Q: I’m in the process of planning a barn in Missouri, and finances require an economical metal post-and-frame structure. I’ve studied Blackburn’s ventilation and lighting philosophies and will incorporate them as best I can.
My question is about orienting the barn. I plan to have a center aisle, with exterior Dutch doors in every stall. Each 12’x12’ stall will have an exit to the main 12’ aisle as well as to an outside run-in. The stalls will be used primarily during more extreme weather or when I need to confine a horse due to injury or illness, otherwise the horses will be outside. Overhangs on both sides of the barn will function as run-in shelters for the paddocks.
I know from your writings that the ideal orientation is perpendicular to the prevailing summer breeze. However, because Missouri’s cold winter winds are from the same direction, the horses on that side of the barn won’t have wind protection when in the run-in areas. I know that’s less of a problem for owners who keep their horses in stalls most of the time, so I’ve not been able to find an answer to this question. I will obviously allow them access to the stalls during the bitter cold weather we get, but for most of the winter all they need is some windbreak. How do I optimize winter protection without compromising ventilation?
Worried about Winter
A: Orientation is certainly very important when siting your barn. But because wind is always changing and its direction and velocity can be affected by terrain, other structures, and vegetation, the angle is not a hard and fast rule. It’s good to try and locate the barn perpendicular to the prevailing summer breeze but that also depends on the design of your barn. If you have lived on the farm a few years you may know the particular wind patterns for your property.
The design of the barn is as critical – if not more so – than the orientation. How and where you permit air to enter the barn (preferably along the low wall along the long side of the barn and at the eaves where the roof joins the side walls), and where it is allowed to exhaust are critical. In some areas, it may be necessary to provide some form of close-able dampers on the low wall vents to control the wind and temperature that can impact a horse that is in the stall but doesn’t have the flexibility to get away from it.
The environment within the barn should be within 8 to 10 degrees of the temperature on the outside. Your barn should ventilate vertically to reduce the horizontal movement of bacterial- and moisture-laden air.
We always say the best environment for the horse is outdoors where it can make its own choices about its environment and health. A naturally-kept horse should be able to get out of the hot sun and find shade or get out of a cold wind in a shelter or behind a wind block.
By turning your horses out most of the time you are certainly on the right track for happy, healthy animals.
Missouri’s winter weather isn’t so extreme that it prevents you from a center aisle barn with stalls on both sides. Orient your barn so that turnouts are on the windward side of the barn and leave the Dutch doors open so your horses can get inside away from the wind. For the turnouts on the cold windward side of the barn, blanket the horses. And keep their winter coats unclipped.
Since you’ve read “Healthy Stables by Design,” you know that Blackburn designs typically use the chimney effect and the Bernoulli principle to create natural ventilation. Our barns become passively designed machines that work to provide healthy conditions for the horses inside.
Good luck with your new barn!
Fire protection in an equestrian facility is always a concern of the highest priority. Because we’re often asked, we thought we’d offer information here on the fire suppression details the Blackburn design team has included in some of our latest projects.
At a new barn under construction in Indiana, we’ve specified a Dry Pipe System by Fire Tech, LLC. http://www.firetechstl.com/systems-preaction.php. We could have specified a “preaction sprinkler system,” but chose the dry pipe system because of the dangers of freezing pipes in the cold weather climate of the Midwestern United States.
To quote Fire Tech’s description, “A Preaction Sprinkler System is a system which employs automatic and closed-type sprinkler heads connected to a piping system that contains air (either pressurized or non-pressurized), with a supplemental system of detection serving the same area as the sprinklers. The systems are typically used in applications where the accidental discharge of water would be catastrophic to the usage of occupancy.
“Preaction Sprinkler Systems are similar to Dry Pipe Systems in that the water is kept from entering the piping valve, in the case a preaction valve. This valve is held closed electrically, only being released by the activation of the detection system (heat or smoke detectors mainly) when an electrical signal is sent to the releasing solenoid valve. The water then fills the pipe, ready for the activation of the sprinkler heads. Preaction systems can be arranged to be activated by only one detection device type, or many.”
In Indiana, our architects specifically called for a dry pipe system because of the potential for freezing temperatures, but also in case “one of the children kicks a soccer ball and takes out a sprinkler head” (the client’s words). With a dry pipe system, the sprinklers won’t go off unless they also sense smoke or fire (depending on the detector type). A false alarm could flood and ruin the barn’s expensive finishes. And using recessed/concealed pop up heads is a good idea where you can.
Another critical reason Blackburn specified a dry pipe system is because of an issue with water demand; the Indiana farm doesn’t have sufficient well water on site to power the system. Because of this, our client connected to county water. Keep in mind that If you’re on a well, you’ll likely never have enough pressure to support a fire suppression system. The gallon per minute (gpm) for firefighting is higher than your average ground well can produce. This means you must store water on site in a tank or pond.
At Sheik Island, one of our projects in Florida, we stored water below ground. In California, at a private facility, we installed an above ground tank adequate to run the system as required by the local fire department. Additionally, we posted signage limiting the occupancy (should the owner decide to sponsor a large event in the arena). The clients obtain a special permit when larger events occur, and they hire the local fire department to have a truck on hand during the event.
At the Devine Ranch, in Aptos, California, and at the Moss residence, also in fire-prone California, we provided on-site storage tanks with backup generators to operate a pumping system.
Next up on the Blog: fire limiting design guidelines we build into our projects.
Over the years, Blackburn has been asked what we think of adding stalls along the side of an indoor arena. Sounds like a good idea, right? Well, we strongly recommend against it. The problems are many.
1. Air Quality. Forced to breathe arena dust many hours of the day, stalled horses live in an environment that isn’t healthy. We recommend instead that the stall portion of the stables be connected in a separate but attached structure running perpendicular to the barn. Not only does this arrangement help isolate the arena dust from the barn, it allows the barn to sit independently. The structure can then catch the prevailing breeze which permits two scientific principles (Bernoulli principle and the chimney effect) to provide natural ventilation and light to the barn.
2. Fire Safety. We always recommend fire separations by providing sliding doors to isolate the barn from the arena in case of fire. These doors may or may not be rated fire separations. The decision is usually driven by cost, and we often provide an automatic rolling fire rated shutter to isolate the two separate areas – this at least reduces the risk of smoke moving between structures. (Quite often it’s the smoke that is more dangerous and faster moving than the actual fire.) The isolation by sliding doors also provides critical time to get horses out of barn. If the arena and barn share the same space, there is less opportunity to isolate fire or smoke from the stable area. Furthermore, when the stables are parallel and part of the arena, the structure is generally shared – raising the risk it could collapse and trap horses inside.
3. Cost, Scale and Building Height. When stalls are designed as part of an indoor arena, the design requires a wider structure (often steel due to the long spans) which is typically more expensive. When it’s a separate but attached structure, it can be framed in wood with smaller spans reducing the cost of the framing. If the stalls are part of the indoor arena, then the building becomes wider which also means a corresponding height increase. In many areas, the local zoning codes restrict building heights. We have found typical restrictions of 35 feet. It’s difficult to get any height in the barn or arena if you are trying to build a 100 x 200 ft arena with a row of stalls and aisle way. Also, from an aesthetic perspective, wider and taller building begin to get enormous and have the potential to look like an airplane hangar and overshadow the entire farm.
4. Storm Water Issues. Finally, if your property is not flat, such a structure with a large footprint may require significant grading that can be expensive and create storm water issues. By breaking the barn and arena into two connected structures you can more easily work it into the natural slope of the land. Also, the isolation of the barn and arena permits opportunities to push the arena into the ground – helping to reduce the scale and height of the arena above finish grade. The entry to an observation area can be elevated above the arena floor (but entry level still at grade) for more easily viewing over the kick wall from a sitting position.
Blackburn has designed many arenas with this perpendicular arrangement. Rocana Farm, designed by us in 2002, is a great example of what we mean. Stalls at this hunter/jumper facility are attached to the enclosed arena with an elevated observation room, tack room, wash and grooming stalls.
When an owner requests forced air electric heating system in the stalls, we advise against it for several reasons:
1) Forced hot air rises and heat stays at the ceiling level, adding unnecessarily to the cost of operating the barn. Blackburn barns are designed to allow air to escape thru the roof vents, so at a minimum sending heat skywards doesn’t make financial sense.
2) Forced air systems move airborne particles around the space and, given the size of the barn and the heat loss expected thru the roof vents, heaters must pump a lot of air at a high velocity to provide sufficient heat to keep the barn to a temperature that might be considered sufficient (which varies with personal preference).
3) Forced air heaters are unhealthy for horses because they spread dust, mold and disease throughout the stable area. Horses give off a tremendous amount of moisture, especially in winter, and that moisture contains bacteria and other viral matter that can be harmful to their sensitive respiratory systems and spread to other horses. If a barn is closed up too tightly (the barn needs to breathe in all temperatures) the barn can become too warm and increase the opportunity to breed bacteria that would normally be ventilated out of the barn. There may be some exceptions for older and ailing horses but a tightly-closed, heated barn is often more harmful than helpful. We recommend discussing with your vet exceptional conditions that may be needed for young, aging or infirm horses.
Strategically placed infrared heaters can be a good choice to keep the chill at bay in human-occupied areas.
Infrared is another term for radiant heat. For example, a stove, fireplace, oven or even our own sun emit infrared (radiant) heat energy. That energy converts to heat, warming the surrounding air.
In a barn, infrared heaters are specially made to produce safe, comfortable radiant heat. When asked by a client, we specify that heaters are directed downward from the ceiling toward a target area below. In an equestrian facility, infrared heaters can be directed toward wash stalls and/or and grooming areas, or down a common walkway, between horse stalls or even in riding arenas.
Blackburn Architects uses two scientific principles to ventilate horse barns – the Bernoulli Principle and the Chimney Effect – vertically removing harmful bacteria and ammonia gases that can cause disease and odors. Providing heat for the horse by forced air does little if anything to help the horse except create harmful, unhealthy conditions.
When requested by a client, we can specify heated floors. Infrared tube heaters emit soft, comfortable radiant heat energy without creating drafts. Infrared heats the ground. Warm floors = warm bodies & feet.
As we all know, horses can naturally withstand colder temperatures better than hot temperatures. If permitted to keep their winter coat and remain dry, horses can withstand even very low temperatures. For colder temperatures, we recommend keeping cold drafts off the horses by closing Dutch doors at stalls (add weather stripping to the doors if needed) and closed aisle doors. In other words, if a horse can stay dry and get out of a steady breeze or draft they have a much better chance to maintain their own health.
What’s the safest way to incorporate glass in a horse barn? If you’ve been following our work, you already know that Blackburn Architects’ mission is to promote as much natural light and ventilation in horse structures as possible. Naturally, this means we add a lot of windows to our designs. In its safety recommendations for the stable, Rutgers NJ Agricultural Experiment Station cautions that “windows need to be inaccessible to horses and livestock, covered with bars or screening and made of safety glass.” (https://esc.rutgers.edu/fact_sheet/safety-recommendations-for-the-stable-barn-yard-and-horselivestock-structures/). So how do our architects protect the horses and still use a lot of glass in our designs?
1. Use Tempered & Laminated Glass
We recommend that all glass in a horse stable be tempered, including glass that’s laminated. Tempering and lamination do two separate but similar things to increase the safety of glass if/when it breaks: Tempering makes the glass break into small chunks as opposed to slivers and shards, while the lamination gives the glass a slightly greater resistance to breaking and keeps the glass in place when and if it breaks.
Laminated glass consists of a clear plastic laminate sandwiched by glass on both sides. Since horses have access to both sides of a glazing unit, ideally both sides should be laminated and tempered. If this approach is too costly for your budget, stick with everything being tempered and omit the lamination. Laminated glass does not always age as well as tempering. The laminate can shrink and pull in from the corners of the glass, and eventually become visible over time. We prefer tempering.
2. Minimum Thickness of Glass and Airspace
To arrive at the minimum thickness of glass, work backwards from the depth of the frame, minus about 1/4”. Each glass manufacturer determines what spacer sizes they offer. Understand that the more airspace you can allow the better, but each manufacturer works with a few different pre-set size spacers. Use the largest one that still allows the glazing unit to fit within the frame.
