Designing Your Horse's Home

When I was a teenager, I took a tour of the Royal Mews in London, England. I had imagined a staggeringly opulent setting for Queen Elizabeth's horses, and I wasn't disappointed--the carriage house alone was worth the price of admission, and the array of horseflesh in the stables was a wonder. But what shocked me were the stalls--I had imagined great 20 x 20 box stalls, with horses reclining up to their hipbones in fresh, bright straw. But while the straw was indeed bright and in good supply, the fittings were definitely not luxurious. Many of the horses were standing contentedly not in huge boxes, but in standing stalls--the kind I associated with work horses back home in Ontario. This just goes to show that one person's ideal stall is not necessarily another's.

Standing stalls were good enough for many of the Queen's horses, and they still serve extremely well for working horses all over the world. But most of us, in North America at least, prefer that our horses have room to move about, so the box stall (or loose box as it's often called in the United Kingdom) has become the standard form of equine accommodation in most barns.

What features would you incorporate if you were building your own private version of the Royal Mews? What spells luxury and convenience in a stall for you and your horses? There are some features that no box stall should be without, and there are some pleasant touches that can really make the difference between subsistence living and true comfort.

Basic Dimensions

As the industry would have it, the standard size for a box stall is about 12 feet by 12 feet--which is both a reflection of the size needed for the comfort of most mid-sized horses and of the price of lumber (which is often most economical when purchased in 12-foot lengths). But don't feel locked into the 12 x 12 rule of thumb; if you have relatively compact critters--such as ponies, Morgans, or Arabians--10 x 10 might be completely adequate. If you have draft horses or plus-sized warmbloods, you and your horses might be happier with a 14 x 14 space. If you plan to house foaling mares or stallions, you'll want to have at least a couple of stalls that are 16 x 16.

Stalls need not be square to be serviceable, of course. If you're constructing stalls in an existing building, you might have to work around the support structures you've got, so you might end up with stalls that are 10 x 14‚ for example. Keep in mind that spaces narrower than 10 feet will be difficult for all but the smallest equines to maneuver in, and might be better converted to tack or feed rooms.

Stall fronts don't necessarily have to be flat, either. In some elegant European barns, you see walls built like three sides of a honeycomb, the better to accommodate a horse's curved shape as he turns and moves within the stall. Although this method of construction takes more space out of your central aisle and adds to the overall cost, it's a comfort feature many people and horses appreciate.

Architects who specialize in barn design agree that stall doors should be a minimum of four feet wide (wider if you have draft horses) to reduce the risk of animals banging a hip or shoulder when entering or exiting the stall. Whether you go for sliding doors or the more traditional Dutch design (a swinging door with upper and lower halves that latch separately) is up to you; sliding doors won't block your aisle, but they can cause problems when their more complex hardware doesn't function properly.

When it comes to ceiling height, more is better both in terms of ventilation and horse safety. Ten feet is considered a bare minimum, but if you can raise the ceilings higher, you'll minimize the risk of a horse whacking his head should he panic and rear. You'll also allow for better airflow over the top of the stall partitions. Higher ceilings also mean wiring and light fixtures will be out of harms' way--although you should consider how you're going to change those light bulbs if they're suspended 14 feet high.

Those are the basics of stall dimensions. Now, how about the basic elements: Earth, air, fire, and water?

Under Foot (Earth)

Stall floors need to provide drainage so water and urine don't pool around your horse's feet, be durable enough to stand up to pawing and pacing, and still provide some cushioning for your horse's legs. On top of that, they need to be easy for you to clean. You can achieve these qualities in a number of different ways, depending on your budget, local soil conditions, and the amount of work you want to put into it.

The simplest and cheapest approach is a dirt floor. Dirt is soft and fairly absorbent, but unless you're in an extraordinarily well-draining area, it's not going to be able to absorb everything your horse throws at it (so to speak) on a daily basis. The combined effect of pooling urine and repeated hoof traffic will eventually create a lumpy, uneven, squishy mess.

The cure? Dig a drain field in each stall--make a hole about three feet in diameter and a couple of feet deep, fill the hole with big chunks of gravel, tamp it firmly into place, then cover the hole over with dirt to make a smooth surface. Alternatively, you can lay a six- to 12-inch layer of fine gravel or stone dust under the whole of the stall floor.

"Baseball diamond" type hard-packed clay is the best soil to use for a dirt floor as it only needs to be reworked about once a year. Pack it firmly with a heavy pounding tool or motor-driven "settler," keeping water and some extra loose clay on hand to adjust the consistency of the floor as necessary.

If a dirt floor just won't work for your operation, you can look at something more durable, like concrete (tough, but cold and hard on equine limbs, and slippery as well), wood (easier on your horse's body, but slippery and prone to rotting), or asphalt ("warmer" than concrete, hard on the legs, but gives a good non-slip surface, especially if you use the porous "popcorn" asphalt that has large particles and is raked--rather than rolled--on installation).

