Construct safe, aesthetic, and eco-friendly confinement areas on your horse property
The confinement area, perhaps better known as a sacrifice area, has become a cornerstone of modern horse-keeping. It’s crucial for housing horses with metabolic concerns and preventing easy keepers from becoming obese on pasture. It’s also a necessity for horse owners with limited land. Further, this area gives pastures a break from continuous grazing, which can quickly turn lush fields into muddy, dusty, and weed-filled swaths of land. Fortunately, when it comes to designing and setting up a confinement area, innovations abound to help keep it from becoming a muddy, smelly equine prison.
Kelly Munro recently purchased Grateful Pine Farm, a 17-acre commercial horse property in Snohomish, Washington, that’s home to 30-plus horses. Munro, a dressage and trail rider and Norwegian Fjord breeder and trainer, has owned and worked on a variety of horse properties. When she and her husband moved to Grateful Pine, it mostly consisted of overgrazed pastures, filled with weeds in the summer and mud in the winter. This scenario is “neither good for horses nor environmental health,” she says.
Munro and her husband are making what she calls “horse-centric” changes. For instance, Munro is building a unique paddock system to accommodate all the horses on her small property. “I believe that quality turnout time is one of the most important things for horses, so we want to create really healthy, enjoyable turnout spaces for each horse that are usable year-round,” she says.
The reason conservationists refer to these turnouts as sacrifice areas is because we are giving up the use of that small portion of potential grazing land to benefit our pastures. Owners most commonly confine horses to sacrifice areas during the winter and early spring—as well as in the summer before pastures become overgrazed.
Track Paddocks for Horse Health
Many confinement areas are drab, muddy, and boring locales for horses to loiter. But do they have to be this way?
For Munro, the answer is an emphatic “no.” To spruce up the paddocks at Grateful Pine, she has split each one into two parts. Come spring, she’ll seed the back half as pasture: “We will keep horses off of these grassy areas while they are getting established, as well as during winters, so the grass on the property can regrow.”
The front half will become the sacrifice area with a rain garden in the middle. Rain gardens are shallow depressions in the ground stocked with native plants that capture and hold rainwater—like a mini-pond that drains over time. They help control surface water runoff and resulting mud. In essence, Munro will be creating a small track paddock.
“I think track paddocks are the greatest innovation in confinement areas,” says Helen Jones, a horse owner and resource planner for the Kitsap Conservation District, in Poulsbo, Washington. She’s been designing farm plans for horse and livestock owners for more than nine years.
If you’re not familiar with them, track paddocks are large, long corridors that circle the perimeter of a pasture or property. Their purpose is to encourage horses to move freely and behave naturally.
Author Jaime Jackson brought attention to this new way of looking at confinement areas in his book Paddock Paradise, A Guide to Natural Horse Boarding. Jackson’s ideas draw from his observations on how the horse’s natural instincts, as exhibited in the wild, stimulate and facilitate movement, which he believes helps keep a horse physically and mentally sound. He believes track paddocks also promote fewer vices, healthier hooves, and overall improved health.
A track paddock is generally set up with permanent fencing on the outside and temporary fencing on the inside. But you can shape a track paddock any number of ways, including circling around a building or arena or weaving through a trail course. The possibilities are endless.
Mariette van den Berg, BAppSc, MSc (Equine Nutrition), RAnNutr, is a registered equine nutritionist, dressage rider, and coach who is working on her PhD in equine nutrition and foraging behavior at the University of New England, in Armidale, Australia. She is the founder of MB Equine Services, an education and research business that specializes in integrating equine nutrition, horse property design, and pasture management.
She, too, looks at designing horses’ living spaces based on their needs. To her, enrichment is the key to creating a horse-healthy confinement area of any size.
Researchers have shown that captive animals can live healthier, less stressful lives if they are able to spend time doing things they’d do normally in the wild—these are called enrichment opportunities. To determine the best strategies for spicing up your horse’s life, think about how a wild horse spends his day. “Free-ranging horses graze and browse (ingest woody plants, barks, and stems) 10 to 14 hours per day in family herds,” says van den Berg. “They also migrate significant distances to obtain water and food. Compared to this, many domesticated horses lead very restricted lives, which can have a considerable impact on their mental well-being.”
