In this on-going series, John Blackburn offers insight into component parts of equestrian facilities. With more than 35 years’ experience in the design of horse barns, he’s seen his share of good, bad and worse. In this installment, he gives advice on stall flooring. Still as applicable as ever, we’re reposting Sushil Dulai Wenholz’ article from The Horse, Sept 1, 2001 (added a few updates, too).
By Sushil Dulai Wenholz
You give a lot of thought to your horse’s health and happiness. You groom him until he gleams, swaddle him in boots and blankets, carefully monitor his diet, and expend considerable effort and expense making sure he’s comfortably bedded. But have you thought about what lies beneath that soft bed? In essence, the stall floor is the box spring beneath your horse’s mattress, and it’s every bit as important as what goes on top–perhaps more so.
No matter how nice the bedding, a poorly constructed floor can lead to respiratory troubles from ammonia gases, thrush from trapped moisture, achy joints from uneven or too-hard surfaces, and injury from slippery or abrasive materials. In addition, a poor floor can mean wasted bedding and extra labor for you.
A good stall floor starts with a good construction plan. John Blackburn, senior principal of Blackburn Architects, a 34-year-old firm that has designed more than 400+ barns in 35 states; and Peter Gibbs, Extension Horse Specialist at Texas A&M University, outline the steps involved in building a floor that will keep you and your horse happy, whether you’re revamping an existing stall or building a brand new barn from scratch.
Starting From Scratch
1. Pick the location. If you’re building a barn, you have the luxury of choosing the best site. Look for an area that’s dry or at least easy to drain. Avoid steep slopes, areas that are consistently wet, and locations that are subject to water runoff during heavy rains or snow melt. In terms of soil, you’re basically stuck with whatever is normal for your region. But if you have it, soil that packs tightly is ideal, says Blackburn, because it will provide a tough surface that isn’t too hard or abrasive.
2. Dig to the base. Whether you’re starting from scratch or redoing an existing stall, you need to dig down to a well-draining layer of soil. This will give urine and other moisture a path to drain away from your horse. Expect to excavate at least one foot deep over the entire stall, says Blackburn. You might have to go deeper, depending on local soil conditions.
3. Level the ground. You should level out that base layer to help make sure the surfaces above it are level. A nice, even plane puts less stress on your horse’s legs than an uneven floor.
4. Compact the base and fill. Even if the floor starts out flat, Gibbs explains that extended use can create a holey or uneven surface, especially with dirt or stone-dust flooring. To form a firm foundation that can withstand daily wear and tear for extended periods, compact the floor. You can use a hand roller, a motorized, hand-held compactor or “settler,” or some other heavy pounding tool to do the job.
First, compact the layer you’ve uncovered and leveled. Then begin adding layers of dirt or stone dust. “The important thing is to install the flooring in layers and tamp it at each layer,” says Blackburn. He recommends using three-inch layers for dirt or one- to two-inch layers for stone dust. Compact each layer “until you think it can take the abuse of hooves kicking at it,” he adds, noting that there isn’t a standard measure to go by.
To ensure good drainage away from the building, add layers until your floor’s surface is 12 to 18 inches above the natural grade around the barn, says Blackburn. “You want to get the moisture to drain through the flooring and away from the stall and barn,” he explains. In addition, this protects the floor from high water levels outside that might otherwise easily flood the stall.
Now you’re ready to add the floor itself. Next you’ll find basic installation information for several common types of flooring.
Adding the Flooring
Dirt–If you plan to have a dirt floor, and local soil drains exceptionally well, you’re done. Most soils, however, drain moderately well at best, so you’ll probably want to help it along. One option is to grade the top layer of dirt slightly (no more than three degrees), so that moisture runs off to exit the barn or stall through an outlet in the corner (or through the stall door to the aisle).
You could also make a “leach hole,” or simple drain, inside the stall. To do this, dig a hole about three feet in diameter and deep enough to reach that bottom, well-draining layer of soil at the base you created. Then fill the hole with varying sizes of rock (or alternating layers of sand and gravel), starting with large gravel chunks at the bottom and working toward stone dust at the top. Tamp into place and cover with dirt to even out the floor.
Stone Dust–Blackburn believes that stone dust (also known as crusher run, screenings, or quarter-inch minus) makes a better floor than dirt, “because it can compact well and still permits drainage.” However, he does recommend adding a subsurface drainage system to enhance flow-through. To do this, lay filter fabric over the floor, top it with a layer of crushed gravel, then add three to five inches of stone dust. As you did with the base, compact the stone dust after each one- to two-inch layer. When you’re done, water the floor, tamp it down tight again, and let it settle overnight. Fill in any holes or depressions the next day.
Another idea is to install a drainpipe under the stone dust floor. “I feel that this helps drain the moisture away from the stall area and allows you to flush the stall with moisture to cleanse the flooring,” explains Blackburn. “Otherwise, it could drain into the dirt and stone and stay there, providing odor and a breeding ground for bacteria.”
To lay pipe, first dig a swale–a sloped ditch about one foot deep. Lay perforated pipe into the swale (you want a piece long enough to provide drainage away from the building, notes Blackburn). Cover the pipe with filter fabric, then fill the swale with crushed gravel. Now add and compact your stone dust as stated previously.
Plastic Grid–Plastic grid flooring comes in many variations, but the basic idea is the same for all floors: To provide a 100% permeable floor plus a level, stable, durable surface. Installation instructions vary by manufacturer; however, most recommend laying the grid over a well-draining subsurface (such as stone dust) so that moisture not absorbed by bedding will drain away. Usually, the holes in the grid (which create the excellent drainage) are filled with stone dust.
Rubber Mats–As with grid systems, rubber mats (and similarly, rubber pavers, which look like rubber bricks) vary in design, thickness, texture, etc., from one manufacturer to the next. Likewise for installation instructions, although most want you to measure stalls so that mats fit snugly against each other and the walls. Unlike grids, however, mats and pavers are meant to trap moisture above the surface, where it can be absorbed by bedding. Moisture can seep through the seams (or possibly the rubber itself). So, flooring experts recommend that you lay mats over a well-draining subsurface, such as one of the crushed stone systems mentioned earlier, or over relatively nonporous materials such as concrete and asphalt that can be easily disinfected.
Asphalt–You can lay an asphalt floor yourself, if you’re willing to find a supplier, rent equipment, and learn the proper way to apply, rake, and settle it. However, it can be a tricky process. As Blackburn notes, “The right mix of asphalt is important. It should be raked as it’s installed, then hand rolled. I would imagine that hiring a professional would be advisable.”
He also suggests that you grade asphalt floors with a crown of one-eighth inch per foot in order to sustain drainage. “With a flat surface, the urine puddles and leaves the horse standing in dampness, potentially causing all kinds of hoof issues,” he explains. The slope will also facilitate drainage when the stall is washed or disinfected. Blackburn recommends the use of aggregate, or “popcorn,” asphalt, which offers a non-slip texture. And he strongly urges the use of rubber mats or rubber pavers to cushion this relatively rough surface.
Concrete–Many people are comfortable mixing and pouring their own concrete–an easier process than laying asphalt. For larger projects, you might want to hire outside assistance. Although moisture can seep through concrete over time, this footing is not as porous as stone dust. So, Blackburn recommends grading it at a rate of one-eight inch to one-quarter inch per foot to allow for drainage. Concrete should be cushioned with rubber mats or pavers, he adds, to reduce the risk of injury and musculoskeletal stresses that this hard flooring could cause.
A Note on Cost
Before you begin stall floor construction, you should create a budget for the project. However, as Blackburn notes, “The cost of different options can vary dramatically based on the number of stalls, location, and the material used,” as well as the specific suppliers, consultants, and equipment rental agencies with which you might deal.
For instance, says Blackburn, “I have found that the cost of asphalt flooring can range widely from area to area. And some suppliers require that a large quantity be ordered of the type and mix you need before they will supply it at a reasonable price.” Therefore, it could actually be more expensive, per stall, to floor a smaller barn than a larger barn. It’s important to contact local companies for estimates before you start the job. (For mass-manufactured, nationally distributed products like most rubber mats and plastic grid systems, you can check pricing with the manufacturers, many of whom have web sites.)
As you start compiling price quotes and creating a budget, Blackburn cautions that you consider not just the initial expense of purchase and installation, but also long-term costs. A dirt floor might be virtually free to install except for labor, but could be expensive in terms of labor over the long run. Rubber mats might be pricey at the start, but could pay for themselves through longevity, ease of care, and reduced bedding.
Also consider the stall flooring material can greatly impact the amount of bedding you’ll need to use. For instance, a stall floor with interlocking rubber brick can cut your bedding in half which can save on barn operations, offsetting increased installation costs.
Additional options for flooring include adhered cushioned or foam filled. To conclude, all stall flooring has an impact on the comfort of your horse, the material cost of installation, bedding requirements and your ability to clean and sanitize the stalls.
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.
Hi John. I hope you had a wonderful summer!
Q: Our covered arena has been put to good use throughout the last year, but we really need lights to make it even more beneficial to our program. Given your expertise and experience with equestrian barns and arenas, I was hoping you might be able to give us some guidance.
We are having a hard time determining exactly what kind of and how much lighting is necessary. Do you have a formula that you use?
Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated. I look forward to hearing from you!
Dear Undercover Rider:
Glad to hear all’s well.
I would be happy to offer some guidance on lighting for your arena.
A: I typically recommend approximately 35 to 50 foot candles per sq ft of light on the arena floor in order to provide a sufficient amount of light for a variety of functions. It also depends on the amount of reflective surfaces you have and the color of those surfaces including the arena floor material.
If you are anticipating a variety of entertainment type functions such as charity events, parties, etc you may want to consider a variety of type mood lighting for different events.
There are also a variety of type lights to consider such as metal halide, LED, HD, etc.
There are other factors to consider as well such as initial cost, operating cost, maintenance or lamp life and also the design of the fixture (bird protection, fire safety, etc.)
We are beginning to use LED more often now. I hope that helps!
In case you missed it… Studio Appalachia is a collaborative, project-based graduate design studio between Clemson’s school of architecture and its department of landscape architecture. The Studio is directed by associate professors Dan Harding and Paul Russell. Studio Appalachia targets issues such as: accessibility to natural resources, sustainable building strategies, and approaches to long term visioning and planning.
I was asked to participate in this year’s studio because it involved horse facilities, specifically re-envisioning the Clemson University Equine Center (CUEC). With aging facilities that are well-used and well-loved, I knew it would be fascinating to see how these talented students created a fresh program for the facility. The teams of architecture and equine business students (a new twist for the studio) have spent the last several weeks immersed in detailing the site and facility requirements, learning about design issues unique to equines.
Teams consisting of three to four students conducted rigorous research, made several site visits, interviewed user groups, studied topography, considered land, sun, wind, circulation paths and traffic flow to create detailed and well considered Master Plan Studies and Field Reports.
Referencing the evolving formal and material contexts of Southern Appalachia, the four teams stated as goals to “improve circulation, establish organization, and enhance the (existing) ecology of the historic Clemson farm. To them, as one team eloquently stated, the CUEC is more than a farm; it is an institution that showcases the prestige of the university, and embodies the history, strength, and energy that the equine program was founded on.
The preliminary master plan schemes presented earlier in October were successful in developing goals and considerations for further study. The studio presents preliminary concept designs later this week and I’m looking forward to the big reveal.
Today’s blog comes from Macy Carman, an enthusiastic and talented student (and equestrian!) from Hollins University in Virginia. Macy, an environmental studies major who is considering graduate studies in architecture, spent some time with us to learn about what it means to be an “equine architect.” In turn, my staff and I got to spend some time picking her brain about her invaluable experience as a groom for Pollard Eventing. (On a sad note, our thoughts are with everyone at Pollard Eventing. Macy travelled back to be with her horse family after the tragic car accident that claimed the lives of three horses last week.)
I knew I had picked the right architecture firm for my internship when John Blackburn started out my first day with what he referred to as his “dog and pony show.” I love pony shows! I am a lifelong rider, member of the United States Pony Club, and looking forward to a career in designing equestrian facilities, so I knew I was in for a treat. And I was…the presentation he showed me displays many of the options that are available to clients as well as the principles he bases his designs around: natural light and proper ventilation. I think that he could convince anyone that these are the most important concepts behind a facility!
During my time with the Blackburn team, I was able to accompany John to a Virginia Farm where he was interviewed for a video (stay tuned for the final project). After spending so much time discussing the process to designing a barn, I certainly had a different perspective when touring the facility. While my practical experience with horses, combined with time spent in a variety of barns, has instilled in me the importance of a well thought out facility for the safety and well being of the horse and rider, I picked up on a lot of smaller details. John had a reason for why every detail was exactly the way it was, and was happy to answer all of my questions. Watching his interviews, I got a sense that he cares for the horses just as much as the owners, which is exactly what we horse people are always looking for.
Over the course of my first week here, I have talked to everyone in the office about their projects, their academic paths, and their thoughts on barn design. As interested as I have been in barn design over the years, I have never given thought to many things Blackburn consistently addresses, like making sure that vehicles, visitors, and horses are separated at all times. Who knew a driveway needed so much planning? Everyone in the office has been very welcoming, and I hope that I have been able to provide a slightly different perspective as a rider and a groom. I look forward to absorbing a greater understanding of equestrian design during the rest of my time here- and maybe some tips on my graduate school applications too. I would like to thank the whole office for having me.
Over the years, I’ve collected much too many photos of barn details, which includes everything from latches on stall doors to drains in aisles. It’s only natural to collect the things you love, right? I often refer to my virtual stash of detail images when I’m designing a barn and hope they might serve as an inspiration to you as well. I will probably add to the collection (correction: I WILL add to the collection because I won’t be able to help myself) over time. What can I say, the details separate a fine barn from a fantastic barn. On that note, I hope you’ll forgive my lack of photography skill. Some of these images were taken during or just after the construction process by yours truly. That should serve to explain any and all photos with incomplete landscapes (aka piles of dirt) and unique angles (aka crooked) that are artistic-driven (aka fuzzy, out-of-focus) images.
By way of introduction to my collection, I think it seems fitting to begin this set barn detail images with the door. Every dutiful, the door is a part of every barn, everywhere. (At least I hope so.) You’ll see many images of my favorite, the Dutch door, which aids ventilation within the barn. There’s also human-only doors, main entrances, side doors, etcetera. Hopefully it’s not too much of a hodgepodge for you to enjoy.
Incidentally, I’ve asked one of the more tech savvy staff (basically anyone but me) to link these images on Pinterest; we’re attempting to hop on that fast-moving train because we architects sure appreciate a visual aid. If you’re a Pinner yourself, let me know so we can follow you there. Until then, happy collecting!
Dear disgruntled artists: the key to success isn’t kicking down the door; it’s building your own.
“The largest competitors at this summer’s Olympics in London are not weightlifters….the largest competitors are horses.” — Morning Edition, NPR, March 7, 2012
Who knew that horses could arrive via FedEx? What a great story on NPR this morning about how the horses competing in this summer’s London Olympics will arrive safe (and in style). Tim Dutta, who owns an international horse transport company, said he expects to ship between 50 to 60 horses to London this summer. Dutta said that like people, horses respond to flying in various manners. Some are nervous and may require sedatives; others are happy to munch on hay and drink cocktails of apple juice and water to pass the time. And of course, the horses aren’t left to their own devices on the planes — with them is a full entourage, including a vet and a groom. Which reminds me, I’ve read that racehorses can supposedly benefit from a little jet lag….wonder if the same holds true for events like dressage. Listen or read the full story on NPR.
This lush and private ranch is located just north of Seattle. The 100’ x 200’ arena, which features a “crow’s nest” observation area, will be used for hunter/jumper and show training as well as recreation. The new structure, nestled in the Northwest Mountains, fits into the site unobtrusively and reflects the Tudor-style of the existing residence, favored by its owners. Future plans to occur in phases are a 20-stall barn, parking and service buildings, and a caretaker’s cottage.
Program 100’ x 200’ enclosed arena, future phases include 20-stall barn, parking/service buildings, gatehouse
Completion 2010 (arena construction)
This is probably the last set of photos I’ll share of Beechwood Stables in Massachusetts before we have a professional photographer shoot the project in its completion. (When the weather is a bit nicer so the buildings aren’t covered in snow!) I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out and hope our client feels the same. I’d also like to thank Marcus Gleysteen Architects, whom we teamed with; the builder, Kenneth Vona Construction, whose professionalism and craftsmanship is top-notch, as well as the team at Lucas Equine Equipment for their fabulous stall systems as usual. Beechwood Stables has a lot of high-end finishes and details that certainly shine though with this project. However, the truly important aspects of our design is what matter the most and remain true regardless of budget: protecting the health and safety of the riders and the horses who will soon inhabit the barn.
Thanks to the gracious owner and everyone involved in the design and construction of Beechwood Stables. A few details are provided in the caption each photo.
I think that’s the top question I get (the gist of it, anyway) and it SHOULD be. Why should you hire an architect to design a horse barn? Or, Is hiring an architect to design a barn really necessary?
In short: no. However, hiring an equine architect can save you time, your horse’s health and safety, and even money in the long run. Allow me to state my case.
A horse is so much more than a pet: it’s a companion, a worker, a teammate, an athlete. Whether you ride for pleasure or compete, the horse—your horse—is irreplaceable. I wish not to gild the lily just to make my point, which you already know, that horse owners think the world of their horses and want to treat them with the utmost care and respect. If you keep a horse, it’s your duty to protect it. While a horse is perfectly pleased to graze outdoors most days, the barn is a necessity – so I say, let’s do our best to protect that horse and maybe make your life a little easier in the process.
Barn This Way – Product vs. Service
When you decide to build a barn, you have a few choices. The least costly solution is to purchase a prefab or kit barn. The prices range (rather wildly), as does the package itself. Labor is often an additional cost as well as nails, roofing, and concrete costs. Usually a contractor charges between 10 to 25 percent of the total cost of materials for construction services. However, this percentage may go up if your project is on the small side in order for it to be financially viable for the contractor. For many horse owners, a prefabricated or kit barn is a perfectly reasonable and cost-effective solution.
If you’re looking for a step above prefabricated, or can afford to customize your project a bit, you may then wish to research design/build contractors – but this is where I’d stop and suggest that you alternatively consider working with an equestrian architect.
Why? A design/build contractor is selling a product, not a service, and is not often a trained architect, which limits his or her ability to think creatively outside of the box. In most cases, thinking outside of the box eats up profits and costs more money (for the design/build contractor). For a design/build contractor, the goal is to build quickly above all else. I think this compromises your program and the overall result because the design/builder does not want to eat up time resolving special issues or conflicts. The design is usually cookie cutter, following whatever pattern the design/build contractor typically uses, and there is no one there to really represent the owner (you) and oversee the quality of the project and if it’s built as intended or promised.
To Serve and Protect
With an equestrian architect, you’re purchasing a service rather than a product. The architect is there to resolve the needs of the owner, from overall site planning, programming, phasing, and design to overseeing the entire construction to make sure the barn is built as intended. The service costs a bit more than a design/build contractor but, if your barn is your livelihood or your sanctuary, I believe that you’ll save time and stress, frankly by getting it done right the first time.
Typical services an equestrian architect (straight from the horse’s mouth here, if you’ll forgive my pun) will provide:
- Site planning: can reduce infrastructure costs (fewer roads, less fencing, better drainage, etc.) and improve the site to function at its best for your needs.
- Programming: ensures that the whole farm (not just the horse barn but the entire collection of structures on the site, if applicable: residence, guest house, caretaker’s quarters, hay/bedding, vehicle storage, etc.) operates efficiently and safely.
- Code analysis: certainly the codes vary across states/municipalities. We’ve designed horse stables in counties with very specific codes and regulations and understand what to look for and how to work with the various officials to resolve issues. The architect can save you a lot of hassle!
- Budget Development and Cost Control/Scheduling: I like to develop a budget as early in the process as possible and revisit it periodically during the project. My job is to determine if the owner’s programmatic needs and budget fit the site, and if the design aesthetic suits their personal design goals. We can also plan to develop the barn or various structures in phases, if applicable.
- Conceptual Design: Here we develop the character and massing of the structure(s) and prepare a preliminary floor plan and elevations to illustrate our ideas. At Blackburn, this is the final phase of what we call Master Plan Services (site plan, written program, conceptual design, and preliminary construction development). From here, we move on to more detailed design work.
- Schematic Design: After we complete a master plan that works well for the owner, we begin to prepare detailed drawings to give you an idea of the layout and general appearance of the barn (and possibly other buildings). We’ll talk about finishes, materials, stalls, tack rooms, etc. For a lot of people, this phase of design is the fun part!
- Design Development and Construction Drawings: Here we’ll really start to nail down the final design and specify the materials, stall systems, finishes, and other details and prepare construction drawings that instruct the contractor how to build the barn.
- Bidding and Construction Administration: Because construction drawings are open to interpretation, it’s important that the architect works with the contractor to oversee that the project is carried out according to the design intent. We’re the owner’s rep to make sure that construction is done well and done right.
I understand this may seem like a lot, but each is a valuable step toward designing a healthy, safe, and functional facility. As an architect, I want to study how you operate and design a barn that feels inviting and personal (because it is). No barn or farm operates exactly alike as each owner or barn/farm manager operates his/her facility in a particular fashion. While designing a barn from scratch is not realistic for everyone, if you are choosing between a design/build firm and an equestrian architect, I’d strongly advise that you approach both for more information and weigh out your options carefully. It could save you your horse.
As always, I invite your questions and comments. Thanks for reading!
An architect is trained to design as the great Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) states: “Form ever follows function.” After all, if your barn doesn’t function properly, what’s the point of a great design?
I wanted to share a few more photos of the construction progress at Beechwood Stables in Massachusetts, a project we worked on in association with Marcus Gleysteen Architects. We expect to punch out the project (a final walk through of the project where we review everything) very soon.