The Latest

Email Subscription


Barn Fires: Occurrences, Causes, and Prevention

I recently posted a blog on heated barns and the unnaturalness of the environment that they create. For animals, including horses, heated lamps, or other methods of adding heat to barns is sometimes necessary. However, these methods present a huge risk and should be used in only extreme weather conditions. Of course, “extreme” is a relative term dependent upon your horses, their winter coat, their feed supplements, the design of the barn, etc.

Horses are animals that are “designed” by nature to withstand the cold temperatures of winter even down to zero degrees Fahrenheit. When they are too cold in the wild there is no artificial heat source to relieve the animals. In the wild they are able to run to generate heat to stay warm or run behind a hill to avoid a cold wind. One of the problems with confining horses in paddocks, and even more so in barn stalls, is that horses lose the option to control their environments for health and safety needs.

Apart from their effect on the natural aspects of a barn, heating fixtures are one of the many potential causes of barn fires. While they may differ in their origins, fires are nonetheless devastating for barn owners. One only needs to search through Google’s recent news headlines to find barn fires are not uncommon occurrences.

Courtesy of Mansfield News Journal

Courtesy of Mansfield News Journal

Fire Caused by Added Heat Sources

The majority of the barn fires I read about in the last month were caused by electrical malfunctions or by heat lamps that had been left unattended or were knocked over. Of the 7 fires researched, 5 were caused by added sources of artificial heat. The cause of one of the other fires is still under investigation but it has been reported that a heat lamp could potentially be the culprit. Even the smallest spark or overheating from heat sources, electrical appliances, or cigarettes is enough to send a barn up in flames. Barns, which are often made of wood and store hay, are the perfect fuel source for a raging fire. A metal clad pole barn can be just as hazardous because of the light wood framing of the wood purlins and wood trusses (that collect cobwebs and bird nests).  Once those elements catch fire it is often only minutes before the barn is engulfed in flames and collapses.

In an article, “Barn Fire Prevention,” for, Les Sellnow writes, “It takes two to three minutes for a straw fire to burn an area 10 feet in diameter. Compare this to the size of a common horse box stall that is 10 to 12 feet square. After a fire starts in a stall and spreads to only four feet in diameter, most horses are injured. By a six-foot diameter (fire), (the horse’s) lungs are seared. With an eight-foot diameter fire, the horse will start to suffocate. By 10 feet, the horse is dead. All of this occurs in two to three minutes. If a horse is to survive unharmed, he must be removed from the stall within 30 seconds” (Sellnow). This is a difficult task to do in any situation. The best answer to that risk is to design and operate the barn that reduces fire risks.

In two of the cases we found horses were able to escape the blaze by retreating to nearby paddocks and pastures. In other instances the horses and other animals dwelling in the barn were killed. In all of the cases firefighters arrived to find the barn completely engulfed in flames or close to completely.

Fires Caused by Natural Occurrences

Every once and a while a fire is caused without the help of human interference. Lightning and spontaneous combustion of hay are two natural sources of barn fire. It should be noted, the conditions that lead to spontaneous combustion are often cause by humans ignoring the proper precautions necessary when storing hay to prevent this phenomenon. A lightning bolt carries as much as 200 million volts of electricity, more than enough to spark a fire. The only instance of a lightning caused fire that we found occurred in Huntsville, Alabama on 1/14/14. By the time news of the blaze reached firefighters at 4 a.m. the entire barn was engulfed and 12 horses, 13 cats, and a dog perished.

Spontaneous combustion of hay occurs, believe it of not, when hay is too wet. “According to a pamphlet from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), heat is generated by the bacterial reaction during the curing process, which begins while the hay is on the ground prior to baling. The moist interior of the hay might smolder unnoticed for some time before the edge of the stack is reached and spontaneous combustion ensues.” This reaction is preventable with proper maintenance.

Prevention Techniques:

“Prevention is the best medicine”; The barn, in fact the entire farm should be designed with the health and safety of the horse the primary concern.

Some suggestions to reduce risk of fire:

  • Use natural light as much as possible to reduce need for electric lights, especially in lofts
  • Avoid haylofts when possible and if hay storage is included ventilate, ventilate, ventilate but also isolate, isolate, isolate. Ventilate so hay breathes and cures but isolate in case spontaneous combustion should occur it is contained from spreading (or at least slow its spread giving time to get horses out of the barn.)
  • Design barn to create natural vertical ventilation to cool the barn in summer and exhaust humidity and bacteria in winter. Reduces dependency on electric fans. Damper the ventilation so the horse is not left in a cold draft in the stall in winter.
  • Blanket the horse when necessary and when weather conditions are extreme in lieu of heating the barn.
  • Provide exterior Dutch doors at stalls when possible for better ventilation control, improved day lighting of the stall and as a fire escape when necessary (remember to design latch so they are accessible from exterior.)
  • Create fire separations within larger barns in particular between heated and human occupied spaces and the stall area and to isolate arena from stall areas.
  • Avoid including full time residence within barn whenever possible to reduce fire risks. Better to locate in separate structure but if not possible, isolate by rated firewall.
  • All electrical wiring should be in metal conduit or metal sheathed wiring, even inside wall, floor and ceiling cavities (rodents can gnaw on the plastic cable).
  • Use explosion proof switches and outlet covers
  • Do not use barn for storage of motorized machinery or fuel
  • Design interior framing of barn to be easily accessible for cleaning and to reduce options for bird nesting and cobwebs
  • Design barn with masonry or heavy timber framing when possible and affordable as it is much more fire resistant than light wood framing



Posted in Equestrian News | Leave a comment >

John featured in Wellington

The January 2014 issue of Wellington the Magazine features John Blackburn and his book, Healthy Stables by Design. The article, “Award-Winning Architect John Blackburn Puts Focus On Health & Safety of Horses,” was written by Carrie Wirth and Beth Herman.


Posted in Equestrian News | Leave a comment >

New York City: No Place for a Horse (Part 2/2)

Rather than fight totally for one side or the other on this issue, as personal opinions will generally differ, I would support continued horse riding in the city, specifically in Central Park, so long as conditions are comfortable, humane and safe for horses. Several years ago I worked with a NYC resident, an equestrian and others who wanted to bring trail riding and public horse stables back to Central Park. From 2007 through 2011, trail riding was provided by the Riverdale Equestrian Center but this offering has since ended with no indication of when or if it will recommence. The Claremont Riding Academy, located at 175 W. 89th Street, operated for a number of years but closed because of limited funding and declining support from patrons and city government.

I think the park should designate an area, preferably an existing building, as a hub for equestrian riding in NYC. I have looked at several existing historic structures in the park and found one that would allow for this idea to be accomplished. However, the “powers that be” saw it differently and found other uses for that structure which in my opinion would have made a perfect historic stable for both trail riding horses as well as carriage horses.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Therefore, in summary my resolution to the issue is to “make lemonade from lemons”:

  1. Take the horse drawn carriages off the public streets;
  2. Continue horse drawn carriage rides inside Central Park;
  3. Provide decent, healthy, safe, regulated stabling that is either inside the park (preferable) or very close by;
  4. Regulate the handling of the horses so they have the proper stabling, exercise, feeding, and care to address their other needs such as vet and farrier;
  5. I do not know how many carriages there are and how often they are used but it appears to me there are more than is necessary (if one judges by the number waiting and literally standing on the on the street). If that is the case, regulations should license and restrict the number so they are not left standing, harnessed for hours on hours. Harnessing a horse and requiring that they remain that way for long hours strips the animal of control and can cause stress, fear, anxiety, etc. And yes, horses really do have these feelings and it is inhumane to not recognize and respond to those needs.

As mentioned above, I worked on a project pro bono several years ago to bring horseback riding with permanent stabling inside Central Park. It went nowhere. I was especially disappointed that it was unsuccessful because the mayor at that time, Michael Bloomberg, has an unusually strong connection to the equine community and could have, in my opinion, done something to make it happen.  Perhaps he was unaware of the project or maybe he was opposed to it. I don’t know. There were and still are a number of people, historical groups, environmental groups, parks and recreation departments who have their own concerns and agenda for Central Park. It is such an amazing space and I do not disagree that it needs to be protected and preserved, but horses in NYC and in Central Park are also historic. Merging these two legacies without sacrificing the authenticity of either is surely not impossible.

I think both sides, and most importantly the horses, can come out a winner on this. The health and safety of the horse must be our priority but that does not mean the other concerns cannot be addressed and served in some capacity. I would like to help. Please provide your comments and thoughts. I must be honest: if they are political in nature I am not that interested. I am interested in the humane treatment of horses and their inclusion within our society. They are, next to dogs in my opinion, man’s best friends.

Want to go back to Part 1 of this article? Click here.

Posted in Equestrian News | 1 comment >

New York City: No Place for a Horse (Part 1/2)

Newly elected Mayor of NYC Bill de Blasio has plans to rid the city’s streets of horse drawn carriages, putting an end to a time honored tradition. Arguments pro and con the move make a powerful debate.

Mayor de Blasio and many animal rights groups argue that carriages are inhumane using statistics about recent accidents to support their claims. Groups such as NYCLASS and ASPCA are backing the mayor. Those opposed believe the NYC horse drawn carriage  trade is rooted in tradition, with antique cars or any other proposed replacement unable to replicate its fundamental appeal. Customers argue the horses are what attract costumers to this business, which earns the city nearly $19 million a year. Marriage operators, who fear the loss of jobs, are backed by the Teamsters Union and dismiss claims of inhumane treatment. They say each horse is given five weeks’ vacation time each year.

I have noted the debate, reading several articles on the subject. After reading The Daily Beast‘s “Mayor De Blasio’s Horse Policy Is a Pile of Manure” and perusing the predominately political comments, I found the space became a soapbox for libertarian issues, conservative and liberal politics, socialism and every other political persuasion. Readers showed very little concern for the horses or the focus of the article. After 30 years designing equine facilities that promote the health and safety of horses, and as illustrated in my book, Healthy Stables by Design, I am clearly an advocate for equine welfare.

Courtesy of New York Daily News
Courtesy of New York Daily News

Though I do not live in NYC, I know it well having visited many times. I own a timeshare two blocks from where the horse drawn carriages stand and wait (for what seems to be an endless amount of time). I spend about 3-4 weeks there annually, and periodically find myself running through Central Park for exercise when the weather allows. Neither resident nor tourist, I find New York the most interesting city and would love to live there full time. The only time I have had any “business” with horse drawn carriages was as a child and tourist with my parents. The only feelings I recall having at the time are a fascination with horses in the city and with the carriages in general, as I imagine any child would. I remember finding the whole experience odd in such a busy city, even as a child. That was over 50 years ago and it has only gotten busier.

My thoughts on the current situation are not based on the economics, jobs, tourism or historic context but concern for the horses’ wellbeing. Let me point out the act of having a horse pull a carriage is not inhumane in my opinion. During my visits I am always saddened watching these animals standing amongst polluting vehicles in traffic or waiting on the curb for patrons without the option of lying down to rest if tired. I have never seen the stables in which these horses are housed but have heard horror stories for years about the conditions that exist there. I imagine if people visited these terrible conditions they might think twice about their supportive stance on the issue of horse drawn carriages in the city. I certainly would welcome that opportunity if ever given the chance. I find it difficult to understand how people find an excursion at the expense of an animal condemned to these conditions inviting. I guess it is the history of horse drawn carriages that attracts riders and they are perhaps unaware that these animals are sentient beings who suffer the same way we do. Humans have domesticated horses for centuries and though they have been used as a so-called beast of burden, there is a difference between what “burden” is acceptable and when “burden” becomes abuse.

Part 2 of this article will be published on Wednesday, January 15, 2013 here.

Posted in Equestrian News | Leave a comment >

2013 Lucky for Lucky Jack Farm

The Lucky Jack Farm in Rancho Santa Fe, California has certainly held on to its namesake in the past year. The site played host to multiple charity events over the course of 2013 and the barn was selected for the cover of John Blackburn’s book, “Healthy Stables by Design.” The cover photo, depicted below, was taken by David Hartig.

