Which Paddock Surface is Best for a Rainy Climate?

grass-field-left
Galloping down one of the back fields

~ Updated in 2019 ~

Let’s start with these pictures of my first set-up, where I self-boarded my horses on a friend’s property, and my adventures in paddock footing began.

There are 4 acres of fields here, and three horses (the land could go to a maximum of 4 horses) so I have enough land for a “sacrifice field”. And that way I can keep them on pasture year-round in this super rainy Pacific Northwest climate. BUT, what am I going to put on their paddock surface to create a paddock footing with adequate drainage?

In this front area I call the “paddock” are their water tubs and 2 walk-in shelters, each with it’s own slow feeder and rubber mats. I will leave the back field open for them through the winter until May/June and let them trash it with their hooves and manure. Then I will hire a bunch of teenagers to remove all the manure from this ‘sacrifice field’ thereby removing all bots, eggs, parasites etc. And I will move them to the field next to it. Where I will leave them for the entire summer and winter, let them trash it, etc. By the time the following May/June rolls around, the sacrifice field will be rejuvenated and I’ll flip them again. And repeat, ongoing.

grass-paddock
The current paddock footing

BUT the paddock area in front of the shelters is going to get a lot of traffic, and will quickly turn into a mud pit. So I want to lay down some kind of surface footing that will encourage water drainage and help keep my horses hooves drier, so we can avoid thrush and other hoof problems that are common in this rainy climate. The question is: what should I put down on the surface of this paddock; what drainage materials will work best and not cost me crazy money?

If you don’t care about the how’s and the why’s and the research and you just want the solution fast, then here’s what I recommend after not only turning this area into a dry paddock – but also after increasing my herd to 11 horses, moving to another property, and creating a dry paddock there!

Create a Dry Paddock in even the Rainiest Climate

After six winters in the Pacific Northwest rainforest, with 3-11 horses, here’s what I’ve found works best:

1. Ideally, spend some time watching where/how water flows in your paddock area. When you’re scraping the soft soil off (see step 2 below) try to grade the area so water will be encouraged by slope and gravity to flow where you want it to. If you need to install a drain or culvert – here’s my handy step-by-step guide to install a French drain.

2. Clear all soft organic soil, grass, down to the compacted subgrade soil. You can use this scraped-off earth to create a nice hill for them to climb/play on in their pasture, which will also create an area of high ground to stand or lie on during winter. When should you scrape down to subgrade soil? In the summer. Mud creates mud. So if you scrape down during a wet season, the rain will just turn the formerly compacted soil into more mud. So you watch where water flows when it’s raining, and then scrape and lay your gravel during summer when it’s dry.

3. After scraping down to compacted subsoil, put a commercial-grade barrier material on top of the hard pan soil. Use something like this Nilex non-woven geotextile with a load capacity that can withstand rock, gravel and horses hooves. My friend Mitchell Allen, who builds horse trails in public parks uses this exact material. Do not just go buy geo-textile cloth from your local nursery or hardware store (tried that, doesn’t work!). If you live in a place that only occasionally gets wet/floods, then you may be able to skip this step. But if you live somewhere rainy like the Pacific Northwest or UK, then this industrial-grade barrier material is crucial.

4. Now lay a layer of large rock or recycled concrete (3 inches wide or larger rock) on top of the Nilex barrier, about 5 inches deep. It needs to be deep enough that the rock compacts and locks together – so one layer (of 3″ rock) is not enough.

5. Next, on top of the 3″ rock, spread another 5 inch deep layer of 3/4 inch minus gravel (sometimes called Road Base). So make sure your two layers, over your Nilex Geotextile, are at least 10 inches deep. If you can now run a roller or compactor over your paddock surface, that is ideal.

6. Lastly, if you want to make your manure-picking way easier (more on this below), or have a bit ‘softer’ surface for your horses, then add a 2-inch deep top layer of 1/4 inch minus gravel, on top of the 3/4 inch gravel.

What does minus mean, when referring to gravel? It simply means that the particle size of the gravel is guaranteed to be less than the measurement. So 3/4 inch minus gravel means that the largest particle size is 3/4 of an inch and all the gravel in the load is guaranteed to be 3/4 inch or smaller.

Note: Some people like to put a layer of crusher dust as their top layer, but I’ve found the fines in crusher really interfere with drainage, as they form this solid packed layer on top of all the gravel. Also, if you want your paddock to give your horses the opportunity to self-trim their hooves… then definitely don’t put crusher dust as your last layer on top. The 1/4″ minus, which will mix in with the 3/4″ gravel over time, gives hooves a great self-trimming tool. With 2400 square feet of gravel, my horses were able to self-trim enough that they only needed the farrier to come out and trim every 5-6 months. I’ve also not had one issue of gravel ‘puncturing’ or injuring their soles – when horses’ hooves have a place to dry out regularly, and they have a variety of surfaces to choose from, in my experience, their hooves and soles harden up and just take care of themselves.

If you are ordering crusher dust, it’s best if you can get a look at it, to make sure it is just rock fines and doesn’t have clay (or a lot of sand particles) in it. Usually it’s okay, but one year (same supplier) the crusher had clay in it and it completely packed down and stopped all drainage from happening! I ended up having to remove that entire layer and use it as fill elsewhere.

Tip: When spreading the top layer of crusher dust or 1/4 inch gravel, I have it spread 6-12 inches away from all the walls or sides of the paddock. This concentrates it where the horses will actually be standing/walking. It will naturally get pushed out to the edges over time anyway. This way, I’m not having to shovel it back in to the center as it builds up along the edges (where it’s wasted).

