You might think a horse living outside 24/7 is as close to a “natural” living environment as you can get. I thought so too until I read Jamie Jackson’s book, Paddock Paradise.
Jamie argues typical horse keeping methods creates lazy horses who wait around for their next meal. Little movement, large meals, and access to lush grass puts these horses at risk for health issues such as ulcers, laminitis, lameness, and injury. Jamie says this about domestic horses:
“They are frail parodies of their wild counterparts, and few horse owners and professionals are even aware of this. And they are this way because of us. This is a serious indictment of our management practices.”
So what is his solution? Create a confinement system that simulates wild horse life. Jamie’s system is Paddock Paradise.
Paddock Paradise is a natural horse keeping method for a herd of horses. Paddock paradise aims to produce sound, healthy horses, with strong feet comparable to wild mustangs. This is achieved by mimicking the movement and terrain of wild horses. The primary feature of paddock paradise is a track, comprised of an external and internal fence spaced 10ft to 50ft apart that traverses water, rocks, hills, and sand on any size property.
Practical Goals of Paddock Paradise
While improving the overall health of domestic horses is the overarching goal of paddock paradise, there are many specific reasons to implement it. Practical reasons for using paddock paradise include:
- Healing or preventing navicular syndrome or laminitis
- Restoring digestive health by encouraging small, frequent meals
- Managing the weight of retired, arthritic, or lightly worked horses
- Strengthening feet and soft tissues to reduce risk of injury
- Reducing anxiety in nervous horses
- Reducing barn management tasks (e.g taking horses in and out from paddocks)
- Strategically using land to allow for more riding areas and fewer large pastures
By properly managing the domestic horse’s environment, owners can reduce artificially created health risks. Therefore, critical elements of wild horse life must be reincorporated into domestic horse life via paddock paradise.
The 3 Elements of Wild Horse Life Critical to Paddock Paradise
Paddock paradise seeks to give horses the resources and lifestyle they would have in the wild. This way they self-regulate their care. By mimicking the environment of the wild horse, we lessen the domestic horse’s dependency on humans for socialization, exercise, and hoof care.
Three elements of the wild horse lifestyle are central to the paddock paradise model:
(1) A Herd: wild horses travel in groups in a set pecking order. As prey animals, they feel safe in numbers and they feel comforted to know their place the group. Living in a familial unit creates a sense of belonging and a space to socialize.
(2) Movement: wild horses often travel 20+ miles a day in search of food and water. This naturally manages their weight, aids their digestion, and reduces the need to “warm-up” for high intensity exercise.
(3) Varied Terrain: wild horses walk through water, over rocky ground, and up and down hills. They wear their hooves down naturally and walking over varied terrain improves their balance and stability.
These elements are critical to mimic the life of a wild horse, and each offers substantial benefits.
Guidelines for Your Own Paddock Paradise System
While Jamie Jackson doesn’t lay out hard rules in the book, he gives some suggestions. I’ve grouped each based on the critical elements above:
(1) The Herd for Socialization
- Barefoot horses || Allows the hooves to wear naturally and prevents kicking hazards
- 3 Horses Minimum || Allows for herd dynamics
(2) Movement spurred by stimuli (fencing, food availability, curiosity)
- Electric fencing for inner fence || Allows easy changes to track width if needed
- Moveable ground feed tubs or plentiful dry spots || allows adequate food spacing on the track
- Feeding at ground level || Strengthens neck and helps digestion
- Distributed and buried salt & minerals || encourages horses to dig up nutrients
- Limiting grass growth || Prevents stationary eating
- Adding predator sounds || encourages forward movement
(3) Varried Terrain (Natural or Created) for specific behaviors
- Mud/dirt area || for rolling in and for improving coat
- Hills || for muscle strengthening
- Ground texture (rocks, pea gravel) || for wearing hooves down
- Shelter || for inclement weather
- Separate off-track field || for the horses to be exercised and play daily
- Stud or dung piles || for dominance behaviors as they identify the alpha male
(4) Things to Avoid on the track
- No human activities (e.g not for walking, running, ATVs, etc.) || Keeps track as the herd’s domain
- Avoid veterinary work|| Limits chemical smells and anxiety
- No Riding on track || Keeps track area relaxing
How the track creates forward movement in paddock paradise
In the absence of any direction, domestic horses disperse in large paddocks and mill about. Conversely, in smaller paddocks or runs, there is neither enough space to move, nor anything to spark their curiosity to keep moving. Therefore, providing domestic horses with a structured path or track suggests a direction to travel.
