As living spaces go, a box stall is a pretty basic thing. A square enclosure with a door,  a couple of bits of hardware from which to hang buckets, and maybe a window--that's it, right? Well, yes, it is, on the surface. But there's a little more to it than that.


Stall design
Bonnie Nance photo

That stall is very likely the place where your horse is going to spend the bulk of his existence as a domestic animal. Even if he is turned out every day, and exercised regularly, up to 16 hours of his daily life could be whiled away in that familiar, small space. So, it's not a bad idea to put a little thought and planning into its design, both to ensure his comfort and his safety, and to provide you, his handler, with as much convenience as possible. Here are some things to consider when you design your horse's living space.

Basic Dimensions

The ideal size for a box stall might vary, depending on the size of the horses it's going to house. For ponies and compact breeds, such as Morgans or Arabians, a 10 feet by 10 feet space probably is sufficient, but for most horses over 15 hands, the accepted standard is 12 feet by 12 feet. Jumbo-sized warmbloods and draft breeds might be better off in a more spacious environment, perhaps 14 feet by 14 feet (the preferred size, as well, at many Thoroughbred and Standard-bred breeding farms). If you plan to house foaling mares or stallions, you might want to have available at least a couple of stalls which are 16 feet by 16 feet. On the other hand, miniature horses are perfectly content in stalls only eight feet square.

If you're building stalls in an existing barn, you might have to work within the limits of the supporting structures that already are there (such as weight-bearing walls or beams). That might make it impossible, in some cases, to make your stalls square. Consider the width of your central aisle, for example--you want it to be at least eight feet across in order to be able to maneuver horses, wheelbarrows, and buckets without feeling short of elbow room. If you plan to drive a truck or tractor down the center aisle at mucking time, it will need to have even more generous dimensions. That could mean that your stalls take on a rectangular rather than a square shape, but that's not the end of the world. A great many stalls make up in length what they lack in depth, and a stall which is 10 feet by 14 feet can be very workable. But unless your equines are seriously on the compact side, try not to make your stalls any narrower than 10 feet--or they will have trouble turning around, lying down, and getting up without becoming cast (stuck on their sides with their feet wedged against the wall and no way to get a purchase to regain an upright position).

In terms of ceiling height, more is better, both in terms of horse safety and ventilation. Ten feet is considered a bare minimum (and might be all you can hope for if you're building stalls in an old bank barn). If you can raise the ceilings farther, you'll minimize the risk of a horse whacking himself in the head should he panic and rear, and you'll also allow for better airflow over the tops of the stall partitions (which only need to be about eight feet high in most cases). Higher ceilings also mean wiring and light fixtures will more likely be out of harm's way--although, of course, you should consider how you're going to change those lightbulbs if they're suspended 14 feet high!

Most architects agree that stall doors should be at least four feet wide--wider if you're housing draft horses. Otherwise your horses run the risk of banging a shoulder or hip every time they enter or exit, and that can quickly lead to handlers being run over by panicky equines anticipating pain! You might like the traditional look of Dutch doors that swing out into the aisle (never into the stall--if a horse became cast against the door, you would have no way of entering to help him up), or you might prefer sliding doors (which generally are more expensive, and sometimes somewhat cantankerous, but much easier to maneuver around); larger operations, such as big boarding or breeding farms, often choose the latter because it makes it much easier to drive a tractor and manure spreader down the central aisle at mucking time each morning.

Stall doors tend to take more abuse than the rest of the stall structure, so make sure they are rugged, and choose a latch that is suitably "horse-proof" and has no dangerous, protruding edges. This can be as simple as a pin that slips through a drilled hole, or as elaborate as the gravity latches installed with many "pre-fab" doors.

Consider, too, whether you want to provide your horses with a chance to make contact with their neighbors and with you, by building stall partitions that don't go from floor to ceiling, and making at least part of the stall front open (with a window or a "gossip gate" type door). Dietmar Dombkowski, president of Equi-Master, a Calgary, Alberta, firm that designs and builds stables, says, "Ninety percent of our customers, when they're first asked, say they want solid walls for partitions. But I always recommend that they give their horses the chance to socialize and just to be horses. We tend to put (horses) behind bars and treat them like prisoners. But horses housed in an open-front design are far happier. Their mental attitudes improve dramatically when it's possible for them to socialize. We know this in Europe, where stall partitions are often only five feet high."

Even stallions, says Dombkowski, can adjust easily to having contact with their stallmates, and within a few days of living in an open-front stall, no longer squabble with their neighbors or reach out to nip passers-by. One exception to the partial-partition recommendation is foaling stalls. A foaling mare feels considerably safer when she has some privacy from the rest of the herd and from imagined predators--so in a foaling stall, you might wish to make the partitions solid to a height of eight feet or so.

Although Equi-Master makes available several types of stall fronts and partitions, Dombkowski's favorites are the European designs, which not only feature relatively low tops, but also front sections that he describes as being shaped like three sides of a honeycomb. "Horses don't walk in squares, they walk in curves," he notes, "and these fronts allow that more naturally."

