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Paddock: Prison or Paradise

Written by  Nicolene Swanepoel
| in Veearts
| July 3, 2015

When we think of a happy horse, we think of large, lush green pastures. But is this necessarily true?

With ever more intensive living, few horses have the luxury to roam so expansively, or expensively. However, a recent move towards more “restricted” outdoor spaces is proving to be beneficial, possibly even better, than the spacious, traditional “ideal”.

The phrase “paddock paradise” is often used to describe this “new” system. It is also the registered trademark of the AANHCP (Association for the Advancement of Natural Horse Care Practices).

“Horses on pasturage actually move about less as their food/ grass is right in front of their noses.”

Horses on pasturage actually move about less as their food/grass is right in front of their noses. With minimal effort they get their fill. Often the grazing is energy dense as well. This can predispose to ill health, notably metabolic disease and its related pathologies, which, similarly to overweight humans, is becoming more and more common. Pastures also hold a greater danger of horses ingesting parasites. Worm “eggs”, for instance, survive in greater numbers in moist grass, especially in regularly used camps.

In a more natural state, relatively nutrient poor grass would grow unevenly, in patches, for instance in tufts on scattered bits of soil between other surfaces, such as rocks. The horses are bound to move over and through obstacles like banks of stone, loose pebbles, logs and streams in search of the next mouthful.

“They are alert, would eat a bit, stop, listen, and then take another few bites.”

In their original states horses would also be exposed to predators – this means that even with ample grazing readily available, they will not linger overly long in one area, or graze continuously. They are alert, would eat a bit, stop, listen, and then take another few bites. They tend to keep moving, almost 24/7, and eat small mouthfuls whilst on the move. They will cover up to 50 kilometers a day, mostly at a slow pace, with some trotting and a few bouts of fast running (if danger is suspected, or in play). Horses nowadays, not experiencing many real predators, have mostly become desensitized to potential danger, and are less alert and more passive.


Horses do not sleep the standard human 8 hours per night – they might sleep solidly for a couple of hours at most, and they “nap” for short bouts, regularly, if they feel safe.

Our regular, “civilised” equines will lazily cover a maximum of a few kilometers a day on planted grazing, or stand in a stable stuffing their faces with concentrate or quality hay readily available in a feed trough, and perhaps get exercised for an hour or so, a few times a week.

A paddock paradise system approximates a more natural state – lanes are created which horses must move through before they can access bigger camps. Smallholdings have “mazes” that will maximize the distance between the points of food and water. The surfaces of these lanes are variably taken over, or enriched with smooth gravel, sand pits, cobbles pebbles, logs, streams or ponds. Hooves get strengthened from walking over a greater variety of surfaces. Areas to roll and sturdy scratch poles, if big trees are not available, are also included. Take the lanes over hills, or create embankments that promote climbing, for natural muscle strengthening.


Horses are encouraged to move by having hay at one end of a lane, water at the other, and mineral blocks or licks on another area. Less energy dense food is fed from specially designed hay nets, slow feeders and clever feeding containers which make the horse work harder to get its fill.

“Bear in mind that complex objects might also put your horses at risk, for instance a hoof might get caught in fencing.”

Bear in mind that complex objects might also put your horses at risk, for instance a hoof might get caught in fencing, or in a hay net, so ensure that objects and spaces are created with safety as a priority.

In essence, one wants to exercise the horse physically, but also mentally. If designed correctly, the system should stimulate constructive social interaction. Let the corridors flow. Design the system in smooth curves rather than with sharp angles and corners. Avoid dead ends where a bully might corner and possibly hurt a more submissive horse, or spaces where horses might mill about and might get injured.


In between lanes, have larger open areas or smallish paddocks, to allow play and more vigorous movement, typical during social interaction. Short tracks of straight lanes can stimulate the horse to run, so make sure the surfaces in this “run” are firm for secure footing.

Lanes’ width should vary. Narrower tracks stimulate faster paces; where they widen out they might slow down and socialize. If too narrow, less compatible horses may feel forced together and might be more inclined to pick a fight. Horses who are incompatible should not be in the same paddock system.

Of course, for adverse weather, access to a suitable shelter must be available. However, avoid enclosing the horse in a stable for a prolonged period of time. Ideally, the horses can choose whether to go into the shelter or stay outside.

So, the good news for people with small spaces is that we can now use some creative thinking to construct more ideal horse environments. The fortunate few who have large grazing camps should put on their thinking caps to try to “make life a bit more difficult”, in a good way, for their steeds.

Enjoy the work, enjoy the ride!

Websites and recommended reading:

(Study these web pages critically – some features might not be ideal, or 100% safe in your specific situation. You need to ensure that your design and objects provide optimal safety.)




Ideas for layouts:


A half hectare example:



A simple slow feeder. The horses are slightly frustrated, as the bag moves, but it makes them work, walk, think, and eat more slowly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvUqKB-_WOw

Practical store bought and home made hay nets and slow feeders:



More about metabolic disease: