In this guide we will discuss everything you need to know about horse paddocks, from how much land you need, to fencing styles, shelter options, water, all weather turnout options, and more! In the article, Stable Yard Design – The Ultimate Guide to Creating a Dream Horse Barn, we covered all you need to know about the stable yard. However, no dream stable yard is complete without considering the grazing and turnout options for your horses too!
How Many Acres Grazing Do You Need?
Q: So, how much land do you need per horse?
A: The most common answer to this question is
‘a minimum of 1 acre per horse’.
However, this is just a rule of thumb, and will depend on many factors: the size of the horse or pony, the quality of the grazing, how the pasture is managed, if the horse is living out or is stabled part of the time, etc.
- As an example, a 1 acre paddock could be sufficient for a 16hh – 17hh horse that has access to a stable too, assuming the ground isn’t too boggy and the grass is good quality. In my experience, this scenario would be a case of dividing the paddock into two or even three strips – one for winter and one for summer, plus ideally an extra one to rotate and rest. Then stabling overnight in winter, restricting turnout when it’s very wet, and supplementing winter grazing by feeding hay. Even better, would be to create an all-weather turnout pen for winter (or even fence off the area in front of the stables), which would preserve grass for summer. I will discuss all-weather turnout pens in detail later on.
- Another example, is that 1 acre, managed a similar way to above, could be sufficient for two smaller ponies. Or one pony living out full time.
- However, 1 acre for a larger horse living out full time is very unlikely to be enough, even if well managed and supplemented with hay. In this case, 2 – 3 + acres would be much better.
- As you can see, ‘how many acres per horse?’, doesn’t have a straight-forward ‘one size fits all’. 1 acre is a good starting point, then consider all of the factors, like horse size, ground and grass quality, management, etc, to adjust for your needs.
- If you are lucky enough to have excess land, another thing to consider is setting some of it aside to produce your own hay (talk to local farmers for advice, and if you don’t want to invest in your own machinery, perhaps you can even strike a deal for help with cutting and baling in exchange for giving them some of the hay produced).
Types of Pasture Management
There are many ways you can choose to design and manage your turnout, and you can use a combination to get the best balance for you and your horses, and the land available to you. However you decide to organise your land, creating walkways between the paddocks so you can access them individually is a good idea so you don’t have to walk through a field of other horses.
Rotating Horse Paddocks
- Rotating horse paddocks means either having a few paddocks, or splitting an existing field, so that no paddock or area gets used full time which will allow it to rest and recover.
- The important technique is to regularly move horses. Once grass is starting to look low, or the ground is becoming poached, move them to a fresh area, then don’t reintroduce horses to the resting patch until the grass has regrown and the ground has recovered.
- A scaled down, minimal version of this is to have a winter paddock and summer paddock, longer periods of rotation like this however, do mean more damage can occur to the grazing (for example, the winter paddock can often be ‘ruined’ by poaching winter, but if it’s rolled and fertilised, etc, it will usually recover over the summer months).
‘Starvation’ / ‘Diet’ Paddocks and Strip Grazing
- These methods are useful for controlling weight and helping to prevent laminitis, etc.
- They can also be good for reintroducing horses to grass that have spend a long time stabled, either over winter or due to injury, etc, to allow their digestive system to adjust gradually.
- A strip grazing method involves creating a strip of grass in your paddock with electric fencing and allowing it to be eaten down, then moving the fencing a few feet at a time to allow access to ‘lusher’ grass in a more controlled way.
- Starvation/diet horse paddocks involve sectioning off a small patch of grass and letting it get eaten down (usually by a horse that doesn’t have weight issues) to create a small area with poor grass for the weighty and laminitis prone ones.
- If you have an all-weather turnout pen, this can be used for weight control instead, then you can monitor hay intake, rather than sacrifice grazing to get poor, or if you don’t have the facilities to strip graze.
- If you have none of these options available to you, you could limit time at grass (we had one pony who just went out for 1/2 an hour morning and evening – although it seemed a shame – and he was sometimes tricky to convince to come in!). Another option is using a grazing muzzle which limits how much grass they can nibble at a time – take care to introduce this slowly and that it is fitted correctly to prevent rubbing, etc.
Individual / Pair / Small Group Turnout
- Quite simply turning horses out in their own paddock, or paired with a friend or two (usually two or three horses together that have been introduced carefully, and have similar needs for their grazing).
- Can be the most convenient for owners, especially when horses are in livery and have different routines and riding schedules.
- Makes managing each horse’s grazing needs easier.
