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Sagamore Farm

With the spring and the peak of the racing season–the Triple Crown–just around the corner, I’m thinking of Sagamore Farm, a recently completed project in Glyndon, Maryland. This historic farm was once owned by Alfred G. Vanderbilt, II and served as the former home of Native Dancer, Bed of Roses, and Discovery, who are buried at the property. The current owner, Kevin Plank, purchased the ailing farm with the intent to revitalize the racing industry in Maryland. It’s still a work in progress but well on its way.

There’s been a lot of talk about how to revive the industry and whether slots—something several states have picked up to gain revenue for their struggling budgets—has what it takes to recapture the public’s interest in racing.



With projects like this, it’s hard for me not to feel enthusiastic about the future of racing. Sagamore Farm was in a state of serious disrepair when we began work, but the broodmare and foaling barns have been rehabilitated to reflect the highest standards of health and safety for the precious horses that inhabit them while retaining the integrity of the legendary property. Details like the red roofs as part of the red, black, and white color scheme, as well as the old roof ventilators were important to maintain when adding elements to reflect its new chapter in ownership. Natural light and ventilation become center stage with the continuous ridge skylights and vents.

To see the “before” and “after” photos of the barns really makes me hopeful that something big really is around the corner for Sagamore and Kevin Plank. With a home worthy of its precious inhabitants, I can see the legacy of Sagamore Farm and its champion thoroughbreds continuing.



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Bank Barn Project: Under Construction

I mentioned one of our current bank barn projects in my last entry and thought I’d post a few photos. This project salvages a historic German-style bank barn that fell into serious decay. The barn is undergoing renovation into a private family entertainment space. Once completed, the barn will have two bedrooms, two loft-style dayrooms, 3.5 baths, a family room with a stone fireplace as a focal point, a large kitchen, and other amenities. It will be perfect for the owner’s adult children and their families to stay during visits, as well as serve as a gathering place for parties or family dinners. But for now, you’ll have to use your imagination because the work has just begun.





The first step toward converting the bank barn was to actually straighten and stabilize the entire structure. Then, due to local zoning issues, the barn was moved to a new location off the road. That was definitely an interesting sight for neighbors and passersby–a barn being carted across the road. Now that the barn is structurally sound, construction can commence. 

I’ll post more photos as the work continues.

Stabilizing the Structure

Stabilizing the Structure


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Jamaica: One Lucky Horse

Here’s a happy story from Wayne Pacelle’s blog for The Humane Society of the United States about a horse named Jamaica who escaped a trip to the slaughterhouse and went on to win the title of the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Horse of the Year


Jamaica (Photo from Wayne Pacelle's blog)

Jamaica (Photo from Wayne Pacelle's blog)


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The Effects of the Recession: Share Your Experiences


I’d really like to hear from you. The recent economic outlook is dismal. It seems I read a new piece of bad news each and every day. Like Monday’s article from the New York Times reporting 62,000 more announced layoffs across the nation and around the world. It seems that it’s going to get worse before it gets better, unfortunately. As reported by CBS News, President Obama “pledged a recovery plan ‘that is equal to the task ahead.'”  

I just listened to a seminar by an economist for the Association of General Contractors (AGC). The seminar depicts that though the beginning of a turn around is forecasted by late summer or fall of this year, state and municipal budget may economically lag behind because they have to operate from revenues generated– and the economy has to turn around before that can happen. That is, unless the stimulus package provides funding for state public projects. But any jolt to the economy soon will have positive results, in my opinion. Beggars can’t be choosers, right?

On a more optimistic note, we continue to receive calls from some clients who are interested in getting their projects designed and “shovel ready,” so they can take advantage of the low building costs before the “turn around,” and before increased building costs are expected to occur.  The economist for the AGC predicts lower costs in some construction categories of -4 to 0% range for 2009 and price spikes of 6 to 8% in 2010.

To many, this may seem impossible to even consider. To others, I hope this may be a piece of good news in an otherwise dreary situation.

Please write to me and let me know how you’ve been affected by these conditions. What have you had to scale back on? Do you feel optimistic? 


To feel free

To feel free

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Land Trust Alliance: Farm Bill Conservation Program

I’m back to thinking about land conservancy issues once again. The Land Trust Alliance ( is an invaluable resource for conservancy issues from a government standpoint. On January 23, 2009, the LTA encouraged its readers to review and comment upon the Farm Bill Conservation Program Rules. These rules are published online and, according to the site, dedicate “over a billion dollars over the next 5 years for the purchase of easement on working lands.”

If you are a farmer or rancher and plan to keep your land safe for generations to come, this is a must-read. But, in a nutshell, the Bill offers a significant tax incentive for moderate-income farmers and ranchers who donate a conservation easement of their land. The law defines a farmer or rancher defined as someone who receives more than 50% of their income from “the trade or business of farming.”

The “Frequently Asked Questions” section of the Web site provides the most clarity. 

If you’d like to support the Farm Bill Conservation Program, here’s what to do, according to the LTA:

“Take action today by asking your Members of Congress to become original cosponsors of new legislation in the 111th Congress to make the easement incentive permanent. Senators can cosponsor legislation to be introduced by Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) by calling Jo-Ellen Darcy at 4-3247. Representatives can cosponsor legislation to be introduced by Congressman Mike Thompson (D-CA) by calling Travis Robey at 5-3311…You can reach any member of Congress by calling the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121.”

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Land Conservancy and Equestrian Competition Space

Recently, a colleague sent me an email on the vulnerability of equestrian competition land in Kentucky. This got me thinking of land conservancy and how it relates to your farm as well. A number of equestrian projects I’ve worked on have been “given” to land conservancy or in some way placed under protection to keep the land as an “open space.”

It seems like this is becoming a good way to protect the land for horses, get a tax break while you’re at it, and further protect yourself from rising property taxes. Not only does land conservancy preserve your land from development, it protects the environment in the process—doubly so when green principles of design and sustainable practices are followed.

Land around metropolitan areas that could easily be consumed by more housing or shopping developments can be preserved as open space if owners are willing to place the land in a conservancy. While not of interest to those hoping to price out their land as soon as an offer is made—this is an option for those who have horses and other animals, farms, or just appreciate the value of untouched land.

Sometimes privately owned land can later benefit the public. For example, one of our current projects, Woodstock Equestrian Park in Montgomery County, Maryland was spurred by a donation to the Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission. Through the combination of private donations—like the great piece of land as donated by Hermen and Monica Greenburg—and state funds, the M-NCPPC is now creating a public equestrian venue in the Woodstock Equestrian Park.

I’m only just beginning to delve into this topic, so I’ll be sure to post more thoughts later. 

For further information on equestrian land conservation, please visit the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource:

It’s beyond last minute, but you have until the end of TODAY, January 15th, 2009 to complete the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource’s survey on the loss of land used for horse-related competitions. If you’d like to participate, the ELCR requests an email to with the following information: the name by which the competition site or farm was commonly known; city & state; and type of competition held there, e.g. reining, dressage, eventing, roping, driving, polo, etc. 

According to the ELCR, data has been received by over 100 sources in over 24 states and focuses on equine competition sites that have been lost to development since 1997.

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At Your Feet: Arena Footing Selection

Over the years, I’ve designed arenas for all types of riding. Often, the type of footing to select becomes a topic of conversation, so I thought I’d share some thoughts.  I always avoid telling any client what kind of footing they should have.  I may guide them in one direction based on the type of footings that are out there, but I would never make the choice for them.  The selection is highly subjective and depends on the rider, the horse, and the discipline.  There are a host of other concerns as well, such as frequency of use, cost, maintenance, etc.

That’s why it’s always best to “test” the material by riding on it first, since each discipline has its own preferences. For example, hunter/jumpers need footing that provides ideal resistance for take off and cushion for landing.  It should not be so deep or so soft that it hinders take off, but not so firm or hard that it creates too much concussion on landing. But as soon as anyone or I begin to establish what may be a standard to “live by,” someone will come along and have a different opinion.  Selecting the proper footing is akin to designing a barn: There is no “one way,” and every rider, like every barn owner, has his or her way of doing it.

Winley Arena in Millbrook, New York

Winley Arena in Millbrook, New York

Footing materials:

The basic types of footings that I am most familiar with include the following types: sand, sand mix, and polymer-fused/wax coated sand.

Sand—cost effective, but choosing the type of sand is significant, i.e., particle shape, particle size, mineral composition, amount of impurities.

  • Sand is probably the most common material used primarily because it is relatively inexpensive, easily obtained.  A downside is it can compact and breakdown, creating dust, which can be a health hazard as well as an aesthetic nuisance. 
  • When sand breaks down, it forms a silica dust, which can cause silicosis in horses.  Products can be added to improve the riding characteristics of sand, e.g., water, organic soil conditioners, oils (environmentally safe), or synthetic agents. 
  • Reduce the dust issue through periodic irrigation of the sand by mixing the sand (see sand mix below) with other materials or use a coated sand material (see below coated sand below).
  • Irrigate by an overhead piped system, a perimeter nozzle system (similar to landscape irrigation systems), or a water tank pulled by a wagon and tractor.  It’s important the system distributes evenly and avoids slick spots or ponding.
    • Overhead piped system: requires storage tank, pump, and routine maintenance. Best overall and even coverage but costs the most.  
    • Perimeter nozzle system: requires no water storage, if water pressure is adequate. Relatively low cost, but does not cover as evenly.
    • Wagon/tractor pulled tank requires much more manpower to operate.  Much lower in initial cost, but costs more over time to operate, especially in arid climates where the moisture dries faster. 

Sand mix—can be very cost effective but care is required to assure the correct mix.

  • Wood products: Can be used by itself or mixed with sand.  When used as an additive, it can slow the breakdown process and help sand hold moisture.  It needs to be kept moist or it too will breakdown and add to the dust problem.  If too wet, wood alone or added to sand can become slippery.  As an additive, hardwood is more durable over time than softwood.
  • Additives: stone dust, shredded rubber, and either natural or synthetic fibers or felt.  It seems there is at least one new footing product available every year.
  • Stone dust may compact and become too hard.
  • Rubber additives are generally made of recycled materials such as old tires. Should only be used as an additive and used sparingly to avoid getting too bouncy (usually one pound per square foot but not over two pounds per square foot). 
    • Rubber is not “dust free,” as often advertised as it can break down and contribute to dust issues.  
    • Some rubber footing products are: Equi-turf, Perma-flex, Equitread, Rubber-mulch, and Surefoot.

Polymer-fused/wax coated sand—often preferred by hunter/jumpers over dressage and western riding.

  •  Coated sand footing is a relatively new option.  While rather expensive initially, it typically comes with a warranty up to 20 years or longer.  We have installed a polymer-coated sand in a number of or indoor arenas and I have found most, if not all, of our clients are happy with it.
  • An additional advantage of this material is freeze resistance.  The moisture in sand or clay footings can cause clumps to form during winter, but that problem is avoided entirely because the coated materials do not require added moisture.
  • The cost can range between $4 and $7 per sq ft installed.  This is a significantly larger upfront cost over, say, sand.  However, there is an initial savings upfront because no irrigation system is needed (which can cost $20,000 to $25,000 for installation), operational costs are lower, and replacement costs are lower (product life is upwards of 20 years).  However, coated sand requires diligent daily maintenance, i.e., manure needs to be cleaned from the arena daily or more frequently as required.
  • For a 100 x 200 arena, the cost of coated sand footing should be between $120,000 to $140,000. The cost of the sand ($20,000 or $40,000 if replaced twice over a 20 year period) with an irrigation system ($20,000), plus the cost of routine maintenance and operational is almost 1/3 of the coated sand footing. 
  • If the arena is expected to receive considerable use, then it is even better.  If it is used sporadically, the cost may overshadow the benefit.  But like any footing, it comes down to what feels right to the rider and the horse.  


After all is said and done it still comes down to this: What does the rider prefer?  No one, in my opinion, should select a riding surface without trying it first.  Consult with your trainer, your vet, and others but ride on it before you and your horse make that final decision.

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Making the Best of a Rainy Day: Harvesting Rainwater and Bio-retention Ponds

A recent article on CNN has me thinking. It reports that in the next five years, 36 states expect to face water shortages. Plenty of cities already restrict water use (here’s one example from the Southwest Florida Water Management District in Spring Hill, Florida), yet the author asserts that many more are to come—along with the squabbles that inevitably follow. For those of you with farms, you may be sitting on a goldmine and not realize it. What am I talking about? Rainwater harvesting.

Photo by Justin Mott for the New York Times

Photo by Justin Mott for the New York Times

Did you know that the large roofs of barns and arenas (especially arenas) are ideal surfaces for rainwater collection? Think of your typical covered arena that’s between 15 to 25,000 square feet of space…to your advantage.  

Capturing rainwater for storage and reuse is simpler than you might imagine and the advantages to your facility can be huge.

A typical arena, for example, with 20,000 square feet of roof area with an average of 36 inches of rainfall per year (varying by region, of course), would produce 450,000 gallons of rainwater runoff. That’s nearly a half a million gallons of fresh water that could be returned to groundwater reserves or reused on your farm. An average gallon of municipal water costs about a penny; so, you can add a potential of $5,000 annual savings to the benefits of capturing rainwater. Multiply this by the detrimental effects or cost to crops and livestock caused a drought and your savings could be multiplied many times over.

Depending on where you live (it’s illegal to harvest rainwater in Colorado, Washington state, and Utah at present), rainfall can be collected and used for irrigation, emergencies, or returned to groundwater reserves. Overall, it’s an effective method to protect against weather extremes or long periods of drought. Some states even provide tax credits for setting up a water conservation system, like Arizona, which provides a one-time credit of 25% of the cost of the system (up to $1,000).  

According to the NSF, “A typical rainwater collection system consists of the following:

  • A collection area (usually the roof)
  • A method of conveying the water (gutters, downspouts, and piping)
  • A filtering device
  • A storage tank or cistern
  • A system to distribute the water as needed”

Harvesting rainwater not only helps protect you against drought; it can save energy as you rely less on expensive pump systems. Another way to prepare for drought conditions is to create bio-retention ponds, which filters water back into ground water reserves. Bio-retention ponds are a popular choice because they can appear on your landscape as a pond and can look very appealing. Bio-retention ponds also provide an ecological way to safely return water that is not to be stored and reused to nature.

A former client and horse farm owner suffering from a recent draught built several ponds and/or tanks on his property with the declaration that he was going to collect and store every single rain drop that falls on his property. While that may seem a bit extreme and potentially harmful to the natural ecology, it’s an understandable concern after a long drought and as wells start to deplete.

The cause of droughts reported by CNN may surprise you: global warming or over consumption by people isn’t the only culprit. Rather, these conditions are aggravated by poor agricultural choices and inadequate storage facilities. Though you may not have a lot of control over the causes of a drought, you really do have an opportunity to reduce the effects of drought on yourself and your livestock. Not a bad idea for a rainy day.

For more information, the International Water Management Institute is an excellent resource as well as Brad Lancaster’s Web site. There are also lots of interesting articles on how drought affects food (in the form of shortages and increased prices) worldwide. This article from the New York Times documents the quest for drought resistant crops. Another article relates to the “art of dousing,” an unorthodox yet time-honored approach to determine where to drill to quench a crop’s thirst.  

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The Silver Lining of the Recession: Lower Building Costs

It’s official. We’re in a recession and it is estimated to last longer than any since the Great Depression. Still, even a bleak economy can have a silver lining. If you have the resources, it could be a very favorable environment to build since the drop in oil prices paired with the recession has significantly altered building costs. As of December, the cost of steel is down 40 per cent from July—and when steel prices are down, everything else seems to follow suit.  

Recently, I received updated construction estimates for a horse barn and riding arena project that had been on hold due to the economic conditions. For this project, costs had dropped to 25% less than estimates provided only a few months earlier. That client has the resources and is moving forward with design and construction to take advantage of the market while they can.  There is speculation that we may be in for a period of inflation as we come out of the recession. This is another reason for those who can to prepare to move quickly before that occurs and impacts the cost of construction.

With a much-needed public works stimulus plan slated to begin once President Elect Barack Obama is sworn into office, it seems the building industry will get a boost in 12 to 18 months. In a sense, there’s now a small window of opportunity to take advantage of lower costs. Other clients are choosing to prepare design drawings and construction documents so they can be ready to quickly start construction at the lower prices as they feel more financially certain. With the housing market in decline, it seems all variables are on the way down from construction costs to mortgage rates—as low as 5.5% and the potential to lower to 4.5% if the government intercepts.

Another piece of good news is from a recent study by the U.S. Green Building Council reports that building green costs add an average of a 2.5% premium to the total budget—a figure much lower than the public may perceive. So not only is it cheaper to build now, one can do so with an eco-friendly approach without much added cost.

I know to some this may seem like overly optimistic reasoning, but the truth is, we’ve been here before. I can remember the last recession in the early 90s and how difficult it was to envision the future. Even though the outlook is still uncertain and the economic news grim, the recession has been in effect since last December—which can hopefully mean we may be on our way out of it sooner than we know.  It can’t get here soon enough if you ask me.

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A fire at Riverside Downs, a Thoroughbred training and boarding facility outside Henderson, Kentucky, left 27 horses dead on Thursday, November 20th.  While the cause or origin of the fire is undetermined, according to the Evansville Courier, arson is not suspected. I cannot help but wonder if it could have been prevented or the loss of life reduced or eliminated through design precautions and careful safety planning.

This is not the first fire at Riverside Downs, a former quarterhorse and harness track. In January, six horses died after a fire caused by a vending machine electrical cord. Among the deceased on Thursday was Kept Lady, a promising filly and recent winner at Churchill Downs that perished in the fire. According to the Associated Press, about 70 horses remain at the facility. My thoughts are with those who lost horses and the staff at Riverside Downs.


