Ask most people what an idyllic farm looks like, and you’ll hear about vast green expanses, maybe with rolling hills, shade trees and horses spending their days enjoying lush grass.
Pretty as it is, this image is not a reality for many horse owners—like me, for example. About a decade ago, my mare developed a severe laminitis caused by pasture grass. Thankfully, she recovered fully. But several management changes were instrumental to her recovery, and the most important was the dry lot we created for her on our farm.
Before that, we had tried a grazing muzzle, which for many horses is an effective way to curb grass intake. But not for my mare. She was adept at getting her muzzle off, and even when it stayed in place she managed to figure out ways to defeat it. I experimented with several types of muzzles, but none worked.
So, for us, the answer was a dry lot, a turnout area with little or no vegetation. Even when it’s not a necessity, as it was for our mare, a dry lot offers a fairly convenient way of managing horses whose grazing or social interactions need to be restricted to address other issues.
A dry lot can serve other purposes, too. Maybe your farm isn’t large enough to support full-time grazing for all of your horses, or you live in a region where pasture grass is sparse. A dry lot can even be a cost-effective tool for your farm’s pasture conservation program—giving you a place to keep your horses periodically while giving your fields time to recover from grazing or to dry out after a rainy spell.
Creating a dry lot requires some time and resources, and helping a horse adjust to living in a grass-free enclosure after full pasture turnout will have an impact on your daily management routine, at least for a while. But the effort and expense will be well worth it in the long run—if you add up the savings from potential veterinary bills for laminitis or related troubles as well as the ecological and financial costs of maintaining large pastures for full-time turnout.
I started out with a rather makeshift dry lot, created quickly out of necessity to protect my mare’s health. Over time, I continued to improve on it; I consider it a work in progress, because there are still some projects I want to do. If you decide that having a dry lot is a good idea, you can do it my way—spreading the costs out over a few years—or you can put in all of the money up front and get it all done right from the get-go. However you go about it, there are some things you’ll want to do to ensure that your dry lot is a safe, healthy and congenial place for your horse to spend his days.
1. Choose a location
In addition to affecting the aesthetics and ecology of your farm, the site of a dry lot has an impact on your horse’s health and comfort, as well as how burdensome your chores might be. You’ll also want to select a location where you won’t mind sacrificing all of the vegetation—ideally, it would be an area that already fails to support good pasture grass due to poor soil quality, for example. While you can work with practically any size lot, a minimum of 400 to 600 square feet per horse is a good rule of thumb.
Placing the dry lot somewhere close to the barn will make it more convenient for feeding and other chores, as well as for keeping an eye on your horse. Also consider the distances involved if you want to run a water line and electricity to an automatic waterer or to power an electric fence, fans or other amenities.
A dry lot that shares a fence and gate with your existing pasture makes it easier to move horses back and forth between the two spaces as needed. If your horse is to be alone in the dry lot, choosing a location where he will still be able to at least see his herdmates can help reduce stress from isolation.
Drainage is also an important consideration. To limit erosion and runoff pollution, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recommends placing dry lots as far as possible from natural streams. Check with your local extension agent about the distance to allow between your lot and water sources. It also helps to have a buffer area of grass or other deep- rooted native vegetation to catch and filter runoff before it reaches nearby surface waters.
2. Install sturdy fencing
Any fencing that is safe for horses in a conventional pasture can also be used for a dry lot, but there’s one additional consideration to keep in mind: A horse in a dry lot will have much greater motivation to reach over or through the fence after nearby vegetation. Even if your horse is well acclimated to your regular fencing, you may need to “beef up” your dry lot enclosure. Running a strand of electrical wire along the top of the fence is a good way to discourage horses from trying to reach over, and the addition of woven wire can prevent them from reaching through rails.
Because your horse is likely to put more pressure on dry lot fencing, it’s especially important to keep up with maintenance and repairs. In fact, this is something to consider when choosing your fencing—ideally, you’d have something you can repair on your own in a pinch. In addition, periodically clear out nearby weeds, shrubs and other vegetation that might tempt horses to reach above or below the fence.
Also, plan to locate your gate or gates carefully, considering ease of access for chores and moving horses in and out of the turnout. Think about vehicle access, too. Especially if you have multiple horses, you may want to be able to bring hay and other supplies into the dry lot with a utility vehicle, and being able to back a trailer into the space might one day be helpful during an emergency.
3. Put in sensible footing
If you have sandy soil or an area with unusually sparse vegetation, you may need to do nothing more than simply rake the area and scrape away the few remaining plants. But for a more consistent surface that will hold up for years, consider installing footing, as you would in an arena.
