Keeping a Horse in a Pen or a Run
Just when we were getting the horses used to some grazing, we got some crazy weather that dumped a lot of rain on us. Being that this is a semi-arid area with between 15-17 inches of moisture per year, we are ALWAYS glad of any rain or snow. However, because of the low annual moisture, our pastures are very fragile and it would take them a lot of time to recover from hoof damage during muddy weather or “whole plant grazing”. That’s often what happens when it is wet here – the horse takes a bite and instead of the grass breaking off, the horse pulls the whole plant out, roots and all. I think of how long it took that grass plant to establish and survive over the weeds yet in one casual nip, its gone. That’s a bad thing !
So to be the best stewards of the horse AND the land that we can be, when it is muddy, like it is today, the horses must stay in their large sheltered pens. They are often called “sacrifice pens” because the pasture that once was where the pens are now has been sacrificed – there is no vegetation.
Keeping a horse in a large pen or run is often a necessity so here are some guidelines about pen life for horses.
Keeping a Horse in a Pen or Run
When you want your horse to have some room to move around but you don’t have access to a pasture, a good set up can be a group pen or individual run. These are usually located adjacent to a barn or other covered shelter and can vary in size from a bare minimum of 16’ x 60’ individual run off a stall to a 60’ x 100’ or larger pen off the end of a barn or loafing shed for a group of horses.
A good pen has safe, durable fencing and comfortable, well-draining footing. The pen should be located on high ground and be situated such that the horses can take shelter from cold wind, wet weather, hot sun and insects as needed. There should be a clean place to feed and a comfortable place for horses to lie down. To prevent feed from blowing away, windscreens can be attached to the outside of the panels.
The land in pens and runs is considered “sacrifice” because no vegetation is expected to survive the constant traffic. If the natural lay of the land doesn’t slope away from the barn or shed, then excavation should remedy this so that the shelter under the building is high and dry and the pen or run gradually slopes, about 2 degrees, away from the building.
Depending on the native soil, footing can be added to provide cushion and minimize mud. Some choices are decomposed granite, road base, and pea gravel.
A sheltered feeding area with rubber mats allows a horse to eat off ground level without ingesting sand or wasting feed.
In the loafing area of the pen, bedding can be used to encourage a horse to lie down but it usually invites a horse to defecate and urinate there also. This behavior can be minimized or eliminated by locking a horse out of the loafing or eating areas except during specific times.
Pen fencing can be made from metal panels or continuous fencing. Panels don’t require setting posts so are more adaptable to changing pen size or shape. Whatever pen fencing is used, it needs to be tall enough (5’ is OK, 6’ is better) and strong enough to withstand roughhousing, rubbing, and playing across the fence. Panel connections should be tight and safe.
Pros and cons of pen life. See the book Horsekeeping on a Small Acreage.