Whether for a horse barn or riding arena, there are a lot of things to consider in the slope of the roof.
Curious about recommended roof pitches in a riding arena? Senior architects John Blackburn and Ian Kelly advise that “a 4:12 pitch is pretty much our recommended minimum on any horse structure. We prefer steeper roofs for a natural chimney effect. However, unless you live in a cold climate where there is a lot of snow, we wouldn’t advise going taller than 6:12.”
The numbers indicating a 4:12 roof pitch mean the roof rises 4 inches in height for every 12 inches, as measured horizontally from the edge of the roof to the centerline.
Okay, so for barns our rule of thumb is as steep as you can make it. The steeper roof allows the Bernoulli principle and chimney effect to work more efficiently and effectively. But there are other considerations in designing the slope of a barn or arena roof.
For arenas, steeper the roof = the taller the building. This impacts the look or mass of the arena on the property which can be negative. It can stick out like a sore thumb or look like an airplane hangar in your backyard.
Because we depend less on natural ventilation in indoor arenas than in barns, we can get away with lower slope roofs. However, we don’t recommend lower than 4:12 if at all possible. We realize some HOAs and neighborhoods have severe height restrictions and the wider the arena, the more difficult it is to comply without “flattening” the roof. At Winter Farm in Peoa, Utah, we designed a low roof to stay within an imposed limit. In some areas, arenas may be considered agricultural buildings and therefore exempt from height limits. But that rule isn’t consistent across state lines or jurisdictions. For example, in one jurisdiction we were permitted a covered arena as a “sun shelter” and avoided building height limitations entirely.
Because arena walls at the perimeter are usually 16’ tall (need head clearance for horse and rider on interior below the structural frame), when the roof is a low slope, the roof becomes less visible as you get closer to the building and the building can look like a huge box.
You can make a huge box look great but that may require a lot more money and you typically want the arena to be in the background. The barn and the farm are the main focus and not that big ugly box on your farm.
One way we reduce the impact of the arena size is by pushing it into grade where we can, using the land contours and landscaping where possible, and placing it behind the barn and other structures to reduce the scale of the building.
Probably the best average height for a barn is 6:12 to 7:12. The reason is it is more difficult for a roofer to walk on a steeper roof without some sort of support. Thus the installation time increases dramatically as will the cost if it is built with a steeper roof.
One of the down sides for low slope roofs in snow climates is snow loading. A steeper slope can be designed to shed snow pack better than a low slope but the downside for that is the avalanche effect. When it melts it can fall fast, be loud and block doorways… a subject for another blog post!
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.
Fences are one of the most common discussion points among the Blackburn team and clients when we’re designing an equestrian facility. The options listed below are certainly not exhaustive but reflect what we commonly find in many of our projects.
Some options are better suited for pastures, while others are more appropriate for small stall turnouts. We’ve tried to identify a variety of approaches that meet the safety needs for horses, limit maintenance needs, and often fall within neighborhood guidelines.
1. Steel rail fencing is an option for stable turnouts. The material is available in a thinner profile so it isn’t as visually heavy and it can be painted black or another dark color so that it does not have the “ranch” appearance seen with galvanized steel pipe corrals. The up-front cost is higher but the material is durable and will have little-to-no maintenance needs.
2. Woodguard polymer coated wood fencing is treated wood with a non-toxic, non-chipping surface covering. The wood grain is still visible but the finish has some of the plastic texture of the polymer. This product allows for fencing to be constructed similar to a wood fence, with the rails attached to the face of the posts. The result is a stronger, safer fence. Woodguard has a 20-year warranty. The cost is similar to wood board fencing but the maintenance needs are less. While the manufacturers state that this product is resistant to cribbing, we would recommend that a hot-wire be provided at the top rail to discourage the horses from chewing. This material would be acceptable to use for both stall turnouts and paddocks. It offers the appearance of a traditional 3- or 4-board wood fence without the significant maintenance demands. https://www.wood-guard.com/horse-fencing/
3. High Tensile Polymer (HTP) comes in both rail and wire styles and is typically mounted on wood posts. The rail is typically 5” wide and from a distance will appear similar to wood board fencing. Because wire fencing has a lower visibility, we suggest using a thicker top board so that the horses can more easily identify the barrier. The HTP materials’ inherent flexibility makes these products durable and resistant to horses leaning on or running into the fence. Typically, these are more suited to large pastures or for perimeter fencing and less so for stall turnouts. The darker colors tend to exhibit a chalky appearance over time.
4. Rubber fencing is a durable, flexible, and low profile fencing material and is similar to the HTP fencing. We’ve not seen this product used as often and we understand that there’s a risk that the strings of the fabric (which is an internal support for the rubber) can become exposed and offer a hazard for horses to chew on. A hot-wire at the top of the fence may combat this risk.
