There are many requirements for a horse paddock, and while some are flexible or open to interpretation, others are absolute and can be disastrous if not addressed properly. From the amount of space required to the policing of poisonous plants, information is the key to a safe, and fit to purpose, grazing and exercise area for your horses.
When considering a paddock to turn out your horse in, one of the most important factors to consider is the size. While the official British Horse Society recommendation is 1-1.5 acres per individual horse, this is a great starting guideline, but doesn’t apply in every situation. This estimate is based on a paddock where good management is employed – regular poop scooping, resting if particularly wet and prone to getting ripped up by hooves, and regular maintenance. Though this is the ideal paddock care standard, it’s not always possible for every owner to achieve, and so the space with which we need to provide our horses to be turned out in, doesn’t always fit into this neatly packaged formula.
The amount of space needed to turn out any given number of horses depends as much on the care of the paddock itself, and it’s specific usage, as it does on the number of animals it has to support. A pasture that is well maintained, rested and rotated, as well as meticulously cleared of muck, has the potential to support more horses than a larger pasture that receives less care might. Similarly, if the paddock is only used for a few hours turn out per day, it can provide grazing and exercise for many more horses than a pasture that is used round the clock.
In addition to thinking about the space and condition of the paddock, it’s also important to take into account the individual horses who will use it. If several horses are to be turned out together, more space might be required to reduce the risk of bullying and fighting within the herd. Alternatively, a lamintic or obesity prone horse might do better on restricted grazing with less access to high quality grass.
With the space decided, the next important decision to make in selecting a suitable horse paddock, is the fencing. While it may differ for each individual group of horses, as a general rule, 3ft6 – 4ft6 is the guideline height for horse paddock fences. Pony fences can be built slightly lower, and fences on paddocks that will house stallions should be built higher and given extra reinforcements.
The type of fencing used should be robust and sturdy but also safe. Some horses like to be Houdini, others will roll or play close to fences, and all these situations can lead to a higher chance of an injured or stuck horse, if appropriate fencing is not used.
Any kind of wire is generally discouraged, barbed wire being the worst, given its potential to seriously injure your horse, and tear your rugs to shreds. Chicken, plain or other kinds of wire are also a bad idea, as they are easily caught in horse’s shoes, or can wrap around legs. Compared to other fencing, wire has a much lower visibility to the horse, which can also lead to accidents when the horse doesn’t see the fence line in time. Single strand electric wire is also not recommended for this reason.
Wooden post and rail fencing is often hailed as the best choice for a horse paddock, though other materials in a post and rail arrangement, flexi-rails (rubber or PVC-coated webbing) or plastic stays with multiple rows of electric tape, also work well.
Whatever fence you decide to use should be well installed, with posts set deep enough that they will hold if a horse decides to lean on them. Safety should always be your biggest concern when selecting a fence for your paddock. A good fence choice will help with avoiding injuries by lowering the chance the horses will get caught or run into a fence, as well reducing as the risk of harm that would be caused should a horse escape through it.
Providing a shelter from the elements, be it wind and rain or sun and flies, is critical in any paddock. Shelters should be sturdy enough to withstand the most extreme weather in your area, without falling down or coming apart and potentially injuring your horses.
The size of the shelter is also important, a shelter too small may not allow enough space for every horse to seek protection, and can facilitate fights and bullying. Shelter size should be decided depending on how many horses and ponies may have to use it at any given time. If a maximum of five horses will use the paddock, then the shelter should be large enough for all five to be inside, if they wish. The depth of a straight shelter is usually 12ft, with a width of 12ft for the first horse, followed by an additional 5ft for each horse that will also use it. Covered shelters should be at least 9ft in height. This can be used as a guideline, and adapted for individual needs such as more space to avoid fights.
The grazing available makes up a vital component of any horse paddock. The type of grass used is important, and there are a number of pre-mixed seeds available to buy that cater specifically to good equine grazing requirements. Generally, meadow fescue, Timothy, creeping red fescue and smooth stalked meadow grass are mixed together in varying quantities in these seed packages. Although some mixes may contain Ryegrass, it is actually a less favourable alternative given its quick growth rate and ability to overpower the finer grasses that horses actually prefer. Always make sure you seed with grasses specifically for horses, not cattle or other livestock.
Good quality grass should be combined with a regular maintenance program. This should include a comprehensive worming schedule for all horses in your paddock, plus regular removal of manure to keep the pasture clean and free of worms, flies and other pests. It is advised that most pasture is renewed every ten to fifteen years.
A number of plants, including but not limited to ragwort, foxglove, hemlock, buttercups, are harmful to horses, and should be regularly checked for, and removed appropriately if found. It is advisable to look up plants common in your area, as well as making sure you are familiar with the most common and dangerous toxic plants, so you can be sure your paddock is clear and your horses are not at risk. Every horse paddock should have access to a constant supply of clean, fresh water, be this in the form of a bath that is meticulously maintained and filled, or an automatic drinker.
Getting It Right
Not many paddocks are absolutely perfect. By covering these basics and keeping in mind the purpose of your space, including how many horses it has to support, you can ensure your paddock is as close to ideal as possible. The safety and well being of your horses should always be at the forefront of your mind, and though it can be tempting to try and save money or time by using a less ideal pasture, it’s important to remember the likelihood that this will cost you later in the form of an accident, or the poor health of a horse. Any pasture should be safe, secure and well maintained, and should meet these guidelines wherever possible.
By Emma Doherty – Luna Sport Horses