8 Ways to make a dry lot your horse will love

EQUUS - - Equus - By Hope El­lisAsh­burn

With plan­ning and some on­go­ing ef­fort, you can cre­ate a grass-free en­clo­sure that will keep your horse safe, healthy and happy.

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 getgo. 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.


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 deep­rooted na­tive vege­ta­tion to catch and fil­ter runoff be­fore it reaches nearby sur­face waters.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 pas­tureroam­ing 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.

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.

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.

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