Hard-surfaced floors have the advantage of being easy to disinfect, which is an advantage if you have a breeding operation or one with a lot of transient boarders. But with this sort of flooring, you'll need to bed more deeply to provide your horses with some protection from the unyielding surface.

Increasingly, horse owners are finding that the solution to many of these problems is rubber matting. Floor mats, while initially expensive, are durable and provide superior cushioning. Manufacturers claim they also cut down on odors in the barn because they keep water and urine on the surface, where bedding can soak it up (and presumably, you're going to remove the bedding on a regular basis!). Mats also have sound-absorbing qualities, eliminate the "stall-crater" factor, and can save you money on bedding because they provide excellent cushioning.

There are dozens of types of stall mats on the market, each with its own set of pros and cons. Some argue for one-piece mats that go from wall to wall; others prefer the ease of handling and custom-fit possibilities of interlocking sections. For the ultimate in luxury, there are now rubber mats with an underlying surface of crumb-stuffed sections, rather like the air mattress you might take to the beach. Originally developed for horses that were recovering from illness or surgery, they're now becoming popular for arthritic geriatrics, high-performance athletes, and horses with respiratory allergies (on the theory that so much cushioning from a mat dramatically reduces the amount of dusty bedding required in the stall).

Respiratory Considerations (Air)

What's overhead is just as important as what's underfoot. Poor ventilation is the number one problem with "American-style" barns (the kind where stalls are contained in a single building under one roof, usually in rows with a central aisle as opposed to the open shed-row approach commonly seen in Great Britain and much of Europe). Particularly in winter, when we tend to shut our barns up tight, the air can quickly become noxious and condensation can start dripping from the walls and ceilings.

In order to allow six to eight complete air changes per hour, which is the minimum experts recommend for good equine respiratory health, you'll need to position inlets (where cool air enters) and outlets (where warmed air exits) throughout the barn. Their exact placement will depend on your climate, local topographical features, and prevailing winds--so they might end up in the stalls, or perhaps just at both ends of the building. You can also space the doors and windows in each stall to take advantage of maximum airflow.

If you're dealing with a hot or humid climate, think about installing additional vents about two feet from the floor of the barn (an approach that is especially good for foaling stalls, since foals don't benefit much from airflow through windows high in the walls). Keeping the air circulating is key not only for your horse's respiratory health, but also your own.

Illumination (Fire)

When you're considering what's above your stalls, you also need to think about lighting. Plenty of natural lighting via windows and skylights is always a good idea, although windows in your stalls will need to be protected with mesh or grilles. For safety reasons, stall windows should never open into the stall; use sliding units or have them swing open to the outside of your barn and lock open.

Even with lots of natural light, you'll still need to install some light fixtures for those after-dark (or before-dawn) chores. Whether the fixtures you choose are incandescent or fluorescent is a personal choice; fluorescent tubes tend to last longer than incandescent light bulbs, but they can be cantankerous in cold weather, functioning poorly or not at all.

Either way, it's better to have too many fixtures than too few. Plan for a minimum of one light every 10 feet in the aisle, and one per stall (unless your stalls have only partial dividers that don't go all the way to the ceiling, in which case you can position a bright overhead light above the partition and illuminate two stalls for the price of one). It's best to locate the light fixtures directly overhead whenever possible--remember that horses cast large shadows, so they will block substantial amounts of light from a side-mounted bulb. Protect the wiring and the bulbs from curious critters (and horses) by enclosing them in wire cages, plastic shields, or other protective arrangements. (And place them as high as possible--a rearing horse or a carelessly wielded pitchfork can break a bulb or fluorescent tube more easily than one would suspect.)

All electrical wiring in a barn should be encased in metal conduit to protect it from the predations of both horses and rodents. One chewed wire has the potential to kill a horse and burn your barn down in one fell swoop. Unless you are an electrical expert, wiring is one area of the building process you should leave to the professionals. Be particularly careful with any wiring that enters a horse's stall.

The Indoor Watering Hole (Water)

And as for the final element, water: Whether you choose to install automatic waterers or water by bucket is a matter of individual preference. Waterers are wonderfully convenient--when they work. Quality is a key.

Waterers failing to refill, clogging up and overflowing, or freezing in winter can be a problem. You'll need to check them frequently to ensure they remain in good working order, and it's a good idea to supply each with a separate shut-off valve to reduce the chances of a flooded stall. Watering by bucket is the more work-intensive way to go (especially in winter), but it has the advantage of no moving parts, and does make it easier to monitor your horse's water intake.

Another risk with automatic waterers is their very convenience. Not having to water your horse leads many people to check the waterers seldom or not at all, often resulting in waterers filled with dirt, hay, and/or grain. This makes the water less attractive to your horse, reducing his water intake.