- Also minimises the risk of injury – more horses together does increase herd / ‘pecking order’ behaviour and, therefore, means more risk of kicking, biting and food aggression. This will especially be a major factor for those with expensive competition horses.
- Individual turnout can mean horses miss out on natural behaviour such as mutual grooming, although some will still do this over a fence.
- Horses turned out as pairs or small groups can become particularly attached to each other which can cause some issues like separation anxiety and napping, so care needs to be taken to manage this (for example, staggering turnout / bring in times, and not always feeding and hacking together, etc).
- Smaller paddocks will need regular poo picking.
- This is usually what will be on offer in most UK livery yards.
- Horses naturally live in herds so this can be a lovely way to keep horses, although it will obviously suit some more than others.
- It can be more inconvenient for daily routines as the size of herd turnout fields will be much larger than individual and paired horse paddocks, plus negotiating a large group of horses to catch one to bring in can be tricky!
- As mentioned, more horses together does increase herd / ‘pecking order’ behaviour and, therefore, means more risk of kicking, biting and food aggression. This does increase the risk of injury, so may not suit those with expensive competition horses.
- Larger fields can give the option for more mechanical and industrial ways to manage droppings and grass.
- Herd grazing is particularly good for youngsters and retired horses.
Natural Grazing Systems
- Also referred to as ‘Track Grazing’, and ‘Paddock Paradise’.
- Natural grazing systems are something I’ve seen rise in popularity, especially within natural horsemanship and barefoot communities.
- I have little personal experience, but am very intrigued by the idea, so have done lots of research and find the concept is appealing – the idea of creating a more interesting and natural environment, the potential for keeping weight down, minimising laminitis risk, and better foot health are just some of the benefits advocates of the system claim.
- The idea is to create grazing ‘tracks’, which is supposed to encourage more movement and foraging to mimic a more natural / wild environment, rather than them standing in one place and eating like they would in ‘normal’ horse paddocks.
- The track can be made around the perimeter of a field with fencing (using electric fence posts could be a good way to test the idea or allow you to change the track over time).
- The size and width of the track will depend on how many horses you have.
- The amount of grass on the track is down to you – some systems are purely dirt tracks with no grass at all, then hay is placed at different points along the route. The central area can be reserved for hay making, or incorporated into your system, either in small strips, or by letting the horses without weight problems graze in there for part of the day.
- Within the track, the system encourages horses to interact with their environment by changing the terrain and placing obstacles and hay feeding stations at different points. Ideas for these include rolling areas, gravel paths, logs, water pools, wooded spots, steps, scratching posts and more.
- I’ve seen some amazing elaborate examples with several meandering routes and a vast array of terrain and obstacles – I think the only limitations are the space available, and your imagination!
Other Pasture Management Ideas
- As mentioned at the beginning of this section, livestock such as sheep and goats are much less picky than horses when it comes to grazing – so much so, that sometimes they are even referred to as lawnmowers! Some people choose to keep them alongside their horses, or rotate their grazing with them, to help keep their grass from becoming ‘horse sick’. (I have heard some people say that goats and sheep may nibble on horse tails – so keep an eye out for this!).
Grass and Paddock Maintenance
I spoke to a farmer once who refused to make a livery yard out of the stables he had in his farm yard because, in his words, ‘horses destroy the grazing’, a statement which unfortunately does have some truth to it! Unlike other livestock, such as sheep and goats, horses are picky eaters and will tend to only graze on the best grass, leaving rough patches. They can also churn up and poach the ground. So, if you want quality grazing that doesn’t get ‘horse sick’, good paddock maintenance is key.
Walkways, Gateways and High Traffic Areas
- Walkways, gateways, shelters and water troughs/haying points can become very muddy and poached quite quickly, especially in winter and during wetter weather.
- It is a really good idea, if you can, to surface these areas, ideally, with either hardcore, or rubber grass mats and sand. At a pinch, even a bag of bark or some left over straw will help, although these will rot down quickly and need replacing regularly.
- If surfacing isn’t an option, consider making the walkways extra wide and alternating which side you use, and having extra gateways so you alternate these too, to allow the ground to recover. You can also stamp down or roll the ground to help flatten out pot holes. The same principle applies for hay and water, move them before the ground become too boggy if you can.
Paddock Maintenance Equipment
- Horse paddocks will require regular maintenance to keep them in good condition.
- At the very least, you will need your own poop scoops, wheelbarrow, and weeding tool for daily and weekly maintenance.
- For those with lots of land and bigger budgets, you can even buy a manure vacuum that looks a bit like a ride on mower!
- For the bigger jobs that are required at certain times of the year, depending on the amount of land you have and your level of knowledge, you can either buy your own equipment or hire a local farmer to come and do the larger jobs for you… these jobs will usually involve topping, harrowing and rolling.
- Weeding can be done by hand or with spray, or a combination of both, depending on the scale of the problem. If using sprays, it is very important to remove any poisonous plants first, ensure the spray is safe for horses, and follow the instructions closely regarding when the land can be grazed again.
- NO MOWING… People often assume that as horses graze on grass it is safe for them to eat grass cuttings – this is not the case, especially with mower clippings that get mulched – the palatable nature of it can cause them to eat excessively, and cut grass can ferment and become mouldy very quickly, which can cause colic (which is also why silage can’t be fed to horses).
Poo Picking / Managing Droppings
- To prevent dead patches of grass, and reduce the risk of equine worm infestation, poo-picking is an absolute must.
- For smaller horse paddocks this will probably be done by hand, picking up droppings daily with a poop scoop.
- For larger paddocks and fields you can often use machinery – either a mechanical poo vac to hoover up droppings (as mentioned before), or by a tractor and harrow to break up the droppings and spread them out so they dry in the sun.
- You should, where possible, avoid over grazing a patch of grass because it can be hard for the grass to recover (one exception to this is if you have a dedicated summer starvation paddock).
- At the other end of this extreme, you should avoid leaving an area to get too over gown. Even if an area is being rested, you should still take care to maintain it and keep it free of poisonous plants, etc.
- As mentioned before, other animals such as sheep or goats can also help to maintain grass quality.
Grass Nutrient Analysis
- If you are unsure of the quality of your grazing, or soil, or are finding that grass isn’t growing well, etc, you can have professional grass and soil samples taken to analyse the nutrients and help you to develop a plan to manage the land more efficiently.
- Checks should be done regularly for poisonous plants, (ideally daily whilst you poo pick), and anything you discover should be dealt with promptly.
- Some of the more common poisonous plants to horses here in the UK are – Ragwort, Yew, Privet, Foxglove, Deadly Nightshade and Sycamores, all of which can be deadly in very small doses. Acorns and Buttercups are also very toxic, but larger quantities would need to be eaten to be fatal.
- Check out what poisonous plants are common in your area and do some research how best to dispose of them (for example, Ragwort mustn’t be allowed to go to seed, it should be dug up completely from the roots whilst still at the ‘rosette’ stage, then burnt).
All Weather Turnout Pens
All weather turnout pens are a great addition to any yard, especially if your land is very muddy, or you have limited space and want to preserve grass for summer, or have ponies prone to laminitis. They provide a small secure area that allows the horse to have a roll and stretch their legs. To be even more convenient and versatile, you can link them to your paddocks or stable yard, and combine with a natural or purpose built shelter.
- They can be built in many ways, from a DIY project to a full professional build, with a variety of options for the materials used.
- Options include rubber grass mats, either with a topping or without, hard core, or a basic ménage style construction (usually with deeper going to allow for scraping and rolling, and cheaper surface materials).
- If you’re yard isn’t too big and one space would be enough to give each horse a turn in the pen, you could consider a round pen that could then be used/purposed for groundwork too.
- Similarly, if you’re riding arena is only basic and you are not worried about the surface, you could even turn out in there for short periods of time if you level the surface regularly. However, I strongly recommend you don’t do this if you have an expensive surface, or school / jump to higher levels, as it can be very damaging.
- If a proper all-weather turnout pen isn’t an option and you have a small yard, you could consider fencing off the hard standing in front of your stables for a secure area to let horses stretch their legs at least.
- As they won’t have grass to occupy them, you should also plan how to feed hay in this area (you can always add horse toys to the area too, such as a horse ball). Hay and water in a turnout pen will be the same as in your grass horse paddocks.
- Planning permission may be required, especially if you’re not using a temporary surface, so always check with your local planning department.
Fencing Options for Horse Paddocks
The main objective with fencing for horses is to keep them safe in a designated area, so safety is paramount. The height of fencing you will require will depend on the horses using the paddocks. 4 -4.5 feet (1.2 – 1.35m), is the usual starting point. this should be more than sufficient for ponies, although I have seen some competition horses and hunters hop over this height of fencing like it’s a cross pole, so I would suggest over-estimating the height you need is the safest strategy!