If you have all your rock and gravel delivered and on-site, a guy with an excavator (to scrape down to hard pan) and a Bobcat (to spread the rock and gravel) can get all 6 steps done in a day. I prefer the smaller tractors since they can maneuver better around posts and corners – so there is less hand-finishing work for me to do. Don’t worry about timing everything to occur on the same day. I usually have my gravel delivered 2-3 days before the Bobcat/tractor guy arrives as my horses love playing on the gravel piles!

They love playing on the gravel piles

I also don’t worry about having my horses loose when the machinery is here. Some horses freak out and run around, others are curious and want to look inside the bucket and cab, but either way, once they start working the horses move out of the way.

Okay, now that you know what to do… I’m going to tell you about all the options available and what other people say. I’m also going to tell you about the things I’ve tried that didn’t work so well for me.

Which Paddock Footing Materials are Best?

This is a debate which could go on a long time, so I’m just going to summarize the various positions here and give some examples.

One herd owner I know used a mixture of various sized gravel, sand, and crusher dust. But she said she wouldn’t use the crusher dust again, since it packs down like cement. Crusher dust is gravel that has been crushed to the size of 1/4″ or less. It can also be called quarter minus, or flume sand. However, on the flip side of that argument, here’s what a Farrier has to say about why she prefers crusher dust:

“As a farrier, my favourite footing in this area is crusher dust. My clients have a rubber mat outside and they feed off of that. If the hay does get on it, it isn’t like sand for colic concerns that I’ve ever heard of. It keeps their feet in the best shape of all the footings I’ve dealt with. Be aware that there are different types of “crusher dust” and the type that sets up very firm is what I prefer. The other stuff is too loose and just moves out of the way like pea gravel. It would probably be fine in a drier climate but on the Wet Coast, it isn’t ideal.

hog-fuel
Hog Fuel – unrefined mix of coarse bark chips & fiber

Sand tends to overwear the feet but of all the footings for paddocks, it tends to be my second choice because at least their feet stay dry.

My least favourite footing is hogfuel and I’d probably have them stand in mud over hogfuel because when hogfuel is new, it is very acidic and it etches out the sole of the foot, leaving the foot more vulnerable (I’ve seen hooves so bad on it that a hoofpick can poke through the sole easily. I’ve also had a few that you had to be careful even with thumb pressure because that was enough to poke a hole through the sole.). As the hogfuel ages and the acid leaches out, it turns sloppy and is a fantastic host for bacteria so again, another problem to deal with.”

The most common concern about using crusher dust – which is just tiny, crushed gravel – is whether it will be too sharp for the hooves. But again, after researching, I think that’s an issue of the existing surface, how much is used, and what the resulting footing is like. The same Farrier I quoted above also says:

“It locks together and makes a very firm surface with just enough give to allow for maximum traction. It isn’t something the horses prefer to roll in but give them options on a rainy day and they will stand on it over most other footings. Because it packs down fairly solid, it doesn’t have the big pointy bits that are inclined to puncture and lead to abscesses. That said, you pretty much have to see the different types and as was mentioned by someone else, you have to know how the surface below it will effect it. If you are putting it over mud, you aren’t going to get the positive results that many of us see with it. Sometimes you have to do some research into what to lay down below it.

I’d highly recommend going to look at farms that offer to let you see theirs and take a good hard look at their horses feet. I have seen improvement in hoof quality in every foot taken from hogfuel or mud and placed on crusher dust and comparing it to the sand options, it is still a better hoof. That said, there have been some crusher dusts surfaces that while I feel they are an improvement over hogfuel or mud, are still not “the best”. If you are already starting with fairly hard footing underneath, crusher dust may not be your best option but on the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley [of BC, Canada], it is rare for it not to be an improvement.”

One thing everyone does seem to agree on, is that if you are using crusher dust or pea gravel, it’s best to scrape off the topsoil (mud) first and get it down to the hard soil surface, then lay your footing.

An excavator removing soft dirt to get down to hard pan before laying the gravel

For the people that love crusher dust, they seem to love it because it packs down hard and forms a cement-like surface that doesn’t sink into mud. But as I pointed out above, examine the crusher before you order it, to make sure it is just crushed rock fines and doesn’t contain any clay particles. It is the clay that especially packs down so hard the water will not drain through well and just runs off the surface.

The compacted layer of crusher dust – see the fresh, clean 3/4 inch gravel underneath. This compacted layer had to be chipped off and thrown out.

However, depending on the surface you lay the crusher dust on, it can also mix easily with the mud and be gone by the next rainy season. I know several stables that just dump fresh crusher dust on their paddocks every year to replenish the surface – because they didn’t follow the steps I outlined above, they just dump the crusher right on the earth.

When I called a local nursery that sells everything (pea gravel, crusher dust, limestone, sand, mulch etc.), they told me that the Cloverdale Racetrack uses limestone gravel for their track. They said it packs down better than pea gravel in the rain, there are less of the tiny stones to get stuck in the horse’s hooves, and it’s easy to shovel manure off of. They also recommended I use 6 inches of it.

A number of articles I’ve read on this subject suggest using a minimum of 3 inches of footing (surface drainage material), or to use the same depth your mud gets to. So if your paddock usually turns into 5 inches of mud, then use 5 inches of footing.

What if There is No Hard Soil?

