Hazard-Free Homes

A run-in shed is probably the least expensive shelter you can give your horse(s)--and, some believe, one of the healthiest. With a run-in shed, your horse lives as near to nature as domesticity allows. But that shed can't be a slap-dash affair, or you'll put your horse at greater risk for health problems and injury than if he lived in a stall or with no shelter at all. You'll need to carefully consider the durability and safety of every aspect of the shed, from placement and size, to building materials and footing, to feed and watering arrangements.

Select Your Site

As with any structure, your first concern with a run-in shed is location. Ideally, you want a site with well-drained soil on high ground that's either level or graded so water will flow away from the building. This will minimize hazards associated with flooding and mud.

You also want a spot that doesn't create horse traps. "If you put the shed next to the fence facing into the pasture, you create a situation of horse congestion and areas where horses can fight or get cornered by a more dominant horse," explains Todd Gralla, special projects director at Gralla Architects, whose equine-industry clients have included Windward Stud (a training and breeding farm for Western competition horses), Lone Star Park Thoroughbred racetrack, and the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds.

Most people solve the problem by placing the shed in an open area, but that choice has its own downside. Bob Kline, PhD, extension horse specialist at The Ohio State University, explains that horses tend to cluster around the outside of the shed. This can lead to scuffling among horses in the group, either causing injury to the horses or damage to the shed. In addition, manure and urine that collect in congregation areas can damage the shed, particularly if it is made of wood or metal. Kline's solution? Position the shed so that its open side is flush with the fence line, leaving the shed's exterior walls outside the pasture.

Of course, placement also depends on local weather conditions. In most cases, your goal is to keep your horse cozy by facing the shed's open side away from prevailing frigid winter winds and spring's blowing rains, says Kline. However, if you live in a hot climate without chilly winters, your main goal might be to ward off heat-related problems. If that is the case, you'd want the shed to catch breezes and provide maximum shade.

Decide on Size

Your next step is to determine shed size. Allow more room per horse than a standard-size stall, because horses tend to be more territorial and rambunctious in a pasture setting. Extra space helps them stay away from herd mates' flying hooves.

Minimum dimension recommendations from various sources vary slightly, but generally come close to Kline's suggestion of 150 square feet (14 square meters) per adult horse. The key, he says, is "to have a shed that's shallow with a wide opening, rather than deep with a narrow opening. Otherwise, the dominant horse tends to stand in the entrance and prevent others from entering."

For instance, Gralla suggests a shed at least 24 feet (7.3 meters) wide by 12 feet (3.7 meters) deep for two horses. Hannah Banks, principal of the equestrian architecture firm Harrison Banks in Boston, Mass., prefers a slightly deeper shed of 24 feet (7.3 meters) wide by 16 feet (4.9 meters) deep for two horses. Kline also notes that you can add dividers inside the shed to help control a dominant horse. But, he adds, "If you have an opening 40 feet (12.2 meters) across, four to five horses should be able to get in just fine."

You'll also need to leave plenty of head room in the shed to avoid head injury. Kline notes that the lowest point of the ceiling--such as support beams or a roof overhang--should be at least 10 feet (3 meters) high. That means the actual ceiling might be 12 feet (3.7 meters) above the ground.

Another concern, says Gralla, is the basic rectangle shape of most sheds: he recommends using gates to cut out the corners that allow a dominant horse to pin and injure a submissive horse. Push the gates against the back wall at a 45º angle. One caution is that if you use gates, make sure horses can't get hooves caught in them. (One alternative to farm gates is to use sturdy boards fastened securely in place at about the height of a horse's chest.) Gralla notes that gates are also handy for separating horses for veterinary work and emergencies.

Prepare the Frame

When you're ready to select building materials, remember one simple rule: Sturdier is better. If your shed isn't solidly built, not only will you spend a lot of time and money on repairs, but your horses will be exposed to greater hazards in the form of wood shards, ripped metal, or even a collapsing roof.

