sacrifice paddock

A sacrifice paddock is a great way to help save your pastures from wear and tear caused by poor weather and overgrazing.

Tired of seeing your horses stand around in mud, especially in high use areas? Need a way to keep your easy keeper off lush pasture for parts of the day?

A sacrifice paddock, also known as a “pen”, is an essential component of rotational grazing systems on small acreages. It is a relatively flat outdoor area on which no grass is expected to grow and which provides an alternative to pasturing. The area can be used for much-needed daily exercise, and provides an alternative outlet for horses during conditions of drought or when the soil is saturated. The sacrifice area can also be used when pastures are overgrazed or require maintenance.

Including a sacrifice paddock in your horse operation will reduce soil loss and water pollution by preventing erosion. It can also save you time and money by decreasing pasture maintenance requirements. However, poorly situated, constructed and/or managed sacrifice paddocks are themselves vulnerable to erosion, and can become potential sources of pollution (from manure and urine) in surface and ground water. The following guidelines will help you with the proper installation and maintenance of a sacrifice paddock.

Location and Sizing

In situations where horses are left unattended for many hours a day, the sacrifice area should be easily accessible to and from stalls and equipped with watering and feeding amenities. Should the sacrifice paddock be located away from a barn or stall, the horses should have access to some kind of shelter. A run-in shed, a three sided-structure with a roof large enough for horses to freely enter and leave, is typically sufficient. An operation with multiple horses can have more than one sacrifice area – a large one next to the barn and additional smaller areas within or next to larger fields. A gated access to pasture from each sacrifice paddock makes for a “chore-efficient” system.

Higher ground with a slight slope of 1% to 2% percent (for drainage) is ideal for sacrifice paddocks. Low spots, natural drainage areas, floodplains, and other environmentally sensitive areas are poor locations. Consider re-situating a sacrifice paddock if it is currently within such problem areas. Avoid spots with slopes of 30% or greater; these are susceptible to erosion.

A sacrifice paddock can be of any shape. For one horse, it can be as small as 14’ by 24’. The basic rule of thumb is that a full-grown horse should be able to make convenient turns within the area. For multiple horses, the paddock should be large enough for any horse to easily get away if he is about to be cornered by a dominating stable mate. The size of a sacrifice area should be limited to what is actually needed; the smaller it is, the less challenging it will be to manage its pollution.

Constructing your Paddock

1 Grade an area to serve as the sub-base (the sub-base is the earth or native soil).

2 Cover the sub-base with a sheet of geotextile fabric. Tuck the loose ends of the fabric into trenches along the perimeter. The fabric will keep the base material from sinking into the sub-base over time.

3 Spread a base layer about 6” thick, consisting of a mix of ¾” to 3” sized crushed igneous rock or limestone. The base is the layer of material between the native soil and the uppermost layer on which the horses will exercise. This gravel layer protects the area from erosion and enhances drainage within the site.

4 Spread a final layer of footing 3” to 4” thick to provide a comfortable “hoof-cushion”. The footing should consist of any material that does not compact well, such as sand, crusher run, rubber chunks, mulch or ground limestone. Ground limestone offers an advantage over other footing materials because it chemically neutralizes urine odor. Be careful not to use a footing material that’s too fine because it will compact, reducing infiltration and causing ponding within the sacrifice paddock. Caution: To prevent your horses from ingesting footing material, always provide hay or feed in an elevated dispenser.

5 Prevent the footing material from washing off by installing kickboards made of railroad ties.6 To keep excess rain or melted snow from flowing through the sacrifice area, divert runoff around the paddock by installing ditches, or by connecting roof gutters to downspouts and piping the runoff away from the area.

7 Installation of a vegetated buffer to filter pollutants in runoff is also highly recommended.

8 Locate the run-in shed at the corner of the sacrifice paddock, so that roof runoff from the structure can be easily diverted from the area. The shed should be oriented so that it will protect horses from winter’s northerly and north-westerly winds.

9 Use regular fencing to determine the size and shape of the sacrifice area.

Maintenance Tips

• Maintain a grass filter strip along the down slope sides of the heavy-use area. This will trap sediment and other pollutants in runoff.
• Remove manure, soiled bedding and uneaten feed on a daily basis, especially before a rain or snow event. Manure accumulation leads to mud problems because it retains water. Scrape off all manure before winter sets in.
• Practice dust control measures. Sprinkle water on sacrifice areas to keep dust down during the dry summer months. This also will help prevent accumulation of urine salts.
• New footing material may need to be added every two to three years.

Once you’ve created a sacrifice paddock for your horses, you’ll wonder how you got along without one. Although it will require some maintenance, it will save you time and money in the long run.

Wilfred Woode is the Senior Conservation Specialist for the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District.