Barn Improvement

Whether nice or necessary, there are ways to improve the safety, usefulness, environmental impact, and aesthetics of your barns and stalls.

As our understanding of horse health and behavior has improved over the years, barns have changed--a lot. No longer are they just places to house horses. Today’s owners now approach barns and other farm structures with horse and human health, environmental impact, efficiency, and economics in mind.

“People are extremely particular, they have a critical eye, and demand more from their facilities,” says Dennis Marion, owner of Innovative Equine Systems, in Minden, Nev. “They spend more time with their animals, treating their barns like home.”

This evolution has prompted the development of products to meet these demands, from modern building materials, to gadgets that reduce environmental impact, to items that lighten the barn chore load.

Linda Royer, founder and co-owner of Equine Facility Design in Oregon City, Ore., says, “I think owners are more knowledgeable about things like ventilation, good lighting, and health and safety aspects of stabling beyond just the basic housing of horses, and this has come through better education from books and publications.”

Built to Last

When it comes to stall and fencing materials, most people think of the classic look of wood. And although it’s aesthetically pleasing, any owner knows how much damage equids can inflict on those rustic-looking boards, and they’re familiar with the maintenance that’s involved to keep wood safe and appealing to the eye. “Even the hardest hardwood I’ve seen horses damage, so my absolute favorite material for stall walls and fences is HDPE (high-density polyethylene), which is recycled plastic milk jugs that are made into lumber and fencing components,” says Royer.

This material is ideal for stalls and fencing because of its durability and rigidity, she says. “Horses can’t chew or destroy it.”

It’s also thicker and stronger than PVC and comes in a variety of colors, although she warns that in humid climates green scum can form on white fencing, and it will require cleaning a few times per year.

Another drawback: It’s more expensive than lumber, but Royer says it’ll last much longer. “It’s a very durable and worthwhile investment,” she says.

Marion adds that soon there will be materials that will improve upon HDPE. “To us, it’s a little too brittle, but in the future there will be flexible materials,” he says.

Let There Be Light

Another building material that manufacturers have improved is the translucent material used in skylights in barns and indoor arenas. In the past most builders used fiberglass, but that material comes with some problems, notes David Tubach, owner of Point to Point Builders in Fairfax, Va. “The old translucent panels yellow and leak. Now they make a polycarbonate panel that’s totally clear,” he says.

Tubach uses a product called SunSky, which is resistant to yellowing and up to 20 times stronger than fiberglass.

“The problem with fiberglass is that over time it dries and cracks from sun exposure and changes in temperature,” adds Royer.

She prefers a composite product called Kalwall, which uses the sun’s energy to heat, cool, and naturally light buildings. “Even on a cloudy day there’s no need for artificial lights,” Royer says. This is because the panels have millions of prismatic glass fibers embedded in them, which refract daylight into light that can be put to practical use. In fact,she says artificial lighting would only be necessary at night.

The goal is to get maximum daylight into the building to minimize artificial lighting.

Not only can this trim electric bills, it also reduces energy consumption, making a facility more environmentally friendly.

Going Green

“Lighting is an emerging frontier of research for energy efficiency, and there are a number of things on the horizon for general use in horse facilities,” says Royer.

Currently, Royer’s company is evaluating induction lighting, which she says is more energy efficient and has a much longer life span than traditional fluorescent lighting. Basically, induction lighting is a fluorescent light without the parts that cause a bulb to burn out frequently–the filaments and electrodes. An induction bulb can last for about 100,000 hours, or more than 11 years if used 24 hours per day. A traditional fluorescent bulb lasts about 20,000 hours.

Not only does this reduce landfill waste, it also reduces maintenance because bulbs in hard-to-reach places, such as arena ceilings, need changing much less frequently.

Royer also installs motion sensors that activate lights in tack and feed rooms. These ensure if the room is not occupied, the lights shut off. “It can mean a significant savings for a facility,” she says.

Owners have found other products that have reduced energy consumption. Alayne Blickle, program director of Horses for Clean Water and owner of an environmentally friendly farm in Maple Valley, Wash., says one of her favorite “green” products is a geothermic waterer called MiraFount.

The waterers use underground warmth, transferred through a tube, to keep water cool or warm. “They’re so chore efficient and environmentally sensitive,” she says.

While these waterers warm water to some extent, Blickle admits that frigid days might necessitate a backup electric heater.

Piling Poop Properly

Other items are helping horse owners reuse and recycle horsey waste. 

When Denise Harris and Ronelle Amon built an 18-stall boarding facility, Triple J Ranch, in Issaquah, Wash., this year, one of their concerns was responsible manure disposal. Harris notes that the stable area is three to four acres, so there’s not much space for long-term manure storage.

Having the manure hauled away was going to cost up to $1,000 per month, so they sprung for an aerated composting system, O2Compost. The system uses an electric blower to cut composting time in half, says Harris. In just over a month, she can have a product that can be used as a fertilizer. “We’re planning on having our local 4-H club sell it as a fundraiser,” she says.

Lightening the Load

Harris has incorporated another unique product that has made her job easier. “When we were planning our facility, our goals were functionality, efficiency, and the ability for Ronelle and I to be the only two workers in the barn,” she says.

“We didn’t want to be forced into a situation where we had to hire someone because we weren’t able to do a job,” she adds.

With that need in mind, Harris and Amon invested in products they felt would save them money in the long run. They pur-chased automatic feeders for the stalls, allowing them to feed six times a day; Harris and Amon feed three times manually and the feeders administer three supplemented hay feedings. “It saves on an incredible amount of labor and allows us to not have to hire an extra person,” says Harris.

They also ditched traditional rubber stall mats for lightweight interlocking mats. The Frelonic mats weigh 35 pounds and are three-quarters of an inch thick. “For us to haul around 100-pound rubber mats is physically demanding. With these, we can move them around easily,” she says.

According to Harris, the cost was no more than it would have been for traditional mats, and she hasn’t had to hire someone to lift or move them out of stalls and entranceways for cleaning.

Marion describes another workload-reducing stall floor; he says this one reduces barn dust and eases mucking duties. Innovative Equine Systems’ Versatile recycled rubber tiles can be hosed down, with waste washing down a drain. “Most people aren’t used to this style of stall floor, it’s too civilized for what’s been used in the past,” he says. The system involves gluing the nonslip tiles to a recessed concrete or asphalt floor and installing a solid waste drain in the stall “that will go into a septic system or greywater system,” says Marion.

The user can sweep bedding away and hose the stall down regularly to reduce dust. “Most facilities today don’t pay enough attention to dust, and respiratory health in horses is a huge concern,” he notes.

In With the New

While many owners are willing to try new products, it can still be a challenge to shift the mainstream tradition-based horse world toward using something new. 

For example, Royer has installed Kalwall panels for a decade, but she finds they’re still not widely used, despite the fact they’re not much more expensive than fiberglass and provide more benefits. “People are used to seeing fiberglass, so everybody did what everybody else did,” she says.

Even Harris admits she was hesitant at first in taking risks with products she hasn’t seen in other barns. “The mats and feeders were a significant financial investment, but these products will pay for themselves with the savings in the cost of labor,” she says.

“People are used to seeing the same things when they walk into barns. It’s getting people through that learning curve, that … these things work,” adds Harris.

Take-Home Message

There are many products that can be used in a horse barn and stall to enhance safety, environmental friendliness, aesthetics, or ease of labor. What will work in your situation depends on your needs, geographic location, barn setup, and ability to invest in equipment and renovations.

About the Author

Liz Brown

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