How Safe is Your Barn?

Barns can be elaborate statements about our love for our animals and our economic status. In terms of equine health and safety, the best solution is one that works, not necessarily the most impressive or expensive one. Often, spending more money on the barn does little or nothing to improve the contribution of the building to the health and safety of the occupants. In fact, less is better--except in matters of structural soundness, doors, and hardware.

Horse biting cord

From the major structures to the details, make sure your barn is truly safe for your horses.

The horse is comfortable in a wider range of temperatures than we are. While they might need protection from extremes of heat and cold, the climate in most of North America is well suited to this animal. When allowed to grow hair in the winter and shed out in the summer, they have the natural ability to maintain body temperature. It is a human foible to constantly modify our environment with clothing and shelter.

Given those facts, let's address what the horse actually needs to ensure his health.

Shelter by Any Other Name

Basically, shelter is a windbreak and a place to get away from the elements. The key is to allow your horses to adapt as much as is practical to your natural climatic conditions, then construct your equine housing and develop a management program that interferes with this process as little as possible.

Your geographic location will affect many of the decisions made regarding the type of shelter you have for your horses. Barns in hotter climates should provide shade and ample air movement for temperature control and ventilation. Barns in cold climates should offer a windbreak and maximize utilization of the sun. Insulating the space occupied by horses is neither needed nor recommended. Moisture becomes trapped and builds up, which is damaging to your horse's health and your building's structure.

Our own tastes, comfort, and economics dictate quite of bit of what we want in a barn. Much of what we add to basic equine shelter tends to increase the dangers of injury and illness, not decrease it. Whether you are building a new barn or using an existing structure, there are important issues to consider.

Choosing the Site

If you're building a new barn, health and safety issues should be part of the equation in determining the location. Easy access for trailers, emergency vehicles, and maintenance equipment is essential. Be prepared to provide good roads and sufficient room to turn vehicles around, preferably without backing, in any kind of weather.

Proximity and access to paddocks is also important. Since many accidents occur when leading horses to and from turnout areas and the barn, any area where hand walking occurs needs to be as flat as possible with good footing, minimal obstructions, and sufficient lighting.

Site selection also allows you to take advantage of your climate's positives and minimize the negatives. For example, aligning the main aisle parallel to the prevailing winds serves to allow breezes to flow through. Designing the main aisle perpendicular to prevailing winds will help break the wind. Even areas in the north have hot summers, so the usual orientation is to align the aisles with the prevailing winds for summer cooling. Use full-width aisle doors that open fully in summer and close tightly during the winter.

Maximize natural light as you choose the site. That just makes good economic sense. Good lighting helps horses and handlers see surroundings better. Skylights are a useful way to take advantage of natural light, although care must be taken during installation to avoid leaks.

Overall site drainage is important to everyone's health and safety. Wet or damp areas provide a breeding ground for mold, bacteria, and insects, as well as increasing the overall humidity in the barn. Good surface drainage away from the barn, and a roof with adequate overhang, are a good start. Gutters are not often used as they require frequent cleaning and, along with poor surface drainage, encourage mosquito breeding and make mud holes at drain sites.

Improving the site of an existing barn is often possible. The same principles apply within the constraints of the existing structure. Access roads can be changed, fencing moved, trees cut or planted, and surrounding grade modified. Use your own judgment rather than assume your predecessor selected the best combination of these factors. A foot of fall to 12 feet of horizontal direction pitch away from the perimeter of the building in all directions allows good positive drainage while providing a comfortable slope (see "Grade Away From the Barn" below). If you are against a hill, you should provide a few feet of drainage away from the structure before sloping up a hill.

General Construction Issues

The structural system of either your new barn or your plans for modification of an existing building will be determined in part by budget and aesthetics. However, the most important concern should be the structural integrity of the building for withstanding fire, wind, and storms. Since barns tend to be large structures, they are targets for wind and lightning damage. Various building systems lend themselves to the creation of safe and healthy barns. The significant issues are budget, integration into surrounding environment and structures, and personal taste.

Masonry structures (those made of brick, concrete block, or stone) are excellent choices for barns. They impart an impressive sense of permanence, but can be expensive and difficult to modify later on. Low maintenance and ease of cleaning make them the choice for many commercial horse operations where those factors make economic sense to justify the expense.

Proper masonry construction requires steel-reinforced concrete footings designed for local soil type to determine load-bearing capacity and climate. You must ensure the foundation is below the frost line. In addition, all openings and corners used for equine traffic should be smooth block with radius corners called bull nose block (see photo on page 40). Existing corners can be ground to a rounded shape using a hand-held electric grinder.

The joints of all masonry should be properly tooled when laid so no sharp edges exist. Split-face (rough-textured) block, while attractive, should only be used on exterior surfaces where there is no equine traffic.

Steel structures, if properly engineered, can be extremely safe. Although expensive, this type of construction also provides low maintenance (except for occasional painting) and easy cleaning. The ability to create large, open roof spans makes steel the preferred system for riding arenas. It should be designed for wind and snow loads in your area and installed by an experienced contractor. Like masonry, it requires reinforced concrete footings, but only at the columns and other load-bearing points.

Although steel makes an excellent structural system, steel siding is often dangerous if not adequately protected from horse kicks and abrasion. If your turnout area or paddock adjoins your barn, sharp edges at laps (loose overlapping, or hanging panels) and corners must be protected. Part of your regular maintenance routine should include frequent, even daily, visual inspection of these areas for damage. Steel sheets should never be used as a stall liner without protection from another strong--yet forgiving--material such as wood.

Steel roof panels, commonly used in all types of barn construction, must be securely fastened to the roof framing to withstand wind damage. During storms, flying sheets of roofing have been known to cause serious injury to horses in nearby paddocks. If your existing building has metal roof panels, inspect the fasteners and
replace loose nails or screws at least annually. Use a slightly larger screw in the same hole to ensure that the new fastener grips the framing below. Pay particular attention to the leading edge of the roofing material at eaves and gables where the wind is most likely to start to peel it up.

Wood is the structure of choice for most small barns as it is initially less expensive, and later is relatively easy to modify. However, depending on design, wood can be high-maintenance and difficult to keep clean. Termites are a serious problem in many parts of the country with untreated wood. The structural damage they cause is nearly invisible at first and can lead to serious deterioration before detection.

Post and beam or pole barn type structures require less expensive foundations, but you still must take into account the climate and conditions of your site. Wind and snow loads in your area--as well as the unique forces that a large animal can impart--will dictate the size and type of lumber necessary. Wall posts, including stall corner posts, should be no smaller than six by six inches and be made of structural grade material.

Interior Barn Layout

Efficiency and safety should determine barn layout. Most horse barns are double-loaded center-aisle design (stalls on each side) for efficiency. A straight aisle with doors on each end allows vehicles such as tractors and pick-up trucks to access the interior of the barn. There are other layouts that work well, especially for smaller barns. In temperate climates, barns consisting of single-sided open front stalls with no aisle--but with a good roof overhang in front of the stalls--can be attractive and economical.

Stalls should be located for convenience in the daily movement of handlers and animals. Tack rooms, wash stalls, and equipment storage areas should be suitably located for humans as well as horses. Ceiling heights or the underside of the roof structure should be a minimum of eight feet within stalls and higher, if possible, in aisles. This increases the flexibility of these spaces and reduces the likelihood of injury to a rearing animal.

Hay storage within the barn is a controversial issue. Many horse owners believe that hay storage should always be in a separate structure due to its highly flammable nature. But if your operation is small, this might not be possible. You can store hay in your barn by managing the risk: Place your hay in a well-ventilated area within the barn to allow heat to dissipate as the hay cures. Stack the bales loosely to allow air between them and leave the sides open. Never allow smoking, and minimize electrical devices that can generate a spark near hay storage areas. Do not leave radios or other appliances plugged in these areas. Keep hay storage areas as clean as possible. Remember that curing takes place the first few weeks after hay is made, and it is the curing that generates heat.

Stalls placed within structures such as arenas or larger, multi-purpose barns present a different set of issues. Sometimes your existing barn is just too big to use solely for horse housing. For example, tobacco or dairy barns make wonderful horse barns, but are often quite large. Dust can be a serious problem when stalls share space with a horse exercise area, arena, or run-ins. If you are using a building with extra space, consider these guidelines:

  • Separate areas of the barn where dust is generated from the area where horses are housed by interior partition walls.
  • Never store materials that are highly flammable or discharge fumes in the same barn with your horses. Examples are fuel, paint, and many agricultural chemicals. Storage of machinery with engines and batteries such as tractors, trucks, mowers, etc., should be discouraged.
  • Do not allow unused areas of the barn to become so cluttered or coated with dust that they become a fire hazard.


