Any way you look at it, building a barn is a major undertaking. Doing it right the first time, to avoid headaches later, is the smart approach. In addition to the usual considerations of location, aesthetics, cost, and convenience, if you’re building a facility to house breeding stock (broodmares, foals, yearlings, and/or stallions), there are other factors to take into account. Are all your fixtures as safe as possible, especially in terms of the unpredictability of young horses? Are your stalls of sufficient size to house mares with foals at foot? Are you able to disinfect your foaling facilities properly, or isolate a sick horse from the rest of the herd? Can you safely handle your stallion, and provide him with an opportunity for turn-out and exercise? Do you have the proper facilities for the type of breeding you wish to do? These are just a few of the many considerations you’ll have to take into account.

Safety and hygiene are of heightened importance on a stud farm, where opportunities for the spread of infectious disease, and for accidental injury to horses and personnel, are everywhere. Young horses are volatile creatures; so are stallions. And while a gravid broodmare normally might be a placid creature, she needs plenty of room to maneuver.

Because horses frequently are shipped in and out of breeding facilities, the chance of viral or bacterial disease being introduced from an infected arrival is a constant threat. Respiratory viruses can be disastrous to foals, and equine herpes virus (also known as rhinopneumonitis or "rhino") can move through a broodmare band in an "abortion storm" with devastating results. All of these factors have to be taken into account when you are designing a farm for breeding stock.

A Segregated Community

While smaller breeding operations might, by necessity, all be housed within one structure, most larger farms find that the ideal setup is one where broodmares, yearlings, and stallions are housed in separate barns. This allows for the setup of paddocks for each group (barren, maiden, and pregnant broodmares in one group, mares with foals in another, yearling fillies and colts separated, and stallions turned out individually) as well as limiting the spread of disease. If one horse in a given setup becomes sick, it is likely that all the other horses in that barn have been exposed--but that barn can be quarantined from the rest of the farm, so it doesn’t put the entire operation at risk.

The chance of disease being spread also can be minimized by keeping each barn small (for instance, two six-stall broodmare barns rather than one 12-stall setup), each outfitted with its own equipment, and sometimes, each barn with its own staff. Some larger breeding farms, for example, have one broodmare barn for "visiting" mares which come to be bred, then ship out again, and another for the farm’s own band, which is managed separately. The building of a separate quarantine barn, removed from the other horses on the property, is another option.

Even when horses are vaccinated religiously for equine herpes virus (EHV1), meticulous attention must be paid to management and housing. The virus can be acquired through direct contact, from the air (although it has a limited range), or indirectly through the use of items that have been in contact with an infected horse (buckets and brushes, for example). Other viruses of particular concern to breeding farms include rotavirus, which can cause severe foal diarrhea (scours), and Rhodococcus equi, which can cause life-threatening pneumonia in foals.

When mares and stallions come together, there also is the risk of sexually transmitted disease, such as equine viral arteritis (EVA). Just as in humans, the symptoms of these diseases might or might not be obvious--so painstaking attention to hygiene is crucial for mares and stallions. Not only should both be washed thoroughly before coming in contact with each other, but the wash facility should be built so it easily can be disinfected and scrubbed.

Other basic hygiene details include avoiding the use of moldy feed, bedding, or hay, keeping feed storage facilities clean, and avoiding a "deep litter" system of bedding. Straw generally is considered the best bedding for a foaling mare, because it is non-abrasive. Shavings can become drawn into the vagina during the foaling process. But otherwise, shavings, shredded newspaper (if printed with vegetable inks only), or peat moss might be better bedding choices for a breeding operation, as straw usually has a high dust and mold quotient. Ensuring adequate ventilation in the barn is another way to help cut down on airborne pathogens, not to mention discouraging the molding of bedding and feed materials. Beware the heavily insulated barn with condensation droplets on the ceiling, for such a structure is a prime breeding ground for respiratory problems among its tenants.

Management of horses always is simpler when basic behavioral needs are satisfied. Lots of turn-out provides both exercise and socialization for broodmares and youngsters, as well as minimizing the barn chores. Depending on the climate in your part of the world, your broodmare band might be able to live outside for a good part of the year, coming in only when close to foaling. Yearlings also can live outdoors in segregated herds (fillies with fillies, colts with colts), provided there is adequate shelter for rough weather. Two- to 2 1/2-acres per horse is considered adequate grazing space in most circumstances. The fencing should be maintained carefully in order to offer enclosures that are as safe as possible (most farms consider oak board, high-tensile PVC, or small square or diamond-mesh fencing the best choices for breeding stock). If your horses are stabled much of the time, try to construct your stalls so that some visual and physical contact between horses is possible--open bars at the tops of stalls at least allow horses to see and smell each other, and Dutch doors (or those that have an open window at the top) can go a long way toward preventing horses from developing neurotic vices when indoors.

It almost goes without saying that your animals’ grazing instincts should be satisfied by providing adequate forage (pasture or hay), and that your barn should have enough windows and artificial light that it doesn’t resemble a dungeon.

Details, Details

John Blackburn, a Washington, D.C., architect whose company has designed breeding facilities from Kentucky to Texas, says that most farms consider 12 feet by 12 feet a standard size for a box stall suitable for a yearling or an "open" mare, although many Thoroughbred farms err on the side of generosity with 14 by 14 stalls. Mares with foals might need more room, however, particularly if the foal is going to stay with his dam six months or so; some builders recommend 14 by 16 feet or even 16 by 16.

If breeding your mares early in the year is a consideration, you might have to resort to artificial methods to induce estrus. Photoperiod (number of hours of exposure to daylight) is the primary factor governing ovulation in mares, so when sunlight is scarce, breeders can "fool" the mare’s system into responding by rigging up extra lights in the barn. Standard light bulbs or fluorescent tubes in each stall will do the job. Extending the "daylight" to 14-16 hours per day in late November and December usually will prompt a mare to ovulate in January. Or you can expose her to 2.5 hours of extra light after sundown, or one hour of exposure nine to 10 hours after sundown (easily done with plug-in timers)--any of these strategies will work. As with anything electrical in a barn, make sure that cords and wires are well out of horses’ reach.

Foaling stalls can be either specially constructed, or converted by removing a wooden partition between two regular stalls. In either case, a foaling stall should be located toward the center of the barn, near the office or a place where the foaling mare can be observed unobtrusively by the farm staff. Hygiene is of paramount concern in a foaling stall, so it should be constructed of materials that make it easy to clean and disinfect. Walls made of raw wood or concrete block are porous and notoriously hard to clean; but wood treated with wood filler (to fill in knots) and two to three coats of varnish is a good approach, as is concrete block painted with three coats of enamel paint. Floors can be coarse asphalt or limed clay, and thickly bedded. Foals born in the early winter months are susceptible to hypothermia, so concrete floors, which are cold and unyielding, should be avoided. (Many farms install quartz-halogen radiant heat lamps in the ceiling of their foaling stalls; if you do so, make sure the wiring is well out of reach of horses.)

A note on disinfectants: pine oil, while it smells nice, is not an effective germicide. Look, instead, for phenolic compounds such as Lysol or Tek-Trol. The active ingredients on the label should have a -phenol or -phenate suffix. Use according to the manufacturer’s directions, scrubbing down the foaling stall before and after each foaling. (For further information on disinfection see Getting The Germs Out in The Horse of November 1997)

Stallions, Too, Have Special Housing Needs

"The stallion stalls we design are often 16 by 16 feet," says Blackburn. "A stallion is usually a bigger animal, as well as a little more rambunctious, so he needs a little more room to move around."

In addition, most stallions get limited turn-out, usually on their own in a paddock isolated from the sight of mares or other stallions. If a stallion stall must be constructed in a mixed-housing situation, Blackburn recommends placing it at one end of the barn, somewhat isolated, in order to keep stress levels (for both horses and humans) to a minimum.

The type of breeding you are doing will dictate the other amenities your facility will need. Farms breeding by live cover usually construct some sort of breeding shed, either as a separate building or attached to one end of the stallion barn. (On a small farm, the breeding "shed" is often just a designated corner of a riding arena.)

"Breeding sheds are different on every farm," says Blackburn, "because farm managers each have their own preferences."

Two essentials, however, are adequate room for the handlers of the mare and stallion to work safely around the animals, and some sort of non-slip footing, which can range from shavings to rubber mats to synthetic bricks.

If your horses are bred by artificial insemination, some sort of "phantom" mare will be required for the stallion to mount. These can range from elaborate, custom-made designs with adjustable angles and heights, to "homemade" models created with a couple of logs or a 50-gallon drum and a wrap-around mattress or padding. In addition, it’s valuable to build a padded barrier behind which an in-season mare can stand. Her scent will help incite the stallion to be collected. (Such a barrier also can be used as a teasing board to detect estrus in mares.)

Although they are rare on Thorough-bred farms, many Standardbred operations have found it useful to install a set of breeding stocks on the property. Stocks are made of padded steel pipe and are designed to hold a mare relatively immobile for palpation or insemination. They can be particularly valuable when a handler or veterinarian must work alone, since they make it very difficult for a mare to kick. The pipe must be set in concrete, but non-slip footing (usually a rubber matting) within the stocks is a good idea.

Any farm that is dealing with cooled or frozen semen will want to build a lab immediately accessible to the breeding shed. The setup within can be as basic or elaborate as your needs and budget will allow, but cleanliness is crucial--something that is sometimes difficult to control in a barn situation! Consider a set of double doors, almost an "airlock," to help keep the normal dusts of a barn environment from invading delicate equipment.

Blackburn notes that many larger farms consider their stallion barns the showcase of the property.

"In terms of the layout of the barn and the fittings, the stallion barn is where the money, and the thought and energy tend to go," he says.

A broodmare barn, while perhaps not as elegant, must be carefully designed, as well. Inconveniences and forgotten details can often be difficult to correct after the fact, but a well-planned, thoughtful, and functional layout will be a pleasure to work in for years to come.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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