Bells and Whistles

If you were designing your fantasy barn, what features would you incorporate in your horses' stalls? I asked several professional horse owners what special qualities they'd like to see; perhaps their ideas will stimulate your imagination.

Paula Brown of Poland, Maine, says, "As a farmless person who rents a barn, I've thought long and hard about my dream barn. On my wish list are 12 x 24 stalls with removable and easily replaceable center dividers to turn them into two 12 x 12 stalls when necessary. I'd want very high ceilings with no hay storage overhead for maximum air circulation. I'd have skylights for lots of light. Each stall would have a big window with safety bars on the outside wall. I'd want sliding doors with recessed latches, both to the interior of the barn and to the outside to allow for quick escape in an emergency. I don't love Dutch doors because some idiot critters try to jump them!

"I'd want flooring grids to prevent pawing and digging, covered by thick rubber mats for cushioning with drainage holes, and a deep, crushed rock base under all of that. A safe electrical socket over every stall would be nice, and I'd also like cross tie hookups in every stall, closed-circuit surveillance cameras located above each stall (rigged with sound, of course!), decent salt-block holders that won't rust, bend, or break, and some discreet but expensive-looking stall name plates."

The most exotic item on Brown's wish-list? "I'd love to have fiberglass privacy panels that could be electronically lowered along the front of the stall (kind of like an electric garage door) to provide new dams or sick horses with peace and quiet."

Although she is a firm believer in keeping horses outside as much as possible, Kandee Haertel, Executive Director of the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource in Illinois, also has a few requirements for her dream barn.

"I'd love a ceiling fan in every stall to provide lots of good air circulation, and Dutch doors that could be closed in nasty weather and left open the rest of the time. Wonderful lighting is a priority for me, and of course I'd want all the electrical stuff caged and well out of the horses' reach, with all the wires in conduit pipe. And those feed doors that let you set up the next feeding ahead of time, so all you have to do is close them! That way anyone can feed the horses without having to worry about which animal gets what."

Sharon Biggs, formerly a horse keeper in California who is now living in England, approaches her dream barn from an ergonomic point of view. Hay racks and feeders on the walls, she says, put the horse in an unnatural position when he's eating. "Feeding from the floor ensures that the horse's jaw is in alignment when he chews. So I wouldn't want any kind of permanent feeder on the wall."

She also cites a recent European study that demonstrated that stall walking and weaving can be dramatically reduced by placing mirrors (polished metal rather than glass) in the stalls.

For Vermont Thoroughbred breeder Hallie McEvoy, the ideal stall is no bigger than 12 x 12. "It must have a nest-like quality," she says. "Rubber mats and a good layer of shavings about a foot thick help make a nice nest too, and I bank the shavings around the edges of the stalls to help prevent horses from getting cast. In an ideal world, I'd not only want recessed lighting, but also a skylight in every stall. And of course, fancy nameplates on every stall--it doesn't do anything for the horse but it makes me feel proud!"

Mule-fancier Susan Dudasik makes socialization in her barn a priority. "I'd like my stalls to be built of stout wood boards about two-thirds of the way up, and then heavy wire mesh on top so my mules can see each other. Each stall would open to an attached turnout run. There'd be a hanging ball toy, and some cooler misters might be nice."

She likes the convenience of automatic waterers, but says, "I'd like the sink type that can be easily drained."

Colorado horse owner Sushil Dulai Wenholz, who currently keeps her mare at a boarding stable, notes, "At my barn, horses share waterers--there's a cutout between each pair of stalls, so one waterer serves two horses. It seems like a good way to cut down on costs. The only problem is that the waterers themselves don't seem to be the best quality. They clog and freeze, and people end up hauling water buckets anyway. So in my fantasy barn, I'd want good-quality, easy to maintain, no-freeze waterers!"

Wenholz agrees with Brown that two sets of doors for each stall--one leading into the barn and one leading to the outside--is an important safety feature. "It seems to me that having a door to the outside, even if there's no fenced run there, would be a great way to get horses out of a barn in case of fire."

Australian breeder Penny Stewart takes advantage of her warm climate by leaving her barn a wander-in, wander-out facility. "I think that's much better than closing them in," she says. Fellow Aussie Di Rowling notes that her setup is similar. "The only time I keep a horse inside is to keep her off the pasture and her weight down!"

As for me, my priorities include not having solid walls and grilles that go to the ceiling; I like my horses to be able to poke their heads out somewhere so they don't feel imprisoned in their stalls. I prefer removable plastic water buckets to automatic waterers, and a blanket rack on each stall door is a great convenience. And yes, I want those cushy air-mattress-style rubber mats. Not that my horses are spoiled, of course.

As long as your horse's basic comfort and safety needs are met, feel free to indulge your whims a little; many of the features mentioned here aren't expensive.

What's in your ideal stall?

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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