Inspect your barn, aisles, and stalls--whether new or existing--for the tips of nails, lag bolts, or other sharp items that could snag horseflesh. Inspect the ground in and around stalls for nails that might have gone flying during construction or maintenance. Dragging a strong magnet through the dirt can catch nails and metal shavings that you can't see. Do not expect that everyone who works on your barn understands the potential for the career-ending injuries that these items can cause.

Hooks, hangers, etc., should never have sharp, protruding edges or corners. Rubber wall-mounted hooks are now available and are very safe. Door latches should fold flat when closed and slide back far enough when open to not protrude into the door openings through which horses pass.

Stainless steel hardware is ideal. If that's unavailable, galvanized or zinc-coated steel will do. Most items like eyebolts, hooks, latches, and hinges are available in stainless steel. Some specialized equine suppliers even sell stainless steel salt block holders. Brass is not often used for permanent barn hardware because it is softer than steel and tends to bend or break in daily wear.


Proper ventilation is a necessary--and often overlooked--consideration for a barn in any climate. Air movement reduces moisture build-up, mold, and mildew, all of which have serious negative effects on your horse's respiratory system and general health. Proper ventilation also reduces temperature build-up during warm weather.

Soffit and ridge ventilation is the most practical solution to barn ventilation needs (see diagram below). This passive form of indirect ventilation is beneficial in moving air without direct breeze on the animals and requires no mechanical or electrical aid. The most effective barns have continuous soffit screening of at least six square feet of screening at the soffit (where the wall intersects the roof) for every 12-foot by 12-foot stall. An equivalent amount of ridge ventilation is required. The ridge ventilation can take many forms, from highly visible louvered cupolas to nearly invisible continuous low-profile ridge vents integrated into roofing material.

Horse biting cord

The most effective barns have continuous soffit screening of at least six square feet of screening at the soffit (where the wall intersects the roof) for every 12-foot by 12-foot stall. An equivalent amount of ridge ventilation is required.

The key point is that this form of ventilation requires both an input area at the soffit and exhaust area at the ridge. The natural convection created as warm air rises will cause a natural gentle flow of fresh air that will keep the barn fresh and cool in the summer without causing a chill in the winter. Do not cap the top of your stalls with ceilings that block the benefits of this type of system.

Wall ventilation should be a secondary system unless you are dealing with an existing barn where you have no choice. This is not as effective as soffit and ridge ventilation, but is useful during hot weather. Windows or exterior Dutch doors are the most common method of exterior wall ventilation (see photo on page 40). They should be small and high enough so a horse will not attempt to lean over or jump out. Avoid sharp edges and protruding hinges or latches. Fans can augment your ventilation system, but they should never blow directly on the horse for extended periods so that the horse does not become chilled.

Mesh or steel bars incorporated into stall walls are excellent ways to allow more ventilation and visibility. If used, these materials must be strong, and bars should be spaced to prevent hooves from getting between the openings.

Barn siding can also augment ventilation. It need not be airtight, just tight enough to avoid direct breezes. Older wood barns converted to horse barns often have vertical wood siding with no batten strips covering the joints. This is ideal in many climates because it allows air to move in the barn while protecting horses from direct breezes. Avoid the temptation to place batten strips over the joints to "weatherproof" the structure.

The Stall

The general size standard for horse stalls is 12 feet by 12 feet. This size allows enough room for safe movement of horse and handler in the stall and for a horse to lie down and get up comfortably without getting cast against the wall. Stalls for smaller, breed-specific barns might be as small as 10 feet by 10 feet. However, this limits the use of these barns later on for other, larger breeds.

The wall material should be able to withstand a certain amount of kicking, yet be forgiving enough that the horse isn't injured. Wood is the traditional liner, although some Thoroughbred barns are now using recycled plastic decking materials that look like wood. Real wood needs to be thick enough to avoid shattering at knots and imperfections. Using 2-inch by 10-inch rough sawn oak from a local sawmill is a good choice. If this is not available in your area, Douglas fir or yellow pine can be substituted. Soft woods such as white pine, spruce, or poplar are too brittle and will shatter upon impact from a hoof.

Masonry is impact-resistant, but can injure the kicking horse. Nevertheless, many barns use unlined masonry stall walls for ease of maintenance. Block stall walls are often painted to seal the porous surface and allow easy cleaning. If painting block, use a high-grade or epoxy paint that withstands abrasion, urine, and power washing.