- Barbed wire is an absolute no-no! Safety is paramount when it comes to fencing for horses, and you should steer well clear of anything with sharp edges and spikes.
- Broken fencing isn’t secure and can splinter, small splits can be temporarily reinforced, but broken rails should be replaced.
- Mesh and netting not designed for horses can be very hazardous and should be avoided.
Post and Rail Fencing
- Post and rail is the most classic horse fencing and by far the most attractive, however, it doesn’t usually come cheap.
- Wood is the most traditional material, but there are many companies nowadays that supply plastic versions for horses, which require less maintenance. Budget and aesthetics will probably be the decider between the two.
- The more rails the fencing has, the sturdier and less prone to escapees it will be!
- Cost will depend on how close you have the posts, how many rails you have, and the quality and finish of the wood you choose (for example, untreated half round fencing with two rails will be much cheaper than sawn and treated fencing with four rails).
- If you treat or paint fencing, make sure the product you use isn’t toxic.
Horse Wire / Mesh Fencing
- Horse safe mesh fencing is particularly good for foals, miniature and smaller ponies, as well as for paddocks where other animals such as sheep and goats might graze.
- It is best used with wooden posts, and ideally as an addition to post and rail rather than instead of, but a top rail should be sufficient.
- The main consideration is making sure that it is safe for horses, it needs to be strong enough, and the holes must be the right size (any old mesh fencing won’t do – for example, the holes in sheep fencing are often too big and could allow hooves to get trapped, and chicken wire is far too flimsy).
- Electric fencing is usually not the most attractive, but it is very versatile.
- Electric tape or ‘wire’, with portable plastic posts is the most common type.
- As the plastic posts are easy to move, this type of fencing is useful for creating temporary horse paddocks, ‘starvation’ areas, or implementing strip grazing.
- As the name suggests, the tape is usually electrified. Some people use a converter to plug into the yard electric if their electric fencing is permanent. However, when used as a temporary fence, there are plenty of battery and solar powered options that are more portable and easier to set up.
- For gateways you can get elasticated ‘tape’, or coiled spring style gate sections that work well to make gates easier and stop tape sitting on the ground – just be sure to use proper gateway handles that are insulated!
- It can be used with wooden posts for a more permanent solution, especially if wider tape is used, and is a cheaper alternative to post and rail. (A nice option is wooden posts with a top rail, then electric underneath, which still looks nice but will save some pennies).
- Where permanent fencing isn’t an option, fixing each end of the tape to existing wooden fencing, and positioning gateways here too, can help strengthen electric fencing – standard plastic poles are notoriously flimsy and prone to tilting in windy conditions!
- You can also use it along the top bar of post and rail as an extra measure to help prevent horses rubbing against fencing, etc.
- Some horses respect this fencing, others don’t, so when using for the first time, monitor your horse. (One pony at our yard won’t even step over an un-electrified tape on the floor, whereas another one needs very tall posts placed at close intervals and at least 4 rows of electrified tape to keep him from barging or climbing through it – he’s been nick-named Houdini!).
Stud and Stallion Fencing
- Generally, this kind of fencing will be extra high with sturdy post and rail type fencing with smaller gaps.
- It is used in horse paddocks where the type of horses grazing are more likely to try to ‘field hop’.
- Fencing for this purpose will almost always have gaps / pathways between the paddocks to prevent horses reaching each other over the fence.
- You may inherit stone walls or metal estate type fencing with your land, if they are sturdy, high enough and free from sharp edges, these are fine for horses too.
- Hedgerows can be effective ‘fencing’ too, as long as they are dense enough and aren’t poisonous. If you have any doubt, or just for added security, you can run a line of fencing or electric tape in front.
Getting Water into Your Horse Paddocks
- One of the most important considerations for your horses whilst in their fields, is easy access to plenty of safe, clean water.
- You may have water on your land, but that doesn’t mean it is suitable for horses. I would be very cautious – it needs to be clear and free-running fresh water, and you need to check the source / where it flows from (it may look lovely near you, but could flow from somewhere polluted). Assess how safe the access points are too – banks can be steep and slippery.
- A designed-for-the-purpose water trough is ideal. One that is connected to mains water and fills up automatically is even better!
- If you don’t have a proper water trough, large buckets or ‘tub trugs’ do a good job – you can also put them in a tyre to stop them being tipped over, or being blown away by the wind when they’re empty.
- If you don’t have automatically filling troughs, locating your water buckets as close to a tap as possible, and using an extending hose is the next best option.
- When there are no taps anywhere near your paddocks, you can use a camping style water roller, or even buy a specially designed water carrier that fit’s in your wheelbarrow.
- Water freezing in winter is always an issue, so if you can, place water where it will get the most sun during frosty times of year.
- You can also consider insulating your troughs and buckets (one of my friends swears by placing a smaller bucket inside a larger one and filling the gap with straw, then adding a dash of salt to the water – there are loads of options and conflicting opinions on this, so it’s worth experimenting and seeing what works for you!).
- Placing an inflatable ball on the water can help to break ice, and some horses will even push it down to access water. Don’t just break the ice, always take out the ice and top up water to slow down re-freezing.
- Summer brings its own issues with water, attracting insects and getting green and slimy… if you can, try to put water in the shade during hot, sunny weather.
Haying Horses in the Field
- Supplementing your horse’s diet with hay whilst grazing is often needed, especially in winter.
- Hay can simply be put on the ground, making sure there are several piles to avoid fighting if there a few horses in the same field. Hay on the floor can mean a lot of wastage though, with hay being trodden into mud, or blown by the wind.
- I’m personally not a huge fan of hay nets, especially in horse paddocks, as I’ve seen a few horses caught in them, but if you opt for small holed ones and make sure you have a safe place to tie them such as field shelter, this is an option.
- Hay feeders and racks can be the best solution in fields. There are lots of different types from a very DIY wooden pallet creation, or tractor tyre placed on the ground to help contain hay, right up to purpose made hay racks. Some very ‘posh’ hay feeders even incorporate roofs!
Field Shelters for Horse Paddocks
Shelter is all too often overlooked in horse paddocks in my opinion, but it is very important, especially for horses spending a lot of time out in varied weather conditions. They provide protection from the wind and rain in winter, and an escape from flies and the heat of the sun in summer.
- Natural shelter is anything that can provide protection from the elements that isn’t a man-made structure – trees, hedgerows and even land topography can provide shelter.
- It is really important to check that any hedgerows or trees in your pastureland are not poisonous to horses.
- Especially with larger trees, you should check the condition of branches and even get a specialist to prune and look for rot, etc. Falling branches can be very hazardous for horses sheltering from a storm.
- Smaller trees should be protected from potentially enthusiastic rubbing by a ring of fencing.
- Utilising natural shelter in your paddocks saves cost on building purpose built structures, and can often be the most aesthetically appealing.
Purpose Built Field Shelters
- Purpose built shelters should allow roughly the size of a stable per horse, although if you already have a large barn or similar on your land, these can make for a great shelter.
- Shelters can be open fronted, or in hot climates, they can even be a simple roof structure to provide shade that still allows air to flow.
- Where more protection from the elements is required, it is a good idea to have a more traditional structure with doorways. Where more than one horse will be using the shelter, doorways should be at least 6 – 8 feet (1.8 – 2.4m) or more, and it is a good idea to incorporate more than one opening for an ‘escape’ route.
- Structures can be permanent, although these will usually require planning permission.
- If planning is an issue, mobile field shelters that have skids that allow them to towed, often don’t require planning permission, although you should still check your local regulations.
- If possible, it is a good idea to place your shelter on a hard surface, or place rubber grass mats inside and around the base, or the ground can become very muddy! At the very least, put them in an area that is level and drains well. It is up to you whether or not to use bedding (I personally think that rubber mats with straw over them works well in shelters).
Other Considerations for Horse Paddocks
- To save mud being dragged onto the yard, it can be a good idea to set up an area as you leave the paddocks for hoof picking, and even better some hard standing or rubber mats for hoof washing too.
- Security should be another thing on the list to consider. For example, how visible are your paddocks from the road? Does anyone live onsite? Should you consider using padlocks?
- Public rights of way are also another thing to be aware of – do any footpaths, etc, cross your grazing land? If so, I would recommend fencing off the path (not only to protect your horses, but also save any public liability issues should a walker get kicked, etc), and putting up signs asking for dogs to be kept on leads and for people not to feed your horses. Different countries and areas will have different guidelines for fencing public rights of way and some may not even allow it, but where it is permitted I would allow for a minimum width of around 3m (10 feet), but always check your local guidelines. OS maps are a good place to check for where public rights of way are in your area – Ordnance Survey Website.
The main thing, however you choose to design and manage your horse paddocks,
is that it is safe and works for you, and of course, that your horses are happy…
Thank you for taking the time to read all about horse paddocks and grazing, I’ve listed some more links below to other articles you may find interesting…
Here are some further articles that you may enjoy…