Planning Your Horse Barn

What happens between these two moments: (1) you first think to yourself "I want my own horse barn" and (2) you happily lead your horse into its new stall for the first time? In a word…lots!!

This probably comes as no surprise. And as you make plans for your horse barn, you may fear you'll forget some vital detail or you'll make decisions that turn out to be mistakes. What kind of mistakes? How about…

The local building inspector orders you to demolish your beautiful new barn because you failed to get the necessary permits or you're not even allowed to have a horse or a barn on your property. … Your pastured horse freezes because his run-in shed doesn't adequately protect him from cold winds. … Your irate neighbor calls to let you know that Black Beauty, who has managed to break through her stable door, is running amok in the corn field. … Your barn starts deteriorating prematurely because you didn't provide adequate ventilation and condensation is causing rot to set in. … The same poor ventilation is causing the barn to overheat and your horse is suffering from excess dust and odor.

Planning Up Front

You don't want to make mistakes like these. They can be very expensive or impossible to fix and a disservice to your horse. Minimize the number of times you say "Oops!" by thoroughly planning your horse barn project up front.

Getting Permission

Consult your local authorities to find out if you're permitted to have horses on your property in the first place and if you can build a barn or run-in shed on your property. Understand what the restrictions and codes are and plan accordingly.

It's not only important to get legal permissions. Canvas your neighbors. Find out how they'd react to having a barn and horses on the other side of their backyard fence. Be considerate of their concerns about the smells and flies that could waft their way.

Selecting a Site

When selecting a site or assessing a location you've already selected because you don't really have a choice, consider these factors:

  • Wind exposure
  • Type of soil
  • Drainage
  • Access to electricity, water and any other necessary utilities
  • Vehicle access for both before and after construction

Don't confine yourself to considering your own property—investigate any development plans or possible zoning changes that could change the nature of the whole neighborhood or region. Your county might be planning to expand a highway nearby. Or perhaps a private developer plans to transform the nearby hillside into ever multiplying condominiums. Future plans like these could impact your plans. Perhaps you intend to have a riding school in the country. What if the "country" disappears?

Choosing the Type, Size and Scope of Your Barn

A horse shelter can be a simple run-in shed for a single horse or an elaborate horse palace designed to house a stable of thoroughbreds. Your goal is to end up with a barn or run-in shed that suits your needs and your budget. Here are some of the questions you should be asking yourself:

  • What kind of horse are you providing shelter for?
  • What kind of riding do you do?
  • Will your horse be pastured or will it spend most of its time in the barn?
  • Are you planning to acquire more horses in the future?

Your answers to these and other relevant questions will help you determine

  • Whether you need a 3-sided run-in shed or an enclosed barn,
  • How many stalls you need,
  • The types of utilities that need to be included,
  • How much and what type of space needs to be included for tack, storing hay, grooming, etc.

Benefit from the experience of other horse owners. What has worked well for them? What would they do differently? Visit their stables and farms. Take pictures.

Finding a Builder

Home builders, whatever their reputation, are most likely not the best choice for building a barn or run-in shed. People (sane ones, anyway) don't eat through wood or fiercely kick at walls, but horses do on a regular basis. You're much better off finding a builder who specializes in construction that takes into account the horse's well-being and safety.

Bring to the barn builder all the information you've gathered. He or she can work with you to determine what design best meets your needs and budget. The barn may be custom-designed or a model chosen from pre-designed options.

Designing Your Barn

"Stables are, or ought to be, thought of as akin to ships. They have a limited amount of space that must be utilized efficiently, with a place for everything and everything in its place."
A Horse Around the House, by Patricia Jacobson and Marcia Hayes, Crown Publishers, 1978

A well designed barn enhances your horse's well-being and safety and supports your reasons for being a horse owner in the first place. Here are some factors the design needs to take into account. You and your builder will think of others as you hone in on a custom design or decide on which pre-designed model works best for you.

  • Ventilation (very important, see below)
  • Size and number of stalls
  • Type of stall doors
  • Door latches
  • Water source
  • Aisle width
  • Ceiling height
  • Type of floor, such as dirt, wood or concrete
  • Wiring
  • Light fixtures
  • Storage areas out of the horse's reach for hay, tack, tools, etc.
  • Building materials

The barn or run-in shed should be oriented to protect against the elements: winds, sunlight, rain and snow.

Some exterior cladding possibilities are board and batten, T-111 and metal. On the inside, the stalls need to withstand the force of the horse kicking the walls or heavily leaning up against them. Stall kicking boards should be made from dense wood such as oak that can withstand these stresses.

On both inside and outside, the materials need to withstand the horse's attempts to chew and eat it. The materials also must not present a safety hazard to the horse.

While you are considering your options, keep in mind what your future needs may be. Perhaps you're planning to acquire another horse—be sure to factor future expansion into your design. Perhaps your current budget limits the amenities you can afford now—build future possibilities into your wiring and layout.

A few safety requirements to consider:

  • If possible, keep feed and tack in a separate, locked space.
  • Store hay separately in a dry, well-ventilated place.
  • Properly stow away all tools to avoid injury to your horse.

Ensuring Proper Ventilation

"As Realtors speak of location-location-location as the key thing to remember in property purchase, then next to drainage-drainage-drainage, you'll want to remember ventilation-ventilation-ventilation as a key factor to incorporate into your barn. … Doors, windows, ridge and cave vents or cupolas can provide natural ventilation. Strategically placed fans will enhance natural ventilation with forced air movement."
Building Horse Barns Big and Small, by Mary F. Harcourt and Nancy W. Ambrosiano, Breakthrough Publications.

Proper ventilation provides a constant supply of fresh air, mitigates odor and promotes your horse's health. It also helps protect your barn from condensation that can cause it to deteriorate and can cause your horse to overheat in warm weather.

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture has a useful fact sheet on Horse Barn Ventilation at Horse Barn Ventilation White Paper. The fact sheet briefly and clearly explains the physical properties of ventilation, the effects of poor ventilation on both your horse and the barn, and three types of ventilation: Cold Barn, Naturally Ventilated; Warm Barn, Naturally Ventilated; Warm Barn, Fan Ventilated. Read up on these facts about ventilation so you can discuss the topic intelligently with your builder!

"The stabled horse needs a constant supply of fresh air, so good ventilation is essential. The open top door and high roof help provide this. What the horse does not need is a draughty environment. Windows, which help ventilate and light the stable, are usually positioned on the same side of the box as the door to prevent draughts. If they are to provide maximum air and light, they should not be obscured by the top door, which tends to be the case with some stabling. Windows must be fitted with protective grilles. Additional ventilation can be provided by means of ventilation cowls in the roof, or louvre boards in the eaves. Additional light may be provided by a window in the wall opposite the door. If this is also used for ventilation, it must be above the height of the horse's head to prevent cross-draughts."
The Complete Guide to Horse Care, by Judith Draper, Lorenz Books, 1999

Enjoying Your Barn

In all likelihood there will be something you'll wish you'd done differently. But if you have carefully researched, planned and collaborated with the builder, you and your horse are bound to be happy with your new barn or run-in shed!

Resources

The following publications provided valuable information used in writing this article:

Building Horse Barns Big and Small, by Mary F. Harcourt and Nancy W. Ambrosiano, Breakthrough Publications.

The Complete Guide to Horse Care, by Judith Draper, Lorenz Books, 1999.

A Horse Around the House, by Patricia Jacobson and Marcia Hayes, Crown Publishers, 1978.

Horse Barn Ventilation, White Paper, a Fact Sheet of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture.