Building a Horse Property From the Ground Up
Designing and building a horse property is a big project, one that will require significant time and financial investment.
Photo: Courtesy Ascent Architecture & Interiors
Here's how to design your dream equestrian setup—in this case, on small acreage
Eight years ago, I dreamed of buying a small piece of country acreage and moving my horses home. I had grown up with horses in my backyard, and after riding at stables and boarding for nearly 10 years, I wanted nothing more than to wake up at 6 a.m., wander out in my pajamas to feed my horses, and stand—cup of coffee in hand—watching them munch hay. I’m not kidding.
So, during the height of the real estate market boom in Central Oregon, I convinced my husband, Seth, to sell our nearly new house on a tiny subdivision lot and buy a run-down '70s rambler on 2.25 acres in a neighborhood backing 20,000 acres of horse-accessible public lands.
After the purchase, we had the acreage for our two horses and a ramshackle shed large enough to store hay and tack; what we didn’t have included a barn, shelters, or horse-safe fencing. Fortunately, my husband is handy, and I’m not known for sitting still long (which is conducive to tackling major projects). Plus, Seth is a licensed architect, which means he knows about permitting, designing a safe and code-compliant barn, hiring contractors, and planning for the space a truck and trailer needs to turn around (which is a lot more than you might think).
Nearly a decade into living on our little ranchette, we still have a long way to go. But the horses live at home and are healthy. As each season passes, we discover something new about how we want our property to function and how to better manage our horses’ safety and comfort. The following is a look at what we’ve learned over the years working on our own small horse property. In Part 1, I’ll start with the big-picture planning and then, in Part 2, move into the details of creating a safe, horse-friendly property.
Part 1: Big-Picture Planning
Designing and building a horse property is a big project, one that will require significant time and financial investment. To get started, let’s outline the planning steps you must take to start this journey.
Hire your architect, engineer, or design professional
Unless your project is nontechnical, you’re using pre-existing, prefabricated, or stock (noncustom) barn plans, or you’re embarking on designing your own property and buildings, you’ll need an architect or design professional’s assistance and guidance.
Architects, specifically, have expertise in all phases of design, including feasibility studies, site design, barn and building design, permitting, budgeting, and ensuring everything is constructed correctly and per plans (more on each one of those steps in a moment). They also can coordinate any required engineering. (Have you ever wondered how those giant indoor rodeo arenas stay upright in a windstorm or earthquake? You can thank architects and engineers for that.)
Carolyn Adams, AIA, is an architect and horse owner located in the Seattle suburbs who’s designed equestrian facilities for residential clients, as well as herself (view a slideshow tour of Adams’ efficient horse property at TheHorse.com/34406).
“I find horse owners are really good at seeing the details of how they want things to work,” she says, adding that contractors are good at building. “However, as architects we’re trained to look at the big picture, anticipate challenges, and problem-solve.”
Most states require structures larger than 4,000 square feet to be designed by a licensed architect or engineer. This protects life safety and ensures structures meet building codes and are sound and properly engineered.
Look for an architect or design professional who has experience designing equestrian facilities or is a horse person, Adams says. An experienced equestrian facility architect will have a deep well of knowledge about how horse barns and properties work; will provide a functional and attractive property (relative to your budget); and will help avoid construction problems, saving time and money.
Been-there-done-that tip: What will take the average horse owner weeks to research and lay out will take an experienced architect or design professional just days, if not hours, to complete. Trust me—I’ve lost many hours trying to figure out paddock layouts and paths of travel, only to have my architect husband sketch a solution in minutes.
Perform a feasibility study
This is the analysis of a property to ensure it is viable for your intended use. For a horse facility, it will include zoning (Are horses allowed and, if so, how many?), information about irrigation and water rights, setbacks (How far do you need to place buildings from existing structures, property lines, and roads?), septic placement, easements, soil conditions, and more. This information is gathered from county, city, or township records, along with local ordinances and codes.
Ideally, you’ll have a feasibility study of a potential horse property completed before you buy to ensure the land fits your requirements, says Adams. However, if you already own your property, a feasibility study is still necessary, and the information gleaned will help you understand how you can use your property to its potential, as well as possible limitations.
Been-there-done-that tip: Our feasibility study did not include a soils study. Because we don’t have irrigation and, thus, can do only limited watering for pasture grass, it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. However, our neighborhood sits on an ancient volcanic lava flow, which means digging fence post holes is difficult to impossible. Knowing this might have changed our minds about buying our lot.