3. Special Considerations for Cold Climates
In cold climates, we specify glass with a high solar gain and low emissivity. In technical terms, the glass meets the following guidelines:
1. A Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) around 0.55
2. A U-value of less than 0.33
3. A higher value Visible Transmission (VT)
4. Use double-paned glazing units with low-e gas that has a vacuum sealed gasket between the panes of glass. The pocket between panes of glass is filled with an insulation gas, most typically argon.
5. Consider using low emissive (low-e) glass panes (low-e prevents the transfer of heat from warm to cold). The low-e coating (typically a metallic oxide) should be on outside of the innermost pane of glass.
There are pros and cons that should be considered with each option 1-5 above. For instance, with #4, over time and if the gasket seal fails, you can begin to see condensation between the panes of glass. Whereas with #5, you may be able to see the coating from certain angles, especially if you are wearing polarized sunglasses. Since the advantages are a bit more obvious, and similar to one another (i.e. tempered vs laminated, and low-e gas vs low-e coated glass), here is a summary of some of the disadvantages to each option:
Tempered only – glass may still shatter (in harmless pieces) and fall to the ground.
Laminated only – laminate can discolor over time and shrink in from the corners of the glass.
Low-e gas filled glazing unit – if the gasket fails, condensation can form in between the glass.
Low-e coated glass – may be visible in certain light conditions, or when wearing polarized sunglasses. You can sometimes see this on automobile glass.
To summarize, a good starting place for adding glass to your barn begins with tempered glass, meeting the SHGC and U-values recommended above. A step beyond this is low-e coated glass, since with #4 (low-e gas) you can expect the gaskets to fail at some point, and the glazing unit will need to be replaced. If the coating of the low-e coated glass is too “visible,” then low-e gas may be the better option, with the expectation that you may need to replace some of them again in 10 to 20 years, if and when the gaskets fail.
A job interview is not exactly an expected set up for an art sale. So when Lauren Zucker (now Richards) came looking for a job at Blackburn Architects some years ago, she found one. One she didn’t accept because graduate school had a stronger pull.
But in a strange twist, John Blackburn liked the student artwork she showed in her portfolio so much he bought it. Two beautiful Lauren Zucker black oil bar on paper works hang in the Blackburn Architects’ offices in Washington, DC. The large 48’x60’ framed paintings are captivating for the brush strokes evoking the fevered jostling of racehorses leaving the starting gate. They are lovely paintings, and visitors to the office often comment on them.
She described her work this way:
The Race: Within the conﬁnes of 10 furlongs there are meta-corporeal aspects of the horse race never experienced by the spectator. I ﬁrst knew the horse race as an unfolded experience through the medium of literature. Drawn out in detail were the visceral relationships between horse and jockey, the operations/politics implicit in a racing farm, the strategies and traditions of breeding and training, the excitement of race day morning, and the cognizant thought behind every move during the course of the race. The race compresses into 2 minutes, the life experience of each racer- horse or jockey.
The Drawing: Through drawing, I looked to fold the life narrative of the racer into gesture. Then, as in the race, montage the narrative of different racers. I found inspiration for expressing this agony of entanglement in Picasso’s Guernica. The narrative gesture of war is apparently not unlike that of the horse race.
The process of these drawings was subtractive, many beginning as a coat of black oil bar. The slow drying time of oil bar and linseed oil allowed me the time to carve the horses’ bodies out the blackness. Portions of the drawing were reworked over and over again, conveying motion/time lapse through the multiplicity of elements, such as the doubling of the jockey’s hand in different positions.
There is a dichotomy in horse racing which at once evokes both nobility and grit which I found to exist even at the scale of the horse’s eye, loaded with both the noble courage and animalistic fear. And in the relationship of the fear in horse’s eye to the Jockey’s eye of focused determination. “
As time passed, though, Lauren’s identity was lost to Blackburn Architects. We could make out most of her signature in the lower right hand of the paintings, but was it Lauren Ziker, Zucker, Luker? What had become of the artist who made the art we live with every day? Was she still an artist? A practicing architect? We didn’t know. Finally, John was inspired to track Lauren down through a connection to a colleague who knew her and had kept in touch. And voila! Lauren is indeed still an artist, and an architect, and she was so excited we had tracked her down.