Often owners ask about designing sprinklers in barns or to frame the barn in steel to make it more “fireproof.” However, by the time the construction estimates come in, those seem to be the first items cut. Though both are credible for preventing fire, I like to design using preventive care so sprinklers or steel framing are not the only means of fire protection. (Incidentally, a steel frame building, if left unprotected, can collapse due to fire or heat from the fire before a heavy timber framed structure. But, as many of you know, the smoke from the fire kills long before the actual flames.)

Hopefully these suggestions can help you—and your horses—sleep a little better at night.


Hay is a huge fire hazard because of the dust it accumulates, especially when stored in a traditional hayloft setting. While I’ve designed barns with a full hayloft, I urge clients to consider a separate storage facility for hay and bedding or, at least, create a partial loft that does not span the barn’s entire length and isolate the storage area with fire walls. While fire walls may not be as effective as a fire rated partition (which is expensive), the fire wall can contain smoke and fire for enough time to alert help remove the horses. If neither option is possible, keep hay in a fire-rated enclosure.

If a hay loft is required, there are some precautions that can reduce the risk of fire, such as the choice of frame; an effective choice can reduce opportunities for bird nests and cobwebs, especially around lights, and provide natural light to reduce the need for electric lights.


In my ideal hay storage structure, a separate storage facility for hay and bedding is designed to generate vertical ventilation, similar to a well-designed barn. To do this, I take advantage of the storage structure’s large roof to capture solar energy, which heats the air inside the structure along with the heat from the curing hay. Air accumulates at the ceiling while cooler air flows at floor level, forming a vertical flow of air. Skylight vents release the warmer air and let cooler air inside. This constant flow of air supplies superior ventilation without the use of expensive or energy-burning equipment that can cause a spark or short.

Some horse owners stand behind their use of heaters in stalls, but I find it unnecessary and risky. Ideally, the inside of a barn should reflect a similar temperature to outside. After all, horses are born to survive in the wild, not confined in a stall. Because of their sensitive respiratory systems, a well-ventilated barn is a horse’s best defense.

A heated (or air conditioned), enclosed barn not only retains ammonia gases and pathogens that cause odor and disease, it creates conditions that require gas fired heaters and mechanical fans for circulation, each of which is a potential fire risk, not to mention expensive to maintain and operate. That’s why designing for ventilation is such an emphasis in my work.

Typically, if a barn is heated it is done for the sake of the staff, not the horses and should be confined to human areas only. This should be considered an added luxury, but if requested, a heated aisle floor is the safest method. A horse that is permitted to develop a winter coat can handle temperatures as low as zero degrees Fahrenheit. For lower temperatures, blankets can usually maintain warmth without being a fire hazard. 


I like to use fire walls and isolation doors to aid in the protection of fire or smoke generated by a fire. Though a fire rated fire separation may not be practical in most barns, you can create fire separations within the barn to isolate certain areas or uses from other areas of the barn especially the stalls.  


Always use UL-rated fixtures and properly installed electrical fixtures and fittings. All wiring should be in metal sheath conduit such as solid conduit or BX type cables, even in concealed areas because of mice and other small animals that inhabit barns. Consider explosion proof outlets and switches, and protect all lights with shatterproof lenses or wire cages. Set up a maintenance routine to clean all light fixtures periodically (for fire risk concerns but also for energy concerns, i.e. a dirty light is much less efficient that a clean one that is otherwise identical.


· Fire extinguishers throughout

· Fire retardant building materials (use heavy timber in lieu of light wood or truss framing when possible or affordable).

· Design Dutch doors where possible to the exterior, as they are better for ventilation and helpful for getting the horse—and people—out in case of emergency. Make sure the doors can be operated from interior and exterior.

· Separate living spaces (apartments) from barn where possible or at least placed behind fire separations.

· Separate farrier services when possible.

· Never store motorized equipment within the barn, but if you do, isolate it behind fire separations or separate areas.  (A barn burned in Northern Virginia a few years ago simply because someone cranked up a lawn mower that backfired, setting a nearby bale of hay on fire.)

· Install an effective fire alarm system (preferably one that is monitored by a 24-hour service) and plan an emergency evacuation route.



I worked with the Grosse Point Hunt Club years ago after they suffered a barn fire and lost over 20 horses, as I recall. I believe the fire was caused when a firecracker was thrown into the barn simply for mischief, resulting in a tragic loss of animal life and property. That was an older barn that had very little fire protection “designed” into it.

Regardless of how much protection you design into a barn, no system is perfect. Still, much can be done to protect older barns from fire and reduce the hazards. We often work with existing barns to modernize their operation and look, while doing everything we can to protect the health and safety of the horse—whether from fire, bad ventilation, or other unsafe conditions.

If you have any other recommendations to prevent fire, please let me know. As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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