Barn Design Tips: A Place to Call Home

Constructing horse shelters is an art form almost as old as the domestication of the horse itself. Whether considered a member of the household, a sporting partner, or a tool for work, we have always created a "place" for our horses. While today we have a greater variety of materials and equipment available for creating that special horse place than in the past, the principles remain the same: safety, ease of use, and maintenance.

Barn Layout

Caring for horses properly is a lot of work. You might love the smell of the barn and be invigorated by the exercise now, but that might not always be the case. Therefore, careful planning of your barn for efficiency will pay dividends over the years.

Placement of the barn in a convenient, well-drained location, close or adjacent to turnout areas should be your primary consideration. Access for hay, feed, or bedding delivery vehicles is important. Try to put the structure downwind from the house, if that is nearby. Since fungus and mold are enemies of horse health, make sure drainage allows moisture to escape. Utility access for water and electric service will be important as well.

Design the floor plan to minimize the number of steps you will take every day. Often this leads to the traditional center-aisle configuration with stalls and utility spaces on each side under roof, maximizing the useful space, efficiency, and ease of stall care. This design provides every stall a side facing the aisle and a side facing outdoors for access, ventilation, and natural light. Another option includes back-to-back stalls that open to the outside only (often called a shedrow). This arrangement is commonly used at competition barns and racetracks where vehicular access near the stalls is important. If your horse-housing requirement is limited, the stalls can be a single row, often with an extra roof overhang over the side with door openings.

Less-common designs include round barns with a center area for access, and "racehorse-style" barns with back-to-back interior stalls and an aisleway around all four sides of the exterior stall walls.

If you have internal barn aisles, make them straight and wide enough for tractors or pickup trucks. Aisleways and door openings should also be wide enough to allow handlers to safely lead a less-than-attentive or uncooperative animal through. While you might think your horses are easy to lead, consider the behavior of sick, visiting, injured, or frightened animals. The general rule for aisles is to provide 12 feet in width and 10 feet in height, if possible. It is desirable, although not necessary, to be able to drive all the way through the structure and out the other side. Backing a hay wagon in a straight line can be a challenging experience.

Use nonslip floor surfaces and always pitch the floor to drains or toward the outside. There should never be standing water where you will lead a horse. Options for aisles include popcorn asphalt, exposed aggregate concrete, soft or hard paving brick, or Class I sand. Dirt or clay makes a poor aisle material and, along with sand, can cause a dust problem.

Good lighting combined with good housekeeping, especially in traffic areas, increases safety as well. To the extent possible, eliminate or pad sharp edges and corners. Lay out the barn to make traffic patterns as direct as possible.

The Stall

This is the heart of your barn and should be well-thought-out. The 12-foot by 12-foot stalls have evolved as the standard in barn design because they will accommodate all but the largest draft horses. This size will increase the long-term value of the barn by allowing future buyers of your property flexibility of use. Foaling stalls need to be slightly larger. Often this is accomplished by using a removable partition between two standard stalls.

The door to the stall should be four feet wide and eight feet high. Usually sliding doors are used for safety and durability. Latches should be rugged and positioned so the horse cannot scrape against them and injure himself, or fidget with them and escape. Since the horse associates the door with leaving the stall, it tends to receive abuse from kicking or pushing at feed or turnout times. Therefore, it should be designed for this abuse.

Our stall doors at home are field- constructed heavy wood doors with steel grilles on heavy-duty track. We cover the edges of the door with angle iron where the horses tend to chew on the wood. Several manufacturers build high-quality steel stall door and track systems in several price ranges that should also be considered.

Stall flooring is a much-debated subject directly related to your philosophy of horse management and health. Hard floors, such as concrete or asphalt, require the least maintenance, but they can put stress on equine hooves and joints. Drainage can also be a problem, although asphalt can be placed that is sufficiently coarse to allow some moisture to evacuate. The average horse produces 30 pounds of manure and 2.5 gallons of urine per day. The portion of that material that ends up in the stall will be removed by hand in the form of soiled bedding material, or it will soak into the ground as liquid. Often compacted Class I sand or fine ground stone is used over coarse rock to create a floor that drains. This type of floor is economical, but it also requires regular stripping and replacement of the floor surface. Stall mats can be used over any type of surface to reduce maintenance and ease stress on joints.

Stall accessories such as water and feed buckets, hay racks, and salt block holders are largely a matter of personal management style. They should be easily accessible from the stall door and have no sharp edges or projections that can lead to injury of horse or handler.