The big problem you get in many (most?) parts of the Pacific Northwest and the U.K., is that there is no hard compacted soil, or shale, or rock beneath the topsoil! A friend of mine who builds roads in the Vancouver area – and whose father builds horse arenas – told me that you can go down 6 feet and you still won’t hit any kind of hard soil or anything that would provide a barrier to your gravel sinking away.

He suggests you lay down 5-6 inches of a 3-inch minus rock layer first, to provide that hard layer and then put your gravel on top of that, or you will just have to dump the same amount of gravel every year, year after year, because it just keeps sinking.

However, horses hooves are way more punchy than car or truck tires. So another friend of mine who builds both roads and horse trails in provincial parks, says that you can’t just put the 3-inch rock layer down. You first have to put a commercial-grade shielding material used in road building – like Nilex – down on the soil and then lay down the 3-inch rock or recycled concrete (often cheaper), and then the gravel. My own experience (keep reading) confirms this.

What about Draingrids?

draingridIf you live in a climate that only gets occasional rain, or a short rainy season, then you may be able to just lay either a commercial-grade shielding fabric or a specialized plastic draingrid on top of the hard pan soil, then layer 2-4 inches of 3/4 inch minus pea gravel and top that with a 2-inch layer of 1/4 inch minus limestone gravel, or crusher dust.

I haven’t tried draingrids or mudgrids myself, so I can’t comment on them. From what I’ve seen in my research, I wouldn’t want to use them in a super muddy area unless they went on top of geotextile and road base – otherwise, the mud would just ooze up through the grids as the horses walked/ran on them, so you’d be continually cleaning the mud off them, or the mud would be mixing with your crusher fines.

For my super rainy climate (the Pacific Northwest coast) after trying cheaper variations – and having to spend an additional $2,000 on gravel every year, because it just kept sinking – I finally hired my friend Mitchell, who gets the commercial-grade barrier material from Nilex, to come in and do it right for me. Because even if you clear down to hard pan, put a layer of 3″ minus rock, then 4 inches of 3/4-inch minus gravel, and 2 inches of 1/4″ minus or crusher dust… it still sinks! And next year, I had to spend another $2K to spread 3/4-inch minus gravel on top. And I had to do that every year, for 4 years, until I finally got my friend Mitchell to come in and do it right.

Mitchell uses the Nilex 4551 Non-woven Geotextile when he builds horse trails in provincial parks. When he’s building horse trails, he puts down the Nilex geotextile, then 5-6 inches of 3″ rock, then 6 inches of road base (3/4″ minus). Nilex is a worldwide company, but if you can’t get that material, then just show your supplier the spec sheet and get them to match it.

But, I know how stubborn we can be, and how sometimes we just need to find things out for ourselves, so I’m going to keep going with giving you other people’s ideas (that won’t work in a rainforest climate!) just in case you want to waste your money like I did. OR perhaps you live in a region that just gets occasional downpours or flooding, so you don’t think you’ll need the geotextile layer, or the same layers of rock/gravel.

Two Layers of Footing/Drainage – Different Sizes

If you don’t have the budget to hire a tractor to remove 6-12 inches of soil, what is a cheaper alternative that might still work, if you’re in an area with only occasional rain or flooding? Dr. Ann Swinker (professor of Equine Sciences) says:

“Ideally a two layer footing system works best when working with gravel. It consists of a coarse aggregate base and a finer cover layer. Neither of these materials work well alone. Coarse aggregate does not compact easily; many voids may result leaving the surface uneven and difficult for livestock to walk on. The finer material compacts easily but will move under heavy traffic. When the two materials are used together, the fine material fills in the voids left by the coarse material. The result is a durable, all-weather surface that is acceptable for animals.”

Now, keep in mind that Dr. Swinker’s advice is not tailored for a heavy rainfall area. So yes, it will work in this climate (I tried it) but it will only work for one winter. The next winter, you will need to add another 4-6 inches of 3/4-inch minus gravel. If you were to follow Dr. Swinker’s advice, you could use pea gravel 0r 3/4-inch minus gravel on the bottom and crusher dust on top (crusher is really just tiny gravel with gravel particle dust), or limestone gravel and crusher dust, or limestone gravel and sand. However, you don’t want to use sand if your horses are going to be eating on the surface (can cause colic if ingested). But if your horses have slow feeders in their walk-in shelters, that is not an issue.

When choosing gravel, pea gravel, or limestone gravel, most experts say you should get crushed rock particles no larger than 3/4-inch, or they are not comfortable for the horses to stand on. However, if you can get them small enough (usually 3/8″ – 5/8″) to filter through the tines of your manure fork, that will make scooping poop much easier and reduce gravel wastage. This may seem like a small point, but trust me, it makes a huge difference to the time spent scooping manure AND the loss of expensive gravel that gets tossed out with the manure.

How Much Drainage Footing to Order?

The one thing you notice when you’re trying to price out gravel or crusher dust, is that pricing tends to be in cubic yards. Luckily there is a super easy way to convert square feet to cubic yards:

1. Multiply the square footage (length x width = square footage) of your paddock by the depth of gravel you want. BUT your depth must also be in feet, not inches. So 6″ = .5 feet, or 3″ = .25 feet.

e.g: 500 square feet x .5 feet depth = 250 cubic feet

2. Divide your answer (cubic feet) by 27 to get the number of cubic yards you need.

e.g. 250 cubic feet divided by 27 = 9.25 cubic yards

And that’s how much you need to order!

