Are you dealing with alternating muddy to frozen footing in your horse paddocks? You know, muddy footing that then forms into an uneven surface. A surface with lots of divots and sharp edges when the ground freezes. A surface that is difficult and even painful for you and your horses to traverse.
If you are looking for a quick, cost-effective solution to a similar footing issue that doesn’t involved major construction, you might want to consider pea gravel. Pea gravel is a smooth, rounded stone that is naturally formed from river rock. Each piece is roughly 3/8″ or the size of a pea. Hence the name.
Using pea gravel has its pluses and minuses. It is not suitable for all situations. Please keep that in mind as you consider the uniqueness of your own set up. Also, it may not be available or cost effective in your area like it is in mine. I am sharing my experience simply as an example, not as a definitive “how to” guide.
Ideally, we’d all have tons of acreage for our horses to roam so they wouldn’t always be in a limited spot, wearing the ground out quickly. When we would need to keep them close to the barn, we’d also have paddocks that were carefully designed and constructed with horses in mind.
But I’m guessing most backyard horse-owners don’t. A lot of us make do with old cow pastures or fenced in farm land where hay used to be grown. We often have to come up with less than ideal answers to problems. All on the fly. All in the quest to keep our horses as happy, healthy and comfortable as we can.
In my area, a wet and muddy Fall season led to a Winter that so far has lots of see-sawing temperatures. We’ve had plenty of rain followed by some wind-chill temperatures below zero.
It’s all left my horse’s main paddock in a sad state. I say main paddock because that’s where they live almost 24-7 save for a short time on pasture each day.
The area around my horses’ run in shed is a flat, ag lime footing pad. It gives them a firmer and drier place to stand than the mud or frozen ground in the rest of the paddock.
But if they want to access their water trough or make the trek out to the grass pasture for a few hours of daily grazing? They have to walk across the rest of the paddock without any special footing.
Most of the year, this works out just fine. With too much rain though, the horses are then walking through thick mud. With regular below 32 degree temperatures, they are walking on uneven frozen ground.
This issue isn’t new. I deal with it every year. However, it seems especially pronounced this Winter.
Likely my adding a third horse (Piper) to the herd and then having an unusually wet Fall season both contributed to the deteriorating conditions.
The uneven frozen footing is especially hard on Bear, my 26 year old gelding. On the coldest days when the footing is at its sharpest, he won’t leave the run-in shed area to access the water trough.
I’ve become accustomed during the coldest days to bring a bucket of water out to Bear with his morning breakfast. I realized many years ago that he will avoid walking on that type of cut up ground, even if he is very thirsty.
If he sees me coming with the water bucket and has not left the shed all night, he will look at me with perked ears, nicker, lick his lips, and toss his head up and down. And then drink an entire 8 quart bucket as soon as he puts his nose in it.
Bear has not yet ever had an episode of colic. BUT reduced water consumption in Winter is notorious for leading to impaction colic. It’s something I worry about every Winter. To read more about this issue, check out this magazine article from Equus at
Unfortunately, my placement of the necessary water bucket heater is limited by the fact that I can’t string extension cords across a horse pasture in order to give them heated water in the run-in shed.
Our Winter night time temperatures are largely below freezing so I’ve found a water tank heater to be a necessity from December through the end of March/early April.
Anticipating that this Winter might be a hard one, I had been waiting for the weather to even out long enough to allow me to schedule a dump truck delivery of pea gravel.
I wanted to get this accomplished by November, but the extra rainy Fall season would not allow it. A dump truck on soft ground will leave huge ruts. I would have to wait until the ground froze solid.
Finally, the ground seemed solid enough to bring in a dump truck and get pea gravel delivered earlier this month.
I got a 6 ton load delivered and dumped on an edge of the horses’ paddock to make a walkway.
The area extends from the edge of the ag lime footing pad out to their water trough and then the gate leading to their grazing pasture.
Pea gravel is not a perfect or permanent solution, but it definitely gives the horses a more comfortable and safer surface to travel on than uneven frozen ground.
The horses liked it immediately and were happy to investigate and walk all over it.
The difference between how they cross the pea gravel and how they cross the frozen, pocketed ground is like night and day. They can walk normally rather than mincing and stumbling across the ground in fits and starts, especially Bear.
Best of all, Bear will now leave his run-in shed to go drink water after he finishes his evening hay meal. He’s no longer anxious for me to bring a water bucket to him with his breakfast.