Start with wood posts--at least four inches (10 cm) square and preferably four inches by six inches (10 x 15 cm)--sunk deep into the ground and anchored with concrete. Besides posts at each corner, Kline recommends adding a weight-bearing post every 12 feet (3.7 meters). He also suggests using metal sheeting to protect those posts from horses chewing or rubbing on them. This sheeting should be secured so no sharp edges protrude and horses can't pull it off. Other cover options include angle iron, strips of one-inch oak lumber, or PVC (such as plumbing pipe).

For even more durability, use pressure-treated hardwood. Avoid pine, which is soft and easy for horses to damage, says Kline.

Pick an Exterior

Relatively inexpensive, steel is probably the most common shed wall material. Unfortunately, it's also dangerous--serious injury can result because a horse can easily kick a hoof through the metal sheet, get a foot caught under it, or rip himself on previously torn sections. Furthermore, says Kline, the metal will deteriorate more quickly with constant exposure to manure and urine. As Banks notes, not only does steel rust, but it also tears, leaving sharp edges that can cause serious lacerations. No wonder Gralla says, "We try not to have a steel structure or steel siding within reach of a horse, out of concern for safety of the animal." If you do have a metal shed, all three experts agree that it must have a wood lining at least five feet high.

"Use either solid wood (panels) or, if you're going to use boards, make sure there is no more than two inches (15 cm) between the boards, so the horse can't get a hoof caught," says Kline. He recommends using at least two-inch-thick (15-cm-thick) treated lumber, which won't rot with constant exposure to manure and urine.

Luckily, steel isn't your only option. PVC, preferred by Gralla and Banks, is an increasingly popular choice that offers strength without risk. In fact, says Gralla, "If I had my choice, I'd build everything out of PVC." The firm's own barns are constructed of tongue-and-groove PVC boards, he notes. "They're very forgiving, much like PVC fencing, and very strong."

Although PVC costs more than steel, you save money by eliminating the wood lining. Plus, says Gralla, you save long-term through reduced upkeep. "PVC lasts a long time and requires no maintenance except for cleaning," he says. "The first one we built on our own farm is almost 20 years old, and it's in like-new condition. It's never broken or been punctured."

Masonry, such as brick veneer, is another option, although less common--and more expensive--than either steel or PVC. Although it's strong and virtually maintenance-free, says Gralla, it's not forgiving, which means you need a wood liner.

Of course, some sheds are made of wood siding, says Banks. Kline notes that this can be an economical alternative in some situations. However, in a horse environment--where chewing, kicking, and rubbing are the norm--wood is also a high-maintenance material, he acknowledges. Gralla says that in cases where clients have wanted the look of wood, his firm has substituted vinyl siding "with great success. It can be damaged from kicks; however, it ages well and is easy to repair without looking repaired," he says. "It's also easy to clean, and we have not experienced any known injury problems or cribbing/chewing with this material."


While steel is hazardous as a wall material, it's quite suitable as a roof since it's out of reach. Still, it's important to tightly secure the roofing so high winds can't rip it free. In addition, make sure that both the metal and the supporting structures are strong enough to hold up under your region's average snow load.

Another consideration with steel roofing is noise: Horses might not like the sound of raindrops slapping against steel overhead. You can minimize the noise with a layer of insulation, says Banks. (Gralla suggests rigid insulation, which birds can't damage or nest in.)

Gralla notes that some upscale facilities opt for slate roofs or concrete roofing tiles. "Historically, it will last longer--it's a lifetime or even a multiple lifetime material," he says. But such longevity and looks come with a hefty price tag, he adds.

Whatever type of roofing you use, adding gutters, especially on the shed's open side, is a good idea, says Kline. Also make sure that downspouts carry water away from the building. This will help cut down on the mud hole that could otherwise form in front of the shed. In addition, Kline recommends an overhang of two to four feet (0.6-1.2 meters) on the shed's open side to help prevent rain and snow from blowing inside.


You might think that a shelter with one full open side would have all the ventilation it needs. Not so.

"Ventilation is just as important in a loafing shed as in a big barn," says Gralla. "Horses are still in there creating heat, and the heat builds up." Plus, he continues, ventilation can relieve air pressure caused by strong winds, which means the roof and building are less likely to suffer damage during storms. And that means your horses stay safer, too.

