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.
1. Blackburn designs stalls of all sizes, but the most common is 12’x12’. 16’x16’ is often requested for larger horses, but with more space comes increased maintenance, a need for more bedding and a bigger area to clean. Larger stalls can, therefore add considerably to the cost of building a barn by:
a. Adding to the overall length and/or width of a barn.
b. Requiring roof framing to be increased from 2×10’s to 2×12’s or even greater.
c. Increasing the span of the framing lumber.
2. Partitions between stalls should be at least 8 feet high, but they don’t have to be solid from top to bottom. Barred or mesh portions on the top enhance ventilation. This also has the benefit of allowing horses to see their companions — and provides easy observation of the horses by their owners. The down side is the increased ventilation between stalls can increase the risk of bacterial infection between horses. For the same reason, doors that are open on top increase light and ventilation. Bars must not be more than 2 to 3 inches apart, and openings should not be more than 2 inches across to prevent hoof entrapment.
3. Steel mesh or bar fronts on stalls allow an owner to look down the aisle or into the stall as they walk down the aisle and see their horses. The mesh is good for ventilation, too. The drawback is that bedding can be kicked into the aisles, so we recommend adding bedding guards. Welded steel mesh is typically stronger than bars but the horizontals tend to collect dust and can add to barn maintenance.
4. Doors should be at least 4 feet wide. This is wide enough for a wheelbarrow to enter the space or for a horse and handler to exit or enter the stall. Sliding doors are preferred over swinging doors. If you must use swinging doors, remember to install them to swing outward. You’ll have a major problem if a horse goes down and the door swings to the inside. Additional safety reasons for outward swinging doors include:
a. Prevention of an unlatched door swinging open accidentally, or the wind catching it.
b. Added visibility of looking down an aisle and recognizing that a stall is open and empty. (Handlers need to leave stall doors open when the horse is turned out. This also makes it easier when bringing the horse back to the stall – you don’t have to open it.)
5. We recommend rounded edges in stalls and anywhere in the barn where horses have access. A casting rail (which can be a groove in the wall or a 2-by-4-inch rail bolted low to the wall), provides something for the horse to catch his foot on when rolling to avoid getting cast.
6. Provide for easy access to the stall for feed buckets without opening and closing the door. Place in one of the front corners adjacent to the aisle.
7. Automatic waterers have the advantage of offering constant fresh water, but be sure to buy a model that is easy to keep clean. If you don’t want automatic waterers, install water hydrants between every couple of stalls and provide for ample drainage for drips and overflows. Don’t forget to frost-proof them in climates where pipes are apt to freeze.
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.
Coming off the heels of a truly epic storm for the Washington D.C. area (and most of the east coast!), I thought I’d take a moment to address how design techniques can help barns “weather” extremes.
In the United States, the upper northeast regions through to the Midwest are prone to experience weather extremes in the form of snow and ice. While we cannot entirely “weather proof” a barn, we can make it more resilient to some of the more damaging effects of weather phenomena.
The roof of your barn needs to be able to:
- Withstand the weight of snow and/or effectively shed it
- Prevent or reduce the formation of ice dams
- Redirect “roof avalanches” from sliding into high traffic or poor drainage areas and also reduce associated noise that could frighten the horses.
In addition to contributing to the Bernoulli principle I incorporate for natural ventilation, steeply pitched roofs also contribute to effective, gradual roof shedding and the redistribution of snow load. Ideally the pitch should be between 4/12 and 6/12 to get the optimal shedding effect (although, we generally try to keep pitches at 7/12 or more to take full advantage of the Chimney Effect and Bernoulli principle for natural ventilation)
Roofing material will also factor into how the snow will shed. Metal roofs are excellent as they are smooth and slick. They will also stay colder longer; reducing the likelihood that snow will melt and form ice dams (more on this below). Snow will shed from a metal roof even if the pitch is lower. Shingled roofs, however, will slow down the shedding process by “holding on” to the snow and allowing it to stay in place and accumulate. Consider a steeper pitch if you prefer a shingled roof as it will facilitate the shedding process over the rougher material.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, “Well, the snow is off the roof…but it’s all over the place! Now what?” Including strategic roof overhangs will complement the steeper pitch by helping to distribute shedding snow away from exterior walls and out of traffic and poor drainage areas. Be wary though, snow sliding off roofs can be noisy and frightening to horses, not to mention dangerous if it falls on you! Snow guards on the roof can help reduce the noise associated with shedding snow and keep huge sheets of it from falling on (and potentially harming) 2 and 4 legged passersby. Gabled dormers over entryways can also be useful. They help to direct snow off to the sides.
Ice dams are another unfortunate side effect of snow-laden roofs. An ice dam forms when the underside of the roof gets warm enough to thaw the bottom layer of snow sitting on the other side. The water makes its way down to the eave where it refreezes, eventually growing into a mound of ice. As the ice dam gets larger, it can pull the shingles and edges up allowing water to get through and into the insulation and walls. Water damage then wreaks havoc on the interior of the barn. The ice dam could also break off the eave and take pieces of the roof with it or fall on passersby. Sure, there are ways to deal with ice dams once they’ve formed, but natural ventilation can help prevent them upfront. Natural ventilation keeps the underside of the roof within 10 degrees of the outside temperature, which aides in keeping that critical layer of snow right on top from thawing and running down towards the eaves.
Site and circulation planning can help prevent and/or reduce the impact of icy conditions around equine walkways. In the interest of horse safety, I try to design site circulation so that horses do not need to move over asphalted areas intended for trucks and service vehicles (there are other benefits associated with that as well). Asphalt is not great for horse’s knees, generally, but it is particularly problematic when wintery conditions lead to the formation of “black ice” — a thin sheet of ice over the asphalt that can be imperceptible to the horse or persons walking on to it. Horse pathways in and around the barn should include porous footing that absorbs and carries moisture away quickly. Presently there is no way (that I know of) to prevent pastures from freezing over, but you can maintain a dry paddock or “sacrifice” lot where your horses can be turned out when pastures have been effected by inclement weather. Paddocks with considerable slope can be particularly hazardous when they freeze over. That’s when a “level” dry lot can be very useful!
As many on the east coast found out this past week, there is only so much preparation you can do in a couple of days before a storm hits. You, your horses, and your barn will benefit from built in preparation.
Barn managers across the nation are gearing up for the winter by gathering and storing the last of the season’s hay yield. After reading several recent articles on barn fires as a result of spontaneously exploding hay bales, I thought I’d recommend another hay storage option from a planning (and horse health and safety) perspective.
Barns are often portrayed in art and media with prominent, overflowing haylofts. And why not?! They make for convenient, easy-access storage. There are countless pop-culture depictions of haylofts as hiding places, romantic destinations, and play areas (I spent a good bit of childhood playing in haylofts, to be honest!) And though these images are mostly innocuous, they, unfortunately, reinforce the idea that this space is the “of course ”option for hay stockpiling. Historically, hay has almost always been stored in the barn, but as hay curing and combustion research further developed, it became evident that these traditional storage methods were contributing to unsafe conditions for the barn inhabitants and the structures themselves. The popularized image of haylofts did not keep up with the findings. I have long argued that haylofts in barns should be avoided. As convenient as they may be, there are better options to safely store bulk hay.
Recent articles in both the Paulick Report and The Horse have excellent, detailed information about the hows and whys of spontaneous hay combustion and how to quell the effects of improperly cured hay. Eye-opening reads for sure, but I must stress the benefit of alternative bulk hay storage as an additional preventative measure.
We typically recommend bulk hay to be stored in a separate hay-barn altogether. Ideally, this structure would be at least 100 ft. away from the main barn. With proper planning, this method can also contribute to efficient farm circulation by establishing pathways that do not obstruct main throughways and drive unnecessary noise and commotion out of sight and earshot of nervous equines – another safety factor to think about. Driveway access and asphalt surfaces can also be confined to the hay barn area too, eliminating – or at least reducing- asphalt use around the main barn, which can be uncomfortable footing for horses and, in some parts of the country, potentially dangerous in winter. The added bonus of less installation cost and hassle is also something to consider!
Perhaps you’re now anxiously biting your nails at the thought of having to haul hay from the hay-barn 100 ft. away every single day. We wouldn’t want to do that either! For convenience, we recommend 7-day storage within the main barn, usually as an isolated stall, but arranged in such a way that it is easy to load, convenient for access, open to natural ventilation, sheltered from precipitation, and set upon a moisture-absorbent surface. Though we do not recommend bulk storage within the barn, we understand it’s not always feasible for a barn owner to commission an architect to design a separate storage. In some cases, the owner has simply “always done it that way” and is adamant about continuing to do so. Regardless of budget or insistence, we make it a point to at least create a solid fire and smoke separation between the main stalling area and hay storage. Our first priority is always the horse.
Hopefully the “hayday” of the hayloft is behind us and we can continue to encourage owners to consider relocating their bulk-hay stores. For now, if the barn is hosting 7 days worth of hay or the entire supply, we take every precaution to minimize health and safety risks to your horse.
Originally on a 200-acre parcel of lush green rolling hills in Kentucky horse country between Layette and Bourbon Counties, Monticule Farm was named for the French word for a small mountain. Blackburn Architects worked with famed landscape architect Morgan Wheelock to develop the property, now over 600-acres, into one of the industry’s best commercial breeding facilities. Blackburn designed a 20-stall broodmare barn and a 16-stall yearling barn in the style of other large Kentucky horse farms from the 1940s. In 2008, Blackburn provided master plan and concept design services for a four barn stallion complex; each barn contains four stalls. This project was featured in Keeneland Magazine.
Program 16-stall yearling barn and 20-stall broodmare barn
Completion 2000 (broodmare and yearling barns); 2008 (stallion complex)
Where your barn sits on your property is one of the first decisions you’ll make when planning for a new barn. Grade, drainage, proximity of service roads, prevailing winds, and barn angle in relation to the sun all play a key role in the health and safety of your horses.
Equestrian site planning can help you avoid mistakes that can have significant health consequences for your horses, as well as improve the efficiency of daily operations. Here are a few points to consider when site planning with the environment in mind.
Building orientation as it relates to the path of the sun and prevailing winds.
This single decision—where to place your barn—has a huge impact on energy efficiency as well as the health and comfort of your stabled horses. Harnessing passive solar heat energy and prevailing breezes can keep your barn cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Design decisions that include the placement of façade openings, overhangs, skylights, roof vents, and more allow a building to work with solar energy passively.
Drainage lines, water conservation, prevention of pollution.
Barns and arenas create large footprints with massive roof spaces. Water displacement should be considered so that water draining from the barn site doesn’t contaminate local streams with hazardous runoff, cause soil erosion, and water loss. Storm drainage can be collected and returned to the ground or conserved for other purposes.
Construction machinery can cause soil erosion, damage root systems of timber, and destroy sensitive grassland. Stockpiles of materials can create similar damage to the natural ecology. Thoughtful placement of machinery and materials is important. Where paving is necessary, choose recycled, permeable materials. Plan adequate paddock spaces and establish a paddock rotation plan so that horses can rotate the use of outdoor areas to avoid damage to sensitive grasslands.