Barn Construction

Kick, chomp, scrape, cough--horses challenge the strength and livability of the shelter you provide. A barn can conveniently enclose one or more horses, but you can't forget that they wouldn't choose to live indoors.

To house horses safely, a barn must supply protection from weather. At the same time, the structure has to protect horses from any hazards imposed by walls, doors, floors, and roof. A safe environment saves money and concern over the years of service.

Today you can choose to buy or build your barn. You can assemble a modular, pre-fabricated structure, or fabricate a permanent building. With either choice, look for a construction that functions in two ways: it assures the horse's well-being and simplifies horsekeeping through efficient, cost-effective design. Become an informed consumer by taking the time to examine the details of the building you plan.

A Horseproof Barn

A barn's design and construction can prevent injury and disease. The environment can affect the soundness of eye, wind, and limb. Indoors, equine inhabitants can suffer from falls, bruises, or lacerations. The enclosure of a stall restricts the horse's movement. By confining a large animal to a small space, you set the scene for conflict.

"Horses do not wish to be in a stall," explained Lew Nichols of Handi-Klasp. "We put them there, and it causes stress in their lives. They often cope with that stress by being destructive."

Your horse could be the type who inflicts damage upon the stall. His kicking, chewing, pawing, or rubbing can affect the integrity of the structure. Strong walls and doors resist such damage.

The barn can impact on the horse. Obvious hazards are anything protruding into the stall, a sharp edge, or any place where the horse can trap a part of his body.

Safe doors have strong hardware. On a swinging door, hinges hold the door level and allow it to swing easily. A sliding door, usually a safer design, easily rolls on an overhead track. Any doorway should measure at least four feet wide and eight feet high.

Door latches can injure horses. Look for a sliding latch that doesn't protrude, or a recessed door handle.

Horses can get feet, muzzles, or teeth caught in gaps. The walls of the stall should end at the floor, with no space between floor and wall. If you choose a barred grill for the door or partition, measure the width between the bars. It should be no wider than two inches if you'll stable a foal, or 2.5 inches for adult horses.

The stalls of the horseproof barn provide a comfortable home. The Equine Research Centre at the University of Guelph in Canada recommends this configuration: 12 by 12 feet, ceiling height of 12 feet, with a floor area of 150 square feet. This allows an airspace per horse of 1,553 cubic feet. Humidity can range from 30-70%, and temperature from 32-85° Fahrenheit.

Insulation and ventilation can affect the interior temperature (which shouldn't be cold in winter or roasting in summer). These two elements work together.

Insulation reduces heat transfer from one area to another, conserving heat and reducing condensation inside the barn in winter. In summer, insulation reduces the effect of the hot sun. Its R-value affects the interior temperature of the barn in relation to the outside temperature, with a higher R-value providing better insulation. The walls in modular barns contain insulation sandwiched between steel sheets.

Inside air must circulate for temperature and air quality. Horses should not stand in direct drafts, but air should flow throughout the barn and individual stalls.

Studies at the University of Guelph showed higher ammonia levels in stalls with low ventilation. Poor air quality, including dust and gases, is associated with respiratory ailments of horses and people.

Natural ventilation occurs through the barn's design, and it becomes more critical in certain regions. Chenault Woodford of CMW Architects in Lexington, Ky., noted, "If you have extremely high or low temperatures combined with extremely high humidity, that's the most dangerous for the horse. In the Southeast, the inside of the building gets hotter than outside if you don't have good ventilation."

He recommended such details as an open ceiling above the stalls, inside and outside doors on each stall, and a steeper roof pitch. "More air comes in the barn, and the warm air rises. Dormers, cupolas, and vents at the barn's highest part act as outlets, and they are more effective with a steeper pitch." Within such a barn, the convection created by the design can produce a breeze on a hot, windless day.

A well-engineered barn achieves air exchange in any weather. You can control fresh air by opening doors and windows, and permanent openings allow air to flow in and out when you close doors in cold weather. Air enters through inlets, rises when it mixes with warmer air inside, then flows out through outlets (chimneys) higher in the building. A steeper roof increases ventilation rate, as it produces a greater height difference between inlets and outlets.

On the horse's level, floors should be forgiving. Woodford ranked choices in flooring, noting that horses would pick sod if they could choose. "The second choice would be dirt, or a clay floor. That's the cheapest to put down, but it's the most expensive later. You have to work it all the time. Then would come crushed rock, asphalt, and concrete with a rubber pad. You gain advantages in appearance, long-term cost, and the health of the horse, as you move up the scale."