You’ll most likely need to hire a contractor, who can evaluate the texture, stability and permeability of the soil at your preferred site and recommend materials for a dry lot that will allow good drainage as well as erosion control. In most cases, the topsoil will be scraped off and the site will be graded before a base layer of gravel or crushed stone will be laid down. For the surface layer, you might choose from a variety of materials including stone dust, slag, sand, pea gravel, wood chips or shredded rubber.
Click here to learn how to identify and manage slip-and-fall injuries in horses.
Your veterinarian and farrier may have some recommendations for surface footing choices if your horse is recovering from laminitis or has other hoof-related issues.
Also talk to your contractor about aesthetics—a dry lot doesn’t need to be an eyesore. Good design choices can create a space that blends in with the landscape of your farm.
Once you have mapped out your dry lot but before beginning construction, check with your local USDA/NRCS office to make certain that any planned work complies with local, state and federal regulations. An inspector may also have recommendations for materials and construction methods that will manage runoff more effectively. There is no cost for these inspections, and you may even qualify for financial incentives. For more information, go to www.nrcs.usda.gov.
4. Provide decent shelter
As with any other type of turnout, a dry lot needs to provide some type of shelter from the elements right from the start. One option to save costs is to place your dry lot against your existing barn, so your horse has direct access to his stall. You’ll also find a variety of options for inexpensive temporary canopies or shelters that will protect your horse until you can build a more permanent structure. If you will keep more than one horse at a time in your dry lot, the shelter will need to be large enough to accommodate all of them.
5. Control flies and other insects
Flies and other winged pests are just as likely to visit your dry lot as other parts of your farm so keeping them at bay will also be an ongoing chore. If your horse is on the dry lot full-time, you will need to pick up manure just as often as you would from his stall. Even in an area that is cleaned regularly, fly control may still be an issue, as it can be for pastured horses. You’ll need to keep a close eye on your horse and apply fly sprays and use fly sheets or masks as appropriate.
Hanging strips of sturdy fabric, such as carpet remnants, burlap or vinyl mesh, over the entrance to the run-in can help keep flies out of the space—be sure to teach your horses how to push past the barriers, which will brush off any flies as they pass. Spraying the fabric with fly spray adds some extra protection. It may even be worthwhile to run an electrical line out to the shed so you can install gable fans to keep the area inside breezy and well-ventilated.
6. Install a slow feeder
Feeding is one of the more significant changes when moving a horse from a pasture to a dry lot. If you are moving your horse for purposes of weight control or managing insulin resistance, your veterinarian will help you to devise an appropriate feeding regimen. (This may include testing your hay to determine the sugar content, and possibly soaking to leach out any excesses.)
To help mimic grazing and keep your horse busy longer with the hay he is allowed, consider purchasing or building a slow feeder that limits the amount he can pick up at once. It’s also a good idea to break up his ration into as many small meals as you can manage, spread throughout the day.
If your horse’s ration isn’t lasting around the clock, and he is standing with an empty stomach for a portion of each day, he may be at a greater risk for gastric ulcers. Most horses show no signs of gastric ulcers, but you may see subtle indications, such as a lack of appetite, a poor hair coat, decreased performance and attitude changes. If you’re worried ulcers may be an issue for your horse, talk to your veterinarian about supplements or other products to help protect his stomach.
Of course, you will also need to supply a free-choice salt block as well as fresh water.
7. Provide plenty of exercise
A horse kept on a small dry lot will not move around nearly as much as a horse grazing in a larger pasture so it’s especially important to have other exercise opportunities. Assuming your horse is healthy and sound, try riding him at least a few times a week, for 45 minutes to an hour per session. If you have trouble keeping up with that schedule, enlist a friend to ride him a few times a week, or consider offering a partial lease on your horse to a compatible rider.
If your horse is convalescing from illness or injury, or has other issues such as arthritis, your veterinarian will advise you on an appropriate exercise routine. For some horses it may be enough to simply spread hay rations out in multiple nets or feeders around a dry lot to encourage more walking.
8. Offer entertainment
Boredom can be an issue for horses kept in smaller turnout areas. If you can manage it, an amenable companion can help ease the stresses for a horse living on a dry lot. If keeping two horses isn’t a good option for you, consider a smaller pony or Miniature Horse or even a goat or donkey.
Toys can also help to keep an isolated horse busy. Not all horses will play with toys, but you might experiment with different types to see if you can find something that appeals to your horse. Another idea is to spend as much of your own time with your horse as you can.
Keeping a horse on a dry lot can be challenging. Management factors aside, there are emotional issues as well. I know from experience that you can’t help but feel guilty sometimes because you think you are depriving your horse of a pasture-roaming lifestyle that might make him much happier. In the end, however, with careful planning and diligence, a dry lot can help your horse to live a long, happy, healthy life.
This article was originally published in EQUUS #487