Designing horse stalls
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.