Sacrifice lot, heavy use area, exercise lot, gravel paddock are among the names used to describe an area that is designed for horses as a component of a management system, perhaps as a component of rotational grazing or when grazing is limited.
“Most of us don’t have a lot of acres,” said Suzette Truax, NRCS grazing specialist. “Sacrifice areas help preserve pasture so our animals can have exercise. Horses need to walk at least two miles a day to keep their digestive systems working properly.”
During the school year, Wilson College, in Chambersburg, PA, houses 72 horses that belong to both the college and students. The college is situated on a major creek, and the equine center must be managed to protect both the creek and the college’s limited pasture.
Truax explains that in order to accommodate a relatively high number of horses on limited acreage, the college has created nine heavy-use areas. “We like to keep some space between the areas,” she said on a recent tour of the facilities. “That way, horses aren’t reaching over to bite each other.” Truax added that horses in the paddocks are observed frequently to ensure they are getting along and that none are being bullied by others.
The heavy use paddocks at the college’s equestrian center are on a flood plain, and heavy rain means runoff. Two inches of rain in a short amount of time can mean standing water in some of the paddocks, but none of the water ends up in the creek because the paddocks have been carefully graded during construction. A buffer of grass and mature trees also helps prevent runoff from entering the stream.
Manure and waste hay are removed from eight of the paddocks once a week, sometimes more often if necessary. One paddock that’s mostly grass is dragged weekly to distribute manure. Manure management in paddocks helps minimize fly populations, and proper drainage ensures mosquitoes and mayflies don’t set up home.
Some of the paddocks have feeders that are incorporated as part of the fence line, which creates another management issue. Horses tend to pull hay out and use it as bedding, so soiled hay must be removed along with manure. The large, covered hay feeders can be easily moved with a tractor so manure doesn’t accumulate too much in one area. Ideally, feeders are situated on a high spot and moved as necessary to prevent mud accumulation.
The ideal sacrifice paddock is designed by an engineer or NRCS technician. The area is graded to create a sub-base, which is bare earth. The sub-base is covered with geotextile fabric, which prevents the base material from sinking into the sub-base. Truax has some suggestions for making sure that the geotextile layer is well-anchored and remains secure. “We want to make sure it overlaps along the edges,” she said. “Overlap it beyond the fence then place the fencepost down into the geotextile, or dig trenches around it and tuck the edges in and cover them. Horses love to play and will rip the geotextile completely out if there are any exposed sections.”
Next, a six-inch base layer of 0.75 to 3 inch crushed rock is spread over the sub-base. Water can soak down easily through this layer rather than accumulate on top.The final layer, or footing, is five to six inches of fine material that doesn’t compact too easily. Some options for this material include limestone dust, screenings or wood chips. “Make sure that if you use wood chips, they aren’t the fine, shredded chips,” she said. “Use the longer chips that are about an inch long — they’ll weave together and pack together. Make sure that the chips are free of black walnut, which can cause respiratory and laminitis. Also, wood chips decompose and have to be replaced every few years.”
Truax says sand is also an option for the top layer, but should be kept under six inches deep to prevent tendon issues. “Sand dries out quickly and can get dusty,” she said, “and some horses eat it.” Rubber chips can also be used, but make sure they aren’t from old tires that may contain bits of wire. The top layer should be monitored and added to every few years as necessary.