Here’s a full list of inch to feet conversions so you can figure out the depth of gravel you want for your calculation in step #1 above:

Converting Inches to Feet:

1 inch equals .083 feet
1.5 inches equals .125 feet
2 inches equals .167 feet
2.5 inches equals .208 feet
3 inches equals .25 feet
4 inches equals .33 feet
5 inches equals .417 feet
6 inches equals .50 feet

My First Paddock Experiment

So now that I have all the information needed to make a good decision about what is the best paddock surface for horses in a wet, rainy climate… it’s time to look at what I’m prepared to spend!

My big constraint with my first horse boarding set-up is that it is not my own land and so realistically, I could be kicked out at any time. This seriously impacts my decision-making process. So instead of implementing what I know would be a great solution, instead, I’m trying to figure out the most cost-effective way of making sure my horses don’t get thrush and can maintain healthy hooves through this year’s wet, rainy Winter and Spring. I’m less concerned with the following years, since I may not even be there.

Since I have not prepped the paddock surface and the gravel will be dumped straight on the grass, I decide to order 39 tons of 3/4 inch minus gravel from Fraser Valley Aggregates. I’m concerned that if I use crusher dust or a smaller gravel, it will be easily churned into mud before the winter’s over. Here’s what 3/4 inch minus looks like and it costs me $700 including delivery:

3-4-inch-gravel

The truck arrived and dumped both loads of gravel near the shelters.

DSC_0030

I thought I could get a few friends out and spread the gravel using rakes, but when I looked at the size of the piles and realized how heavy the gravel was, I decided to hire a local farmer to come spread it for me.

NOTICE I ended up calling a guy with a tractor anyway! If I had known I would need him, I would have had him spend 30-60 minutes removing that topsoil/grass layer first, before spreading the gravel. Wouldn’t have cost much extra, but would have greatly extended the life of the gravel I ordered. Live and learn!

front-loader-spread-gravel

Here’s what it looked like after the two truckloads of 3/4 inch gravel was spread out:

DSC_0017

I was happy with this for a few days, and then I started fretting about the fact that there really wasn’t much room for them to move around and exercise, yet stay on the gravel. Then I thought: What if they get a thrush infection and I need to keep them completely off mud… I won’t be able to do that without cross-fencing the paddock! At that time, I also hadn’t bought/used any arena panels – which are super useful for cross-fencing or creating smaller paddocks.

The farmer who spread the gravel for me suggested I try a load of crusher dust from Upper Fraser Valley Trucking next time – he thought it would be a better surface, even spread directly on grass. So I called them up and ordered 45 tons of 1/4 inch minus crusher dust with squared edges (not sharp) and had that spread on the remaining half of the paddock. That cost me $840 including delivery.

Here’s what the 1/4 inch minus crusher dust looks like on the paddock:

1/4 inch Crusher Dust
1/4 inch minus Crusher Dust

And here’s what the 3/4 inch gravel looks like on the paddock:

DSC_0026
3/4 inch minus Gravel

I figured this would be a really good test to see which gravel held up best under the horse’s hooves during the rainy season, because I had them side-by-side for direct comparison! Note: hiring the tractor cost me $400.

Here’s all the things I did not anticipate, so you can benefit from my learning curve:

1. As you can see from the 2 photos directly above, it is much easier to rake all the leaves off of the crusher dust. With the gravel, the rocks are often larger than the leaves, so the rake ends up gathering the rocks and the leaves are left behind. The larger chunks of rock are also easily caught in the rake, so you end up dumping a lot of the gravel you just paid money for, out with the leaves – which does not feel good! Remember that you need to remove all organic matter from the surface of your gravel to ensure it is kept clean and can drain properly. If you let any organic matter build up, it will break down into soil/mush which will defeat the whole purpose, as your horses will now be standing on a wet surface.

DSC_0023
3/4 inch minus gravel stuck in rake

2. The same problem occurs when you shovel manure. The 3/4 inch gravel gets stuck in your manure fork and you end up throwing away a little bit of your money every day when you clean the paddock:

DSC_0020
3/4 inch minus gravel stuck in manure fork

3. The whole idea of having a gravel or crusher dust top layer is to prevent wet organic matter (soil, grass, hay, leaves, manure etc.) from coming into contact with your horses hooves, and then to facilitate the drainage of rainwater away from the surface, so your horse’s hooves stay drier. So you cannot leave any of this organic matter sitting on your gravel, or else it will quickly break down into a mucky layer that defeats the whole purpose. Manure and leaves also break down quickly in the rain, so you must clear them off your gravel daily. This is really labor intensive – and I totally did not anticipate the amount of leaf raking I was going to have to do!

The Winner: Gravel or Crusher Dust?

In hindsight, even if I could not afford to remove the topsoil and lay down the proper layers first, I should have dumped 3/4 inch minus gravel directly on the grass (at least 3 inches) and then dumped 1/4 inch minus crusher dust directly on top of the gravel (at least 2 inches deep). Remember, I was only looking for this paddock to last a year or two. Here’s all the reasons why I should have done it that way…

In the middle of the worst rains of winter, the 3/4 inch gravel has the best drainage and keeps the surface drier, even during a full day of rain:

gravel-winter

On the same day, here’s what patches of the 1/4 inch crusher dust look like – you can see how the mud and soil underneath has been churned into the crusher dust. On a full rainy day, these patches fill with standing water – there is no drainage:

crusher-dust-winter

So why not just use the 3/4 inch gravel? Well, because of the difficulties cleaning the manure and leaves off it (detailed above) AND the horses will not lie down on the gravel, but they will lie down on the crusher dust. Good sleep is an important part of a happy, healthy horse. However, later experience taught me that depending on the type of crusher dust, and how hard the ground is when properly prepared, the horses won’t lie down on it anyway – so this is an unknown factor.