Don't ignore the equine interaction in your barn. Even when separated by partitions, horses communicate as in a herd. Nichols noted, "When two are in contact, one will be dominant and the other docile. If the docile horse cannot break eye contact with the dominant horse, it creates tremendous stress on that horse. Therefore, the horse needs a privacy area to hide his head and break eye contact with the horse next to him."

He recommended a partition that is solid near the front of the stall, beside the feeder, and grilled in the back half of the partition. Removable grilles allow you to adapt the stall environment depending on the adjacent horses.

The barn must remain impervious to outside stresses. It must withstand the elements of the seasons.

In both permanent and portable buildings, the structure consists of a frame and roof. The roof sustains the most severe weather damage, and a long-lasting roof is a combination of durable materials and sturdy attachment.

A permanent barn can be of masonry, such as concrete block, or framed like a house. Modular barns are of structural steel frames, with panels set in channels. Panels bolt together to form a series of stalls.

A framework of trusses supports the roof. The roof of the modular barn is supported by the stall walls and a series of purlins, or horizontal steel sections. Spaced at least four feet apart, these hold the steel or aluminum roof panels in place. The stronger the roof supports, the less noise will reverberate through the barn.

Ask the barn builder about the roof load, especially if your climate includes high winds or snow. The roof load must meet or exceed building codes. Codes may require a 10- to 20-pound load; some barn manufacturers offer a 40-pound load.

Think about how your barn will function in the occurrence of disasters such as fire or flood. Are the barn's walls and roof fire resistant? Is the barn sited for the optimum drainage, and is it easily accessible to good roads?

The Human-Friendly Barn

When you're in the market for a barn, you probably want a building that costs less and lasts longer. Nichols advised not to waste money in your barn.

"A barn that's more expensive may not be better, but there are no free rides. It's very important to buy quality as cheaply as you can. Buy the best at the most viable amount of money you have to work with. Remember that if you have to replace something in your barn, chances are something gets hurt when it gets broken!"

Woodford noted three levels of cost: the metal building, wood frame with a truss roof and shingles, and the masonry barn of stone, block, or brick. The pole barn, built around a perimeter of timbers or metal poles, is a step between the modular barn and the frame barn. By choosing a building higher on the scale of initial cost, you can enjoy lower maintenance while increasing benefits for the horse.

Barn costs can spread across a broad range. In the modular barns, you'd pay from $10 to $17 per square foot, or about $2,400 per stall. Moving up the scale, a barn will run $5,000 per stall, and as high as $50,000 per stall, in a luxurious barn.

The modular barn is of a predictable cost, for less investment. These styles are seen more in the West, since manufacturers are based in that region. Modular units fit together on the job, with minimum adjustments.

A frame barn adds the benefits of custom construction. You can choose to refine details such as the pitch of the roof or additional doors or windows, which increase ventilation. Such flexibility does increase the cost, adding 20% to the cost of the modular barn, according to Woodford.

The barn's layout affects both initial cost and long-term labor costs. Most barns follow traditional designs: shed row, stalls back to back, stalls facing a center aisle, or a barn with a raised center aisle.

A convenient barn is designed for easy maintenance. Nichols noted, "Labor is ongoing, every day. If you're a commercial enterprise, labor is a predominant factor if you're in the black."

Stalls can measure 10 by 10, 10 by 12, or 12 by 12 feet. Realize that a larger stall costs more to build and more to maintain, with the increased square footage requiring larger investment in flooring and bedding.

Besides saving money, a barn designed for convenient maintenance also enhances the horse's safety. A Dutch stall manufacturer offers swinging front or partition walls, or sliding partition walls. (The partitions slide into the aisle so the groom can easily move from stall to stall. The horses can remain in their stalls, moving into the aisle while the groom works.)

Horses don't rely on electricity, plumbing, and telephone, but these modern conveniences improve the barn's usability. Lights streamline barn chores, and running water simplifies watering chores.

An insect control system also enhances the horses' comfort. Automatic timers can control spraying through nozzles spaced throughout the building. This saves labor of spraying horses individually.

Whatever your decision, aim for a reliable shelter that you and your horse can live with. Woodford advised, "Know your choices and the economic impact of making that choice. And does the economic impact fit into the money you have available?"

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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