Materials And Methods

Whether your stalls are built of wood, metal, concrete block, or wire mesh will depend on your budget, your climate, and the look you're going for. Lumber is the traditional choice, of course, and easily available across North America, but it does have its downside; it's not kick-proof, and it's difficult to thoroughly disinfect (which might make it a poor choice for foaling stalls, for example). In addition, Dombkowski notes, oak (considered one of the most durable and horseproof woods) is becoming increasingly expensive, costing three times as much here in North America as it does in Germany. Less sturdy woods, such as spruce or fir, might be cheaper, but also might not stand up to the repeated punishment horses can inflict. One solution Dombkowski offers is rough cut lumber, covered by galvanized metal sheeting, which adds durability and helps prevent horses from chewing.

Galvanized steel theoretically is rustproof, but it's important that the galvanizing process is done after the metal is shaped. Steel that is first galvanized, then cut, will have raw, ungalvanized edges that are vulnerable to rust, particularly in coastal areas where the sea air can behave almost like acid. Dombkowski notes that ammonia can have a destructive influence on ungalvanized metal, corroding and rusting edges in as little as three months. Consider that a motivator for scrupulous stall cleaning! Powder-coated steel should be avoided, according to Dombkowski, because a horse easily can scrape the paint off with his teeth and leave the metal vulnerable to rust. Even if your equines are well-behaved, rust tends to bloom in the tiny spaces between the powder dots. "It will look like hell within two years"he says.

Properly galvanized steel can withstand almost anything a horse can dish out. In some ways, however, that can be a disadvantage. Welded steel grills, for example, which often are used for the top half of a stall to provide visibility and ventilation, can be a deathtrap if a horse should get a foot caught between the bars. Many owners make the mistake of thinking that a horse could not possibly trap a hoof several feet above the ground--but they can, and they do! A grill with one-piece construction will not release should a horse get into this predicament, and the resulting struggle could prove fatal. If you're planning to use metal grillwork in the construction of your stalls, choose a grill with closely spaced bars (Dombkowski recommends pipe at least one inch in diameter, spaced at no more than three inches apart, center to center--or 21-2 inches, center to center, for foals); or go with close-spaced steel mesh instead.

Concrete block stalls are rugged and easy to disinfect, but tend to make for a chilly environment. For that reason, concrete is a better choice for a hot, humid climate. There, it will have another significant advantage--it will tend to stand up well to tropical storms and hurricanes (most barns on the island of Bermuda, for example, are made of concrete). Concrete severely limits air circulation--so another popular choice in warm, sticky parts of the world is steel mesh from top to bottom. Such a stall allows for maximum visibility (great if you want to keep an eye on a weanling, for example) and airflow, but does tend to let bedding material spill out of the stall and into the aisle.

One relatively new material for stall fronts and partitions is polypropylene, popularly known as "plastic boards." Tested in Europe for more than 10 years, they're just starting to make an appearance in North America. While they are quite expensive (costing about four times what construction with pine boards would, or about 40% more than oak), they are no-maintenance and extremely safe, according to Dombkowski. The individual plastic panels are approximately 11-2 inches thick, and are hollow (they're supported by a web of tiny struts and chambers inside). They snap together in a tongue-and-groove fashion that won't loosen even with the impact of a kicking horse, but can be taken apart and moved around if necessary. They have a little flex, for added safety, they're chew-proof, and they come in an array of brilliant, never-fade colors, from hunter green to royal blue to red, to match your stable colors.

The Air In There

A ceiling that drips condensation on you is a sign that the ventilation within your barn is inadequate. In order to allow six to eight air changes per hour in your barn, which is the minimum experts recommend for good equine respiratory health, you'll need to position inlets (where cool air enters) and outlets (where warmed air exits) throughout the building. Their exact placement will depend on your climate and the local topographical features and prevailing winds--so they might end up in the stalls, or perhaps just at either end of the building. You also can space the doors and windows in each stall to take advantage of maximum airflow (keep in mind that fresh air and drafts are not the same!). If you live in a hot, humid part of the world, you might wish to install additional vents about two feet from the floor of the barn (an approach that is especially good for foaling stalls, since foals don't benefit much from airflow through windows high in the walls).

Keeping the air circulating is key not only for your horse's respiratory health, but also your own.

What's Underfoot

Which flooring do you choose for your stalls? Whatever you use needs to be non-slip, provide good drainage, be tough enough to take abuse (including the occasional horse with a predilection for digging craters), forgiving on equine limbs, and easy to muck out and clean. Comfort and durability are going to be your major considerations.

One of the simplest options is dirt flooring. It's relatively soft (and thus inviting for horses to lie down on), but not quite as low-maintenance as it first appears--because unless your soil is extraordinarily well-draining, you'll end up with swampy areas where urine has pooled through the bedding. To avoid this, dig a drain field in each stall--make a hole about three feet in diameter, and deep enough to reach a well-draining layer of soil (usually a couple of feet), fill the hole with big chunks of gravel, tamp it firmly into place, then cover the hole over with dirt to make a smooth surface. Alternatively, you might wish to lay a six- to 12-inch layer of fine gravel or stone dust under the whole of the stall floor. It also will help to pack your flooring in a gentle slope (about three degrees at most--any more will put a strain on your horse's legs) from front to rear in each stall, or toward one corner, where you can provide a drainage outlet to the outside.