Gralla notes that his firm's sheds (which typically have peaked roofs rather than roofs slanted to one side) usually incorporate a central ridge vent or cupolas. Banks believes in one of the most common ventilation methods--simply stopping the walls about a foot below the roof. Another popular method, says Kline, is to bring the walls to the roof line, but use a perforated metal that allows airflow. You can also simply incorporate a sliding board into the back wall to let in extra air as needed. Just make sure it's high enough that horses can't get hooves caught in the opening.


No matter how safe and sturdy your shed is, you don't have a horse-friendly setup unless you also have good footing. If wet weather turns the ground in and around the shed into a muddy quagmire, your horses can pull shoes, strain tendons, and even take nasty falls. In addition, all that wet ground leaves your horse susceptible to health problems such as thrush and scratches (dew poisoning).

As a base for good footing, Gralla starts with a building pad of packed clay under the shed and in a 12-foot (3.7-meter) apron in front of it. Next, Gralla, Kline, and Banks all recommend a layer of crushed stone. Exactly what you use will depend on what's available in your area. Kline prefers about four inches (10 cm) of "cracker dust" from limestone gravel. Gralla frequently uses limestone screenings, and Banks recommends six to eight inches (15-20 cm) of compacted gravel topped with one to two inches (2.5-5 cm) of sand. The ultimate goal is to create a surface that packs easily, holds up well under horse hooves, and is relatively easy to keep clean.

What About Food and Water?

Neither Gralla nor Kline recommends feeding inside the shed. In fact, Gralla's firm would never put feeders in a shed used by more than two horses. However, if you do choose to feed your horses inside, you'll need an arrangement that guarantees every horse can get in and eat without intimidation from the herd boss.

For instance, says Kline, you could place a long hay rack either through the shed's center or along the back wall. You could also place hay racks at the entrance, provided they didn't narrow the entryway or create a hazard.

For grain, continues Kline, "In order to keep the dominant horse from chasing the others away, you can use partitions in three-foot widths, so the horses can stick their heads in and eat." However, he cautions, "Make sure the partitions are high enough so a horse can't reach over the top and bite another horse."

Banks believes you can get away without dividers as long as you're feeding just two horses and place buckets on opposite ends of the shed. For more horses, she recommends feeding down the center of the shed or outside. However, hay in the shed or near the entrance will also cause more traffic, and thus more mud.

Similar rules apply if you want to provide water for your horses inside the shed: Make sure all horses have equal access. In other words, says Kline, don't put it in a corner--put it near the entrance. In addition, always have an outdoor water source available, says Banks.

What's the Cost?

Run-in sheds vary tremendously in price, depending on the materials you choose, the extras you include, and whether you do the construction yourself or hire contractors. Kline says you could probably build the most basic steel shed for five to six dollars per square foot for materials, or about $1,500 to $1,800 for a 300-square-foot (28 square meter), two-horse shed. Labor costs would be about twice the price of materials, for a total of $4,500 to $5,400 if you didn't do the work yourself.

If you choose PVC siding, add on a storage room, and/or opt for electricity, running water, and lights, you could land in the neighborhood of $24 per square foot, says Gralla. That comes to $13,824 for a 576-square-foot (53.5-square-meter) building--possibly more, depending on how far utility lines need to run. Want brick veneer, slate roofing, dividers, feed bins, and automatic waterers? Watch the price tag grow.

In the end, though, Gralla reminds us that it isn't fancy that counts--it's function. And the simplest shed, he says, can still do everything you need it to do: Keep your horse safe from the elements, safe from injury, and safe from aggressive herdmates. So if your budget isn't big, don't worry. Just put the dough you have into solid basics and enjoy some peace of mind knowing your horse has a hazard-free home.

5 TIPS: Shed Suggestions

  1. Site your run-in shed so it will drain well and has good ventilation.
  2. Plan 150 square feet per adult horse.
  3. Support beams and overhangs should be at least 10 feet high.
  4. Sturdier is better. Remember, it isn't fancy that counts, it's function.
  5. Create good footing inside and around the shed.

About the Author

Sushil Dulai Wenholz

Sushil Dulai Wenholz is a free-lance writer based in Lakewood, Colo. Her work appears in a number of leading equine publications, and she has earned awards from the American Horse Publications and the Western Fairs Association.

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