“I have such great memories of Blackburn Architects and of John. I remember being equally disappointed that the timing didn’t work out as the job would have merged my two greatest passions as a life-long horse lover / equestrian and architecture. I am still working in architecture and still enjoy painting and drawing.”
With careful attention to design details, it is possible to retrofit your barn to be healthier for your horses. One important renovation to existing built structures is the addition of skylights and ridge vents to increase light and air flow.
Only a fortunate few horse owners design and build a barn from the ground up. Most buy a property with an existing barn. As the photos illustrate, Blackburn Architects’ client Kevin Plank, the CEO of Under Armour®, bought historic Sagamore Farm in Maryland, and undertook a significant renovation to add light and ventilation to the interior of his historic main barn.
Significant expenditures are not necessary, however. In this discussion, I’m offering simple recommendations for achieving healthier living space for horses starting with an existing barn.
For venting an existing barn roof, I suggest one of two options:
1) Add Dutch doors along the barn sides or
2) Add a vent along the bottom edge of the skylight (or ridge if that works best though I prefer the curb vent for better free air access).
Option 1: Add Dutch doors along the barn sides
This option provides good access for ventilation to each stall and a great method of controlling air flow. An owner has the option of leaving just the upper door open to reduce the flow or open both upper and lower doors to give maximum free area. (Of course, in order to open both doors for full access you’ll need to add an interior mesh panel to keep horse in the stall.) If Dutch doors aren’t possible or within the budget, then I recommend adding low wall vents to bring in air low to the floor (which is good for foals and to vent odors caused by ammonia gases near the floor). The vents should be dampered for air control and screened to keep rodents from getting into stalls.
Additionally, Dutch doors provide an abundance of natural light, which reduces the need for electric lighting in the barn and helps purify the stall flooring, reducing the creation of harmful ammonia gases.
Option 2: Add a vent along the bottom edge of the skylight (or ridge)
This option allows for vertical ventilation of the barn using the Bernoulli Principle and the chimney effect. Though the existing barn may not have the best angle for prevailing breezes or roof slope, it will help nevertheless. I also recommend vents at the top of the wall at the roof eave if they can be added. This permits year-round ventilation above the heads of the horses, but still ventilates the barn vertically using the techniques described above.
There are a variety of methods and materials that can be used to retrofit skylights into an existing roof. At Sagamore Farm, Blackburn Architects’ design replaced the existing shingles with a new metal roof (not necessary; Sagamore’s roof shingles were worn out and metal was chosen as a better long term material). In more typical circumstances where the existing shingles are salvageable, simply remove the shingles along the ridge and cut out the sheathing or sub roofing material, leaving only the roof rafters.
Continuous curbs should be built along the edge of the opening. Although a continuous skylight or curb is not necessary, I find it aesthetically and functionally preferable. A skylight can then be placed on top of the curbs spanning from one side of the aisle to the other. The curb can and should be vented. The size and amount of free area depends on the barn design, size and location. The skylight width does not have to span the full width of the aisle but somewhere between 8 to 12 feet should be adequate.
The skylight can be either glass (costly and should be safety glass) or some form of polycarbonate. Check your local building codes for requirements. I do not recommend clear glazing. Translucent glazing reduces the visibility of dirt and filters light, which better serves the barn interior. It’s best not to let a strong band of sunlight hit a stalled horse for a long period of time. I also recommend painting the interior of the roof and framing members a light color to improve reflectance.
If a continuous skylight is not possible, then individual roof skylights can be installed over the center aisle. However, if the skylights are not high on the roof and are not vented, they may not do much to increase the barn’s vertical ventilation.
If the barn has a loft it may be possible to remove it, leaving specific structural members spanning across the barn to hold the building together and to provide wind shear strength to the barn. If the loft is used for hay storage (which I don’t recommended for health and safety reasons), then it may be possible to remove a portion of the loft over the aisle leaving the loft in place over the stall for storage or the reverse of that (remove the loft over the stall but leave it in place over the aisle).
While these approaches to increasing light and ventilation in existing structures can work wonders, you should always contact a structural engineer before installation of skylights to determine if the barn can take the modifications needed of if some additional structural work needs to be done.
I thought I’d take a minute and explain Blackburn Architects’ process for designing a new equestrian facility and overseeing its construction. While not carved in stone, for planning purposes, can easily become a two-year process.
The first step is usually a visit by me or another Blackburn architect. The initial meeting is our first chance to meet, walk the site, look at any existing buildings and discuss the project goals. I’m a firm believer in “a picture is worth a thousand words” but “being there is worth a thousand pictures” Following this, we’ll send a proposal for service, which outlines the process and fees.
Once a contract signed, we get to work immediately.
The timeline usually looks something like this:
• 6 to 10 weeks for Feasibility Study, Site Assessment and Master Plan
• 1 to 2 months for Schematic Design
• 2 to 4 months for Design Development and Construction Drawings
• 1 to 2 months for Permitting
• 12 to 16 months for Construction
At Blackburn Architects, equestrian design starts with the horse and ends with a building that fits the horse, the owner, and the surrounding environment like a glove. It’s as simple and beautiful as that.
Let’s explain the steps in greater detail:
Feasibility Study / Site Assessment / Master Plan
The goal of the Feasibility Study is to determine, as early in the process as possible, whether the intended project fits the owner’s program, the site, and the budget.
We assess any existing building(s) and the site. We take measurements to determine if an in-place structure will work for the goals of the project. We study the land until we come to a clear understanding of wind and solar direction, soils, changes in elevation – all natural and architectural characteristics that guide placement and design of any new buildings. Central to the success of the project, this “Master Plan” addresses all these things and more, providing a road map for the success of all future phases of our work.
The site analysis also includes a review of applicable zoning and easements for the property; we determine what (if any) limitations or restrictions may apply at the property. Land disturbance allowances? Height restrictions? Set-backs?
In tandem with the site evaluation (as soon as we have a contract), we send the client a unique Blackburn Architects questionnaire that we’ve developed over the years. Answers are collected and inform the design; starting off the process with clear direction from the client. It is extensive and though it covers about 25 pages, once it is completed it “paints” a picture of exactly how you would like your farm to operate. The efficiency of the operation is critical and can have a huge impact on your operating cost and maintenance budget.
Moving seamlessly from the master planning phase (often there is a fuzzy line here where one ends and another starts), we start schematic design. In this step, we help our clients visualize the project design with a variety of techniques using both computer and hand renderings to illustrate the scale and the relationship of the project elements. Ideas, concepts, goals take form at this stage.
Once we’ve worked up outline specifications for the work, we can begin to get a rough idea of the costs. At this point we will either develop a rough estimate based on our 35 years experience with over 300 farm projects, consult with a professional cost estimator or a builder who is familiar with the building type in your location.
Design Development and Construction Documents
Once we have the site layout, design, and budget, drawings and other documents give serious form to interior and exterior finishes, and firmly establish the size, character, and details of the project. These documents will be used by our professional consultants to design the electrical, gas, and other utilities. When these systems are defined, and we have a basic finish schedule and budget, we’re ready to file for the permit and start construct of the building.
Bidding and Construction Administration
With the construction documents complete, we can help clients select a contracting company through a “bidding” process for the work, or we can work with a client’s pre-selected Construction Manager. We work side-by-side with our clients to ensure that the best and most informed decisions are made during this process.
While in my experience this process typically lasts about 18 to 24 months, a lot of this depends on factors that are outside of either our control or our clients. The time of year and weather, for instance, can greatly influence how fast construction progresses, especially in colder climates. Pastures have a growing season, and they need at least a year (maybe two) to establish.
Designing and constructing a custom facility is a very subjective process, which is guided by all kinds of factors including the complexity and size of the structures, the time of year, the strictness of zoning regulations and neighborhood associations, state environmental regulations, and so on. But rather than let these things hold you back, I say, “Jump In” or give us a call to discuss how the process can work for you. When you slide open the doors to your dream facility and see the happy heads of your horses looking over the stall doors, all the time and effort will vanish. At least that’s been my privileged experience over all these years.
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.