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Phelps Media Press Release


Click here to read Phelps Media’s recent press release about Healthy Stables by Design. In this release, you can read about how the barn as an efficient machine can promote health and safety.

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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 ( 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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Phelps Media Group Announcement

Blackburn Architects has teamed with Phelps Media Group to promote Healthy Stables by Design. See Phelps’ press release here, or visit for more information.

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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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Stall Door Design: Thoughts and Tips

Since our previous post about Barn Doors was such a hit and we had some questions about stall door design, I am going to share some of my tips and opinions about stall doors today. At the end, you can look at photos of stall doors in some of the stables we have designed.

For basic stall design, I always advocate for the door to be placed in the middle of the stall front. This allows both corners to be open for hanging buckets or placing feed. It also creates less of a blind spot than if placed in the corner. In general, you want your stall door to slide to the left. If you have a horse in your right hand, this leaves your left hand free to open the door. Once in the stall, you are able to easily close the door with your free hand. This is just one example of efficient and safe design, as the handler does not have to change hands or be thrown off balance by moving doors.

When designing your own barn, owners must choose between swinging and sliding stall doors. I always recommend sliding stall doors, for both safety and efficiency. As mentioned briefly last time, swinging doors present safety concerns for two reasons. First, if left unlatched, wind can easily blow the door open and the action or resultant noise can spook and cause injury for the horse. Second, a sliding door enables you to leave the door open/closed and allows you to see immediately if the door is open from farther away. This also saves the time of opening and shutting the door every time the horse goes out. In a barn with many horses that are going in and out throughout the day, sliding is simply more efficient.

For latching, I always recommend pin latches. I have found these to be the best option, as they do not extrude from the stall door. Keep in mind if you use yoke gates, one needs to put the pin latch half way between the yoke gate and the floor at a minimum. Otherwise, you can have the issue of a clever horse letting itself out.

People have asked what material I advise for doors; in general, I recommend a steel frame door. If you want the look of wood, then you can insert a wood panel in a steel frame. I generally prefer doors to have an open top and bottom, as achieved by either bars or mesh. This enables both ventilation and visibility. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Mesh, while stronger, can collect dust on the horizontal bars. (Make sure to always face the horizontal side of the mesh out, so smaller horses can’t climb up it). On the other hand, vertical bars, if not placed with a 2 inch or less spacing, can allow horses to get their hooves stuck and injured. Some people also dislike the aesthetics of the bars. All in all, this is a personal preference. The choice can be all bars, all mesh, or a combination of both (which is usually mesh below for strength and bars above for visibility).  Incidentally, a bedding guard across the bottom of the stall door is a nice, simple feature that helps keep the bedding from falling through the lower panel of the door.

Many times, I recommend yoke gate doors, as this allows the horse to see its surroundings and communicate with fellow animals (especially if both side walls are solid). However, these types of gates are best if used with aisles that are 14’ or wider. Otherwise, you get issues when some horses do not appreciate the ‘communication’ that is happening in front of their stall. Always buy some filler panels for the yoke gates, as not every horse can be social. In general, I would recommend having enough filler panels for half your total stalls. This way there are always some on hand.

The yoke gate also fulfills a utilitarian function.  In lieu of a hay access door or the action required to open the stall door to go into the stall, one can easily place a flake of hay in the stall, provided you feed hay from the floor. Yoke gates are very comforting to the owner as well.  We all know how nice it is to look down an aisle and see our horses looking out of their stall.  The same is true on exterior stall doors and/or windows.  However, yoke gates are not for everyone and in the end it’s a matter of personal preference. I prefer the removable yolk gate panels, instead of the ones that hinge and hang down, because they leave the stall front cleaner and less cluttered. Also, there is less noise created when the door is opened and shut, or when an impatient horse decides to kick the door. There are other variations on the design of yoke gates that I will cover in perhaps another article later.

Finally, I always recommend Dutch doors to the outside. These are a major way to increase and control ventilation into your barn and take care of the health of your horse. The two leaves provide you options for full opening or half opening depending on the weather conditions. By opening the doors, you can reduce the ammonia gas and the odor that comes with it. The ventilation moves the gas up and out through vertical ventilation. At the same time, the sunlight that enters the stall is able to remove bacteria from the air and stall, while reducing the production of ammonia gas (which requires dark, damp locations).

I also advocate for a double door system, meaning you have the solid Dutch door on the outside with an interior door (a steel door of bars, mesh, or a combination of both). In this case, as it is being used mainly for emergency, the interior door can be either swinging or sliding. Swinging is good because nothing protrudes from the door (such as floor guides or rollers). However, it can be problematic if you are trying to release a frenzied horse as the door opens into the stall. Many of you have surely seen Dutch doors being used where the top is open and the bottom is left closed, with no second door in sight. This does not take full advantage of the door! Yes, some sort of webbing could be placed across the door, but that does not inhibit a very determined horse. This is why I advocate for double doors.

Now for some examples! Many of our projects have used Lucas Equine Stall Systems. They are well made and they can custom design the stall system to fit virtually any owner’s needs or aesthetic desires. Keep scrolling down to see some pictures of stall doors in stables we have designed.



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Field Sport’s Article on Healthy Stables by Design

Yesterday, Field Sport Concepts  posted an article about John’s new book, Healthy Stables by Design. By following this link (, you can find out more about John’s new book and see some of the photos from inside. If you want more information, go to

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Field Sport’s Article on Healthy Stables by Design

Yesterday, Field Sport Concepts  posted an article about John’s new book, Healthy Stables by Design. By following this link (, you can find out more about John’s new book and see some of the photos from inside. If you want more information, go to

Posted in Equestrian News | Leave a comment >