Frozen Winter Paddocks – Dealing with Ice, Snow, and Frozen Muck

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Frozen pee spots. Icy paddocks. Piles of snow that you and your horse slosh around in. Winter is winding down, but the memory of dealing with it is close. If you and your horse live in a climate where managing frozen or snowy paddocks and confinement areas is challenging, here are a few winter horse-keeping tips for you.

  • Remove manure daily from all confinement areas and high traffic sites. Manure is composed of fine organic material which holds moisture and therefore is prone to freezing. Plus, left-behind manure just becomes mud when the spring thaw finally arrives—to the tune of 50 pounds a day per horse!
  • If you have difficulty removing frozen manure with a plastic manure fork, try a metal pitchfork or a flat-edged metal shovel to first break loose frozen-to-the-road-apples. A metal leaf rake can be used to rake the frozen manure balls into a pile, then scoop them up with either a traditional manure fork or a metal shovel. Look for a pitchfork with tines closer to each other, sometimes called a compost or mulch fork.
  • If you have high traffic areas icing up because they are not draining well, consider digging them out (or at least digging out the worst spots) and replacing that material with some type of clean, washed footing like 5/8-inch washed crushed rock. Less expensive rock products like pit run (naturally occurring gravel from a quarry which hasn’t been crushed) or other products such as homeowners’ gravel (crushed rock with fine materials, often used in driveways) are larger, usually around 1 inch in size, and might be appropriate for this use. These products will not compact because the rocks are generally round, so they will remain loose and, because of that, will drain. Anything much larger than 1 inch is uncomfortable for most horses to stand on for any length of time so this footing isn’t recommended for the entirety of the paddock; 5/8 inch or less is best there. Larger round rock is too big for horse comfort and chore efficiency; the pore space between the rocks makes it difficult for manure removal.
  • If you have a large confinement area that is impractical to outfit with expensive footing across the entirety, consider using hot tape or other fencing to create a temporary, smaller confinement area within the bigger area to utilize during winter storm events. This smaller area should have well-draining footing in place along with the other mud management techniques outlined above. If it’s hard to keep manure picked up in the larger area, consider blading it out (with a tractor that has a bucket) in the spring once things dry out, then resume and maintain regular manure management for the entire space.
  • Consider installing (prior to winter) a well-draining geo grid product in your highest traffic area using a clear, washed rock product as fill. Keep it functioning correctly by keeping manure picked up and the area tidy.
  • When you get snow, consider shoveling or removing snow from paddocks to prevent snow and ice build-up. This can be done by hand with a shovel or by tractor.
  • Keep a pile of sand accessible for the winter months. If possible, keep the pile tarped or covered to prevent it from freezing in cold weather. Alternately, you may have a sand arena that you can “borrow” sand from. Use a tractor with a bucket to convey sand to areas where needed and a metal garden rake to scatter it over icy spots to provide traction where needed. Keep in mind that using sand may plug pore space and further reduce drainage in some cases.
  • Break/chop ice with a flat edged shovel or an ice-chopping tool (sold in hardware or landscape stores). This approach requires quite a bit of hard work and muscle power but is probably the best way to get ice out of horse areas. Perhaps a neighborhood teen is available to hire for the project.
  • Scatter sand over icy spots for traction. Photo from Alayne Blickle.

    Try sprinkling rock salt (sodium chloride) on the worst icy patches. But be aware: salt will damage any nearby plants by dehydrating plant tissues and in high levels it is toxic to animals. It can also dry out dogs’ paws and potentially horse hooves or coats if they roll in it. Plus, it’s corrosive to concrete, metals, and wood and only works down to 20 degrees. However, it’s inexpensive and may aid in getting rid of a dangerous ice situation—if temps aren’t too extreme. Keep in mind that this method is meant to aid in snow/ice removal and is not a recommended method to handle an entire snow removal job.

  • You might try one of the pet-friendly sidewalk salts available. Depot Dog is one such product. The label says “Depot Dog is a high performance, pet friendly ice melt. It is safe for furry critters, fun loving kids, and the fragile environment. Containing no sodium chloride, it’s safer on cured concrete and leaves no residue.” Going online to look up the ingredients (they aren’t listed on the product) reveals that it’s magnesium chloride which is still a type of salt, usually extracted from brine or sea salt. It works at temperatures down to -20º F (-5º C) which is lower than traditional rock salt products, and it melts ice slower than rock salt thereby reducing damage to concrete and infrastructure. Since it is naturally occurring, this ice melt is recognized in the industry as “environmentally friendly.” However, rock salt is also naturally occurring and all salts are potentially dangerous or irritating to skin, paws, hooves, eyes, mucous membranes, or vegetation. Perhaps magnesium chloride is a safer product to use, but it’s still best used in moderation.

In the end, keep in mind that there are two main reasons we use paddocks to confine our horses. The first is for pasture health to prevent overgrazing and soil compaction. At a minimum, your horses should be confined to a paddock during the winter and early spring to prevent potential damage to your pasture. At least three inches of leafy grass is needed in pastures for rapid regrowth in the spring. Compaction of pasture soils makes water infiltration and root growth difficult. Poor pasture management results in reduced quality and quantity of grass, increased soil erosion, nitrogen runoff (from manure and urine), and weeds. Lower pasture productivity also increases feed costs and potentially vet bills if your horse eats toxic weeds.

Secondly, use of a confinement area helps us manage a horse’s weight and health. Many horses develop overweight issues from being on pasture, as even brown winter pasture grasses can be high in non-structural carbohydrates.

The situation for managing a poorly draining, icy confinement area is tough and unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Playing with these different strategies may help you come up with a balance that works for your situation.


Check out the Horses for Clean Water website for information on upcoming events, online classes, private consultations, tip sheets, and other resources for horse keeping and land management. Visit the Sweet Pepper Ranch website for info on upcoming clinics and retreats.


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