On May 11, 2013, the owner’s Patricia and Marc Brutten of Lucky Jack Farm hosted “Wine, Women & Shoes.” The event, operating for the second year, featured “fashion, fine wine, and good cheer,” and produced over $187,000 in donations and proceeds for Voices for Children. The nonprofit recruits, trains, and oversees San Diego County’s court appointed special advocates (CASAs). These volunteers advocate for the over 5000 abused and neglected youth who pass through the San Diego County’s foster system each year. The Voices for Children organization is the only agency of its kind designated by the Juvenile Dependency Court to provide CASA volunteers. Click here to view pictures from the event.


Blackburn Architects is proud of our design for Lucky Jack Farm and thrilled that the owner’s are using the farm for such worthwhile and charitable purposes. We wish them well and another successful event in 2014.

Having designed well over a hundred barns and arenas over the past thirty years we have seen our designs provide the setting for numerous parties, receptions, fund raisers, weddings and settings for fashion magazine spreads such as the one at Lucky Jack Farm in 2013 and at Devine Ranch in Aptos, CA in the 2007 (see the photos from the April/May issue of Genlux Magazine below).

Though barns are designed for horses, they make great spaces for other events that can extend the benefits for more than just the horse and rider.  Think about it for your barn or arena.

Posted in Equestrian News | Leave a comment >

San Diego Home/Garden features Healthy Stables by Design

John Blackburn’s book Healthy Stables by Design has been featured in the January 2014  issue of San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles Magazine. Phyllis Van Doren’s article, Naming Names, notes that the beautiful images in John’s book were taken by David Hartig, a freelance photographer whose work has also been featured in the magazine.

Posted in News and Press | Leave a comment >

For the Human or the Horses? – Thoughts on Heated Barns and Horses

“I had one owner complain about how cold her barn was in winter. She said the grooms complained endlessly. My answer was to issue the grooms long underwear because the barn is designed primarily for the health of the animal, not the comfort of the human.” – John Blackburn

If there was ever an understatement made, it was in the first line of “Heated Barns and Horses: Special Considerations Needed.” The article written by Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension equine specialist, Dave Freeman, PhD and published by in 2011 begins, “Horse owners who use heated barns to keep water from freezing and to protect horses from frigid temperatures during winter should remember supplement heat can cause problems if used incorrectly.”

For me, the most important considerationis the unhealthy and potentially hazardous effect of added heat on the “naturalness” of a barn’s environment. Even in the winter, when temperatures may be below freezing, the barn should duplicate the choices a horse would make if it were living in the wild. For example, in winter if a horse wants to warm up it may choose to move into the sun. If it wants to get away from the cold it will run behind a hill or some natural obstruction. The options a horse has to control its environment are eliminated in a heated barn yielding a less natural experience and potentially creating an unhealthy and high-risk environment. One of those risks is the restriction on natural ventilation and the need to rid the barn of humidity that can cause harmful bacteria. An owner may attempt to close up the barn to “save” on the cost of the heat but at the same time restrict natural ventilation. I am not opposed to heating human spaces, but I am concerned when heat is introduced to the stable area. In my projects, we have provided heat to the floor of the aisle in extremely cold climates but we do not close off the natural vertical flow of natural ventilation through the stable area.

Ventilation is important regardless of the temperature outside or inside the barn. As an equestrian designer who’s primary focus is healthy stables, I completely agree with Dr. Freeman on this point. I feel every barn should ventilate all winter no matter where it is located or what the temperature is outside might be. As always, as much natural light as possible should be brought into the barn as possible. We install continuous ridge skylights whenever possible in our designs that provide a totally naturally light interior all day long, which is, also most close to what the horse encounters in nature. Our renovation of the thoroughbred broodmare barns at Sagamore illustrates my point. See photos below.

I don’t want to imply that a healthy stable design will solve all your winter heat or equine health concerns but that it is a very important part.

Barns without ventilation are more prone to high humidity, which creates ideal incubating conditions for disease causing pathogens. Dr. Freeman suggest turning down the heat to get rid of excess humidity but I would take that suggestion further by not introducing heat into stalls area at all. The stall area should stay within 8 to 10 degrees of the exterior temperatures. This allows horses to adapt more easily when moving from stalls to paddocks in the winter months. Horse blankets and proper adjustments of feed for winter conditioning are other important considerations for helping your horse adjust to cold weather. Also heat lamps in a stall for a young or feeble horse should also be considered before enclosing and heating the entire barn for this purpose.

