Safe Paths, Safe Plants

Some elements of an equestrian facility shouldn’t be taken for granted–solid fencing, sturdy shelter, and good arena footing among them. Then there are areas that sometimes get less attention than they deserve. Pathways around the farm often


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Some elements of an equestrian facility shouldn’t be taken for granted–solid fencing, sturdy shelter, and good arena footing among them. Then there are areas that sometimes get less attention than they deserve. Pathways around the farm often fall into that first category of inattention, while poisonous plants can, sometimes tragically, fall into the second. In this article, we’ll give you tips to help put your walkways into focus for improved horse and human safety. And we’ll give you hints for keeping dangerous flora under control and out of harm’s way.

Why Walkways?

Many small barns have no formal pathways around them, but having paths can improve safety by providing better traction and reducing mud compared to trails worn into the dirt and grass. Formal pathways can also direct traffic around the facility and preserve the landscape.

If you decide to work pathways into your farm design, you’ll have four major factors to consider for optimum safety that we’ll discuss one by one: Routing and site selection, surface materials, borders, and lighting.

The Right Route

You probably already have an idea of how traffic flows on your farm. You know the routes people take when leading horses to and from arenas, pastures, and trailers. Still, Todd Gralla, SDA, an architect with gh2 Gralla Architects in Lexington, Okla., says, “It’s good to have a survey to work from in developing your routes, so you have a bird’s-eye view for creating safe, efficient routing.” Gralla has worked on numerous equestrian facility projects, from major racetracks to small operations.

Next consider these elements when deciding where to place your walkways:

Elevation “You don’t want the path to flood, so it should be elevated slightly above the surrounding ground, and it should be crowned so it drains when it rains,” says Gralla. Determine the natural water flow around your property, including areas where puddles and rivulets can form seasonally, and avoid those spots when planning walkways. If you can’t avoid them, try to direct water away from them.

Overhangs “You want to stay clear of low overhangs,” advises Gralla. “Anything below 10 feet is a hazard in case of a rearing horse.” While you should also avoid routing paths under low trees, taller ones can usually be pruned to a safe height. In addition, says Gralla, steer away from unguttered buildings and downspouts to avoid flood- and mud-making runoff.

Equipment and vehicles “Try to route paths away from where vehicles park and away from where mechanical equipment is used or stored,” says Gralla. This helps minimize problems from sudden noises and motions that could startle a horse and reduces the risk of injuries or damage from collisions between horses and machinery.

Width Six feet is the minimum for a horse path, but many larger facilities prefer 10-foot widths. At the Oklahoma State Fair Park, home to multiple major horse shows, Gralla’s group built a 30-foot-wide main walkway to accommodate heavy horse, human, and cart traffic between barns. For paths to pastures and paddocks at your facility, Gralla recommends a width that accommodates a small tractor or pickup.

Surface Selections

When it comes to pathway surfacing and safety, “Traction is important, in both wet and dry conditions,” says Gralla. Another consideration is cleanliness, which makes dirt a poor choice. One way to minimize the hassles of wet and muddy conditions is to cover heavily used walkways. Of course, that can be a pricey option and not practical for most farms. So selecting a suitable surface material is important.

Options include popcorn asphalt (a hand-tamped, large-aggregate, low-oil mixture), small loose aggregate (such as limestone screenings, decomposed granite, concrete landscape pavers, rubber interlocking bricks, and chipped or shredded wood or rubber products.

Limestone screenings or wood products are generally the least expensive options. Limestone and other small aggregate allow water to drain through, while wood footing is good at soaking up excess moisture. With both products, particle size matters. Too small and it will degrade quickly; too large and it could be uncomfortable to walk on. In addition, if you opt for wood, make sure it doesn’t come from hardwoods or from construction sites where nails or other sharp objects might have landed in the mix.

Aggregate and wood are relatively high-maintenance materials. You’ll need to rake them regularly to maintain an even walking surface, and you’ll need to add material as the old breaks down or gets ground into the underlying dirt. Laying down a landscape cloth or geotextile fabric before applying wood or aggregate can help with water drainage while preventing the surface material from working its way down into the ground.

Not too much further up the cost scale, popcorn asphalt provides a non-slip topping that allows some flow-through drainage. However, if you have the money, Gralla’s top two picks are rubber bricks and concrete landscape pavers, which are low-maintenance, high-longevity materials. In fact, Gralla calls rubber bricks “an optimum solution…that provides a secure underfoot condition.” Racetracks often use them in paddocks and at road crossings.

Concrete landscape pavers, available in a variety of colors and shapes, are better than poured concrete slabs, he says. “The density is lower, and they retain their rough surface as they wear,” Gralla explains. “So even when wet, it’s a fairly non-slip surface, unlike a concrete slab, which gets really smooth as it wears. The pavers also shed water better, partly because they have a higher absorption rate, but the joints between the pavers also take away the water right away.”

On the Border

Whatever surface you opt for, rain and the weight of horses walking on your paths have a tendency to move that material out of place, notes Gralla. Using a border or edging along the walkways will hold the material in place and prevent erosion.

For a top-end look plus durability, you can use a flat concrete curb that’s level with the walking material. Landscape timbers or railroad ties are another option. Leave no exposed fasteners when joining the segments together. You could also use heavy landscape edging. However, this often consists of metal strips, so you’ll need to subset it beneath the lips of the surface material so there are no exposed edges.

