While acres of lush green fields seem like the idyllic setting for a horse farm, constant access to high-quality pastures isn’t always best for your horse’s health.

Space limitations and environmental conditions can also make grass turnout impossible for some equine facilities. A dry lot provides an alternative turnout solution for horse owners in these situations.

Dry lots are small paddocks that contain little to no vegetation. These turnout areas, also called sacrifice lots, are designed to withstand heavy use, even during increased rain or drought. A dry lot protects pasture health by allowing grass fields to rest.

In addition, bare or sparse paddocks are safe turnout options for horses that need a controlled diet due to metabolic conditions or other health concerns.

This article will review the benefits of dry lots for horses and discuss how to implement a dry lot at your facility.

Benefits of Dry Lots for Horses

Dry lots keep animals confined to limit grass access or prevent pasture damage. The area can be used for winter turnout, feeding, resting pastures, and a safer turnout option in wet conditions.

Some horses require dry lot turnout year-round due to health conditions, including laminitis, obesity and insulin resistance. These areas also help control grass intake while horses adjust to pasture turnout in the spring.

Regulating Grass Intake

Due to metabolic issues, certain horses may need to avoid unrestricted access to rich pasture grass. Turning your horse out on a dry lot enables exercise and movement while avoiding the over-consumption of calories and sugars from grass.

Examples of health concerns that might require dry lot turnout include insulin resistance, Cushing’s disease, equine metabolic syndrome and PSSM. [3] Easy keepers and overweight horses may also benefit from turnout on a bare or sparse paddock.

Dry lots give owners complete control of their horse’s diet when they have unique nutritional requirements. [3] The forage provided on a dry lot can be carefully selected and tested to ensure it is appropriate for your horse.

Pasture Health

Heavy traffic from horses congregating around feeding and watering areas can create mud and damage pasture vegetation. Overgrazing and increased moisture during the winter decrease soil strength and make the entire field more susceptible to damage. [1]

High foot traffic in wet conditions increases compaction and reduces soil aeration, making it more difficult for vegetation to grow. The ground cannot absorb the water and nutrients necessary for healthy grass growth, allowing weeds to thrive. [2]

Turning out horses in dry lots support pasture health by limiting this damage and allowing pasture grass to rest and regrow. Proper pasture management with dry lots saves horse owners the time and money required for weeding and repairing overused pastures.

Pastures generally require rest when the grass is less than 4 inches tall or when vegetation stops growing in the winter. [3]

Avoid Overgrazing

Horses on overgrazed pastures consume more of the grass stems in the 3 to 4 inches of growth closest to the ground. This is where the grass plant stores most of its reserve carbohydrates. [3]

Excessive consumption of non-structural carbohydrates can contribute to digestive and metabolic problems in horses. High NSC levels can reach the hindgut and disrupt microbial populations. [4]

During the spring, cool-season grasses produce extra sugars to support growth and store them overnight when the temperatures cool. [5] Dry lots can help horse owners manage spring grass intake and transition gradually to pasture.

Consult your veterinarian and equine nutritionist when choosing the best turnout option and schedule for your horse. You can learn more about safe grass management in our articles about spring grazing and pasture laminitis.

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Building a Dry Lot

Dry lots are usually separated from pasture by fenced boundaries. These areas can also serve as a hub for several paddocks.

When constructing a dry lot, horse owners must consider several factors impacting function and safety of the turnout area.

All horses need constant access to appropriate shelter, food, and water in every housing situation. Other design factors such as location, size, fencing, and footing depend on dry lot use.

Location

Dry lots should be located in a flat, well-drained area. Building a dry lot in an elevated location can promote good drainage and prevent the formation of ditches from water runoff.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends building dry lots as far as possible from natural streams. These streams can collect contaminated runoff from the dry lot and introduce pathogens from manure to the water supply. [6]

Size

Turnout benefits equine welfare by allowing horses freedom of movement that mimics their natural living conditions. Dry lots should provide adequate space for animals to move freely, drink, eat, and socialize. [7]

Size requirements vary depending on the number of horses housed in the dry lot. An average-sized horse should have a minimum of 400 square feet of turnout space. But providing 1000 sq ft or more per horse will encourage movement and better herd dynamics. [7]

Optimal dry lot size will also vary depending on the age, temperament, and breed. For example, large, athletic horses will require more space than others.

Fencing

Fencing safety is critical in smaller paddocks and dry lots. Corners, sharp edges, and metal t-posts can be dangerous for horses and handlers in crowded living situations. Safe fencing for your bare paddock should be tall, strong, and easily visible.

Dry lots are permanent, so owners shouldn’t use electric tape or temporary fencing to enclose the area. Horses in dry lots are also more motivated to reach through fencing to get nearby grass.

Regular maintenance and repairs are often necessary to mitigate increased pressures on dry lot fencing. Running a strand of electric wire along the top of the fence can help discourage horses from reaching over.

Footing

Heavy hoof traffic in concentrated areas easily damages small grass paddocks. Constructing a dry lot with suitable footing can help the site stand up to frequent use.

Building a dry lot may require hiring a contractor to evaluate your local soil’s stability, texture, and permeability. Your contractor will recommend footing material that controls erosion and promotes good drainage. [8]

Most dry lot construction begins with removing the topsoil and grading the site before laying down a base layer of gravel or crushed stone. [8]

Common surface layers used in dry lots include stone dust, sand, shredded rubber, wood chips, and pea gravel. Your veterinarian and farrier may recommend specific surface footing if your horse has hoof issues.

Horses without access to soft surfaces can suffer from sleep deprivation. No matter what dry lot footing you choose, remember to provide sheltered areas with soft bedding to encourage horses to lie down. [9]

Dry Lot Management

Whatever footing you choose, every dry lot requires regular maintenance. Some materials can increase the risk of respiratory problems or digestive issues without appropriate management.

Effective parasite control and waste management are also essential for herd health when keeping horses in smaller spaces. Since these areas don’t have natural vegetation for horses to graze on, owners must ensure they provide adequate forage in dry lots.

Minimizing Dust

Dry lots help prevent exposure to wet footing, but dry surfaces can produce dust when horses move or stomp their feet.

Dust can irritate the horse’s mucous membrane and lead to respiratory issues such as inflammatory airway disease. Some footing materials, such as sand and stone dust, produce more dust than others. [10]

Watering the dry lot during periods of drought every other day can help manage dust levels and limit the risks of respiratory problems. Plant oils can also help control dust when water isn̵