I hope you read the article, Heated Barns and Horses: Special Considerations Needed. It provides some great advice. Also, if I may, read my new book, Healthy Stables by Design. My focus of the book is you illustrate how one can create a healthy and safe environment for the horse hat doesn’t have to be expensive (though many are and that it primarily due to human or owner desires) and it can be accomplished in almost any environment with good design principles.  A successful equestrian design is one that incorporates and balances three essential needs; the needs of the owners, demands of the site and the health and safety of the horse without sacrificing the health of the horse. That remains paramount.

Posted in Equestrian News | Leave a comment >

2013 Lisbon Christmas Horse Parade and Open House

Over the weekend, John Blackburn attended the 2013 Lisbon Christmas Horse Parade. The event first occurred in 2011, making Saturday’s holding the 3rd annual occurrence. The parade benefits local Howard and Carroll County Food Banks and the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Department. The 2013 Lisbon Christmas Horse Parade was expected to be the most successful event since its inception with almost 120 entries, more than 600 horses, and over 70 sponsors. However, due to less than favorable weather conditions the parade had to be cancelled.

The weather did not completely end the festivities. Each year The Equiery puts on a Holiday Open House and 2013 was no different. During the open house non-perishable food items were collected for local food banks, patrons purchased wreaths for the Lisbon Fire Departments fundraiser, and a Vendor Gift Mart was held.

John Blackburn (right) with Ross Peddicord (left), the Executive Director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board

John Blackburn (right) with Ross Peddicord (left), the Executive Director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board – Click to Enlarge

John was one of many who braved the cold and wet conditions to bring his book “Healthy Stables by Design” to patrons of the parade and open house. Despite a decrease in attendance John was still pleased to sell 6 copies of his book, raising $360, half of which will be donated to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International’s Wounded Warrior Project. “WWP’s purpose is to raise awareness and enlist the public’s aid for the needs of injured service members, to help injured servicemen and women aid and assist each other, and to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet their needs” (1). John also donated one of his books to the Howard and Carroll County Food Bank raffle.

During the event The Maryland Horse Industry Board presented its December Touch of Class Award (2). Ross Peddicord, the board’s executive director, was on hand to present the award. He took some time to stop by John’s table. The two are photographed above.

This event was John’s final book singing event of 2013. While his book tour has, at times, been “long and tiring,” John has found the entire process “rewarding.” He raised over $7,000 for equine charities across the country.


(1) PATH International


Posted in Equestrian News, News and Press | Leave a comment >

Thoughts on “Lots of Elbow Grease for Disinfection Project”


The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Care is a print and online publication that provides indispensable articles for horse owners and caretakers. On October 20th, 2013, The Horse published an article entitled, “Lots of Elbow Grease for Disinfection Project,” commentating on the process for choosing which disinfectant is best for your barn and horses, navigating the risk of contagious. John Blackburn found the article to be a great conversation starting point and has offered the following additional suggestions to make disinfecting your barn a less daunting task.

Having an isolation stall on the farm or at least in the barn, where horses can be kept when returning from off site conditions can protect your barn and the animals that dwell there. This may not be a luxury that everyone can afford but it is a useful means to limiting the spread of disease causing pathogens and reducing veterinary bills. John recommends at least one isolation stall be finished like a foaling stall if possible, with protective, non-porous surfaces that are easier to disinfect than standard stalls.

John also recommends isolated your tack room or area, thorough cleaning when in contact with an infected horse or one you believe could be, proper disinfecting of any tools used in the isolation stall and when returning from horse shows are critical to the containment of bacterial infections in the barn.  We also recommend all barns consider installing foot disinfectant mats at the entrance of your barn. Bio-security is becoming a much greater concern these days and preventive measures should be taken whenever possible to disinfect your barn.

Keep your horse healthy and happy:

Posted in Equestrian News | Leave a comment >

Healthy Stables by Design featured in Middleburg Life

Middleburg Life, “The voice of Loudoun’s Hunt Country for more than 30 years,” is a monthly publication distributed in print to over 15 thousand homes across Loudoun and Fauquier counties, and available online as well. The December 2013 issue features an excerpt from John Blackburn’s book, Healthy Stables by Design. Check it out here.

Posted in Equestrian News | Leave a comment >