Van den Berg suggests the following examples of confinement area enrichment:
- Sensory stimulation This includes visual, auditory, tactile, and taste stimulation, such as watching or listening to other horses, being groomed, or foraging. When setting up your horses’ confinement area, consider a spot where there’s plenty of activity. Place safe objects in their paddock for them to step over or move around.
- Environment Enhance the horse’s habitat by changing it up or adding complexity, either by offering new and different grazing areas or varying the size and shape of the area. This is best done using a track paddock or rotational grazing (resting pasture areas for forage growth periodically).
- Feeding Make feeding time challenging and interesting to encourage horses to think and work for their food like they would in the wild. Incorporate slow feeders, multiple feedings, or browsing options, or consider building a contraption that requires the horse to search for his food. You might also offer different feed choices in different areas (e.g., alfalfa in one feeder and a haynet of grass hay elsewhere). Hang haynets at different locations or stations. (Note: Haynets need to be strong and tied high enough so a horse cannot get tangled, and avoid metal hooks!)
- Offering toys Horse balls, trick feeders, tires, cones, and small kiddie pools are all items the horse can manipulate in some way for investigation and exploratory play. Be sure toys do not have sharp edges or contain toxic materials.
- Socializing Horses require a social component to their lives. In fact, study results show that mutual grooming lowers a horse’s heart rate and stress levels. Consider paddock fencing where neighboring horses can see and—if they get along—groom each other.
Use these principles as guidelines, and know that enrichments don’t need to be expensive. Think outside the box and mix things up. “These examples don’t stand alone,” says van den Berg. “It’s a combination (of them) that will offer your horse a more enriched life.”
Footing is an important consideration when you’re designing confinement areas. Using some type of footing, at least in the high-traffic areas, will reduce erosion and mud formation.
Different parts of the country offer different footing options. Things to consider when choosing the best one for your property include:
- Will it be a suitable, safe surface for my horse to run, stand, and lie on?
- Can I pick manure from it easily?
- Will the footing material contaminate my compost pile?
- Will it be dusty in the dry months?
- Will it be difficult to manage in the winter?
- What is the cost and availability?
- Is it in any way toxic to horses, humans, or other animals?
In some parts of North America, hogfuel (wood chips, usually made from fir or cedar trees) is available and serves as an excellent footing. Just be sure that no toxic trees, such as black walnut, are in the mix, because even standing in such footing could be harmful to the horse. Keep in mind that wood chips—though good for odor control—can decompose quickly, especially in wet climates.
Gravel (crushed rock, no larger than 5/8-inch) works particularly well in wet climates. It’s very easy to pick manure off gravel surfaces. Just be sure to provide a soft area where horses can lie down.
Sand is a popular horse-friendly footing choice that’s available in most parts of the country. Coarse washed sand drains well and is less dusty in summer months than finer varieties. Sand is also an excellent choice in regions that experience freezes in winter, as it is easier to remove frozen manure from sandy footing than from frozen gravel. One caveat with sand is that it can cause sand colic if horses ingest it. Use feeders or sweep stall mats clear of sand before every feeding.
Use at least 3 to 6 inches of whatever type of footing you choose. Clear out as much as mud and wet material as possible before adding footing.
Consider trying a combination of footing types, such as using gravel in the high-traffic areas and hogfuel elsewhere.
Well-thought-out confinement areas can help protect your pastures, while still allowing your horses to live outside. Munro and Jones go beyond what you’d expect from the standard confinement area, enriching their horses’ experiences in innovative ways and promoting mental well-being and overall health.
Today, innovations in confinement area horse-keeping abound, and the sky’s the limit on ideas and designs. “I like to challenge horse owners to come up with something creative,” van den Berg says. “Something aesthetic, horse-safe, good for the neighborhood, and good for the environment.”