Light the Way

At horse farms, there’s plenty of activity in the low-light hours of early morning and late evening. That makes well-lit paths a good safety feature. Plus, says Gralla, when paths aren’t lit, horses might be hesitant to walk from a brightly lit barn into the darkness. The type of lighting is less important than simply having adequate amounts. Some farms use landscape lighting at ground level, but many farms use overhead lighting attached to adjacent buildings.

Poison Patrol

It’s a short step from pathways to the lawns and pastures around them, where the plant life could prove far more dangerous than a dark, slippery walkway. Toxins in some plants can cause plenty of trouble for your horses, including colic, diarrhea, neurologic problems, abortion, anemia, and death. And, in most cases, there is no antidote for plant poisoning.

Unfortunately, poisonous plants can show up just about anywhere on your property, from landscape ornamentals to pasture weeds. Even some normally innocuous plants and trees can turn deadly under environmental stresses such as drought, excess moisture, soil-mineral imbalances, hard freezes, or broken branches. So what’s a conscientious farm owner to do? Follow these hints to safeguard your horses.

  1. Ban ornamentals at the barn. Many common ornamental plants and trees are poisonous to equines, including red maples, azaleas, and buttercups. One key to keeping horse-safe grounds is to plant ornamentals only where horses can’t eat them, says Pete Gibbs, PhD, professor and extension specialist at the Texas Agricultural Extension Service. Ideally, that includes areas where horses are meant to be, and also areas where a horse might end up if he got free.

  2. Practice good pasture management. Noxious weeds can flourish in overgrazed pasture. To promote uniform grazing that inhibits such growth, Gibbs recommends spreading manure in pastures by using a light harrow under optimum conditions that won’t spread parasite larvae. He also suggests mowing pastures as needed to prevent plants from producing seeds, which can be toxin storehouses.

  3. Watch out for weeds and debris. Hazardous weeds can invade pastures, lawns, walkways, and the nooks and crannies around your farm. Make periodic inspections of your grounds and pastures, which means anywhere a horse might grab a nibble while walking by or make a feast if he got loose. While on patrol, take time to pick up any plant debris, such as fallen leaves, branches, and nuts. Sometimes these are the only poisonous parts of a plant. For instance, oak tree leaves can build up toxins in early spring or when a branch breaks and the leaves wilt. Thus, it might be safe to keep oak trees on your property as long as horses can’t reach the leaves or acorns, which can also be toxic.

  4. Keep your horses content. In general, horses don’t find poisonous plants palatable. However, a hungry, bored, or curious equine might try a bite. It’s a good idea to feed your horses before turning them out. This will reduce your horse’s interest in potentially dangerous plants, and will limit his ability to ingest them in quantity. That’s important because in most cases, it takes a large quantity of a toxic forage (often 5-10% of the horse’s body weight), eaten over weeks or months, to affect a horse. (Exceptions include yew and water hemlock.)

  5. Talk to local experts. The plants most likely to cause problems on your particular farm depend largely on your geographic location. To get accurate insights and learn what to watch for, consult local experts such as your veterinarian, the toxicology department or poison control center at the nearest land grant university, your county cooperative extension service, a master gardener, or staff at an agricultural specialty store. If you ever suspect your horse has eaten something poisonous, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Take-Home Message

With your pastures and landscape poison-free and your paths properly designed and maintained, you’re well on your way to making your grounds shout “safety first” for your horses.

NO GRAZING ALLOWED: Common Poisonous Plants

This list highlights some plants typically considered poisonous to horses:

  • Alsike clover

  • Azaleas

  • Black walnut (especially shavings, although some research indicates that pollen and walnut hulls can be hazardous)

  • Bracken fern

  • Buckeye tree (seeds, young shoots, leaves)

  • Buttercups

  • Cherry, peach, plum tree leaves

  • Death camas

  • Elderberries

  • Ergot (a fungus found in grasses such as fescue, ryegrass, brome grass, orchard grass)

  • Horse chestnut trees (seeds, young shoots, leaves)

  • Horsetail

  • Larkspur

  • Laurel cherry (wilted leaves)

  • Locust (especially flowers, but most of the tree as well)

  • Lupines

  • Milkweed

  • Mountain laurel

  • Nightshade

  • Oak trees (young leaves, sprouting acorns)

  • Poison hemlock

  • Purple foxglove

  • Red maple trees (wilted leaves)

  • Sagebrush

  • St. John’s Wort

  • Tall fescue

  • Tansy ragwort

  • Wild blue flax

  • Wild cherry or laurel cherry (wilted leaves)

  • Yellow starthistle

  • Yew trees/bushes (bark, leaves, seeds) –Sushil Dulai Wenholz

THAWING THE ICE: Walkways in Winter

To keep pathways around your farm safe through the winter, Todd Gralla, SDA, an architect with gh2 Gralla Architects, LLC, in Lexington, Okla., says it’s fine to use salt and other hard-surface de-icers on most surface materials. For maximum peace of mind, opt for a pet-safe product, particularly if you have dogs and cats on the farm.

If you have the budget, you might even consider a radiant heating system under critical pathways to melt snow and ice, says Gralla. The systems are being used in some cold-region barns, he adds, particularly in aisleways, grooming areas, and wash stalls. He says if you are using radiant heat inside the barn anyway, “it’s a minimal added expense to extend that to at least immediate exterior walkways and eliminate the labor spent shoveling in front of barn doors.” Gralla says this option is only available with rubber brick or hard-surface solutions

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Written by:

Sushil Dulai Wenholz is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She’s written for a number of leading equine publications, and she has earned awards from the American Horse Publications and the Western Fairs Association.

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