Program your property
“Programming” is an architectural word used to describe the initial phase of systematically evaluating your goals to figure out everything you want included in your project. This is part of “schematic design” (the first phase of your project). If you hire an architect to guide your project, he or she will likely have a specific interview or questionnaire process to gather information about how you will use your property.
Start with the basics, such as fencing, shelter, and water (I jokingly refer to them as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Horse Needs,” because they are required for healthy and humane horse keeping). Then add your wants, such as a barn, heated tack room, wash rack, riding arena, and pastures. For our own program, we’ve phased our property development starting with the must-haves and ending with the wants.
Been-there-done-that tip: Think of your program as your wish list. Dream big, and don’t leave any wants out. You’ll come back to reality soon enough, once you start working on a budget.
A site plan is a drawing of your property from a bird’s-eye view, with all of your programming elements included, as well as setbacks (as mentioned, the amount of space required by county or city codes between permanent buildings and property lines, easements, or rights of way, as well as the distance required between residences and livestock housing). Depending on your property’s geography, the site plan might also include any necessary excavation work and drainage systems. Your property’s feasibility study will impact this portion of schematic design significantly.
You’ll likely need to note where your septic and drain field are located (where applicable) and identify a drain-field reserve area in case your current field fails (Don’t place a reserve under a riding arena unless you’re actually willing to give up the arena if your septic system fails). Also determine where water is available or how you can extend it to areas where it’s needed. If your barn is going to have a bathroom, it’ll need to connect to the sewer or septic system. The same goes for electricity and electrical load.
Been-there, done-that tip: If you’re designing a site plan on your own, grab and print (using your computer’s “Print Screen” function) an aerial image of your property from Google or Bing maps. Then use tracing paper to outline the general areas where you want facilities and features located.
Select a knowledgeable contractor
Your project might be small enough that you can “general” it yourself, which means you’ll hire each individual subcontractor. However, if your project is more complex, or you don’t have the time or desire to gather bids and sign contracts with subs, you’ll want to hire a qualified and reputable general contractor.
If an architect or designer is involved in your horse property project, he or she might have a contractor recommendation and can help with selection. If you’re designing the project yourself or contractor selection isn’t included in your architect’s scope, ask friends for referrals. Either way, you’ll want a contractor who’s familiar with agricultural and/or equine properties or buildings.
When it comes to budgeting (which we’ll get to in a moment), a good general contractor will be able to work with your architect to identify areas where you can save money, called “value engineering.”
Been-there, done-that tip: When comparing general contractor and subcontractor estimates, make sure you have an apples-to-apples comparison of services, and get it in writing. Not all contractors offer the same scope of service, and prices can vary greatly.
This is the point where your project gets real, fast. If you’re working with an architect and general contractor, your team will meet with you about project requirements and costs, line-by-line. How much money you need depends on your local design and construction costs, material prices, and if you’re doing some of the work yourself. In general, pad your budget by at least 10%. Costs rarely come in less than you expect, and material and labor costs often increase as time goes by (i.e., a budget completed today won’t apply next year from now if your project gets postponed).
Been-there, done-that tip: For each item on your budget, check with at least two vendors or service providers (such as an excavator and builders) for pricing, and compare numbers before you purchase products (such as fence posts, troughs, or gates) or hire a service provider. In the case of arena installation, we found prices varied by thousands of dollars.
Maybe your budget allows you to build your entire horse facility all at once. If that’s the case, you can skip phasing. But, if you’re like us, cash flow and time limitations might require you to separate your project into phases. Ours were as follows:
- Phase 1: Get horses on the property, with safe fences, shelters, water access, and hay storage.
- Phase 2: Remodel existing house, repair garage.
- Phase 3: Add riding arena and grazing area.
- Phase 4: Build barn and tractor storage, add landscaping, and set up composting.
Been-there, done-that tip: Avoid spending money on major things you plan on changing later. For example, we set up paddocks before remodeling our house. Had we known what kind of addition we we’re going to do on the house, we would’ve placed our paddocks on the opposite side of the property, closest to the mud room and half-bathroom.
This is what transforms all the ideas, planning, and design in the drawings into real, built structures. Depending on the size of your project, construction could take weeks, months, or years.
Been-there, done-that tip: Construction is messy. Expect your lawn to get torn up and dust to infiltrate your house. Good contractors will clean up after themselves and keep a dumpster on-site for trash removal. Talk to your contractor about taking this opportunity to dump other stuff on the property, such as broken equipment or car parts left by previous owners.
