Stall Stuff

The care of horse stalls is an inherently messy part of horse management. There are a variety of opinions on how to cope with this daily chore. Let's face it: urine and manure reek. Additionally, an excess of these two elements creates unsafe and unhealthful conditions for the animals in our care. Therefore the issue deserves attention. Let's dig a little deeper.

The average 1,000-pound horse creates about 30 pounds of manure and 2.5 gallons of urine for a total of roughly 50 pounds of waste per day. That equates to about a cubic foot of material, before taking into account the soiled bedding re-moved with it. If the horse is turned out a portion of every day, all of this product might not be deposited in the stall, al-though many horses seem to prefer to save it until they can deposit it in the stall. (If the horse is light gray, it probably also enjoys lying in the mess.)

Solutions to this problem must take into account the unnatural condition that stalls create for the animal. Instead of the nearly constant motion of a horse in the open, the horse in a stall is pretty stationary. This reduces blood circulation and creates stress on his complex and fragile musculoskeletal suspension system, resulting in "stocking-up" and other health problems.

Horses often take advantage of the sense of safety that a stall seems to give them to lie down. The act of lying down and getting back up places additional stresses on joints, tendons, and ligaments, as well as causing scrapes and friction burns.

Basic Stall Floor Construction

Stall flooring materials can be impervious or porous. Concrete is the most common type of impervious flooring. Con-crete must be at least four inches thick to prevent excessive cracking or weak spots. Resilient floor mats are recom-mended for this type of floor to ease joint stress and reduce friction when the animal lies down. Bedding must be thick enough to absorb liquids sufficiently to avoid slippery mats, unless floor drains are installed in every stall.

Asphalt stall floors are common in some areas. In theory, the asphalt consists of a coarser mix than that used for pav-ing, and you compact it less during application. The resulting "popcorn" asphalt allows liquids to drain through to the coarse stone bed beneath and disperse gradually into the soil. Care must be taken to prevent thin spots in the asphalt (less than 2 inches), as this will wear prematurely and create holes with rough edges. This system works well for years if properly installed, but the rough surface can cause abrasion. The solution is thick bedding or, once again, floor mats.

Often natural materials are used for stall floors. Clay or sand are the most common. In either case a layer of highly po-rous material needs to be put down underneath to allow for natural drainage into the soil. At least 4 inches of gravel should be placed below the topping material.

Sand is easier to grade and easier on the horses legs than clay. Sand that is washed free of dust and other "fines" will not compact easily and will tend to move. Many quarries sell a version of "Class I" sand that includes the fines, and this material compacts well and retains its shape.

Clay tends to get soft when wet, inviting the development of holes and uneven floor surfaces.

In any case, these types of floors require regular maintenance and are often used in conjunction with rubber mats. Natu-ral sand or clay are not ideal for foaling or quarantine stalls used that require periodic disinfecting.

Brick or rubber pavers are often used in aisleways, but they are expensive and drain poorly--therefore they are not a wise choice for use in stalls.

Types of Floor Mats

Grid mats are constructed of rubber or polyurethane and are designed to be placed on a compacted porous base and topped with sand or clay. The openings allow for drainage, while the grid reduces damage from pawing or traffic. This im-proves the characteristics of a totally natural floor surface while maintaining porosity. Some owners of concrete floors have drilled a pattern of holes in the concrete and placed grid mats filled with sand on top. This creates drainage while providing a more natural surface for the horse to stand on than cold, hard concrete. Care must be exercised to replace grid mats when worn, or holes can develop with jagged edges of grid material.

Solid rubber mats can be placed on porous or impervious floors. The mats themselves are impervious and usually sized in a manner to allow for joints in the stall area that will allow limited drainage. Rubber mats in wash stalls with concrete floors typi-cally have 1-inch or larger holes drilled in them in the area of the drain to allow for more rapid water evacuation. These mats are made from a variety of materials, often recycled.

Mats range from one-half inch to 1 inch thick and should be textured on the surface to reduce slipperiness. If the mats are placed on an impervious floor, the underside should be grooved to allow urine to escape. The cushioning provided by rubber helps reduce joint stress, which makes them a favorite for racehorse stalls.

Good-quality rubber mats are expensive and heavy in weight. A typical 4-by-6 mat can weigh as much as 100 pounds. In addition to durability, the weight helps reduce (but not eliminate) creep and curl. Some owners prefer interlocking mats placed on sand or clay floors.

Wall mats might be a consideration, especially if the stall walls are constructed of an unforgiving material such as concrete block. Horses tend to kick the stall walls when adjacent horses threaten their sense of territory or simply out of impatience at feeding time. A solid kick can cause a career-ending injury to a performance horse.

Generally wall mats are similar in material to solid floor mats--although often without a textured surface--and they should be of a material that will not stretch due to their own weight or rubbing by the horse. Stall pads are also available that are similar in construction to gym wall pads.

Either type should be fastened securely, especially along the top, to prevent bulging and keep debris from getting trapped behind them. Wall mats are not recommended for installation over wood walls because moisture can remain trapped behind the mats long enough to create unhealthful conditions and cause the wood to rot.

Stall Watering Systems

Climate, management system, and cost determine whether an automatic watering system should be considered. Many large commercial horse operations prefer the manual water bucket system even though it is labor intensive, because it allows the staff to monitor water intake of each animal and ensure that mold and bacteria, and dead bugs, rodents, or birds are removed regularly. Freezing pipes are a consideration as well. Electric heating of pipes and watering devices is expensive and potentially dangerous when damaged. Nevertheless, automatic watering systems are popular and can be safe if properly installed.

Automatic watering systems should be smooth and safe, including a protected valve assembly and heater that a horse cannot chew into.

Both automatic waterers and water buckets need to be placed far enough from the feed bucket or hay feeder to prevent the horse from dribbling food into them while eating. Both types need to be checked daily and kept free of contaminants and algae.

Ideally water buckets should be flexible with no sharp edges and hung in a corner using three recessed hooks--one on each wall and one in the corner--to keep the bucket upright and secure.

Feed Buckets or Trays

Generally the same concepts for water buckets apply to feeders. Place them far enough away to prevent dribbling feed into water buckets, secure them with recessed or protected hooks, and ensure that they are flexible or rounded with no sharp edges.

Some commercial horse farms use feed bags instead of buckets or trays. These are hung outside the stalls when not in use so that each animal's special feed ration and associated medicine can be prepared in his own sack. These bags can be emptied into the feeder, or there are special models that the horse can wear on his face.

Hay Feeding

As with most other care and maintenance issues, the feeding of hay generates much discussion. Some managers prefer providing hay in hay racks, bags, or nets off the ground to avoid ingestion of dust and keep hay from getting soiled. Others claim this is not a natural position for the horse to graze and it increases respiratory problems caused by breathing accu-mulated dust and other contaminants in the hay.

If wall-mounted systems are used, the bottom of the device should be roughly wither height on the horse to him from getting a leg caught during a kick or other acrobatic incident.

Some farms construct hay mangers from wood with a bottom shelf or tray to catch leaves that drop off the hay (and might cause the horse to forage around the stall bedding for those tasty morsels). The vertical slats are narrow enough that a hoof cannot get caught. They are placed lower than hay racks, but still tall enough that the horse cannot get a leg over the top. The shelf at the bottom needs to be cleaned regularly to prevent mold from developing and accumulation of dust, both of which can cause health problems.

Miscellaneous Stall Hardware

Stainless steel is the preferred construction material for all types of hardware items. If a stainless steel item is fastened to your stall wall, use stainless screws or bolts whenever possible. Plain steel, even with a good paint job, will eventually cor-rode, especially if it comes in contact with urine, feed, and water. Rubber or plastic items should be attached with galva-nized or stainless fasteners.

Stall grilles, doors, and latches must not have edges that will cause injury to the horse. Interior stall door latches must allow for quick and safe emergency exit by the handler, while at the same time being flush with the door. A fractious horse in a confined space can be life-threatening. Slide latches work especially well.

Windows are difficult to make safe in a stall. Dutch doors present some of the same problems. Horses are naturally inter-ested in what is going on outside. Any opening through which the horse can stick his head and neck invites leaning, scrap-ing, head-banging, and other dangerous pursuits.

Fixed windows with heavy-duty grilles work best, but skylights are a better choice. Individual exterior sliding stall doors with grilled windows are expensive, but work well. Any glass, even behind a grille, that is less than eight feet above the barn floor should be tempered for safety. Never put glass, plexiglass, or polycarbonate below four feet off the floor in a barn due to potential intersection with a hoof.

Tie rings, if used, should be strong and either recessed or fold-flat types mounted at wither height.

Many managers feed salt in the pasture or in the feed bucket. If you wish to feed salt separately, small salt block feeders are available in stainless steel. Place in a corner, if at all possible, due to protruding square edges on most of these feeders.

Take-Home Message

Think safety first when considering your stall appointments. If it can happen, it generally will with horses around. After that you can balance economics, ease of use, and style. Once a stall is constructed, it generally remains unchanged for years as other horse management issues come to the forefront. Therefore it makes sense to spend the effort to research available products and select those that fit your operation.

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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