Horse Care: Delving into Dry Lots

Proper construction can make them a valuable area of the farm

by Hope Ellis-Ashburn

Two of the most important reasons for constructing a dry lot or sacrifice area are improving your pasture management plan or protecting the health of a horse with grazing restrictions. Dry lots play an essential role in meeting both goals.

“Dry lots are really important, especially on facilities with limited acreage during wet times of the year,” said Leanne Dillard, Ph.D., an assistant professor and extension specialist in forage agronomics at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala.


Traditional Seasons for Dry Lot Use

Rainy periods, especially in the spring and winter, can muddy pastures. Turning horses out on wet pastures disturbs the sod and over time kills plants, reducing pasture productivity and potentially compromising your horse’s hooves. Properly constructed dry lots do not get muddy and allow for exercise—through turn-out of horses during rainy periods—in an area where a farm owner is not concerned about meeting forage growth later in the year.

“Any period with extended rainfall, particularly most places in the eastern United States during the spring, or any time there is snow on the ground [is a good time to make use of a dry lot],” Dr. Dillard explained.

While not as critical in terms of pasture management, dry lots can also be used to protect horses from potential injury on frozen soil.

“Dry lots allow horses to be in an area where there isn’t ice buildup so they are not slipping or stepping on something sharp,” said Dr. Dillard. “But even in the summer, if there is an extended period of rain, there could be a mud issue. It can be good to put them in a dry lot.”


Location, Location

Location plays a crucial part in dry lot construction.

“The most important thing is that the area is well drained because the whole purpose of it is not to have water buildup,” Dr. Dillard said. “Convenience is also important.”

Because dry lots are used the most during unfavorable weather conditions, their most ideal location is close to your barn.

“But, if there’s not a convenient place for one near your barn, it needs to be in a place that drains well,” said Dr. Dillard.

Hilltops, or any place that isn’t a low area that continues to collect water, can make for acceptable locations, as can areas of a farm that are naturally less productive.


Dimensions Matter

One of the purposes of a dry lot is to provide an exercise area, so it’s important to factor this in when determining the overall size of your dry lot.

“Dry lots should be about 200 square feet per adult horse,” said Dr. Dillard, adding that’s a good, general rule of thumb.


Site Prep

While soil type will determine if any more soil is necessary, site prep can be as minimal as leveling the area on which you intend to install your prospective dry lot.

“You want to keep it level but in such a way that there is a slight slope, either from the center out or an overall slope, so that it drains well,” Dr. Dillard explained. “You don’t want a lot of dips in it where it is going to collect water.”


Fabric and Footing

The next phase involves the installation of a protective barrier. Similar to weed barrier fabric used in landscaping, geotextile fabric prevents the footing that you select for your dry lot from going into the soil. While the fabric can be costly, keep in mind that horses can push even gravel into bare soil, so in the long run using the fabric protects your footing investment by helping it last longer. Eventually, through normal wear and tear, the fabric will need to be replaced.

“You want to make sure the fabric is covered all the time,” said Dr. Dillard. “Keeping it maintained is important or it can’t function.”

If money is an issue and installing a geotextile fabric isn’t an option, Dr. Dillard recommends the temporary measure of installing a dry lot on a pasture that the farm owner knows they plan to renovate in the future, eliminating the need for the protective fabric.

“But most dry or sacrifice lots are going to be permanent and looking forward, it’s often worth the investment to have this fabric before you put other material down,” she said.

With the protective barrier in place, the next step is choosing your dry lot’s footing.

“There are a lot of options,” said Dr. Dillard. “Probably the most common would be some type of gravel. Gravel can be very large and cause bruising. But three-quarter-inch crushed gravel is ideal.”

Smaller gravel is usable, but if there is a lot of water coming through it, it can run off faster whereas larger gravel is more likely to stay in place.

Gravel can be the only footing you use, but other options include a layer of stonedust or sand.

“You can combine crushed gravel with stone dust or sand. It works as kind of a ‘setter,’ just like when you put sand between your patio bricks, to keep [the gravel] from moving as much,” Dr. Dillard explained. “It will give you a more solid-type footing. It will also make it less likely that the gravel will hurt your horse’s hooves.”

If you choose sand as part of your dry lot’s footing, you may have concerns about sand colic for “nosy” horses or feeding horses hay from the ground. While feed supplements and feeding hay on solid surfaces may help mitigate this concern, some farm owners may choose to avoid it altogether.

Wood chips can be a less expensive option upfront but, like shavings in a stall, they do have to be frequently replaced because they absorb rather than shed water.


Gates and Fencing

Because horses on a dry lot won’t have grazing to distract them, the fencing and gates needed to construct these lots will need to be of a stronger type than your typical pasture fence.

“This needs to be at least as strong as your perimeter fencing, maybe even stronger,” Dr. Dillard said. “The horses are going to be pushing on it a lot and, because there may potentially be several animals in a concentrated area, horses may get unintentionally pushed into the fence.”

High-tensile electric wire fences with a larger wood post for added strength can work well. Using a round post with a flat side will make it stronger compared to a square post. Board fencing is another good option. Also, while the look may not be as aesthetically pleasing, placing boards on the inside rather than the outside makes for a stronger fence. Board fences should also be regularly checked for protruding nails. In fact, regardless of your choice of fencing material, all fences should be regularly inspected and maintained.

In terms of gates, don’t forget to make sure they are large enough for equipment to pass through, and avoid locating them in corners.

“If you are going to have several animals in there you want to try and put gates in the middle length of the fence so animals don’t get cornered,” said Dr. Dillard.

Smaller gates, which are useful for leading horses to and from the dry lot, can be a part of your plan, but 12-foot gates are recommended for the easy passage of equipment for construction and maintenance of a dry lot.


Developing a Maintenance Plan

Your dry lot’s size and the number of animals it contains will determine how often you will need to collect manure from your dry lot.

“Once a week is a general rule of thumb,” Dr. Dillard said. “If winter weather conditions are a concern, you can get away with a little longer. However, during insect season, or if snow is melting, or it is raining, you are going to have potential pollution issues.”

In addition, if you own a horse that likes to make divots, you may need to periodically go in and drag your lot as well, taking special care not to disturb the geotextile fabric underneath.

Eventually, even if you are using a geotextile fabric, you will need to add more material.

“Maintaining a three-quarter-inch of material on top of your geotextile fabric is ideal,” Dr. Dillard said. “Once you start seeing thin spots you will need to add more material. The frequency is going to depend on what type of material you use.” HB


Hope Ellis-Ashburn is a freelance writer living in Tennessee. To comment on this story, email us at


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