Metal barn siding is not an acceptable stall liner as a horse can kick through and get tangled in the torn metal, resulting in serious injury.

Partial-height walls can allow the horse more natural social interaction with stablemates, but must be solid from the floor to at least four feet high. Above that, use steel bars, mesh, or a similar strong material that allows vision with spacing small enough that a hoof cannot get through it.

Stalls for foals must have tight mesh that baby hooves will not slip through. Stallions, mares in season, and aggressive horses should not be placed in stalls with partial-height walls. Minimize horizontal surfaces that a chewer or cribber can go to work on; these ledges also collect dust and make nice mouse runways.

Steel is best for stall doors, but wood is also appropriate if the door is properly constructed. The leading edge that the horse might brush should not be sharp. The door should be at least four feet wide with a frame at least 1 1/2 inches thick. This creates a heavy door, so sliding doors are usually preferred because they are easier to operate and do not sag. Sliding doors should have bottom guides and stops strong enough to resist kicking.

A swinging door can be used if heavy hinges capable of supporting its weight are used. It should always swing outward to allow for emergency exits in case of a dangerous animal or the need for quick evacuation. Doorway height should be as close to eight feet as your barn and stall structure will allow. Whether sliding or swinging, your door must unlatch and open easily with one hand while leading the horse.

Feed Equipment and Waterers

To the extent possible, place equipment in the corners of stalls to reduce the chance of the horse bumping into it. Flexible plastic or rubber corner feed dishes and buckets are readily available, but watch for sharp edges. They should be mounted securely using lag bolts or carriage bolts, since horses push and pull on them when eating.

Water buckets should be soft enough to allow impact without breaking into sharp pieces, and they should be securely mounted. Hooks for buckets should have a protective ring or be placed where the horse cannot "nose" them while drinking. Waterers or tanks with heaters must have wiring adequately protected from the horse and should be inspected daily during use. Plastic conduit should not be considered sufficient protection in areas where a horse might kick or chew on it.

The other general rule in placement of feed dishes and water buckets is to allow the handler to tend to them without danger of being kicked or bitten. Many otherwise docile horses become competitive and therefore dangerous at feeding time.

Stall Drainage

Horses have the endearing habit of urinating upon entering the stall. They tend to go in the same spot, and they often create a soft spot in clay or dirt stall floors that can then pool the liquid. Start with a sub-base of coarse stone aggregate to disperse the liquid. A topping must be placed over the aggregate to provide a stable flat surface. Class I sand is a fine aggregate available at rock quarries in most areas and makes an excellent stall topping that allows drainage and dispersion of liquid, and it compacts well. Rubber mats on top of this material will make the stall easier to clean and reduce the periodic need to replace the sand. If sand is used, it should be a minimum of four inches deep to reduce the chances of pawing through the material and mixing with dirt or aggregate. Even though the horses will compact the material, it is usually preferable to tamp it down prior to use to ensure a level surface.

Some expensive professional barns have "equine urinary removal systems" consisting of drain tile in a coarse aggregate sub-floor covered by rubber mats or popcorn asphalt. This is more appropriate for foaling barns and especially barns with little or no turnout. Popcorn asphalt is similar to road asphalt, but is created with a coarse aggregate, and it is not compacted as much. The resultant surface allows liquid to drain through it.

Rubber mats are a matter of personal choice, but certain safety precautions should be a matter of course. The mats should not be so smooth they become slippery when wet. No edges that could be a tripping hazard should curl up at the intersection of mats. Mats should be cut to fit the stall to prevent them from slipping on the underlying material. The mat needs to be thick enough and of a composition that will wear well over time.


Ideally, the aisles should be 12 feet or more in width, which allows vehicular traffic without stripping walls of tack, lead ropes, etc. This width also provides ample room for horses and handlers to pass each other safely.

Barn aisle doors should open to the full width of aisles and have heavy-duty sliding and latching systems capable of withstanding high wind as well as horse impact. All exterior doors through which horses must pass should be at least six feet wide to allow horse and handler to walk side by side, if necessary. Barn aisles should slope slightly to drains or exterior doors to allow hosing down as well as frequent sweeping.

If your budget will allow, pave the barn aisle rather than leaving it dirt or sand. Dust is the enemy, and unpaved aisles are a significant source. High traffic in unpaved areas leads to high maintenance. Once you make the decision to pave, there are several choices available:

  • Concrete is durable, but must be finished to a textured, non-slip surface like exposed aggregate or with heavy brooming (sweeping the wet concrete to make a textured surface).
  • Asphalt works well, but must not be rolled or compacted to the point of becoming slippery. The "popcorn" asphalt discussed earlier is a slightly different mix and is appropriate for aisles as well as stalls.
  • Concrete or clay-fired paving bricks work well and can be dry-laid on a compacted base of Class I sand. Again, make sure there is sufficient texture to the surface.
  • Rubber or other flexible paving bricks are available and can be specially designed for horse facilities. They are expensive and must be replaced periodically due to wear, but are the ultimate protection for race and performance horses.

Lighting/Other Electrical Concerns

Electrical problems are a leading cause of barn fires. Be sure that your existing barn is up to code. The main electrical service must be sufficient for current needs and be up to date. Fuse boxes are antiques--if your barn has one, get rid of it as soon as possible. All outlets should be grounded; if your barn's wiring predates three-prong outlets, then replace them. All outlets should be GFI (ground fault interrupted) due to the moisture exposure potential that exists in any barn.

Exposed Romex wiring has greater potential for damage from impact or chewing rodents, even though the electrical code might allow it in your area. Conduit reduces these dangers, and in the case of metal conduit also provides a secondary grounding system. Exposed Romex wiring in existing barns should be inspected frequently for damage. All connections to devices such as switches or lights should be in electrical boxes rather than exposed and wrapped in tape.

A well-lit barn is safer for horse and human; good lighting reduces accidents and helps the handler see injuries. Place your fixtures in locations where they are conveniently accessible for the inevitable bulb changes.

Barns are inherently dusty places. The dust that builds up in electrical devices--such as light fixtures and exposed outlets--can pose a serious risk of fire. Check and clean them periodically.

Space heaters--and especially space heaters on extension cords--are never safe in a barn. If your dogs or cats sleep in the barn, provide an appropriate shelter for them. Never use a space heater on bitterly cold nights--let your pets in the house. If you need a heated tack room or wash stall, insulate it properly and install safe, permanent heating devices, not temporary space heaters. Always keep debris and flammable items away from heaters.

Properly installed frost-proof hydrants will not freeze. If you have an unusual cold spell and must use heat tape on a hydrant, use a heavy extension cord rated for the device and make sure it is not within reach of horses, dogs, cats, etc. Remove it as soon as it is practical. Heat tape is a last resort and should be considered only temporary.

Place fire extinguishers near the entrances and exits, not in a cabinet in the tack room that would be difficult to access during a fire. They should be large ABC type units rated for any kind of fire. The fire retardant charge should be checked at least annually. You can check with stores that sell extinguishers to see where to have them checked and recharged as required.

Birds and Vermin

Pigeons can be a serious problem in some areas due to the risk of disease, such as cryptococcosis, which can result in infection in several parts of the body. Minimize ledges where birds can perch or build nests. As far as vermin (mice, rats, etc.) go, construct a feed storage area that is vermin resistant. This can be as simple as a metal garbage can with a tight-fitting lid or as elaborate as a concrete block feed room with tight-fitting metal doors. The ceiling must be vermin-proof, as well. Sweep up spilled feed around the feed storage area daily to avoid attracting these pests.


The well-maintained barn is a safer barn for horse and human. Keep maintenance in mind when designing your facility; the easier it is to maintain, the more likely it will be kept in its original condition.

Take-Home Message

Many of the concepts discussed here are common-sense items. They must become second nature to us in the same way that we have developed safe methods of horse handling, riding, and trailering.

Many businesses that have safety training for employees teach the concept that safety is a state of mind rather than a specific activity. The same is true for the horse owner.


This checklist should be used for all areas of your barn, particularly those horses will occupy.

  • Check for protruding nails, screws, etc.
  • Tighten loose bolts and screws on hinges and other devices that get daily use.
  • Check for broken/misaligned stall doors.
  • Check for loose or broken feed dishes, hay racks, etc.
  • Check stall floor condition and maintain adequate bedding.
  • Check aisleways and door openings for obstructions.
  • Check fire extinguisher charge.
  • Watch for loose or damaged siding or roofing panels.
  • Clean hay storage area.
  • Visually inspect electrical devices, lights, and exposed wiring. If a device is plugged in but usually turned off, unplug it.
  • Check storage areas for inappropriate materials, i.e., flammable items or chemicals.--David Preston

About the Author

David Preston

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.

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