These photos were taken not long after the gravel arrival. The 6 tons were dumped in two piles. I spread the pea gravel by hand using a rake and shovel. Currently it looks more like a typical, flat walkway and less like the motocross course you see in these photos.
Spreading 6 tons of pea gravel is a lot to tackle all at once so I’ve been doing a little bit at a time. The horses do their part by walking back and forth on it (and sometimes pawing at it) too.
In this photo below, you can see the length of the walkway as I stand on the ag lime pad looking out towards their grass pasture. The right-hand side of the photo shows how cut up that formerly-muddy-now-frozen ground really is.
Ideally, I would have liked to have ordered 12 tons of the pea gravel to make a wider walkway, but both my budget and my back strength are limited.
Side note here- I don’t normally leave halters on my horses when they are loose in the pasture, especially not rope halters that have no break-away mechanism. In this case, I had been leading the horses from one area of the property to another to accommodate the movement of the dump truck. Piper, the bay gelding, was the last to be moved so I left the halter on him while I opened and closed gates for the driver as he came and went.
Eventually, the pea gravel will roll away and get stomped into the ground, and I will need a refill. That’s one of the downsides to pea gravel.
But I’ve had good experience adding pea gravel to other areas in the past. I am hopeful this walkway might last through at least a couple more Winters before needing a top off.
Overall, pea gravel has more positives for me than negatives. I really appreciate that pea gravel is a fairly budget-friendly option in my area. This 6 ton load cost me $300 delivered.
Pea gravel is also an easy surface to remove poop from. And it will dissipate pools of urine so we don’t have a lot of pee-ice-rinks settling on top of the footing.
Pea gravel is usually quite loose but can form some irregular clumps during the wet-freeze cycles. They break apart pretty easily though. I have not noticed the horses acting “ouchy” over them.
Speaking of ouchy, I have read more than one expert write that pea gravel (and sand too) is an excellent footing choice for horses with soundness issues. The smooth roundness of the pea gravel pieces and the movement of the pieces give the horses a softer surface to pack into the hoof than gravel with sharp edges.
Like anything with horses, though, I have also read counter arguments. Like some people observing their horses’ hooves wear out faster (resulting in sole soreness) than when housed on a different surface. While this has not been my experience, it is definitely a potential issue worth noting if you are considering trying pea gravel.
If I couldn’t have ordered pea gravel (you never know with supply chain issues these days), sand would have been my second choice. It is even cheaper, but because I get so much rain and have a pretty flat paddock, I don’t consider it the best option for walkways in my area. I lack good paddock slope and drainage. Sand turns into a soupy mess for me.
I have had sand delivered to a section of the pasture specifically for a “lay-down and roll” area, but I notice the horses use it much more in the Summer than the Winter. The sand gets soggy and hard in the wet/freezing weather.
I will also point out that I rarely see my horses chose to roll or lay down on the pea gravel. Maybe because pea gravel moves and gives them less of a solid feel when they have to push off it to get up? I also sometimes wonder if the rocks can feel too hot for them to lay on in the Summer sun? Nevertheless, I have read from other folks on horse forums that their horses do in fact roll/lay down on their pea gravel.
In any case, since I don’t observe my horses choosing to lay down on it much at all, I don’t think I’d want to have my horses exclusively on pea gravel. In fact, most recent expert literature that I’ve read about paddock design recommend allowing horses access to a variety of surfaces to accommodate those types of preferences.
Long story short, here’s my personal list of pea gravel pros and cons:
PEA GRAVEL PROS LIST:
- Helps cover and reduce the spread of mud
- Helps cover uneven, jagged frozen-ground edges
- Readily available (in my area of the Mid-West)
- Budget friendly (in my area of the Mid-West)
- Easy to remove manure
- Keeps urine from pooling and freezing on the surface
- Possibly a good choice of footing for horses with soundness issues although there is debate on this
PEA GRAVEL CONS LIST:
- My own horses don’t generally seem to lay down or roll on it
- Pea gravel spreads out overtime, necessitating periodic “refills”
- Pea gravel is not something I can transport myself in large quantities. I need it delivered in a large dump truck. You must have wide enough gates to accommodate the trucks and ground solid enough to not create huge ruts. This issue of course isn’t exclusive to pea gravel. I could say the same of most landscape stone.
In conclusion, remember what works in one backyard paddock may not work in another. Or for one horse verses another. Paddock location and geography, weather conditions and patterns, the soil type, the number of horses, the size of the paddock and your budget can all influence “what works best where.”
Want more paddock footing ideas? I suggest reading these three articles from three different resources: