Barn Upkeep/Equipment

Installation of high-quality products and regular maintenance can save you time and money, while providing a safer environment for your horse.

No matter what type of barn you have, there is always maintenance you need to perform in order to keep the barn safe and comfortable for your horses. Dave Preston, a longtime horse owner and contractor living in Central Kentucky, has been involved in a number of barn building projects, including some $750,000 Thoroughbred barns near Lexington, as well as smaller barns for his family and friends.

"My big issues, whether it's a new barn or makeover for an existing barn, are drainage and ventilation," Preston says.

These important factors play a role in health issues for horses. Any building can be created or improved to satisfactorily accommodate adequate drainage and ventilation. He says you need to provide drainage away from the building on at least a one- to six-degree slope, and you need to get good nondirect ventilation.

"Anything beyond these two factors is just common sense to make it as safe as possible for horses," Preston adds. "For example, I've poured concrete aisles and used exposed aggregate to give good traction. When finishing it, just brush and wash it enough to expose the stone to make a rough, nonslip surface. If it's a masonry barn, use bullnose (rounded) block on all corners so there are no sharp corners a horse could hang himself on. Make sure all hangers and door hardware, etc., lie flush. Try not to have horizontal surfaces and ledges that cribbers can get hold of."

The Little Things

Often it's little things that make big differences. "The hooks you hang buckets from in a stall need to be recessed or the kind with a ring on them so the horse can't brush against the hook and hurt himself," Preston says. "There are many safety- minded products available; you can find them on the Internet and catalog markets."

A key factor in safety and comfort is regular maintenance. Bob Coleman, PhD, a horse extension specialist from the University of Kentucky, says this is often not a primary consideration, but it's something horse owners and managers always need to be thinking about. "When doing renovations, look for materials that will be maintenance-free or last a long time," he states. "It may be more expensive (for the initial outlay), but we often don't think in terms of the longevity of a door, stall panel, or equipment we'll be using in the stall and the repair or replacement costs.

"We have to spend money wisely and not overspend, but also need to look at the maintenance on down the road," he continues. "Can I paint it every few years rather than every year? All too often we're saving money today, but it will cost us more tomorrow."

For long-lasting, maintenance-free barn features, choose galvanized or stainless steel products. "Corrosion is always a problem" says Preston. "If something rusts, it can create a sharp, rough surface that might injure a horse."

When building or repairing and remodeling a barn, available materials, such as steel versus masonry versus wood, have pros and cons. "Wood is generally the least expensive, but the highest maintenance," explains Preston. "Masonry is generally the most expensive and the lowest maintenance, and steel is somewhere in between. But you need to line steel siding with wood or something else that's safer for the horse. You never want a stall with just sheet metal walls." That's because a horse could kick through the metal and injure himself.

"If you line (metal buildings) with wood, it must be heavy enough that when it's kicked, it won't splinter," he says. "We are lucky here to have rough sawn oak and other hardwoods available. If you use pine, fir, or some of the other soft woods, you need at least 1½-inch thickness, minimum, and for pine that's probably not thick enough."

The main thing is to be resourceful, using local materials (less expensive than something that must be hauled from far away). "There are always geographical differences on what's available, but also think about what would be safe for horses, and how much maintenance will be required," says Preston.

Inspect Regularly

Preston advises regular periodic maintenance inspections. "Police your barn on a regular basis," he states. "Nails and screws work loose. Soon the head is sticking out a quarter inch. If you check these and pound them back in, they'll be good for another year or so.

"In my own barn (originally an old tobacco barn), I have to go through every five years and replace about 10% of the boards on the exterior, and completely repaint the barn," explains Preston. "It's a wood structure, and five years is about all you can get from a paint job. Taking care of horses is a lot of work, and taking care of the buildings is another whole subset of work."

Interior Efficiencies

"If you're putting stalls in, make sure door openings are at least 4 feet wide so you can safely lead a horse in and out without you or the horse getting banged," reminds Preston. "Your doors need to be 8 feet high and ceilings even higher in case a horse rears. Make sure there are no wall openings (or spaces between bars on stall fronts or sides) big enough to get a hoof caught. Don't use large mesh, hog panels, or anything else a horse can get a foot caught in. Make sure that with every bit of construction and maintenance you do, you try to think of things like this: What is my worst idiot horse going to do? Even then you won't foresee everything, but you'll prevent most injuries with good design and good maintenance."

Coleman says it pays to look for features that can make caring for the horses more efficient. "Some people like swing-out stall feeders, even though they cost more," he notes. "These can save time because you don't have to go into the stall to feed."

Feed mangers are another item of concern for horse safety. "I'm not a big fan of having the hay manger up on the wall, nor of just feeding hay on the floor," says Coleman. "There are some ground-level mangers that reduce hay waste and stall cleanup time." If there is hay all through the shavings, it will slow you down if you are using a fork that's not designed to pick up hay.

Everyone worries about a horse putting a foot into a manger that's on the ground. "There are some smooth-sided ones (some are molded plastic) that are very safe," Coleman says. "Horses can put a foot in these and pull it right back out and not get hurt."

Regarding mats, Coleman says look closely at products available, how well they fit, and the surface you'll put them on. "Mats need to be on a firm, level surface," he says. "It doesn't have to be concrete or asphalt, but it does need to be a well-prepared surface with good drainage." (See article #9676 at for more on mats.)

"Many fires are caused by overloading extension cords (which tend to overheat)," says Coleman. "When using an electrical appliance, plug it directly into the power source, not an extension cord. I've been in barns where extension cords were run across the alley or up over the rafters. The octopus of cords is a dangerous fire hazard. If you are renovating a barn and don't have enough outlets, put in a new panel so you can redo wiring and put in more outlets. Run it through conduit and make it safe and durable."

Also make sure you have adequate sources of water--stall waterers or a frost-free hydrant--and put the latter in a safe and convenient place. "When you evaluate a product or consider making changes to your facilities, it pays to see it being used on someone else's farm," notes Coleman. "Ask people their opinions. Visit friends to see how they've done things in their barns. If you have a chance to visit larger facilities, ask what they like about a certain feature in barn or stall or if there is anything they would change if they could do it over. You might also watch how they go through their routine at the barn; you may see something that works for them, but realize you can't do it that way." Or you might realize they have some innovations you could benefit from. You also could see what years of wear and tear do to a certain item or feature--whether it will last or hold up over time and use.

Take-Home Message

Regular maintenance checks and repairs will not only save you time and the cost of minor repairs turning into major repairs, but it will reduce the chances of your horses getting injured. If you're planning to renovate, consider safety of the animals and people, and if, perhaps, using a better product (i.e., more expensive) could actually save you money in the long run.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog,, she writes a biweekly blog at that comes out on Tuesdays.

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