Home Sweet Home

Although historically horses are free-ranging herd animals, domestic equines have learned over the centuries to take great comfort in the security of a stall. Inside a stall, there's comfortable bedding to snooze on, food and water aplenty, safety from predators, and protection from the elements. All the comforts of home, so to speak.

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Photo by Anne M. Eberhardt

The instinct to seek that shelter and safety has become so strong in our domestic horses that in the case of a life-threatening emergency, such as a barn fire, they have been known to run back into the burning building, to the stalls which, to them, represent safety despite the flames crackling all around them. This drive overrides both common sense, and the herd urge, and says a lot about how important stalls are to horses. So when we consider the construction of stalls, we shouldn't underestimate how important it is to provide a comfortable, welcoming, and most importantly, safe, environment in which our horses can live.

The Basics

A hundred-odd years ago, when horses were beasts of burden and often worked eight hours a day or more, stabling was quite different than it is now. With space a major consideration, and comfort a minor one, many working horses, when not under saddle or in harness, were confined to standing stalls' chutes, essentially, with a manger at the front and partitions between each animal to cut down on the squabbling. Inside a standing stall, a horse always was haltered and tied, and although he might enjoy enough freedom to move his head about, and lie down and get up, he couldn't turn around, roll, or nibble at an itch on his flank. Ties had to be short enough to prevent a horse from getting a front leg over the rope and panicking.

Standing stalls were convenient for handlers (an alleyway at the front of such stalls gave ready access for feeding and watering, and bedding, while generally provided, didn't need to be generous), but they were far from what we use today. While the standing stall certainly has not disappeared, today the usual stabling arrangement in North America is a box stall (often called a "loose box" in the United Kingdom). Inside a box stall, there's room for a horse to move about, lie down and get up, and scratch any itch he wants--and he doesn't have to be tied up to remain confined and convenient to his handlers.

The ideal size for a box stall might vary depending on the size of the horse it houses. For ponies and compact breeds such as Morgans or Arabians, 10 feet by 10 feet is sufficient, but for most horses, the "standard" size is 12 feet by 12 feet. Warmbloods and draft breeds might be more comfortable in something even more spacious, along the dimensions of 14 feet by 14 feet. (Many Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing stables also prefer this size.) Stallions and foaling mares might require up to 16 feet by 16 feet. At the other end of the spectrum, miniature horses can be perfectly content in box stalls that are eight feet square.

Architect John Blackburn, who specializes in horse barns, notes, "The needs of the horse don't change. What changes are the location (of the structure) and the needs of the owner." These two factors can have an influence not only on stall size, but also on a number of other choices in stall construction.

Bigger is not always better when it comes to stalls. Although a more generous-sized box stall certainly is more luxurious for your horse, you have to factor in the extra bedding it will take to cover that expanse of floor, and the extra work it will take each day to muck that stall. If you have a horse which is very untidy, it might not be worth it.

A stall that is too small also is false economy. Not only will your horse find it constrictive when he's standing, feeding, or drinking, but he'll run a greater risk of getting cast (being trapped with his feet wedged against a wall, unable to get up) if he does try to lie down and rest. Many horses won't even try in a too-small stall. Although horses don't spend more than a couple of hours a day in deep sleep, they do need to lie down to do it (they only doze when standing up with a foot rested). A horse which is prevented from lying down by a cramped environment eventually will become extremely irritable, not unlike his human counterparts in similar circumstances.

Remember that many horses spend a good chunk of their lives confined in box stalls. Even if your horse is turned out during the day, he might occupy his stall for 16 hours out of 24; in inclement weather, or when turn-out isn't available, he might be in there whenever he is not working. That's a lot of time in a small space.

Materials And Methods

One of the most important things to consider when you construct stalls is how much contact you want your horses to have. Some barns prefer to minimize contact by building solid partitions from floor to ceiling; this approach not only eliminates the chance of horses picking on each other between stalls, but also minimizes the spread of diseases that are transmitted by contact or in the air. On the downside, solid walls also limit the flow of air throughout your barn (and as we've pointed out in previous articles, ventilation in barns is a crucial factor in equine respiratory health).

The other option is to provide your horses with some opportunity for contact by leaving open the top halves of the stall partitions (from about four feet on up). Horses feel less isolated and generally are more content when they can see, smell, and hear each other, and the air exchange in your barn will be improved. You'll have to do more work as an equine social director, making sure that you position each member of your herd in a stall where he will get along well with his neighbors. Otherwise, there's potential for real injury to horses which fight over the top of the partitions, and to any human who might try to intervene.

One practical solution that might offer the best of both worlds is the installation of bars or sturdy wire mesh at the tops of your stall partitions. These don't limit ventilation, still allow horses visual and olfactory contact, but make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to do anything more than make threatening faces at each other from their respective stalls. (They do nothing to prevent disease transmission, however.)

If you do decide to limit the amount of contact your horses have with each other from stall to stall, you might want to provide them with a way to feel involved in the day-to-day workings of the barn. You can accomplish this by giving each stall a window through which they can hang their heads out into the central aisle. Half-doors (sometimes called yoke gates or "gossip gates") fulfill the same purpose.

"If you have solid walls between your stalls, we always recommend installing yoke gates," says Blackburn. "Although there are no scientific studies to back us up on this, most farm managers agree that horses are happier when they feel part of the action; a stall which is solid walls or grills all around may begin to feel very much like a prison cell. If, however, you allow horses to stick their heads out into the aisle, be aware that there's the potential for horses or people to be nipped as they pass. Building a wider-than-usual aisle, or designing your windows so that they can be closed when necessary, are two ways to address this."

Although construction materials vary from region to region, in most parts of North America lumber and concrete block are the most popular options for the solid parts of stalls. Blackburn points out that in terms of hygiene (especially important for the construction of foaling and quarantine stalls), concrete block is easier to disinfect than porous wood. However, lumber is readily available, easy to work with, more versatile in terms of custom construction details, and a popular choice for many types of barns. Grilles and bars, which can be purchased in pre-fabricated sections of various standard lengths, might be aluminum, steel, or galvanized steel. Aluminum has the advantage of not corroding, and it can be cut to length with an ordinary hacksaw, but it's a softer metal that might not have the strength to rival steel. According to Blackburn, steel also frequently has a price advantage over aluminum; that and its strength make it the material of his choice when he's designing horse stalls. If you live in a coastal area where the salt air eats away at your metal, you might want to consider either aluminum or galvanized steel.

In southern climates, where air circulation is an important comfort factor, stalls sometimes are constructed entirely of square steel mesh. While the resulting stall looks like a giant batting cage, it has the added advantage of providing complete visibility of your horses--a big plus if you want to keep a close eye on mares and foals, for example. The mesh is tight enough that a horse would find it nearly impossible to snag a body part or a shoe, and it's very strong, but it does tend to allow bedding to spill through and spread all over your aisle. Blackburn points out that dust tends to settle on the horizontal portions of the mesh, making it higher-maintenance than plain vertical bars. (Bars generally aren't recommended for the lower half of a stall partition, because it's too easy for a horse to get a foot caught between.)

What About Doors?

There's more to the subject of stall doors than meets the eye. Beyond the basic consideration of width--a minimum of four feet across (except for small ponies and miniatures, who might be able to get away with slightly less)--and placement (in the center of the stall front is the safest arrangement), there's also the matter of ease of operation to consider.

"We always recommend sliding doors as opposed to ones that swing on hinges," says Blackburn. "The reason is, that if a swinging door is unlatched, you may not notice--and a horse can kick it open and leave. With a sliding door, you know it's open. Also, a swinging door can be considerably more difficult to handle when you're leading a horse in or out, and that can distract you from the task of handling the horse. That makes those doors a safety hazard. We never use a swinging door around horses if we can help it. Sliding doors are by far the simpler way to go."

That said, many people do like the look and versatility of a traditional "Dutch door," a door that can be latched from floor to ceiling, or split into two sections, the lower portion latched and the upper left open so the horse can hang his head out. If you do decide to install such a door, install it on the outside of the stall frame, so that it opens out into the barn aisle, not into the stall. Also be careful that the latches that hold it both open and closed are extremely secure. Otherwise, a door could become unlatched and slam shut on a human or equine appendage.

Many people don't pay enough attention to safety when it comes to latching doors.

"I see bad latches in so many barns," says Blackburn. "Not only are they too easy for the horse to undo, but they often have parts which stick out and can injure a passing horse. I prefer to use a simple pin on a chain, which drops into matching holes in the door and frame of the stall. They're very simple, and very safe."

Bells And Whistles

Once you've decided on the fundamental construction features of your stalls, it's time to consider the details. Where and how you'll hang your feed and water buckets is one not to neglect. You want to be able to fill them easily and remove them for cleaning on a regular basis, and you want the hardware involved to be completely safe for horses, with no sharp protruding edges. You might want to toss your horse's hay on the ground, or you might prefer to equip your stalls with fancy swing-out hay racks that can be filled from the aisle. If you have wooden stalls, and horses with a touch of rodent in their dispositions, you'll probably want to consider metal stripping (no sharp edges, of course) along the exposed wood surfaces to prevent chewing.

Blackburn says a casting rail or groove is another option requested by about 20% of his clients. A casting rail is a horizontal rail installed around the inside perimeter of the stall about two feet from the floor. If a horse gets cast, he should be able to "climb" the wall with his feet until he reaches the casting rail, then push off and roll over so he can right himself.

Companies that manufacture pre-fabricated stalls, or stall frames, have almost unlimited options available in terms of bells and whistles; it's just a matter of what you want. You need not limit yourself to the practical, either; if your budget allows, how about some interior design, in the form of decorative frills or finials along the top faces of your stalls? A quick surf on the Internet reveals everything from brass hitching post-style horseheads, to Victorian curlicues, which probably collect extra dust but can add a great deal to the visual appeal of your barn.

Your primary concern is to create an environment that's extremely safe and healthy for the horse, and easy for the barn manager to maintain and operate on a daily basis.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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