Managing mud in an equine facility

Whether you’re building a new barn or adapting an existing facility, managing your water drainage carefully means you’ll minimize mud problems – and help keep you and your horses healthy and safe.

No matter where you live, mud is a hassle during certain times of the year, especially the spring. Horseshoe-sucking, thrush-causing, foundation-wrecking mud can potentially be life-threatening to your horse. So it’s important to take steps to minimize it, whether you’re building a new facility or making changes to an existing one.

Building a new barn – success starts with the site plan

Water = mud. This means drainage issues are always at the heart of mud problems. For this reason, managing water should be a high priority when planning any new barn. Solutions begin with properly planning a site. Of primary importance is how and where to locate the barn, paddocks, lead paths, roadways – all structural and natural elements – to reduce drainage problems. The correct decisions increase the retention of ground cover, whether grass or stone dust.

Mud is always about drainage.

If you’re lucky enough to be building a new barn, begin by studying your site’s topography to identify a location that’s dry or at least easy to drain. Avoid steep slopes, areas that are consistently wet, and locations that are subject to water runoff during heavy rains or snowmelt. Lay out the plan so there will be drainage away from all structures.

Of course, best case scenarios rarely happen, and not every barn can be positioned in a perfect location. Sometimes, the barn will be downhill from your residence and pastures. To compensate, it’s usually possible to modify a site by adding diversionary drains and grating to push the water away from, and around, the barn. For efficient drainage, paved surfaces should have a minimum 1% slope. Grass or landscaped areas should have a minimum slope of 2%. In the long run, water/mud management affects the soundness of the facility, the wellness of the occupants, and environmental sustainability.

In the long run, water/mud management affects the soundness of the facility, the wellness of the occupants, and environmental sustainability.

Also keep in mind that siting a barn is not just a drainage issue. Placement decisions affect ventilation, light, access from the barn to the paddocks, etc. – all those components that are part of having a barn that’s healthy for your horses and yourself.

A barn properly sited for the “lay” of the land (the land rolls down and away from the structure). Photos courtesy of Cesar Lujan for Blackburn Architects.

Adapting an existing facility to keep water out

When adapting or renovating an existing older barn, water and mud issues can be one of the top annoyances you need to address.  In such instances, you can begin by re-grading around the barn as much as the natural grade will allow. Downspouts can be positioned to pipe water away from the barn to prevent further erosion or ponding.  Drainage swales can be placed 8’ to 10’ away from any structures, depending on the slope of the land. These swales will force water to flow downwards, to a pond or low-lying area away from the barn, and from there allow it to seep back into the soil.

Collecting the water underground and piping it away can be the best way to maintain the integrity and beauty of your barn and landscape. But on a natural open site, a ground swale is the cheapest and best drainage solution.

Good manufactured products can also help. One useful item is a “stabilization grid” – a draining, interlocking polypropylene flooring system that can withstand thousands of pounds of pressure. Use these grids for gate areas, horse paths, barn aisles and indoor wash stalls, as well as for ramp or slope soil stabilization.

Tackling cleanliness issues inside the barn

If mud comes into the barn on hooves, boots or is carried by water, it becomes a cleanliness issue. If there’s dirt, you’re going to clean the barn – with more water – so the drainage problem gets worse. Circle back to the drainage solutions offered in this article.

While every barn owner would like to find the perfect solution to dirt and mud, there is no magic wand. However, moisture mitigation surfaces and “walk–off” mats help keep surfaces dry. Interlocking rubber brick on a “slope-up” entrance to the barn can be very helpful. Other good options include stone dust or popcorn asphalt.

It’s important not to use concrete or regular asphalt, because water freezes on these surfaces and black ice can form, which of course is quite treacherous. That’s a bad solution to a mud problem.

Managing mud in the arena

Arenas also require good drainage to be successful. When tackling existing problems in these areas, first elevate the arena surface so it’s above the site’s natural grade. As a general rule, any good arena footing consists of at least three layers: a sub-base, a footing base and the footing. I suggest removing topsoil and footing in a problematic arena to get down to a clay base, or failing that, the existing solid soil below the arena. Dig between 16” and 18” below grade if possible (this assumes the riding surface will be between 2” to 4” above the existing grade).

Basic re-install steps

  1. Install preservative-treated (PT) timbers (8” x 8” timbers/landscaping ties, stacked and pinned together) around the perimeter to the desired height of the footing, or just above it (most of the wood being installed will be below grade, meaning you will need at least three or four courses of timber, and only the top timber will be above grade). This will help to “retain” your sub-base, footing base and footing within the arena. Be sure to allow intermittent gaps at the ends of the timbers/landscape tie openings for ground water to drain away (gaps between 1” to 4”, sized as needed, depending on the size of sub-base and footing base materials used). You can also use PT wood posts and 2x PT lumber in lieu of heavy timbers or landscaping ties; posts should occur between every 4’ to 6’ in this instance. Cover the interior perimeter of the timbers/ties with landscaping fabric to help retain rock when installed. Install about 12” of crushed rock (road-base grade, foundation-drainage grade) as a sub-base. Make the surface smooth and level, and compact sub-base thoroughly.
  2. Install a layer of filter fabric over the gravel.
  3. Install 2” to 6” of stone dust over the top of the filter fabric. Roll smooth and slope/crown to drain to one side, two sides or all four depending on your desired drainage design.
  4. Install 2” to 4” of sand footing, or other desired footing type. Keep in mind that specific types of footing are very specialized, and may require a different composition of sub-base and footing base. Make your footing selection in advance of constructing the arena in the event there are other requirements specific to the footing you desire. The tops of the timbers at the arena’s perimeter should be about 2” above the top of the footing. Top of timbers should be above the natural grade of grass around the area so any surface water is blocked from draining onto the arena. Re-grade the grassy area around the arena as required, by sloping away from the arena to drainage swales that will take water away from the arena.

Clearly, mud is always about drainage. Understanding your site, starting with the slope, carefully controlling any run-off, and allowing for retention and natural re-absorption are the best strategies for minimizing problems. Dry, light and air-filled facilities are the goal, and are always a pleasure for both equine and human occupants.

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Award-winning architect John Blackburn is a world-renowned industry thought leader when it comes to creating safe and healthy spaces for equines. With over 40 years of experience in the practice of architecture and 30 years as an equestrian designer, John’s designs rely on natural light and ventilation to encourage equine health and safety as well as environmental conscientiousness. His equestrian projects range from polo barns and Thoroughbred-training facilities to therapeutic riding centers and private ranches. John authored the highly lauded book, Healthy Stables by Design. He is a passionate advocate for equine welfare and a member of many equine-focused organizations, including State Horse Councils in Maryland, New York and Virginia, and the Equine Land Conservation Resource, where he is a board member.