"Baseball diamond" type hard-packed clay is the best soil to use for a dirt floor, as it only needs to be reworked about once a year. Pack it firmly with a heavy pounding tool or motor-driven "settler," keeping water and some extra loose clay on hand to adjust the consistency of the floor as necessary.

If a dirt floor just won't work for your operation, you might wish to look at something more durable, like concrete (tough, but cold and very hard on equine limbs, and slippery as well unless you texture it with a rough surface when you pour it), wood (easier on your horse's body, but slippery and prone to rotting), or asphalt ("warmer" than concrete, hard on the legs, but providing a good non-slip surface, especially if you use the porous "popcorn" asphalt, which has large particles and is raked on installation, rather than rolled).

If you must lay a hard surface such as concrete or asphalt in the stalls (as you might if you have a breeding operation and need to be able to strip and disinfect stalls from top to bottom), consider the use of rubber matting to help cushion the floor, and bed deeply in order to make the floor more comfortable for your horses.

Let There Be Light

Lighting (or the lack of it) can make a barn either a delight to work in, or a dungeon. Quite apart from your own troubles if you are continually groping in the gloom, horses are instinctively afraid of dark, enclosed spaces--so it's important to make your barn look airy, bright, and inviting. Use natural lighting as much as possible--it's cheap and pleasing to the eye--and interestingly, sunlight is a powerful deterrent to many airborne viruses and bacteria. Incorporate lots of windows throughout your barn for extra sunny ambiance. However, if you install them in your stalls, place mesh or grilles on them to prevent your horse from coming in contact with glass, or use plexiglass or another unbreakable material.

Windows should never open into the stall; use sliding windows, or have them open out on the outside of your barn. Alternatively, you might choose to give each stall its own Dutch door leading to the outside; this arrangement does double duty as a window and an exit to your paddocks.

Even with good use of natural lighting, you'll still need to install some light fixtures for those after-dark (or before-dawn) chores. Whether the fixtures you choose are incandescent or fluorescent is a personal choice; their positioning is the important factor. Better to err on the side of too many fixtures rather than too few; you should plan for a minimum of one light, every 10 feet, in the aisle, and one per stall (unless your stalls have only partial dividers, in which case you can position an overhead light above the partition and illuminate two stalls for the price of one). Remember that horses cast large shadows, so they will block substantial amounts of light from a side-mounted bulb. Better to locate the light fixtures directly overhead whenever possible. Protect the wiring and cover the bulb itself by enclosing it in a wire cage, plastic shield, or other protective arrangement. (Place them as high as possible--a rearing horse or a carelessly wielded pitchfork can break a bulb or fluorescent tube more easily than one would suspect.)

It goes without saying that all electrical wiring in a barn should be encased in metal conduit to protect it from the predations of both horses and rodents. One chewed wire has the potential to kill a horse and burn your barn down in one fell swoop. Unless you are an electrical expert, wiring is one area of the building process you might wish to leave to the professionals. Be particularly careful with any wiring that enters a horse's stall; boredom often is the mother of disaster.

Hardware Tips

In terms of interior fittings, your choices are as many and varied as your local feed store or tack shop can come up with; just keep in mind that you want to have as few projecting surfaces as possible inside the stall. Enclosed screw eyes, with double-ended snaps, are a simple and convenient way to hang water and feed buckets. Corner feeders are another popular option, but keep in mind that if you install a feeder permanently, it will be more difficult to clean. Choose a salt-block holder that has no sharp edges when empty; you never know when a salt block will crumble in the middle of the night.

Most people prefer to feed hay on the ground or in a haynet, but if you do wish to install a hayrack, choose one with bars wide enough that a horse can't get a foot caught, and position it so that the hay isn't above your horse's head (a situation that allows particles and dust to fall into his eyes as he eats).

Keep in mind that if you decide on steel as a building material, it might be very difficult to install fittings later--so you'll want to incorporate all your bucket hangers and assorted doodads in your original design. Wood, on the other hand, allows for more flexibility, since it will easily accept nails or screws.

Whether you choose to install automatic waterers, or water by bucket, is a matter of individual preference. Waterers are wonderfully convenient--when they work. Unfortunately they can be problematic, either failing to refill or clogging up and overflowing--or freezing solid in winter. You'll need to check them frequently to ensure they remain in good working order, and it's a good idea to supply each with a separate shutoff valve so as to reduce the chances of a flooded stall. Watering by bucket is the more work-intensive way to go (especially in winter), but it has the advantage of no moving parts, and does make it easier to monitor your horse's water intake.

On the outside of your stalls, you might want to install hooks for hanging halters, or perhaps a blanket rack. But Dombkowski recommends keeping such hardware to a minimum. "I tell clients to keep the front walls clean; a horse loose in the aisle can easily run into anything that protrudes and injure himself."

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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