Hand-in-hand with the shelter requirements for the fall/winter is putting down some type of footing. This would be for winter paddocks, confinement areas or high traffic points such as gates or watering points. The purpose of footing material is to build up an area and keep your horse out of the mud. Use of a footing decreases the amount of mud created and allows surface water to drain through--good things for your horse, for chore efficiency and for the environment. In our new place in southern Idaho, we are working with clay soils. So far this summer they are dusty, like cake flour or talcum powder. But when you add water--watch out! They turn to boot-sucking goo. So getting the right type of footing to cover the native soil will be important for a mud-free, chore efficient winter.
Many products can be used for footing but two main types exist: gravel products (including sand and crushed rock) or hogfuel. If you are in the market for footing on your horse place here are some considerations:
Hogfuel, generally available in areas with a lumber industry, is made from chipped stumps or branches and is very useful as a footing in a paddock, both for the horse and the environment. The natural composting process of the wood contributes to the breakdown of the nitrogen in the horse's urine and manure. This process helps keeps harmful runoffs from being released into the environment and keeps the confinement area from having unpleasant urine or ammonia odors.
The downside of hogfuel is it decomposes over time. This means you need to get more and it might mean that you end up with a build-up of decomposed wood chips--mud! Deal with this by removing decomposed material every fall before bringing in new material.
I am not a fan of tree trimmings as a footing for horses. Many types of trees are toxic to horses. Plus, horses may be tempted to eat the green, molding material, potentially leading to serious gastric problems. When choosing hogfuel, cedar, pine or fir are usually best. Choose a size about 2 to 4 inches with pieces that are soft, not splintery or stake-like. The material should be completely free of foreign objects like trash or nails.
Gravel, or crushed rock, is an excellent footing choice. Gravel is especially useful in high traffic areas such as in front of stalls, gates and watering points. Unlike hogfuel, it won’t break down and it drains well. Gravel sized between 3/8 and 5/8-inch works very well for horses to stand on it and you can still pick up manure as the gravel easily falls through the tines of the manure fork. Anything larger than 5/8 inch will be uncomfortable for a horse to stand on and difficult for manure pick-up. I’ve had baby horses, show horses, barefoot horses as well as senior equines all housed on gravel.
Sand is a very common footing for horse properties. Sand is easy for manure clean up and horses LOVE to roll in it. However, sand drains poorly (a drawback for wet climates), is quite dusty in the summer (a drawback for arid climates), and tends to migrate if you have slope. There can be a serious health risk for horse fed on sand; ingestion of sand particles can lead to sand colic, a very serious digestive disorder (see Sand Colic in Horses.) If you are considering sand, look for coarse, washed sand and be sure NOT to feed your horse on the ground or sandy surfaces.
The best advice on footings is get it in the summer! Materials are more available and it will be easier and less hectic getting deliveries in the dry months. Imagine trying to guide a big truck through a rutty pasture and down a slippery hill in the middle of a December storm--while competing with the other customers also waiting for footing deliveries.
As for me, I’m having a soil scientist visit us this coming week to learn more about our clay soils. I’ll decide from there what might be best for our place. As usual, I’ll keep you posted!