The advantages of rubber, HTP or any type strap fencing is the posts can be set further apart which is useful when its highly visible and you want to minimize the number of posts. The fencing is flexible and resists breaking when a limb or tree falls on it therefore it’s a good material for perimeter fencing large acreage and where it encounters wooded areas. This is safer if/when a horse runs into the fence; especially a problem on larger paddocks when horses can get some speed and not be able to slow down.
5. HDPE is a post and board fencing material. It’s stronger than PVC and performs better in all weather conditions, but the primary issue is in the assembly of the fence. The rails are set between posts, instead of fastened to the face, and can pop out if the fence is not secured properly. Its requires more frequent posts which tends to look busy and it’s difficult to bend or angle corners because of the assembly method. The Blackburn team isn’t particularly fond of this material because it can look clunky and isn’t the safest option. http://www.amberwayequine.com/products/hdpe-fencing-2/
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.”
Today I got a call from a client who’s buying 120 acres in North Carolina and plans to build a new equestrian center. It’s been years since horses have been on the property. The pastures and paddocks are overgrown. The fences are in disrepair. The property has steeply sloped areas but the client wants a dressage ring. Drainage will be an issue. Together, we’ll figure out a way forward by starting with a Site Plan to map the future; completing the owner’s vision in budgeted stages over several years.
A site plan is completed by studying topography, wind and solar directions, neighborhood easements, height restrictions, zoning restrictions, soils and operational necessities (where are roads, pastures, barns, storage sheds, etc.), There are many benefits to putting together this “roadmap” for future use of the farm property. Consider that there are three major categories of costs when planning to bring horses onto your property: 1. Operational, 2. Environmental, and 3. Infrastructure. Proper planning will save you money in all three areas. Fewer roads, less fencing, better drainage all ensure that the whole farm, not just the horse barn but the entire collection of structures on the site, operates efficiently and safely.
Operational Considerations: First locate where you’ll put the horses – where is your turnout? Where will you store hay, equipment, or vehicles? Do you have access for manure pickup, large-truck deliveries, guests or visitors? Minimizing the number of steps necessary for your daily routine (turnout, stall mucking, etc.) will save labor time, which of course you know is money in the farm biz. Planning will also preserve space for paddocks.
Environmental Considerations: Figure out structure placement within your acreage. It’s important to properly orient any new buildings in the landscape. We design our barns to generate their own ventilation, placing them perpendicular to prevailing summer breezes. (One of many design considerations for maximizing light and ventilation, which is a subject I’ve written about often.) Additionally, placing structures where the land will drain easily makes good sense and will save you and your horses potentially hours of muddy misery or the cost of constantly replacing eroded footing.
Infrastructure Considerations: Fewer roads to maintain means fewer dollars spent.
Creating a master plan does not mean that every part of it needs be built at once. The plan may end up taking years to implement, but as each new structure or paddock is added, it isn’t done in the usual haphazard way. It will save you from asking, “You know, I could use a tractor shed somewhere?” Even those with very limited budgets should consider getting the advice of an expert at the planning stage, given the importance of the optimum farm layout.
Bringing in a professional to carefully plan a site doesn’t mean you need to commit to having a custom barn designed. Blackburn Architects’ guidance can help whether you’re purchasing a kit barn, designing a custom barn, or renovating existing structures. A site plan stands by itself as a service we greatly enjoy delivering to clients across the country.
I’ve always made it a point to use passive renewable design elements and sustainable materials in my equestrian designs. The motivation is designing for the health and safety of horses, so it’s not surprising that what’s recommended for creating human and eco-friendly structures is also recommended for equines.
Nowadays, Blackburn Architects’ team rarely encounters a client who isn’t enthusiastic about including sustainable design principles in their farm program. With green technologies evolving every day, there are more systems and product choices available to suit the unique demands of equine properties. The most prevalent elements include natural light and ventilation, recycled materials and regionally sensitive natural woods and products.
SUSTAINABLE BUILDING MATERIALS
We incorporate recycled and sustainable materials into the firm’s barn designs. We’ve used recycled rubber bricks and pavers for aisle flooring, and recycled rubber mats for stall floors, and occasionally, stall walls. Not only are these products more comfortable for the horses’ legs and knees, but they also provide a slip-resistant surface. As for building materials, we use everything from FSC (Forest Steward Council) certified lumber and recycled steel to fly ash concrete blocks and recycled wood.
However, we are always mindful of what some recycled material mixtures contain. Some products include substances (plastics, resins, binders, etc.) that could be toxic to horses through off-gassing or if they chew on the material. If you’re designing your own facility, be sure your builder is familiar with the materials ahead of time and is comfortable working with them. Occasionally, we’ve run into a situation where the builder is unfamiliar with a product recommendation and accidentally convinces an unaware owner to use a product that may exhibit these harmful qualities.