Another consideration: the dust particles in the crusher dust work themselves deep into your horse’s mane and coat. Not only does this make them very hard to brush clean, but the particles are super fine dust that occasionally irritate the horse’s eyes and are certainly not healthy for you or your horse to be inhaling.

Next time, I would want to examine the crusher dust and see which supplier’s contains the least amount of dust. Or, I would try to find just 1/4 inch minus with smooth edges, or 3/8 inch minus smooth gravel with no dust – that would be ideal.

How Did The Paddock Hold Up Over The Year?

Well, I laid the paddock footing in August. By February, all the horses hooves were still in great condition (they are also fed low sugar hay, which makes a huge difference to hoof health) and the surface was still in good shape.

But by April, the area around the slow feeders was wet and mucky. Even though we moved some gravel over from other parts of the paddock, the gravel had sunk down into the soil all over, so there wasn’t much left to scavenge.

slow-feeder-May
By May, the area around the slow feeders is mostly dirt

By May, you can see that the paddock surface is pretty much toast – the grass is growing up from underneath and the gravel has almost disappeared from sinking into the soil – and the entire thing will have to be re-done again in August for approximately the same cost ($2000 total including tractor to spread it).

gravel-May
The three-quarter inch gravel by May (9 months later)
What the crusher dust looks like in May (9 months later)
What the crusher dust looks like in May (9 months later)

Oh, and even though I added a new portable shelter for them, so they could stand outside to eat, this rain cover did not prevent the gravel from sinking into the ground around the slow feeders by April; just from the wear and tear of their hooves – without any rainfall on it.

gravel-shelter-sfs
A new shelter with slow feeders under it – horses are standing on gravel while eating, but can still feel the sun and freedom

In my opinion, in this rainy climate, not removing the topsoil down to the firmer layer and then putting down a layer of commercial-grade barrier, and then a layer of large rocks (at least 3 inches wide) is throwing your money away. The gravel and/or crusher dust only lasts one season and so you have to pay out the same amount every year. If you do it right the first time, you may only have to do it once (as long as you keep organic matter off your paddock surface).

What About Geo-Textile Cloth?

Just before we close, let’s talk a bit more about geotextile cloth, which many paddock experts recommend using. In 2018, I did an experiment with laying standard hardware store geotextile cloth down on the compacted subgrade soil, in a new section of my horses paddock area. Then I added 4 inches of 3/4 inch minus gravel, and then 2 inches of crusher dust.

I was interested to see if it would work, as a woman had written in (who also lives in this Pacific Northwest climate) to tell me that it’s never worked for her horses. And unfortunately, I have to report that my experience has been similar. I think the punchiness of horses hooves disturbs the gravel so much, that all that needs to happen is for them to punch through to the geotextile in a very small spot and then that quickly enlarges. And then the cloth gets moved around by their hooves.

I tried it in two places – under a shelter with 4 inches of gravel (3/4 inch minus) and then 2 inches of crusher dust. And in a paddock entryway with 8 inches total of gravel/crusher. Both areas were destroyed in a couple of months once the rains started – the cloth was either sticking up all over the place (the other woman said her horses would then grab it in their teeth and pull on it – we just cut it off), or it had disappeared into the muck.

What’s left of the geotextile cloth 3 months later

I will say, that year was the worst for rain we’ve had in a decade or so – tons of houses had their basements flooded for the first time ever. So the amount of rainfall has certainly been unusual. Regardless, I don’t think it’s a good option and I would never use it again. When I showed it to my friend Mitchell, he said the two problems with what I did were (a) I did not use industrial-grade geotextile, and (b) I did not put enough rock and gravel on top of the cloth. Remember, he uses 5-6″ of 3″ rock on top of the Nilex geotextile, then 5-6″ of 3/4″ minus gravel on top of that. He also uses a roller/compactor to really compress and lock the rock together into a nice firm surface that is not disturbed by punchy horse hooves.

During my research, I also called BC Parks & Rec – who commission the horse trails in the provincial parks here and asked them what they did, as their trails seem to stay in pretty good shape all winter long, with lots of traffic on them. They told me a similar story to what I outlined above: After scraping down to the compacted subgrade soil, they place an industrial-grade barrier material, then a layer of large, flat 3-4″ rock. Then they add 3/4 inch gravel, and then crusher dust. Et voila!

I also found it really helpful to install a French Drain in my current paddock to help funnel the water off/away from the paddock – and this made a huge difference in the effectiveness of my paddock surface.

My horses’ current paddock & shelter area

Please feel free to share your experience and experiments in the Comments section below…

Which Paddock Surface is Best for a Rainy Climate?

32 thoughts on “Which Paddock Surface is Best for a Rainy Climate?

