Equipping the Barn

Whether you have a large barn or a small one, an inexpensive pre-fab building or an elaborate construction, you can equip it to make it more "user-friendly" for you and your horses. At the very least, your barn should provide safe shelter during inclement weather. At best, it can be a showplace designed for human convenience as well as horse health.

When building a new barn or fixing up an old one, it helps to look at other barns and talk with people who have experience with certain features. This is especially important when considering health and safety of the horses. Bob Coleman, PhD, Equine Extension Specialist at the University of Kentucky, says it's always worth your time and effort to visit other places and go to trade fairs in order to see what the possibilities are. Look at how you might make them work for your situation, and see what will and won't work with your barn construction, he says.

Doors, Walls, and Latches

J. Clyde Johnson, VMD, a retired equine veterinarian and former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, has seen the problems created by barns or stalls that were not safe or healthy. "I've seen cases where a horse got his foot through the horizontal boards of a stall wall," he says.

If the wall is made of planks that run horizontally, they will need vertical supports to keep them from bending if a horse kicks them.

"If horses get cast or kick hard against the wall, they can push a board out far enough to get a foot through," says Johnson. "You need vertical strips bolted into the boards so the span is only four to six feet between the supports. Then a horse can't get the boards separated enough to get a foot through. A cast horse with a foot through the boards is in serious trouble. I've seen some that struggled all night to get free, and there was nothing left of the leg but bone; even the tendons were worn away."

Stalls should always be constructed with safety in mind, with smooth walls--no protrusions or sharp edges. "I've sewed up lips, eyelids, and legs from horses in stalls that seemed safe," recalls Johnson. "So make sure there are no sharp objects such as nails or hooks. There are ways to eliminate the need for hooks."

If the basic barn structure is cinder block or masonry, line the stall walls with wood at least five feet high to prevent injury to feet and legs if a horse kicks. Exterior grade plywood (a half-inch to three-quarters of an inch) can be glued to the wall to give a smoother surface. If the barn has a metal exterior, the inside wall can be lined with wood to keep a horse from kicking through the metal. A complete lining is safer than a few kick rails or boards since a hoof might slip between them. If you use wood for stall interiors, cap exposed edges with smooth metal or use a design that eliminates edges and corners on which a horse can chew.

Door latches on swinging or sliding doors should be recessed and smooth so a horse can't gouge himself in passing. Stall doors should be at least 4 1/2 feet wide and more than eight feet high (preferably as high as the ceiling). Swinging doors can be a hazard if they swing into the stall (a horse eager to come out might bang into the door before it is completely open) and a hazard to passing horses or humans if it swings into the barn aisle. Sliding doors are the safest.

The traditional Dutch door (enabling a horse to stick his head out when the top half is open) is popular, but a sliding door that is half wood (bottom) and half grillwork (top) is often safer. Some doors have grillwork top to bottom for ventilation, and some have a top half that folds down. With that option you can let a horse hang his head out into the aisle if you wish, but you can shut the opening if you don't want him to try and get out. Make sure latches and handles are horse-proof so a clever horse cannot open them. All latches should be functional from both sides of the door.

Coleman's advice when renovating an old barn is that you don't scrimp. "Make everything count, so you don't have to replace it later," he says. "Don't buy something that will wear out or break."

Buy good doors, with good hardware, and build the stalls with safe materials that will last. "If you can't afford to do them all, do part of the stalls this year and part next year, or save up your money and do them all next year," he advises. "If you start cutting corners, this is where you get in trouble. Cheaper materials may not be as durable."

Feeding Options

Feeding arrangements should be as safe as possible; hay is most safely fed at floor level. "A hay net is an automatic hazard for getting a hoof caught, even if the net is high," says Johnson. Also, dust and chaff can fall into a horse's eyes when hay is suspended in a net or rack. "Horses are grazers, designed to eat off the ground. There is really nothing wrong with putting the hay on the floor, if you have a clean stall," he adds.

Coleman says in many situations, hay racks are too high for easy use, and the horse pulls hay and dust down into his face. "I'm not a fan of feeding on the ground, but there are some corner hay feeders that are very effective," says Coleman. These sit in the angle of the corner.

"There are nice ones made of molded plastic, and tough enough that if a horse jumps into one he's not going to break it or hurt himself," says Coleman. "There is no edge at the top for the horse to catch a foot on, and the material is slick. You can also make corner feeders out of wood, rounded so there are no sharp edges. The feeder is about 36 inches high (or up to chest height), and the horses are eating off the floor in the corner. The feeder just keeps the horse from dragging the hay out and tromping on it and wasting feed."


Johnson says that next to safety of the horses in a stall, ventilation is the most important aspect of a barn. "You don't want snow or rain blowing in (you need an overhang on your roof and tight walls to prevent that), but you need air movement," says Johnson. "Many people think you can button up a barn really tight to keep out the cold, but this is not a good idea. Horses need a lot of air, without dust or ammonia. If a barn lacks ventilation, ammonia from urine can build up to unhealthy levels.

"I've never seen a horse get sick from being too cold, if acclimated to the weather, but I've seen a lot of them get sick because they are too warm in a barn and can't get rid of the heat and moisture," adds Johnson. If there's not enough air circulation, you'll find frost all over the ceiling and inside of the windows in winter (from moisture condensation).

"Condensation problems can be partially alleviated with good insulation. The principle behind insulation is trapping air," says Coleman. The air space acts as a buffer between the inside and outside temperature--insulating against heat as well as cold.

Coleman says ventilation usually is the most important thing in a barn people need to improve. If you are renovating a barn, consider a more open front on stalls.

"Having grillwork in the door is an easy way to improve ventilation, but openings should be from the ground up," advises Coleman. "If it's just the top half, it doesn't do nearly as much good. Solid walls and doors are a big factor in creating poor air quality. If we don't get air circulating from the bottom to the top of the stall, we don't get rid of the ammonia. Cool, dry air should pick up the ammonia and carry it out as it warms and moves upward. If you can, put windows (that open) in the back wall of the stall. This helps move the air through. Windows should be covered with screening (wire mesh, not light cloth insect screens) to keep the horses away from the glass."

Coleman continued to say that in his opinion, "barns are built for people. We want warmth and comfort. Horses, however, can handle a cold climate, with some protection from the elements."

Ventilation needs to ensure the air is exchanged often enough each day, but that the movement of air does not cause a draft. In some barns, the air exchanges result in excellent air quality, but the barn might be cold, which the people caring for the horse might not appreciate. Having stalls as open as possible will help with the exchange of air and in some situations where the stall fronts are open it might be much easier to observe horses in their stalls.


Many barns could use a good rehabbing in the stall floors. Over the years, horses paw and tear them up, as well as making holes where urine collects. Stalls need good drainage to minimize moisture buildup. The best type of floor is something porous.

Concrete or wood flooring has little to no drainage and is slippery for horses, says Coleman. "You can use mats over these for better traction and cushion, but this won't resolve the drainage problem."

A dirt or gravel floor with a lot of bedding probably gives the best drainage, as well as some cushion. "When a horse lies down, he doesn't have a hard surface to cause pressure sores on elbows, hocks, etc.," says Johnson. "This is very important for foals. I often see young foals in stalls without enough bedding, and by the time the foal is seven to 10 days old, he has terrible sores on the outside of his hocks due to damage caused while struggling to get up."

Traction is as important in the aisle as in the stall. Surfaces should not be slippery. "A dirt floor, textured concrete floor, or textured pads or mats work," Johnson says.

Coleman says that if you have a wash stall, it needs to be ventilated and well-drained to get rid of all the water.

"Many people use rubber mats," says Coleman. "These are expensive, but give good traction as well as washability. Have the drain in the back of the stall so the horses won't need to walk over it."

Stall Size

Large stalls are always better than small ones, especially if they serve several purposes, such as foaling. Most horses can be comfortable in a 12x12-foot stall, but this is too small for large horses or mares with foals.

