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Equestrian Quarterly Fall 2013 is out!

In the recent publication of Equestrian Quarterly, John Blackburn and Great Roads Farm is featured. Take some time to look at Barn Design Masterclass: How to Get the Best Barn While Working Within a Budget. John shares some tips for designing within budget without sacrificing the essential elements of a well-designed barn. 

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Comments on “Safe Stabling: Protect the People”

The article “Safe Stabling:  Protect the People” by Nancy Loving DVM shares a few tips and suggestions on how people can keep themselves safe around horses and in barns. Her fun photo challenge first caught my attention, as we have done similar challenges (as seen here). My career in designing horse farms has continuously focused on how to design for the safety of both horse and handler. I wanted to add some additional tips on how stable design can help keep both people and animals safe. One could write a book on the subject, and I have in fact.  My book Healthy Stables by Design (www.healthystablesbydesign.com) has been released. But for now, I’ll name eight areas of concern: Circulation, Fire Separation, Ventilation, Finishes, Layout, Materials, Orientation, and Natural Light (see diagram below).  I have shared one example under each, but in truth the list is virtually limitless.  Feel free to comment with your own suggestions. Let’s build a list together and see how far we can take it.

Circulation: In planning the farm and the location of the barn relative to paddocks, roadways, service lanes, and lead paths, always try to bring people, vehicles, and horses as close together as possible without crossing paths. They should be separate, but still efficient (as all circulation routes are costs in terms of installation, maintenance and operation).

Fire Separation: It goes without saying that fire safety is a major concern around horse barns.  Both how you design to prevent and contain a fire once it happens is important.  I always suggest isolating hay, bedding, and flammable products (such as fuel and machinery) from the barn by placing them in a separate structure.  Whenever you can, consider fire separations.  For example, I frequently design a fire separation that isolates the stall area from the service areas of the barn by using pocket doors to close off the aisle.  They serve to isolate the “human areas,” such as tack room, laundry, lounge, or office, from the “horse areas.” By doing so, they separate the areas of high risk from the horses. If there is a fire, the fire separation works to contain the smoke and slow the spread of the fire in order to give you more time to get the horses out.

Ventilation:  The most important health concern for your horses.  Natural ventilation, including vertical ventilation, is the most important design consideration. Design the barn to be a natural machine, not just a static structure.  Use the Bernoulli principle and the chimney effect to create that. Place the barn perpendicular to the summer prevailing breeze in order to take the most advantage of the site.

Finishes: Avoid finishes that will collect dirt, moisture, bacteria, etc. For that reason, we do not advise using finishes that are not easily washable or do not drain well.

Layout (site and building):  Consider the natural slope and drainage of the land.  Place the barn on a pad that is at least 18″ to 2 ft above finish grade. Ideally, one wants the ground to slope away from the finish floor of the barn, as this will aid with drainage.

Materials: Never use exposed concrete if you can help it, unless adequately protected (rubber mats, etc). The use of concrete is especially bad in stalls and wash/grooming areas, where horse may be standing for long periods of time.

Orientation:  Orientation is important for natural ventilation, but it’s also important to consider the angles of the sun during different times of the year for natural light. Protection from the sun might also be a concern, so consider the design of openings, overhangs, view corridors, security, etc.

Natural light: When designing a barn for health and safety, natural light is probably only second to natural ventilation in importance. The horse was meant to live in nature. Natural light is key to the natural cycling of broodmares in a thoroughbred-breeding farm, but it also helps promote the health of any horse.  Lighting is also a safety and cost concern.  The more you can use natural light to light your barn, the less you need to depend on man-made light, which is an operational cost but also a fire hazard.

These are 8 of my favorite health and safety design principles.  Read the article by Nancy Loving, look at your own farm and try to add to the list I have started above.  We can all have a little fun with it and maybe learn a few pointers while we are at it.


Good luck and I look forward to your responses.

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“Fire, Wind, Water: Thoughtful Barn Design May Reduce Disaster Risk”

Feel free to check out the article “Fire Wind Water: Thoughtful Barn Design May Reduce Disaster Risk” from Polo Magazine’s current issue at the included link. John has provided his comments on how to design a safe barn for a variety of climates and regions. You can find the article from Polo Magazine here: Polo Article September 2013. (Photo credit for image on page 36 to Ken Wyner, Top image on page 37 photo credit to Max MacKenzie)

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Thoughts on “Handicapping Dopers at the Racetrack”

After recently reading the NYT’s opinion article “Handicapping Dopers at the Racetrack,” I wanted to share my thoughts with all of you. From the previous comments I made about the article “Twilight at the Track,” many of you may already know where I stand in regards to the doping of racehorses. This recent article shares encouraging news that doping’s negative effect on bettors, the life blood of the thoroughbred racing industry, may help bring much needed reforms to horse racing.  In the article, NYT’s editorial board states that bettors, large and small, are being discouraged from large wagers because of the rampant illegal drug use in the industry. Since the bettors are threatened by the practice and the horses themselves are dying from it, the Jockey Club is willing to spend as much as $500,000 to employ the use of “out-of-competition” drug-testing. At this time, this type of testing is used only by 1/3rd of the industry.

I want to see thoroughbred racing thrive, not be abused.  I support any reforms that eliminate the doping of racehorses, but I am suspicious of the success of self-policing.  I am not a veterinarian and therefore do not know the pros and cons of different drugs and their use for legitimate or illegitimate health reasons. Those more knowledgeable in animal science and medicine can determine that.  However, I feel there needs to be more transparency in the medications a horse is receiving and which of those are needed, if any. There needs to be an elimination of any and all performance enhancing drugs or medications.  I approve of the Jockey Club’s intent to build a national database that will offer this kind of transparency. Stiffer fines and punishment of offenders, as well as a national or federally instituted policy of policing or monitoring, may also achieve the same end.

I support the Jockey Club’s efforts to control the abuses in the industry, but I’m not convinced it is a sufficient amount or that it will happen soon enough. The inefficient and uneven enforcement of regulations from state to state and track to track may not substantially remove the suspicions held by many bettors.  I hope I am wrong, but if not, then some sort of federally instituted monitoring program with stiffer penalties for abusers should be applied sooner rather than later.

See also this article for more information: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/12/sports/as-concerns-over-drugs-mount-the-jockey-club-says-it-will-pay-for-testing.html

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Crowded Quarters

The WHS is facing overcrowded conditions once again and is requesting help from volunteers and families in the DC area to assist. Summertime always brings an influx of animals to shelters across the country, and during slow economic conditions it is even worse. The Washington’s Post gallery of photos of the WHS can be viewed at this link.

Daniel Blair, a project architect for our firm, and his wife Ellie typically foster dogs for the WHS and a local non-profit rescue organization called HART. They answered the WHS’s call for help by fostering an extra dog to try to provide some relief at the shelter.

The dog that Dan and Ellie have brought into their home is named Mahlia. According to Dan, she is a very kind and strong willed German Shepherd, who came to the shelter as a stray. Severely emaciated, malnourished, and with a skin condition, life has not been kind for Mahlia. Based on the photos, she has a long road ahead of her (warning: they may be difficult for some). Her best recipe for recovery: medication, constant care, and a low-stress environment.

In my opinion, animals should not have to leave the shelter to find a low-stress environment. When we researched the design of animal care facilities across the country a couple years back, we concluded that providing a low-stress environment for animals is possible with good design. At the most basic level they are no different than designing a horse barn: proper ventilation, care, and attention to detail are most important.

Unfortunately, Mahlia’s case is not isolated; we know the US has animal overpopulation problem. The HSUS estimates approximately 2.7 million adoptable cats and dogs are put down each year as a result of over-reproduction. If pet owners simply listened to Bob Barker’s closing words each day and implemented the cheap and easy solution by spaying and neutering their pets, then there would not be a need for all of the non-profit animal rescues. Presently, it is estimated that there are 4,000 to 6,000 operating in the US. Unfortunately, human behavior is a very difficult thing to change. If it took approximately 50 years for 80% of the US population to finally use seat belts, then it may take a long time before we reach the tipping point with this issue.

The Washington Humane Society is one of the ten oldest Humane Societies in the US, and they have always held the contract to provide animal control services for the District of Columbia – meaning they have to take in and care for every animal that is caught or turned in. This includes everything from gerbils, cats, and dogs to pandas and bears. So even if the US overpopulation issue is ever resolved, there will always be places like the WHS to fulfill a public need. Since they are the ones in need right now, please consider volunteering, donating, or spread the word to help provide relief for the WHS or your local animal control shelter. In the meantime, we wish Mahlia the best of luck in her road to recovery, and we will look forward to updates from Dan about her story in the coming months.

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Spontaneous Combustion: Learn More About this Phenomenon

Many are unaware that wet hay has a greater risk of causing fire than dry hay. You may be wondering why right now. Logically, it seems odd that something wet could suddenly burst into flames as the opposite seems to make more sense. However, those who advise you to check your wet hay are right, and in this post you can find out why and how to prevent this.

In a recent article, Esther Inglis-Arkell explains how wet hay can just spontaneously burst into flames, and I will do my best to summarize it here. Spontaneous combustion is an interesting process; it seems far-fetched or supernatural that something perfectly fine and at rest, suddenly bursts into flames. Yet, Inglis-Arkell assures us it “sounds a lot more mysterious than it is…There are barns, hay fields, forests, compost heaps, and, once, a two-ton pile of wood chips that have spontaneously caught fire.”

Why? Water is the cause. Water enables the biological processes that discharge heat. As plant cells die, heat and water is released. The greener something is, or the more water it has inside it, the more heat that will exit. From there, our least-favorite friends, bacteria and fungi, go crazy. In their now warm, wet home they begin to eat and produce even more heat as they reproduce. Eventually, the temperature “hits a critical point, and the pile begins to smolder.” The hay itself insulates the fire, and causes it to grow hotter. Further, if there is no oxygen present, the heat will slowly increase until “someone rakes into it and exposes the super-heated material to air. Then it bursts into flame from the inside out.”

Now, what does this mean for you and your stable?

  1. I advise against hay lofts in your barn. Instead, a smaller room can be designated to store small amounts (I recommend up to a 7 day storage maximum), while a larger, separate building can hold the bulk of it. This helps isolate a potential cause of fire.
  2. You don’t want to provide a warm, wet home for fungi to grow. For this, and many other reasons, I advocate for plenty of natural light.
  3. Never stack wet hay (anything with more than 22 percent moisture) and with the hay you do stack, make sure it has plenty of airflow. This will help dry out the hay further. It is wise to stack the hay off the ground so air can get under it to aid the drying process. Further, we add screened ventilation vents to many of our hay storage areas so that air can surround the hay. This allows air to circulate further as hot air rises out of the vents in the roof by the Chimney effect.
  4. If at all possible, refuse any hay delivery that has encountered rain on transport. If it is raining when it arrives, keep it covered and on the truck until the rain stops. Better yet, provide a hay barn in which the hay truck can pull under a roof to unload.
  5. Check your hay regularly and keep vigilant for a caramel odor or musty smell, which is a sign that your hay is heating. Using a temperature probe, you can evaluate the danger level of the hay. 150 degrees F is the start of the danger zone; at 175, call a fire department. Please, if your hay does reach a dangerous level, contact the fire department before addressing it yourself. They will most likely tell you to wet the hay down, remove it from the barn, and dismantle the stack. At this point, there is likely fire pockets and potential for injury. At 190, be prepared for the stack to burst into flames when it contacts the air.

Fire is always a big concern for stables. Yet, with the knowledge of danger, comes the ability to prevent it. Check out Inglis-Arkell’s article for more information on the process and this website that provides further tips.

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Site Decisions and the Benefits of an Equestrian Architect

After reading Stable Management’s recent article “Environment is Important in Planning Your Equine Facility,” I thought the topic would be perfect for this latest series of Barn Design Tips and Thoughts. You can find Stable Management’s article here (http://stablemanagement.com/article-archive/stable-management/environment-is-important-in-planning-your-equine-facility/) if you are interested.

The article is absolutely correct, “Environment is important.”  Since you cannot change the environment, selecting the proper property and layout of your farm is critical to its success. The farm has to respect the land and environment in which it is placed. Sometimes people attempt to change the land to suit the farm they desire. That process is generally extremely costly and some spend more money manipulating the land than they do building the structures, fencing, etc.

A successful horse farm needs to respect three concerns: the demands of the site, the goals of the owner, and the needs of the horse. At Blackburn, we believe the needs of the horse remain paramount throughout the planning and design process. For over 30 years and in more than 30 states, I have seen an incredible range of properties and locations on which a horse-owner wants to “build” a farm. Most properties can be adapted in some way, but at what expense? One time, I had a conversation with a thoroughbred owner in which he had to decide between spending $100k to solve a site issue his way or accepting a lower cost alternative that could save him enough money to invest in a new foal. Like many equestrians faced with a similar choice, he chose the latter. This is one of the reasons why having an equestrian architect or planner evaluate a site before purchase may be extremely helpful and cost-effective.

In order to make the most of your land and stable, planning is necessary. The most important and critical step is to develop a master plan. This is where most of our projects start. A proper master plan will analyze the site to determine the property’s unique features, pitfalls, proper conditions, seasonal changes, etc. etc.

There are literally thousands of things to consider and they are not all the same for any two projects. As I have described it in terms of farm managers, you can get a hundred farm managers in a room and you will get at least 101 different opinions on how to run or operate a farm.  The same is true for the site. Oftentimes, we present several site plan options to clients so they can see the benefits and negatives of different building placements. It may require an experienced equine planner, designer/architect, or landscape designer/architect to see the differences or to see “the forest for the trees.” For that reason, it is almost impossible for me to give general tips about site planning as each site differs. One generally applicable tip is locating  the long axis of the barn perpendicular to the prevailing summer breeze for good ventilation.  The key is determining the direction of the prevailing summer breeze.  I recommend starting with local airport wind data, but following that with a site analysis to observe site obstructions that can modify the pattern.  Every site has it’s own microclimate and it is important to gain an understanding of it before you design the overall site plan.

To make the most of your property, I highly advise hiring someone with experience. Sometimes this is where people have issues. Without considering all the influences of land and environment, they purchase a prefab or select a design/build solution.  With many of these companies, their sole interest is selling a product, not a service. It is not very different from selecting a trainer for your horse. If you want to be a top dressage rider, selecting a general all-around trainer can only get you so close to your goal. Instead, you need someone with experience in high-level dressage. Someone that is able to understand your horse, you, and your goals. Similarly, what the owner of a horse property needs is the service of an experienced hand, the talents of a trained eye, and the concern for the long term success of the farm.

A few weeks ago, I was approached by a potential client who had selected a prefab barn/arena structure.  Throughout the process, the prime concern was the cost and speed of erection. The supplier offered to adjust the size of her building components to fit the building pad, but didn’t look any further. When the owner complained that the barn stuck out like a sore thumb, the prefab manufacturer added a series of small cupolas that were not functional and out of proportion. Unfortunately, in these situations it is often the health of the horses that suffer. They are the ones that miss out on the prevailing summer breezes that your pre-fab structure never gets because barn placement wasn’t considered. It is the horses that have to live in a stall that smells and contains high levels of ammonia gas, since draining and the importance of natural light in reducing gas production was not a priority. They do not have the benefit of clerestory light entering or the light from a Dutch door removing bacteria from the air, since your pre-fab barn may lack Dutch-doors and abundant sky-lights. Of course none of these are extreme life-threatening problems and not every pre-fab structure or kit of parts is horribly designed (although there are definitely some out there). Yet, when you take a horse out of its comfort zone- the wild- it’s your obligation to create an environment that protects its health and safety. A poorly designed barn can be worse than no barn at all.

The last line of the article stating “Environment is Important in Planning Your Equine Facility” is absolutely correct. “Understanding what you want to develop, and planning for the success of that horse facility, will go a long way in making the project go faster and easier,” and if I might add, cost less and be a better long-term investment.

If you are interested in how stable design can make a healthy environment for horses, please consider checking out my new book Healthy Stables by Design. After practicing as an equestrian architect and concerning myself with ways to make stables safer and healthier for their inhabitants in all kinds of environments, I thought it was finally time to share some of my principles. In my book, you can start to understand these concepts as I explain them through large-scale pictures and drawings.

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A Temporary Stop for Equine Slaughter

As of August 2nd, federal judge Christina Armijo has temporarily stopped horse slaughter in New Mexico and Iowa by issuing a restraining order. This will temporarily pause the process for at least 30 days, with hopes of a permanent stop in the future. This was spurred on by a lawsuit filed by the Humane Society of the United States and other groups, who have cited the failure to conduct environmental reviews. They plan to keep fighting this case once the temporary ban has been lifted.


Stay tuned for more updates on this issue. Find out more here.

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Oakhaven Farm Featured in Horse & Style

Blackburn designed Oakhaven Farm was featured in the current issue of Horse & Style. We are proud to see it in the barn envy section. Check out the article here if you want to learn more about the farm, hear John’s thoughts, and see some pictures of the farm.

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Zooming out to Stall Design

After focusing on the specifics of stall door design last week, I thought we would zoom out to stall design. The first thing to determine is size. Typically, the average stall is around 12’ x 12’. Here at Blackburn, we frequently design stalls that are 14’ x 14’ or 12’ x 14’ (because of owner preferences). We have been known to go larger for big horses and foaling stalls, but we very rarely go smaller and don’t advise it unless the stalls are for ponies, miniature horses, etc. Keep in mind, and this is a valuable tip, it is usually cheaper to increase your barn’s length dimension, than it’s width. As you consider the size of your stalls, remember that due to the pricing of  longer span roof rafters, using 2 x 10s or 2 x 12s (in the width direction of your barn) is preferable to 2 x 14s (or larger) for the entire length of the barn. It makes more sense if you have a 12’ x 14’ stall, that the stall would be 14’ wide and 12’ deep.

Often, clients want flexibility. They do not have any immediate plans to breed, but want the option. In this scenario, I recommend a removable partition or hinge partition between two stalls. This allows you to efficiently use the space until you have the need for a larger stall.

Now you may be wondering, why wouldn’t I make my stalls bigger? I want my horse to be comfortable and I have room. There are two main negatives. Usually the most prohibitive one is the cost of building the barn, while the cost of bedding tends to get overlooked. The larger the stall is, the more bedding you will use, the more time it will take to clean, and the more waste it will produce.

After deciding on your stall size and placement, the next consideration is flooring. There are many flooring options to consider, some being natural dirt (issues with odors/mess), sand with mats on top (best low cost solution in areas where sand is prevalent), dirt/stone dust with mats on top (best low cost solution where stone dust is easily obtainable), stone dust with an embedded grid (grids frequently warp and need to be replaced more often than mats), bare concrete (worst solution- never want to expose concrete around horse), concrete with mats on top (need to think carefully about drainage), popcorn asphalt (drains well but might need to add additional drain tile below if poor subsoil drainage conditions), and interlocking rubber brick (the best all around in my opinion, but most expensive).  Some owners like stall mattresses, but remember they cost more and may need eventual replacement. Although it may reduce bedding needs, they add upfront cost.

With all options, you have to consider how the stall will drain, especially if your soil is mostly clay. I would not advise drains in a stall, unless you can direct them to a clean-out catch basin or daylight drain, since they would only get clogged. Instead, we subtly slope the stall towards the aisle. In general, people clean their aisles at least once a day, but may only wash down and flush out a stall a couple times a year.  In instances where this is impossible and we have to drain to the outside, we have designed a concrete channel on the exterior with an access gate (or Dutch door opening).

On a side note, vacuuming or sweeping your aisles is never good for the health of your horses, unless they aren’t there. Even then, I recommend washing where possible (and where water availability is not an issue). You want to avoid the circulation of dirt, dust, and the bacteria that goes with it.

Moving on to the walls. The big choice with walls is using concrete block or wood. Keep in mind that block walls require filling the voids within the blocks, adding re-bar for strength and painting over them with a filler coat before final paint. Otherwise, bacteria can get in these grooves and grow. For people worried about their horses kicking concrete walls, we add rubber mats up to about 4 ft. Wood stall walls are much more forgiving, and for that reason I prefer them. In my opinion, the best looking solution (but more costly) is installing wood wainscot up to 4 ft around the interior of the stall. It is a convenient way to incorporate a casting groove (in lieu of a rail) that is largely hidden, protected from cribbing, and permits ventilation behind the wainscot (better to preserve the wood). We always make sure that the interior is a flat surface, so there is nothing for the horse to chew (noting that a horse stuck in a stall for long hours will also try to chew a flat surface. You might do the same if you were stuck in there for long hours). Also, one needs to use blind nails and preferably screws, so there is no possibility of injury to the horse.

I recommend mounting a stall fan high on the exterior wall facing down from the eave and in a fixed position. Ideally, if the barn is designed correctly there is fresh air coming into your eave, and this is much better than pushing stagnant air from the aisle. A fixed fan allows the horse to choose if it wants to be in the fan’s breeze and gives them greater control of their environment.

I try to have two lights in every stall, one on each side. This helps remove shadows that occur with one, which is helpful if you need to look at your horse’s legs or hooves. Each stall should have its own light switch, fan switch, and outlet on a nearby jamb or column. This allows you to selectively turn on lights (which is more energy efficient). Keep in mind, that with natural daylight, most of our barns utilize no electric lights during the day. Turning on the lights would be reserved for at night, and in that case you may not want to wake up the entire aisle. No matter how you plan to do the lighting, all wiring should be run in conduit or BX cable (even if it is in the wall) to prevent any unnecessary problems from chewing by horses or rodents.

For all the other add-ons, such as automatic waters, buckets, hay doors, swivel feed trays, etc., I tend to prefer the traditional approach. If possible, it is always better to have someone actually go into the stall. With this contact, a person is more likely to note trouble or problems. Additionally, the add-ons are just another thing that eventually needs to be replaced if they break. However, the barn owner needs to determine how they want their barn to operate and how they want to spend their money. No matter what, if you are going to add a feed access hole through the stall, the uncovered opening type should be avoided. Have you ever walked down an aisle with these openings in the stall fronts near feeding time? Every horse is trying to reach its face into the aisle. And horses have been known to get a foot caught in them. This is dangerous, and a feed access gate is advisable.

Many of the other details fall to personal preference. While I tend to prefer earth colors the hold up to a little dirt for the wall finishes and light colors for the underside of the roof for light reflectance, it is the owner that customizes these to their needs. Just remember, nothing is more important than the safety and wellbeing of your horse. I’ll conclude with one example. Blowing down your aisle with a leaf blower may be faster, but it impacts health conditions. I always say, your barn does not need to cost you an arm and a leg, but neither should it, or how you operate it, cost you your horse.

If you are enjoying this small series of design tips be sure to pre-order your copy of my new book, Healthy Stables by Design.


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