  • October 16, 2016 at 11:40 am
    Permalink

    That was a very interesting read! I’m curious to know if you ended up redoing the paddock surface area this year again? And what you used.
    I redid an arena 4 years ago and after MUCH research we went the 3″ minus with an “arena mix” of sand and fine gravel on top. (from Kelmor in Chilliwack) We did not do a geo textile cloth (although I had one in my first hog fuel arena). My arena is also used as the dry area on wet days and overnight hours, I am very happy with my surface.
    One thing that I did and would highly recommend is after having the 3″ minus delivered we rented a 1000 lb plate compactor and compacted the arena surface for a full week, many, many, many times. The sand was dumped and spread about 2 weeks later. This was an important step because without it the large 3″ minus rocks will slowly start to surface to the top and will need to be “picked” before riding / turnout. I have friends who have used almost the same formula but without the compacting and have to pick the rocks regularly (at least weekly, if not more often).
    It has great drainage, and my one complaint is that it gets dusty in the summer, but I consider that a small price to pay for a dry arena in the winter.
    I have also not had to top it up in any way, although I pick manure daily, and also harrow it weekly as I don’t want to mess up my base by having “holes” in my sand from the horses playing out there!
    I live in Chilliwack, so have the same weather as you 🙂

    Reply
    • October 16, 2016 at 4:38 pm
      Permalink

      Great info Donna – thanks so much for sharing your knowledge! I have since left that boarding place, but the owners (who bought their own horses after being inspired by mine) did indeed dump 4 more boxes of crusher dust on that paddock ($1400). It’s holding up well though and perhaps they will only need to re-do it every 3-5 years now; since there’s such a good base on it now.

      And yes, I can also concur with your friends’ experience. At my recent place I put down the 3″ minus rock first, but only ran the tractor back and forth over it. And yes, that 3″ rock is endlessly coming up through the 3/4″ minus, and the crusher dust I layered on top!

      So for the 1000 lb plate compactor you rented – was that a separate machine? Or is that an attachment you put on your own tractor?

      It’s good to know that packing it down like that can make such a difference though, I will definitely keep that in mind.

      Reply
      • October 16, 2016 at 6:36 pm
        Permalink

        We rented the compactor from United Rentals, it is a seperate machine, but we did use a tractor to lift it off of the trailer that we brought it home with, it was heavy!

        Reply
        • October 17, 2016 at 9:47 am
          Permalink

          Good to know – thanks Donna!

          Reply
    • February 16, 2019 at 2:43 am
      Permalink

      My horses are barefoot so seedy toe is a problem with any sort of grit. I live in England and have winter paddocks. Top soil has been removed and 2-3″ stone laid down with willow or other non-poisonous wood chips laid on top to depth of 6-12″. They rot down naturally and every year to 2 years they are scraped off and easily spread on fields or neighbour puts on flower beds or I put on stone farm tracks to prevent water erosion but not too thick. Rotted chips basically become soil. I didn’t use a membrane and probably would in the future. I would put drains (herring bone or french) if I did it again just to avoid water logs. The chips are soft and they can lay on them but more often they pee on them. The paddocks are in one area on a slant so if the chips get a bit tired and over wet I can shovel out the wetter edges. This system still involves some heavy work but it is sustainable. I tend to scrape old chips off at end of summer because with wind and sun a lot naturally disappear. Best to get new woodchips and not from a poisonous tree and without any greenery. They can get a little waterlogged mid winter and usually it means they are old and not as absorbant and I take the depth down. It does require maintenance but is sustainable. For a 20×40 metre area I would put 20 cubic metres.

      I tried sharp sand one year on top of hardstanding but it doesn’t rot down and just gets dirty and heavy to shift. I would not use it.

      Reply
      • February 17, 2019 at 12:13 am
        Permalink

        Awesome feedback! Thanks so much for sharing your methods and experience. Are wood chips the same thing that we call hog fuel or bark mulch here?? Because a farrier with lots of experience with it says it’s too acidic for the horse’s hooves…. Nevertheless, if it’s working well for you, then it’s always good to have options 🙂

        Reply
  • December 22, 2016 at 1:35 am
    Permalink

    Ladies

    Catherine here. I live in Ireland where we have a wet mild climate. I have just purchased a house with 2 acres. As I have 2 horses I intend to build a small turnout paddock for the winter months. All your information is invaluable, thank you very much. It is fantastic that you took the time and effort to go into such detail. I will probably go with the princess option , again thanks a million.

    Catherine

    here it is:  

    Reply
  • March 6, 2017 at 11:45 am
    Permalink

    great info, i really appreciate you sharing with others as it takes time to post such info with pictures, too. I have 3 acres and am looking to create a drylot for my 6 sheep 🙂 Leaning towards the princess option, or somewhere inbetween. Thanks! 🙂

    Reply
    • March 6, 2017 at 2:08 pm
      Permalink

      Post a before and after pic when you’re done Joanna (with your sheep in it!) – that would be cool 🙂

      Reply
  • May 7, 2017 at 3:34 am
    Permalink

    Thank you for your great article!!! I’m in Virginia, USA and have been researching what to do for the muddy parts of our barn and our sacrifice lot. We don’t have as much rain as you all in the NW but we do have LOTS of hills and so we get drainage across our fields. We have a rescue donkey and rescue OTTB that love to roll in mud — but after 4 days of rain, it’s too much mud! (normally everything here gets wet from rain, but dries the next day to hard surface). This has been SO HELPFUL!!!!! and I love the photos!!!! THANK YOU!!!

    Reply
  • May 24, 2017 at 4:03 pm
    Permalink

    Just what I needed for my muddy hillside Tennessee horse farm. Just beginning to figure out what my best plan is. This will help tremendously. Thanks you so much!

