravel, sand, bark, or a combination based on local availability and your preferences. If the hooves can’t punch down into the surface, much less “stirring” will occur. In pastures, water and organic matter are a given, and the only way to minimize mud is to minimize stirring. This can be accomplished by limiting turn-out time, rotating pastures, reducing numbers of horses on an area, and even exercising horses before they are turned out. All these procedures will cut down on the horses’ impact on your pastures.

There is no perfect recipe for mud management. Each facility and area is different. Material availability and cost varies in different areas, and so do soils. If you keep in mind the three ingredients of mud; dirt, water, and stirring, and work to minimize each element, you’ll be able to find what works best for your unique situation.


"We've greyrocked most of the areas that used to get boggy. The real challenge is to manage the water flow and keep it a-flowin'!  We're blessed with sandy soil around most of the farm so it isn't the mudfest that a lot of places endure." -- Anne Howard, American Sporthors


"I think the rock and road base will work well depending on the type of soil it is under and the degree of drainage. I have had some horses need to be shod when on that footing if it is too much for them barefooted. A lot has to do with drainage and lack of northern exposure for good light exposure." -- John Madigan D.V.M., UC Davis


"I really like Fibar, it works well. I'm trying the permeable fabric under rock as well this year" -- Cassandra Schuler D.V.M., Petaluma


"We have a 160 X 65 foot arena we use for turn out, feeding and work. It is native clay soil with some natural sand. We are trying products by Dry Nest. The shredded hardwood creates a mat that does not move easily with stomping feet. Our grader also found its hard to spread because of this. However this also means your horses will not be tracking back down into the mud". -- Susan Manley, La-De-Da Farms, Hayward Hills

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Rebecca Bentley is a free-lance author who has written numerous articles on horse handling and other subjects of interest to horse owners. For more information, please write to her at or visit the Bentley web site at

? 1999 C.E. Bentley Farrier Service and The Bay Area Equestrian Network. Material on this page is the property of the Author and may not be duplicated or redistributed in any way without permission.

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I'm curious about the success of some of the geotextiles/geofabrics that are available - some of which I've seen advertised in equine publications. They work well when "bridging" wet, soft areas on construction sites, but I haven't heard of, or seen, any use of them at farms/ranches/stables. What have you heard, if anything?