Part 2: Getting Down to the Details
Now that you have a basic understanding of the design and construction process, it’s time to investigate the details of your horse property—the fun stuff. You know, the barn, arena, and pretty pastures. Your specific needs and the details of your project will influence your big-picture decisions. Here is the list we included in our small horse-property master plan:
Roomy turnout areas for three horses
I asked TheHorse.com’s regular equine behavior commentator and veterinarian, Nancy Diehl, VMD, MS, who’s based in Central Pennsylvania, for her recommendations on creating healthy turnouts.
“Space!” she says. “Big, open pastures or paddocks provide the space for horses (living together) to keep to themselves or escape during aggressive introductions.”
Based on first-hand experience and equine extension specialists’ advice, I wanted a minimum of 1,000 square feet of turnout per horse on drylot. This gives my horses plenty of space to self-exercise and enough space to escape from each other.
The worst horse accidents I’ve witnessed involved fencing: A horse’s leg degloved to the bone after kicking through wire; a mare cast on her side, legs caught in unsecured pipe panels; a gelding’s chest ripped open after he leaned over barbwire to graze. Rose Nolen-Walston, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, has seen her share of fence-related injuries, as well.
“For fencing, the old gold standard of wood fences (post-and-board or post-and-rail) is good, but for my own animals, I use thick, plastic-covered wire with the top and third strand electrified,” she says. “What you want is something that won’t cause big lacerations if the horse gets a leg through. With my fence, the plastic insulators that attach (the wire) to the posts just pop off when horses get tangled.”
My fencing is similar to what Nolen-Walston describes, and those insulators popping off have saved my horses at least three times over the past seven years. After poring over project specifications (the literature product companies provide to vendors and contractors) we decided on an electric high-tension, nylon-cable fencing designed specifically for horses.
In addition to the “quick release” type insulators, the fencing we selected is also extremely hot (which required a powerful electric fence charger, an intricate grounding system, and—in our dry climate—a way to regularly water dirt around the grounding rods, ensuring its conductivity). Believe me, my horses would rather not touch it.
Shelter or shelter-providing trees in turnouts
Research shows that most acclimatized horses do well with natural shelter, such as trees and geographic landmarks (hills, etc.), says Diehl. However, our property is flat, and our high-desert weather is extreme, with harsh summer sun and bitter winter winds. To offer our horses shade and wind blocks, we went with a three-sided loafing shed (also called an in-and-out or run-in). These shelters open to the east, which gives us a direct line of sight into them and blocks weather from the west and south (our area’s prevailing wind directions).
For a long time I tried to convince myself I didn’t need a barn. Horses really do prefer to live outside, and stalls mean more daily maintenance. Sure, it’d be nice to not to have farrier appointments rained out, and it might be nice to groom a horse in a cozy barn aisle during the winter months. But, horses are healthier when they live outside. However, when my gelding sliced his eye open as the sun set one evening, I finally acquiesced—my small horse property needed a barn.
“Ventilation, ventilation, ventilation!” says Nolen-Walston about her main horse barn requirement. “I’d have lots of windows, at least one per stall, preferably Dutch doors to the outside so horses can hang their heads out. Consult with a good barn designer about roof caps and other ways to maximize air turnover to keep horses’ lungs healthy.”
My barn requests included:
- Water (we spent our first winter dragging hoses across the property and thawing them in the then-master bathtub, so we learned the hard way the importance of water access).
- Heated automatic water fountains (also known as waterers) with meters to measure water -consumption.
- Natural light and ventilation.
- Three 12-by-12-foot stalls with adjacent 12-by-24 runs that open into a large shared drylot.
- Grooming, farrier, and veterinarian area with a safe spot for tying or cross-tying, possibly an aisle a minimum of 12 feet wide.
- A slip-resistant aisle footing.
- A heated tack room.
- Fire-rated storage for feed, a minimum of 4 tons of hay, and baled stall bedding.
- Stall dividers that allow horses to see each other inside the barn.
- Cushioned stall mats.
- Ground-level feeders.
- Outdoor wash rack with heated water.
Hay and feed storage
Hay takes up a significant amount of space, especially if you have multiple horses that are limited to no pasture, like I do. According to the North Dakota State University Agriculture Extension document “Weights and Measures of Common Feed,” 1 ton of nonlegume (grass) hay requires 250 to 330 cubic feet (width by length by height), and 1 ton of alfalfa requires 200 to 330 cubic feet of storage space. That’s a car-sized stack!
