Drylots for Horses

Horses September 15, 2009 Print Friendly and PDF

Ann Swinker, Extension Horse Specialist, Penn State University


Drylots, or exercise paddocks, provide an opportunity to move horses off the pasture during high stress periods to protect pastures from being overgrazed. Drylots can vary in size but should provide a minimum of 400-500 square feet per horse. The size should be increased proportionally as the number of horses increase. These paddocks are typically situated near barns, are used only to provide exercise, and generally contain a limited amount of vegetation. Drylots can also serve as holding areas during periods of heavy rainfall and drought until pasture conditions improve. Extremely wet pasture can be damaged by the tearing action of horse’s hooves while cantering. Forage growth is reduced during drought conditions. Continued grazing during droughts will destroy the plant growth reserves.

Drylot Location

Drylots should be located adjacent to pasture areas with a common gate opening into each pasture. A permanent perimeter fence should be used to enclose the drylot area. Corral panels, four board fence, woven wire with a support board, etc. are recommended. Permanent electric fence systems, that are highly visible, provide an inexpensive option.


Horses in Dry Lot


The drylot area should include a holding shed, an alternative water source, and ample area to feed hay free choice. Ideally the water source and loafing shed should be at opposite ends of the drylot to encourage movement of the horses and limit the soil erosion typically found in heavy traffic areas. The loafing or run-in shed can be one, two or three sided with a sloping roofline to repel water. Typically a three-sided run-in shed, constructed to allow expansion to accept increased stocking rates is used. Run-in sheds, 12 by 12 foot accommodate one to two horses. As horse numbers increase, run-in shed dimensions should increase by 12 feet per unit of increased horse numbers:

Run in Shed Size Number of Horses
12' X 12' 1-2
12' X 24' 3-4
12' X 48' 4-5

Regardless of paddock size, forages planted in the drylot must be persistent and withstand close, overgrazed conditions. The following forages provide options for different areas of the state:

  • Cool season grasses:
    • Kentucky 31 Fescue
    • Annual Ryegrass
  • Warm season grasses:
    • Common Bermudagrass
    • Bahiagrass


Heavy traffic areas, such as the entrance to run-in sheds and around water tubs, may require stone or gravel to reduce mud and erosion. Crush and run covered by screenings, ground limestone or number 78 gravel provides footing and eliminates mud without risking injury to the horse’s hooves. The crush and run should be used to elevate low areas. The screenings, limestone or number 78 gravel provides a protective footing over the crush and run.

Sacrifice Lots

This management technique may take some work. You should create a sacrifice area. This is a small enclosure such as a paddock, corral, or pen that is sacrificed for the benefit of the rest of the pasture(s). Livestock should be confined to this area during the winter months and when the pastures are saturated from rain.

Installing a ‘sacrifice lot’ is a good way to prevent the horses from using a pasture when the conditions are too wet. This area is a fenced dry lot with shelter, water, and feeders, so the horses can be turned out and fed hay, but not allowed access to the pasture. In order to help prevent pollution of runoff through the sacrifice lot, manure and old hay should be picked from the area every 1 to 3 days. This will remove the organic matter that is used to convert soil to mud. Maintain a grass area of about 25 feet around the sacrifice lot to serve as a filter for any runoff.

Keeping it Dry

In high traffic areas like a drylot or hold corral, horse hooves loosen topsoil and compact the soil below. As the soil becomes more compacted with the constant pounding of horse hooves, rainwater is not able to percolate through the soil and pools on top, mixing with the topsoil to create mud. The most important ingredient for making mud is to add water. The rainwater that runs off of impervious surfaces like your barn roof can compound the problem. If the rain isn’t direct away from the high traffic areas, you can have a real mud problem.


Mud Lot


For more information on the construction of drylots, check out Drylot Construction.



Interested in learning more about horses? Check out the Horses Learning Lessons.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.