Utility Space

Tack room Every horse barn needs a tack room. The amount of "stuff" you need to store is directly related to the amount of space you provide. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if there is excess space in the tack room, it will fill. Some tack rooms are pretentious displays of wealth with trophy racks and conditioned air, while others are strictly utilitarian in nature. In any case it should be bright, well-ventilated, and convenient to the location where you tack up. There should be shelves, hooks, and racks enough for all of your equipment. The tack room also needs to be secure from the elements, rodents, and thieves. A locking cabinet for first-aid supplies, etc., is a handy component.

Hay storage This is another area of considerable debate. Large horse operations store hay in separate structures for accessibility and to reduce fire risk. This might not be practical for the smaller horse operator. Plan to store hay in a well-ventilated, easy-to-clean area with good access. The more air moving around the hay, the lower the risk of fire or mold. Access for a hay wagon or truck should be simple and direct. Overhead storage is less commonly used than in the past for the same reasons.

Wash stalls Considered a luxury by some and a necessity by others, wash stalls are typically the size of a conventional stall. They should be constructed of water- tolerant materials such as concrete block, with concrete floors sloped to trench drains designed for this use. Many localities require these drains to be connected to a septic system. Hot and cold water can be provided, often through frost-proof valves if the space is not heated.

Equipment and tool storage Designate a space to store shovels, brooms, pitchforks, wheelbarrows, hoses, ladders, spare light bulbs, and all of the other "stuff" that does not belong in the tack room. If you do not provide a space, these items will end up in the aisles and become a hazard. To the extent possible, store gasoline or diesel equipment somewhere other than the horse barn. The risk of fire is greater when they are present, and the inherent dustiness of barns is not ideal for the machinery.


Now that you know what's going in the barn, what will it be made of? Basic material selection is determined by style, initial expense, maintenance requirements, and climate. Some materials do not lend themselves well to horse barns. Avoid wood stud walls like those in your home. Walls must be sturdy enough to be kicked, chewed, rubbed, and leaned on by horses and, occasionally, people. Wood structures should be post-and-beam construction using a minimum of 6-inch by 6-inch posts. Larger barns will require even larger framing members. Wood interior and exterior walls between the posts should be heavy lumber at least 2 inches thick. Wood siding requires regular painting and often tends to rot in areas where moisture is present. Barns with pre-finished metal siding must be lined with wood at least 4 feet high in the stalls. If the turnout area is immediately adjacent to the barn, metal siding can be hazardous due to sharp edges and fasteners.

Initially, concrete block is a more expensive wall material than wood. But block has better moisture and acid resistance than wood, and horses don't tend to chew on it. It does require properly designed footings (for laying the block) and should be reinforced with rebar (a rod or bar used for reinforcement in concrete or asphalt pourings), but when installed properly, it remains attractive for many years. If unpainted or unsealed, concrete block can absorb moisture and odor. If sealed, the block can simply be pressure washed regularly.

Roof structures are typically wood framing. The interior height of the barn should be at least 8 feet at the eaves. Ventilation should be provided at the ridge and eaves to allow constant air movement. Shingle and metal roof panels are acceptable materials, and skylight panels are a popular option. Metal roof panels should use screw fasteners instead of nails to reduce wind damage. Provide plenty of pitch to the roof (6/12 or more, meaning the roof rises 6 inches vertically for every 12 inches horizontally). In addition to shedding rain more efficiently, the height creates better airflow from the eave vents.

Other Considerations

Building permits are a fact of life in most locales. Instead of avoiding a permit, embrace the concept and pick your building official's brain. He or she has probably seen what does or does not work well in your area and can be a good resource.

All wiring should meet electrical code. Use dust-resistant light fixtures and place all wiring in conduit, even if your local code does not require it. Rodents and dust are facts of life in every barn. Put in a larger electrical service than you think you will need because eventually you will need it.

Don't forget to budget exterior items such as road and utility improvements to the barn site, fence and gate modifications, exterior waterers, landscaping, and reseeding. These costs are commonly underestimated and can affect where you place the barn.

Take-Home Message

Barn design is to horse owners like house design is to the rest of us. There is a tendency to think we know all we need to know about design because we have been around these kinds of structures so much of our lives. We know what we like, and we can describe it to a builder. The truth is, if you are unsure of what to do with your barn design and the structure will be larger than a two-car garage, it might be time to consider a barn contractor and/or architect who understands--and has actually built--horse barns. Selection of a design professional is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that you might have to interview several before you find a good fit. Horse barn design experience is a must. The price tag will be 7-12% of construction cost, but it can be well worth it for a solid set of useful plans from which to build.

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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