    Reply
    • August 8, 2018 at 3:31 am
      Permalink

      Hi Suzy! I am also a muddy hillside east Tennessee horsefarm owner. Just purchased Nov of 17 and boy it was a wet muddy mess for my 3 because I only had one month to get so much done before I could move them in.
      I have been doing research on the geogrids and stumbled on this wonderful and very helpful ariticle by Jini… Thank you 🙏
      I am curious as to what you went with if you could let us know.

      Reply
  • July 8, 2017 at 9:14 am
    Permalink

    This is the best article I have read on this subject!

    Reply
    • July 8, 2017 at 6:53 pm
      Permalink

      Thanks Margaret – glad it was useful/helpful!

      Reply
  • November 28, 2017 at 5:06 pm
    Permalink

    Thank you very much for this information, I am in Colorado, down on the plains, so we don’t get a lot of rain, but for sure the snow then the horse’s runs fall apart. I started with the crusher fines, but have not been happy with the pee spots, so I’ll go back and do the pea gravel, or maybe put some sand down in the pee hole, then the next 2 layers? I like the fines so far for helping with the mud, but for sure am trying a longer term solution. I have a small boarding facility, so I have 12 runs to deal with and budget is a concern, but I also know having to do it twice costs more because of mistakes lol

    Reply
    • November 29, 2017 at 7:51 pm
      Permalink

      If you have hard ground underneath, you may be able to get away with 2-3 layers of gravel:

      Bottom: Large roadbase (3″ minus)
      Middle: 3/4″ minus gravel
      Top layer: Crusher Dust

      But if not, then you’re going to have to put down either geotextile cloth, or the plastic grid mats – and then lay your gravel. Or for sure you will be re-doing every year. Would love to know what works for your climate/conditions… 🙂

      Reply
  • April 16, 2018 at 12:29 am
    Permalink

    Hi!
    I have found your article here really helpful!
    I live in Maple Ridge and I am about to attempt this for my two horses on a rental property…
    Their paddock is 8000 sq feet, so cost is definitely an issue.
    I have already tried to scrape down a few layers last year and dig a trench through the center of their paddock but it hasnt worked as i didnt grade the area well enough..
    I have hired a contractor with a huge tracked skid steer who specialises in fine grading to fill my trench back in and grade and scrape their entire paddock so that it has a nice gentle slope.
    I have been debating over whether i need Geo-textile or not, as some areas are fairly hard but some seem to have some clay…
    I am considering using 3″ deep of recycled 1″minus concrete directly on top of the fresh scraped and graded ground compacted with his skidsteer and then adding 3″ deep of crusher dust or sechelt sand to the top..
    what do you think? how essential is the geotextile if you have scraped down a few feet?
    appreciate your thoughts on this.
    Again, this article is fantastic!
    Best,
    Alicia

    Reply
    • April 16, 2018 at 5:44 am
      Permalink

      After just completing yet another experiment, I would say the Geotextile is non-negotiable!! Seriously, DO it. It doesn’t matter how much you scrape and pack, your gravel (even 3″ road base!) will disappear and every year you’ll be laying new gravel. But then you’re hooped, because you just won’t be willing to scrape away $2,000 worth of gravel and start again with the Geotextile! I have been on two rental properties and each time didn’t think it was worth doing the geotextile, but even if you only stay 2 years, it’s worth it. Either that or you need to lay the plastic drainage mats – but that’s even more expensive. Also be sure and check out our French Drain post as that worked brilliantly and may replace your trench:

      https://listentoyourhorse.com/paddock-mud-or-flood-problems-install-a-french-drain/

      Reply
  • May 29, 2018 at 8:45 am
    Permalink

    Great info. A couple of months ago (prior to reading this) I leveled the walkout paddock area and laid pea gravel 6” deep under the roof and 4” beyond which will be exposed to a lot of rain in winter. I forget the size but it’s small enough to fall through the manure fork. Only a few don’t fall through. So far so good. My mare has Cushings and sometimes laminitis. Since putting the pea gravel down her feet have improved a lot as the little rocks act like ball bearings and roll around under her feet instead of sticking causing pain. This is a boarding facility so all my expense. Now I’m going to moving my other mare over so wanted to check what’s the best footing as I live on Vancouver Island, the place with the most rainfall on the planet. Winters are horrible for mud so I won’t be caught off guard again. I’ll be staying with the pea gravel for sure. Just wondering about freezing. Which is less likely to freeze. Gravel or 5 ml washed sand. I want a common sandy area as well so they can enjoy a good roll with no dust.

    Reply
    • May 30, 2018 at 7:15 am
      Permalink

      Hi Pat, if you just laid the gravel, but no geotextile cloth underneath, you’ll get one good winter out of it, possibly two. Don’t be tempted then to just throw more gravel down, thinking it’s got a good base now. I’m on year 4 of doing that – and it just keeps disappearing into our rain-soaked soil. Regarding freezing, when it gets below zero, it all freezes. But mine prefer to lie out in the field on the frozen mud, so perhaps sand would be better – it would be warmer for sure and I think that plays a big part in their choice.

      Reply
  • October 19, 2018 at 10:51 pm
    Permalink

    What do you think about compacting the existing soil, laying down the fabric, and installing the Merchant solution over top?