A foaling stall should be at least 14x14 feet, preferably 14x16 or larger. A nice feature is a double stall, divided by a movable partition, says Denny Chapman, a professional horseman who manages the Breeds Barn at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky. This creates a large stall for foaling, for a mare with a young foal, a large horse, or a recuperating horse which can't be turned out yet but needs room to move around.

For a double stall, the partition can be movable (swinging open) or created with removable planks. One of the easiest ways to build this is to use channel iron or wood braces made of two-by-six-inch boards lag bolted to the walls to hold partition planks in place. "Slide the divider boards down into this slot to form the stall wall," says Chapman. Removing the lag bolts and braces allows the wall boards to be taken down, creating the double stall.

Johnson says, "The number of times you might remove that barrier may be only once a year, so you want it sturdy. You can use lag bolts on the vertical strip or strips that reinforce the plank wall so the boards can't come apart. To remove the panel, use the same drill you used for putting in the bolts; put it in reverse and take them out. Removable planks are better than panels for dividing a large stall; panels are a common place for horses to get their legs caught."

Chapman says if he could add one thing to his own barn, it would be a small run at the rear of each stall to allow a horse to be outside at will. "This serves the same purpose as an oversized stall, but lets the horse be outside and less confined. With this setup, you can close the rear door to confine the horse in or out. A screen or half door can aid ventilation while the horse is inside."

Let There Be Light

Sunlight is important in a barn. Windows and skylights save on electric bills and make a better environment for the horses. Ultraviolet light in sunshine kills many airborne viruses and bacteria, and some parasite eggs and larvae. Light is essential for normal body functions such as shedding in spring, and light influences the reproductive cycle in stallions and mares.

For stall lighting you can use regular light bulbs as long as they are high enough and protected with a cover so a horse cannot bump them, and to keep a broken bulb from dropping down into the bedding. Some people prefer fluorescent lights located high on the side of a stall and covered with a protector. Use 150- or 200-watt bulbs in each stall, or fluorescent lights with a minimum of 40 watts. The amount of light will be increased if positioned near the front of a stall and used in conjunction with reflectors.

Coleman says the important thing is to keep lights from gathering dust and cobwebs, which creates a fire hazard. "Keeping them covered, and realizing that it's always wise to spring clean the barn, will make them safer," he says.

Electricity is crucial in the barn, not only for lights, but for any electrical tools and appliances you might need to use--such as clippers, heat lamps, and/or fans. Make sure the barn has safe and adequate wiring, and enough outlets.

"One problem is not putting power sources in the right places," says Coleman. "Put a grounded outlet at every stall, but located outside it and protected so it's never accessible by horses. If you have to quickly get something undone, you can do it from outside the stall."

An electrical inspection is a good starting point before starting renovations. Extension cords can be risky; it's better to have more outlets.

"If you're rewiring a barn, have an electrician do it to make sure everything is properly grounded," advises Coleman. "If you might hang fans on stall doors, make sure the electric cord cannot be reached by the horse. I've seen barns where the plug-in is on one side, and there's a rat's nest of extension cords for all the things people are running power to in the barn."


Coleman notes that using automatic waterers or buckets boils down to personal preference. "If you have automatic waterers in a cold climate, you must have your barn warmer in winter to keep them from freezing," he says. "Some waterers are difficult to keep clean. You must also think about where to run the water pipes so the horses can't get at them. If a horse pulls the pipe off at 9:30 p.m., his stall will be pretty wet by morning and your well might be dry!"

Automatic waterers can save labor, and there are some good systems that work nicely when put in during barn construction, says Coleman. "You can add them during renovation, but it's so much easier to do it first," he says. "The ones I like best have all the pipes coming up from below, so they are easier to protect and keep away from the horses. Or you can have the pipes coming up the wall of the stall and going through so the waterer is in the front of the stall. This is probably where it should be, so you can check on it easier.

