Dealing With Mud and Flooding on Horse Properties

Improving drainage and diverting water runoff will help keep your horses and farm safe.
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flooding in horse pasture
Creating a plan for water runoff will help reduce mud and erosion in horse paddocks. | iStock

Q: I’m experiencing excessive water run-off and mud on my property. How do I control it to keep my farm and my horses safe?

A:  Across North America many horse properties are showing the repercussions of late winter storms. Extreme weather conditions have swept the continent, with deep freezes, excess rains, flooding, mudslides, and historic snowfall levels in some areas. As these storms subside and snow begins to melt, we horse owners are left with what remains: miserable horses standing ankle-deep in muddy paddocks.

While we can take several steps in the early fall to prep for winter chore efficiency and improved drainage, sometimes extreme weather patterns surprise us. Let’s look at emergency solutions to ease you and your horse through current horse pasture and paddock management struggles.

First, Tend to Your Horses

If you haven’t done so already, get your horses to a high, well-drained area—either on your property or at a trusted friend’s property where you know they’ll receive adequate care. Be sure this area is secure, safe, and fenced. Electric fence tape, step-in posts (either T-posts with caps or temporary plastic posts), and a battery-operated fence charger can provide a safe short-term solution. Provide plenty of fresh, clean hay (out of the mud to avoid sand or dirt ingestion) to fuel their metabolism, which will help keep them warm, and make sure they have access to fresh water.

Consider getting gravel delivered for footing in high-traffic areas. Runoff from driveways, parking areas, hillsides, and even slight slopes can add significantly to an existing problem of increased erosion and mud collecting in equine confinement and high-traffic areas. Each small piece of gravel helps deflect and slow water traveling downhill or toward your barn or shelter. Sometimes simply slowing water flow is all that’s needed for water to soak back into the ground—and solve a drainage issue.

Tips for Diverting Water Runoff

There are a few other techniques you can implement relatively quickly with minimal expense. They are useful for intercepting surface water runoff and diverting it away from confinement and high-traffic areas, thereby reducing mud and erosion, and include:

  • Temporary diversion ditches: Reroute the flow of water with a shallow ditch dug either by hand with a shovel or backhoe. These ditches can also help drain water pooling in paddocks or turnouts.
  • Dry wells (only useful with dry, well-draining soils): Dig a pit and fill it with large, round rock. During heavy rain, rainwater is directed into the well where it collects and slowly percolates back into the groundwater system.
  • Water bars (think: speed bumps for water runoff): These divert running water away from an area and are often used on backcountry trails to help reduce erosion. Lay an old tree or log (or even jump poles) on the ground at an angle that will intercept surface water flows heading toward an easily eroded area, redirecting the flow elsewhere.

Use these techniques on the outside and upslope of confinement areas, barns, or other high-traffic areas so they intercept surface water before it creates more problems.

When diverting water away from your paddocks, pastures, and barns, redirect it toward vegetated areas such as unused corners of your pasture or well-vegetated woody areas. Never divert surface water directly into an existing water body (such as a creek, pond, or wetlands), because the amount of added water can drastically and unnaturally change water levels, causing more flooding issues for properties downstream. In addition, fast-rising water levels can increase turbidity and ruin critical fish and wildlife habitats.

It is important to continue your current manure management regimen as best as possible. A horse produces 50 pounds of manure per day, which, when mixed with rainwater, quickly turns to 50 pounds of mud per day. Picking up manure on a regular basis will greatly reduce the amount of mud on your property.

To keep your manure pile looking like compost and not mush, place it in a high, well-drained area and as far as possible from streams, ditches, or wetlands to avoid more mud problems and potential environmental impacts. Tarp it, if possible, to keep soil nutrients in the compost so they don’t wash away and cause further issues.  

Take-Home Message

Hopefully, you’ll soon get a reprieve from the weather that causes mud. Keeping your horses high, dry, and with hay and water is paramount, so you can work through creating and executing a plan for mud management for your farm. In the meantime, take note of where these issues are occurring so you can be prepared before the next weather event occurs.

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Written by:

Alayne Blickle, a lifelong equestrian and ranch riding competitor, is the creator/director of Horses for Clean Water, an award-winning, internationally acclaimed environmental education program for horse owners. Well-known for her enthusiastic, down-to-earth approach, Blickle is an educator and photojournalist who has worked with horse and livestock owners since 1990 teaching manure composting, pasture management, mud and dust control, water conservation, chemical use reduction, firewise, and wildlife enhancement. She teaches and travels North America and writes for horse publications. Blickle and her husband raise and train their mustangs and quarter horses at their eco-sensitive guest ranch, Sweet Pepper Ranch, in sunny Nampa, Idaho.

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