    Reply
    • October 19, 2018 at 11:12 pm
      Permalink

      Hi Natasha, I think that will get you through at least 1-2 winters (in the worst rainy climate). Only consideration is to put down rubber mats on top of the gravel in high traffic areas (eg around feeders) as that is where the horse’s hooves can punch through the gravel and the geotextile cloth starts to get uncovered in spots. If your horses are restricted to a small area, they may then start pulling on the cloth to play with it. Boredom = monkeys 🙂

      If you can maximize drainage OUT of your gravel areas (using sloped land, French Drains, etc), then it might last a lot longer. Here’s my French Drain post if you need it:

      https://listentoyourhorse.com/paddock-mud-or-flood-problems-install-a-french-drain/

      Let us know what you decide and how it goes!

      Reply
  • February 5, 2019 at 11:37 am
    Permalink

    Great article. I have a paddock area that has nothing but mud now, especially after heavy rains and whenever the snow melts. When it gets real cold and freezes up, it’s nothing but thousands of frozen footprints that they can hardly walk on. I’ve been researching every option, trying to come up with the best (and economical) course of action, so I apreciate your in depth article. It’s the best info I’ve found. I think the three layer option seems to be the best.

    I have a horse and donkey. They are never locked up and only have a run in, that is in the paddock. This hole area is low. Most of the mud is next to the outside wall of my run in, so the water goes right under it and inside the run in; so in other words when it’s wet, they have no escape from it.

    My question is this: When I do the paddock area with the 3 layers of stone like you explained; what do you recommend for inside the run in? Should I do the same thing, or should I do something different like sand or pea gravel? I’d like something that would be most comfortable as they sometimes stay in there for a longer period of time, like heavy rain or cold windy days. It would also seem to be easy to clean.

    Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks again.

    Reply
    • February 12, 2019 at 7:24 pm
      Permalink

      Hey Rick, so pleased it was helpful! I think your main question/determinant for the run-in is whether they lie down in there? AND does it need the same amount of drainage capacity as your paddock, or less? If it has to cope with as much water as your paddock, then go ahead and do it the same as they likely won’t be trying to lie down on it anyway. But, if it’s drier and they do lie down in there, then yes, a really small, smooth pea gravel or sand would be WAY more comfy for them.

      Post some before/after pics for us if you can 🙂 You can upload them right here.

      Reply
      • February 12, 2019 at 7:52 pm
        Permalink

        Thanks for the response. They don’t lie down in there and only really use it for a shelter. It gets as wet as the paddock, so the same footing will probably be best. When they lie down, they go to the higher ground.

        Thanks again,

        Rick

        Reply
        • February 12, 2019 at 8:06 pm
          Permalink

          Sounds like a plan. I would love to turn one of my ‘higher ground’ areas into a huge covered area with drainage footing and then 8 inches of sand on top – just for them to use to lie down 🙂 Maybe someday…

          Reply
  • February 17, 2019 at 10:41 am
    Permalink

    No the woodchips are not from the bark which is very tannic. The size ranges from 1″ to 3″ and ultimately best from a company that screens it for horse gallops (Dormit woodfibre in UK supplies a lot for arenas and gallops). You have to be sort of careful of sharp twigs if not screened but I have not had any problems over 19 years. A local farmer grows willow (hardwood and quick growing) which is not poisonous and originally chipped it for power stations but they had special moisture parameters he could not meet. The key is to get it deep enough so top layer stays dry but enables urine to work on chip below which in effect exchanges wet for decomposing chip. You could not just have a few inches deep like a shavings. It needs to be 6-12″. Too much depth doesnt matter so much indoors and I had a barn I never had to dig out. All I had to do was put fresh on top. The urine rotted the bottom chips which then decomposed through absorbing wet. But outdoors slightly more tricky over time as wet climate works on absorbancy of chip too besides the urine. You need good quality freshly chipped. No bark or greenery. Occasionally if on slope older spent chips need shoveling up but they can go on ground, gardens, hardcore roads. Obviously droppings always need removing.

    Reply
    • February 17, 2019 at 6:36 pm
      Permalink

      This is fascinating! I’ve never seen 3-inch woodchips for sale anywhere in the Vancouver area. I hear what you’re saying though and why it would work well. I’d love to see it in person. Do you have any pics you can upload? Or email them to me and I’ll upload them: service@listentoyourhorse.com And do you have any pics of the barn you never had to dig out? So interesting!

      Reply
  • March 7, 2019 at 5:12 am
    Permalink

    I’m so happy I found your website! We just had our stable built, with excavation down to the hard soil. I live in western Oregon and am oh-so-tired-of-mud and looking for an affordable mud free paddock recipe, so to speak. I’ve heard gravel and have been avoiding it, but I am now considering it from your article/blog. I have been considering french drains as well. I want a one time solution with not a massive upkeep. I’ve noticed those small plastic grids to lay on the ground surface to fill with gravel but they are pretty spendy. Which made me think nursery pallets > easier and cover more space and probably a lot cheaper. Since I am not a millionaire, and I’m weighing in on what direction to go, the gravel layers actually seems pretty affordable with less maintenance. What is your thoughts of the grids and french drains? I also heard about the geocloth but doesn’t look successful. I forgot to mention our new barn has 12 stalls, so this will be 12 paddocks. I’m open to hear any new tips you may have to for my situation.

    Reply
    • March 7, 2019 at 9:37 pm
      Permalink

      Just hold on Sue, I’ve got a guy coming out this week who contracts with the city here to create all their parks with horse trails, drain peat bogs, etc. I’m going to pick his oh-so-experienced brain and see if he knows anything we don’t already know – or has some tips or tweaks that make a world of difference. I’ll report back!

      2
      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

css.php