Photo: Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief
You can create a functional, safe barn in an existing structure on your property with some practical, inexpensive, and uncomplicated modifications. You don't need to strain your budget to alter some features of the building that are important to the safe and healthy housing of your horses. There are several specific areas in your barn to address:
- Structural problems;
- Lighting and wiring;
- Chewable surfaces;
- Grain storage;
- Clear aisleways; and
- Storage of hay and shavings.
Shoring Up Support Posts
Serious structural issues and questions are best addressed by building professionals before you try a quick fix, which might do more damage. Having said that, however, there is one area of concern that can and should be tackled before you undertake the other changes suggested. One of the most common problems found in older barns is deteriorating support posts and/or framing. Wood structural members on or too close to the ground or exposed to weather might have visible rot or termite damage, which seriously weakens the overall integrity of the structure. If the building has actually settled as a result of the damage, it might have to be jacked back into place as part of the repair. Usually, this can be accomplished with inexpensive hydraulic jacks and temporary posts or shoring.
Your building needs to be supported while the damaged material is replaced with concrete or treated lumber where the main supporting timbers meet the ground or floor. The excavated soil and new material must be capable of supporting the load expected of it. Therefore, always dig out more than the depth of the previous material. If the problem is settling caused by poor soil, the solution is more complex. The choice is to excavate until adequate bearing capacity is found or design a different foundation system for the supports that spread the weight over a larger area.
The photo at right will give you an idea of one way of repairing this problem. If this type of alteration is beyond your capabilities, contact a contractor. Let him or her know what you need and get a clear idea of the cost before the project is started.
Safe Lighting and Wiring
One of the most overlooked areas of barn safety in the older barn is lighting. Just because the lights come on when the switch is flipped does not mean the wiring is safe. Follow the wires and inspect the path they follow to the breaker box. Look for rodent damage to wiring and excessive dust build-up in electrical boxes and fixtures. Any wire within reach of horses, equipment, children, dogs, hay bales, and/or feed containers should be protected by conduit.
Ensure that the electrical service to the barn is adequate and up-to-date; this might mean hiring an electrician to inspect the service.
Often a change of use in an existing structure presents new risks. If you are adding water in an area of the barn where it did not previously exist, make sure the outlets in that area are ground fault protected. Make sure switches have weatherproof covers and are outside splash range.
When replacing or adding light fixtures, several factors should be kept in mind. In theory, barn lights are not left on unless someone is in the barn. Energy efficiency is less important than safety.
One of the most dangerous conditions in a barn is dust buildup in areas where the heat from lighting also builds up when light bulbs get too hot. Bulbs can explode, showering horses and humans with glass and sparks. Other items that can cause heat buildup are bird nests or hay debris. Wire or explosion-resistant light covers are available at most retail home improvement stores as well as farm supply and electrical supply houses. With any kind of lighting, make sure to use bulbs no larger than the rating for that fixture. An oversized bulb can cause the wire in the fixture to overheat without blowing the breaker. It is more sensible to add fixtures than to overload the existing ones.
Protecting Chewable Surfaces
Horses will often chew on available surfaces while standing in their stalls. Whether damage of this nature is due to association with being fed in the stalls, relief of nervous energy, aggression toward neighboring horses, boredom, or dietary deficiencies, the resulting chewed surfaces are unsightly, unsanitary, and unsafe.
One of the best ways to prevent chewing wood is to cover or replace the enticing surface with steel, concrete, or masonry. Very hard woods like oak are also effective against all but the most determined chewers. Horizontal ledges in stalls should be eliminated where possible.
However, the preference for open-front stalls is popular for our horses, and these have horizontal surfaces. There is more opportunity for chewing damage with those types of barns.
Since open-front stalls are never safe for young, fractious, or breeding horses, every barn should have at least one stall fully enclosed by bars or mesh for visiting or new horses.
Surfaces that are inviting to the chewer can be easily covered with metal. Use material that is thick enough to withstand abuse. Galvanized sheet metal, available at larger commercial drywall supply houses, should be 16 gauge or thicker. Thinner (20 or 24 gauge) material bends easily and will result in a very dangerous condition if the edges become flared out.
A better choice than sheet metal is steel angle iron, available in three-sixteenths of an inch or one-quarter-inch thicknesses. Make sure each side of the angle iron is large enough to protect the area in question, while not so wide as to protrude.
The metal should be fastened using hardware that is safe and leaves no sharp edges. Screws or lag bolts are always superior to smooth nails, which can work loose over time. Remember, the horse will likely put his mouth on these fasteners, so there is a need to eliminate sharp edges wherever possible. Similarly, ensure that end cuts and joints in the metal you are applying are not sharp or ragged. File or grind them down if necessary. The angle iron can be painted before installation to match existing stalls.
Safe Grain Storage
Grain and supplements should be stored in containers not easily accessible to--or opened by--horses wandering out of stalls. They should be rodent- and pet-proof. Even if you don't have a feed room with a solid door that shuts tightly, there is a suitable, safe alternative solution for storing these perishables. Thirty-gallon galvanized metal trash cans are one of the best choices for durability and cost. Lids can be secured by using bungee cords hooked to each side handle through the lid on top. This will dissuade even the most resourceful of the omnipresent population of raccoons, opossums, and other critters.
Plastic and/or rubber containers are not a first choice as they can be chewed by critters and they crack in extreme weather. In hot weather, some of the commercial sweet feeds will mold or rot in airtight containers. Storing no more than the amount of grain consumed in a week helps ensure the freshness and integrity of the feed. A 30-gallon trash can will hold approximately three 50-pound bags of feed. Store the cans inside the building and away from standing water.
The movement of air in any building used to house livestock is very important to the health and well-being of the animals confined inside, especially when horses are in the barn for long periods of time. The addition of ridge and roof vents are of course the most efficient method used to move air in and out. However, open windows and doors can provide a good supply of fresh air.
If the building has a large door (or doors) that can be left open but a barrier is still needed, adding a gate can provide safety and allow sufficient air movement. An opening on each side of the structure will allow the advantage of air transfer no matter the direction of the wind.
Keeping the main aisle in your barn free of implements will allow unrestricted movement of horses and equipment. If you don't have a separate room, extra stall, or a separate storage area, hang these items out of reach of horses, but keep them easily accessible. There are a variety of hooks, hangers, and ready-made shelf systems available at hardware, farm supply, and feed stores to suit most needs. Remember to hang implements in a way that traffic through the aisle is not impeded.
Storage of Hay and Shavings
Even though hay is best stored in a separate building from livestock, this is not always possible. The next best choice would be a loft, as that way air can move over and under the stored material to keep it dry and minimize the chance for combustion. However, some farms don't like lofts because they "close in" the tops of stalls and reduce airflow, especially in older barns.
If a loft does not exist or is not a practical addition to the building, designate a space as far from the stalls as possible and stack the bales or bags on pallets or skids. These are commonly used in shipping building materials and can be acquired easily through a home improvement center or feed store in all geographical areas. Storage in this way will allow minimal airflow underneath and prevent the loss of the bottom row to moisture.
Look for a complete "extreme barn makeover" and other more comprehensive barn revision suggestions and solutions in the May 2006 issue of The Horse.
About the Author
David Preston, president of Preston Construction Group, specializes in unique commercial and equine projects. A horse owner and sportsman, he has built and remodeled several barns in Kentucky and Illinois ranging from development of complete Thoroughbred farms to small horse barns.
POLL: Managing Working Horses