BUILDING FOR CLIMATE
It’s important that building materials make sense for both the design and the climate. In more northern locations, we try to design with timber that will provide more insulation for the structure. In the south, a masonry-style building helps keep the structure cool and is more resistant to humidity and insect infestation. While bamboo is an excellent renewable resource option, it’s not often locally sourced and can be costly to ship. Douglas fir and southern yellow pine are the typical go-to lumber products for our firm. They are quality assured, sustainably harvested, and regionally sensitive. When combined with low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) finishes and paints, these materials make for sturdy, sustainable buildings that do not sacrifice quality or aesthetics.
Conserving water is imperative to any agricultural property, and there are many top-to-bottom green approaches to consider. It’s crucial to intercept and collect storm water before it becomes ruinous run-off that can affect ground water and nearby ponds and streams. We frequently use porous or “popcorn” asphalt for interior and sometimes exterior floor covering. It’s “self-healing” and aids in water drainage.
Since many horse farms around the country face changing weather extremes (torrential rain and drought come to mind), rainwater collection systems are vital for alleviating the resultant water issues. Roofs can be designed to route storm water into cisterns. The harvested water can then be channeled into irrigation systems for fields, paddocks, arenas and pastures, or collected for controlled distribution to prevent muddy conditions.
ACTIVE RENEWABLE SYSTEMS
In addition to passive systems, I highly recommend including active renewable systems in the design of any horse farm. The beauty of equine and agricultural properties is that they often feature characteristics that compliment these systems. Large swaths of land can facilitate geothermal power systems or wind-powered generators and other equipment. Roofs with large surface areas are common features of many agricultural buildings and make perfect platforms for solar panel systems.
One of the firm’s current projects is an extremely energy efficient property in Missouri. While targeting net-zero energy use, we’ve included a geothermal heating system and solar panels that power infrared heaters in the wash stalls.
Green technologies have come a long way and today’s solar panel systems offer more choices for collecting and storing energy. If designed properly and in the right location, it is often possible to fully rely on the solar panels for all your energy needs. Including these systems in conjunction with natural light and ventilation could conceivably eliminate outside energy dependency for your equine buildings. Over time, solar panels will pay for themselves in savings. Check with your local and state government about tax incentives for incorporating green energy saving systems into your property.
FRESH AIR AND NATURAL LIGHT
Accomplished with steep sun-heated roofs and vented skylights, the combined effects of the Bernoulli Principle (an equation of vertical lift championed by Dutch-Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli) and the chimney effect (air pulled in low and vented up high) circulate fresh air throughout the structure while flooding the space with natural light. This method provides the optimal environment for horses because it turns the typically static barn into a machine while imitating the equine’s natural environment. The process significantly cuts down on the cost and operation of electric lighting and fans and the health and safety risks they can create.
One of the challenges we sometimes encounter with clients is convincing them to include active systems in their design programs. This is usually due to upfront costs. The price impact can be minimized by smart design decisions. Knowing ahead of time what green options are available and which ones you’d like to incorporate will inform your budget early on and, if need be, help you plan the property with future installations in mind.
THE BENEFITS OF COMPOSTING
Composting is another great passive renewable option. We strongly encourage all our clients to include a composting system in their design program. Composting helps manage muck and removes harmful bacteria and other organisms to create natural fertilizer for paddocks. It also helps keep organic material that could produce harmful uncontrolled run-off out of landfills.
Sustainable barn design is about what’s healthiest and safest for your horses. Remember, horses were never meant to be inside. But if they’re going to be, then it’s important to create an environment as close as possible to what they would encounter in nature, using materials and techniques that at the same time don’t harm the very environment they come from.
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.
Hi John. I hope you had a wonderful summer!
Q: Our covered arena has been put to good use throughout the last year, but we really need lights to make it even more beneficial to our program. Given your expertise and experience with equestrian barns and arenas, I was hoping you might be able to give us some guidance.
We are having a hard time determining exactly what kind of and how much lighting is necessary. Do you have a formula that you use?
Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated. I look forward to hearing from you!
Dear Undercover Rider:
Glad to hear all’s well.
I would be happy to offer some guidance on lighting for your arena.
A: I typically recommend approximately 35 to 50 foot candles per sq ft of light on the arena floor in order to provide a sufficient amount of light for a variety of functions. It also depends on the amount of reflective surfaces you have and the color of those surfaces including the arena floor material.
If you are anticipating a variety of entertainment type functions such as charity events, parties, etc you may want to consider a variety of type mood lighting for different events.
There are also a variety of type lights to consider such as metal halide, LED, HD, etc.
There are other factors to consider as well such as initial cost, operating cost, maintenance or lamp life and also the design of the fixture (bird protection, fire safety, etc.)
We are beginning to use LED more often now. I hope that helps!