Horse trailer loading, unloading, turnaround, and storage area
I wanted a safe place for my horses to load and unload. For me, that means no foreign objects for the horses to run into, and good, soft footing that’s slip-resistant and easy to clean (not gravel, because I find it difficult to clean manure from it). Lastly, we needed enough room to maneuver the truck and trailer easily.
Manure storage and composting area
As sure as all horses eat, they all poop, too. One horse produces an average of 9 tons of manure a year. Multiply that by three, and there’s a lot of manure to manage. Not cleaning paddocks and taking care of poop can lead to health issues for your horses, fly and other pest problems, and unhappy neighbors.
Currently we have an area designated for poop that is out of sight from our house and our neighbors, and we use a hauling service to remove the pile several times a year. Our next development phase will include a three-bin composting system, so we can turn manure into soil on-site for top dressing our lawn and fertilizing our garden. We’re using TheHorse.com’s Smart Horse Keeping Blogger Alayne Blickle’s easy-to-follow compost system design plans, which you can find at TheHorse.com/CompostingSystem.
Not having an indoor arena is the biggest sacrifice I made when moving our horses home from a boarding facility, especially during the winter months. Our location and real estate values, along with our budget, dictate that we won’t build an indoor or covered arena on our property (it would overvalue us for the neighborhood).
Instead, I’m hoping for a decent, low-dust arena with safe, three-rail wood fence around it. Because my dressage horse has pre-existing lameness issues exacerbated by poor footing, I contacted Duncan Peters, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVSMR, ISELP, an associate professor in Large Animal Clinical Sciences at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and an avid hunter-jumper competitor, for arena advice.
“Footing (and hoof care) are essential to the longevity of the sport horse,” says Peters. “A surface that is ‘sticky’ or ‘grabs’ the foot as it strikes the ground tends to sharply load the soft tissues and potentiate the possibilities of injury if they are not conditioned properly. A surface that is too ‘loose’ will not support the foot and leg structures during propulsion and/or give way on leg loading to cause abnormal force curves that may lead to injury. The surface should allow the tissues to load evenly, provide firm support at maximal loading (peak stance phase), not give way dramatically as the horse pushes off at breakover (putting pressure on the deep digital flexor tendon), and not be too deep to fatigue muscles easily.”
To meet those requirements, Peters recommends a sand-and-clay mix with a small amount of organic or synthetic filler (think wood chips for the former or fabric for the latter, which can help footing hold moisture for added dust control).
Arena design is highly technical (including drainage, base, footing, and fencing) and outside the scope of this article. Footing options, such as sand, vary greatly in quality and by region. Ask your architect, contractor, or footing manufacturer/distributor for specifics. For more information, see “Avoid Common Mistakes When Building an Outdoor Arena” at TheHorse.com/33991.
I wanted a 60-foot-diameter round pen for working my young horse and free-longeing my older guys on days I don’t ride. Plus, I live in the West, and when it comes to resale value out here, a small horse property isn’t complete without one. As with the arena, I want good footing. Because, as mentioned earlier, our ground is difficult for digging, we’ve decided to use prefabricated panels for our round pen. To learn more about installing round pens, see Blickle’s post on the topic at TheHorse.com/SelectingARoundPen.
Pasture preparation, planting, and maintenance recommendations vary by region. Here in Central Oregon’s high desert, irrigation is necessary for growing pasture. Like I said, we don’t have irrigation in our little neighborhood, but we’ve decided to dedicate what little water we get for a small grazing paddock at the front of our property. This will allow us to watch our horses from the living room or front patio when they’re turned out, which is an experience I wanted incorporated into our site design. Our plans include a fall planting with a low-water grass mix suitable for our climate and a simple sprinkler system for irrigating the area. For more information about creating pastures, contact your local extension service or agricultural seed distributor.
Tractor, equipment, and implement storage
For us, the third bay of our existing garage works for tractor and equipment storage. If you don’t have a place to park a tractor, include that in your barn or outbuilding planning.
Building a horse property is a lot of work. But, with the right professionals’ help, you can create a custom facility to meet your horse-keeping needs. And, take it from me, that morning cup of coffee tastes even better when you’re drinking it while watching your horses over breakfast.
About the Author
Michelle Anderson serves as The Horse's digital managing editor. In her role, she produces content for our web site and hosts our live events, including Ask the Vet Live. A lifelong horse owner, Anderson competes in dressage and enjoys trail riding. She's a Washington State University graduate (Go Cougs!) and holds a bachelor's degree in communications with a minor in business administration and extensive coursework in animal sciences. She has worked in equine publishing since 1998. She currently lives with her husband on a small horse property in Central Oregon.