"If you live in a cold climate, it's simpler to have a hydrant in the barn--such as the type that drains back underground when turned off, leaving no water in the upright pipe to freeze--rather than worrying about waterers freezing," adds Coleman.

"Another drawback to an automatic waterer is that you don't know how much the horse is drinking," he says." If he stops drinking for some reason, you'll know it quicker when using a bucket, and if you are monitoring a sick horse, you know exactly how much he's drinking or not drinking. If a horse dumps a bucket, he makes a mess, but it's a small mess compared to water running continually for hours if a waterer malfunctions."

If you use automatic waterers, you might want the ones with individual shut-off valves and ways to measure water consumed. Having more than one hydrant or spigot can save you steps if using hoses or buckets. A reel for coiling hoses reduces the hazard of having a hose strung out through the entire barn aisle.

Tack and Feed Rooms

A tack room can be as simple or elaborate as you wish--a closet to store tack (with wall hangers) or big enough for an office and space to clean saddles. The door in either case should be wide enough to allow easy access by a person carrying a large saddle, and strong enough to be locked to prevent theft.

A separate feed room is also nice. "Any grain or feed supplements should be kept in a safe place, not the barn aisle," says Johnson. "If a horse gets out of a stall, you don't want him to gorge himself. With a feed room, the horse has to get through another locked door before he can overeat. Hay isn't as crucial, but grain and supplements should always be out of reach."

A separate area for storing hay and combustible bedding can make a barn safer and healthier. Most of your hay or straw should be stored somewhere other than in the barn (to minimize dust and fire hazard) or in a walled-off storage room. Any room used for hay should be constructed of cinder blocks and sealed off from the rest of the barn with steel fire doors that are kept closed except when hay is being moved.

A properly constructed hay room can extend the time it takes for a fire to endanger the horses from minutes to hours. The handiest location is at the middle of a long aisle if the barn is large, with access to the outside for delivery vehicles. A concrete floor makes for easy cleaning and thwarts access by rodents. Rat-proof wire can be installed behind walls and above the ceiling.

Considering necessity and safety of basic barn features before planning the luxuries will ensure that you end up with a barn that's easy to use, minimizing hassle when caring for your horses.


A barn phone is always a good idea, even if it's a portable/cell phone you take to the barn when working there. Put a list of emergency phone numbers on the wall by the phone, or in a handy location if you use a portable phone. Include not only your veterinarian's and farrier's numbers and the nearest neighbors, but also the local fire and police departments.

A good first-aid kit, well stocked with anything you might need for emergency treatment or wounds, is also a good idea. A latched cabinet in the tack room or some other safe location for medications and toxic substances will keep these out of reach of curious horses, pets, or children. It should be a safe place for bottles, jars, or heavy items that might shake off a shelf during an earthquake or windstorm.

Denny Chapman, a professional horseman who manages the Breeds Barn at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., says smoke detectors are an inexpensive but vital piece of equipment in a barn. "If your barn is not wired for electricity, portable battery-operated detectors are available at any hardware store. You also need a fire extinguisher mounted in a handy area, such as the barn aisle. We have four fire extinguishers in our barn, one in each corner of the shed row."--Heather Smith Thomas


Denny Chapman, a professional horseman who manages the 24-stall Breeds Barn at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., says ventilation is excellent in this well-built barn.

"It is a horseshoe-shaped, shedrow-style barn with seven stalls on each side of the 'U' and 10 stalls on the 'bottom'," he says in describing the barn. "It has open entryways at the two corners and in the middle of the 'bottom.' The stalls are 12 by 12 and can be virtually 'open air' by sliding the solid doors back (doors on front and back of each stall) and using the metal screen doors. There are vertical bars at the top portion of each stall, providing even more ventilation.

"Few barns are as well-ventilated as ours," he adds. "I've seen many dark, stagnant stalls with no rear windows and poor ventilation. Our horses also benefit from having nearly a 360-degree view of what's going on around the barn. It's almost like they are outside, and I think this keeps them happier."

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.

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