Paddock Paradise creates a track with an inner and outer fence to suggest a path to travel. At first, their curiosity to learn “what’s next” on the track encourages them to move.
For wild horses, additional pressure to move is spurred by predators. If they linger at water or food sources, they become easy targets for cougars. Similarly, wild horses will move quickly in narrow areas like canyons, because it limits their ability to run away when attacked.
Even though domestic horses aren’t pressured by the sight of predators, they still fear confinement. Therefore, pressure is added by adjusting the track’s width. The narrower the width between the track’s two fences, the more pressure the horses feel to escape confinement and move forward.
The optimal width for movement is approximately 10 ft 15 ft wide. For perspective, a standard barn aisle is 12 ft, so 10-15 ft allows two horses to pass each other in the paddock. Going any narrower than 10ft creates spaces for ‘beta’ horses to be trapped and bullied by an ‘alpha’ in the herd.
To allow for fine-tuning over time, most people use electric fencing to create one “side” of the track as it’s easy to move.
How food placement effects movement on the track
While paddock paradise aims to create movement, breaks will be necessary for the herd to rest. Two to three lounging spaces must be provided by gradually expanding the track width to 50-60 ft wide. Here they will feel less pressure to move forward.
But, how then do you motivate them to leave a lounging space? Well, the availability of food. Strategically placing hay on the ground throughout the track encourages the herd to keep moving for forage. Jamies suggests owners only put enough hay out to feed all the horses for a day. He also suggests a trial and error method to determine the number of piles and amount of hay per each.
However, one thing is for sure. Avoid placing hay in designated camping spots so the horses do not stay lounging all day. The only time to place food in a sheltered spot is during extreme weather.
Options for creating varied terrain for paddock paradise
While food is an excellent motivator, more stimuli can be created by adding features of interest to the horses. These features include places to bathe, get out of the sun, roll in the mud, and obstacles to walk over.
What makes paddock paradise fun is the design is totally up to you. Some features of interest to consider are:
Ground texture: Bricks, pea gravel, asphalt, mud, sand, hard ground, river bed
Obstacles: Trees, fallen trees, large rocks, hills, ground poles
Shelter: Trees, backs of buildings, sheds
Water: Existing creek, pond, or man-made 1-3ft deep
Mud: If you don’t have a pond, consider allowing a water trough to overflow daily
Limiting grass: box blade scraping, complimentary feeders (sheep, goats, cattle)
You can also have fun by changing items present in the track on a monthly or quarterly basis. New features to discover will keep you horse entertained.
What Behavior Can I Expect on the Track?
When you first put horses on the track, expect a dominance hierarchy to be set. This could include fighting between the horses to work out who is the alpha. Jamie suggests turning all the horses out in a large play field to give them enough room to run and set a pecking order.
Second, expect the horses to find their favorite camping spots on the track. These places may be different that the ones you initially designate. Be prepared to move electric fencing around to enlarge these resting areas and tighten other areas.
Also, if you use a lot of ground texture in your paddock (pea gravel, rocks, etc.) pay attention to how your horses behave. If they outright refuse to continue on the track, chances are the texture is too much. Plan to gradually increase the texture of the track to slowly strengthen their feet over time.
Finally, expect to see the horses spending 95% of their time walking, eating on the move, or resting. If you observe too much walking, expand the track width. Conversely, if horses are resting too much, consider reducing hay pile size and adding more to encourage movement.
Interestingly enough, Jamie also mentions that the horses like to travel in a clockwise pattern.
Jamie urges us to consider conventional boarding methods like stalls, small paddocks, and large grassy pastures as inhumane ways to keep horses. He encourages us to create a confinement system that incentives horses to act as they would in the wild. In his own words:
“Our challenge is to create a living space that suits the equine mind, and not ours. More specifically, one that triggers in the horse natural behavioral responses to his environment. I believe the problem with most equine confinement systems today is that they either outright obstruct such responses, or reward the horse to disengage from them.”
Paddock paradise is one way of providing horses with a confinement system that fits their instincts. Moreover, it gives them what they desperately crave: socialization, a routine path to follow, movement, and a diverse environment. If you are interested in trying paddock paradise at your own facility, I recommend reading Jamie’s book. You can find it here on Amazon.
If you are interested in horse property design, consider checking out my article on how to get natural light into a barn.