Once again it's the dead of winter when most horse owners across North America are experiencing some form of inconvenience because of snow, ice, or cold temps. At Sweet Pepper Ranch in southwestern Idaho we’ve been getting more than a healthy dose of colder than normal temps plus snow, which has lingered on and on, outweighing its initial welcome. These days I find myself whining a lot about not being able to ride, the difficultly of hauling on snowy roads, or the joys of riding in single digit temps (not!). Ugh!

Coarse washed sand drains well, is less dusty (than finer varieties of sand) in the summer months, and is “softer” in the winter months than other surfaces.

Photo: Alayne Blickle

One of the most frequent horse property management questions I get at this time of year has to do with footing problems in horse paddocks. (The Horse's Digital Editor Michelle Anderson recenly asked me this very question when deciding whether or not to move her horse to a boarding facility for the winter.)

The problems are that water often puddles in poorly drained paddocks then freezes and causing slippages. Or that footing is too rocky and pot-holed, especially when it freezes, making it uncomfortable for horses to stand on (or people to walk on!). Or that surfaces are too uneven and rutted for manure clean up.

(Remember: The show must go on. All manure you don’t pick up now becomes a pulverized a layer of muck once things thaws out again. Even though hunting for manure in two feet of snow or chipping it loose from blocks of ice is no fun, the more frequently you clean now the easier it all will be in the end.)

The challenge for a winter footing is to come up with something that once it's frozen is still soft enough for a horse to stand on, easy enough to pick up manure off, and well-draining enough that it doesn’t puddle and form dangerous ice ponds.

The purpose for footing in confinement areas is to build up that area and keep horses up off of the soil, allowing rainwater to drain through. Less mud equals less chance of nutrients and sediments running off and polluting surface waters, too. Footings such as chipped wood products, gravel (crushed rock), or coarse sand drain well, reduce erosion, and go a long way in reducing mud. Of these, I have found sand to be the most useful and the most horse-friendly footing for paddocks, especially when it comes to winter paddock footing choices.

Coarse washed sand (versus finer varieties) drains well and is less dusty in the summer months. I find it an excellent choice in the winter, too. It drains well (when thawed) so that water doesn’t accumulate on top. It seems to be a softer surface than gravel or chipped wood which can become dangerously slippery when frozen. Because of its small particle size, when sand freezes it is a more level surface than other footings.

Use at least three to six inches of sand. If you already have a lot of mud you may want to either remove some of the existing mud or plan to put footing in at a 1:1 ratio (for example, if you have about 6 inches of mud you’ll need at least 6 inches of footing). If it is currently icy, shovel buckets of sand onto slick, icy spots.

One caveat with sand: Be careful to avoid feeding horses on it as ingesting sand (or dirt particles) with hay can result in sand colic, a serious digestive disorder. We sweep the rubber mats in our stalls before each feeding to be sure they are sand-free.