Chris Churchill, Five Star Ranch Staff Writer
Updated April 2019
I’ve owned horses for over 30 years in a variety of stabling arrangements. This article includes some of my lessons learned along the way. Hopefully passing a few ideas along might help you design a better barn and save you some money along the way.
Something very important to keep in mind when designing your barn is to build with the climate in mind. The barn I kept my horse in up in Alaska was great for a cold climate but would be a horrible mistake if I built it in Texas where air flow is critical during the oven-like summers. I have seen people relocate from other climates and try to build barns they way they always did without giving thought that there may be better designs for their new locale.
In this article I’ll cover:
- Stall size
- Stall layout
- Stall floors
- Wash Stalls
- Aisle Flooring
- Hay storage
- Bedding storage
- Feed Room
- Stable Office
- Trailer parking
- Manure Storage
- Indoor Arena and barn layout
- Pasture location
If you’re looking for advice on finding the perfect spot for your barn, check out our article on barn site selection.
The standard horse stall is 12×12. This assumes the horse gets out on a regular basis for exercise and fresh air. If you are building a barn and you keep warmbloods, drafts, or other large horses, you may want to consider increasing the stall size to 14×14. or at least 12×14. At the same time, ponies can easily fit in smaller stalls and be fine. If you’re thinking of renting out stall space however, go with the 12×12 or larger. Most horse people will expect at least that size and may pass on your barn if your stalls are smaller.
Most stalls have dirt floors. These require periodic maintenance and new dirt will need to be brought in to fill in low areas or holes that horses create. If you have a horse that paws, you’ll need to do floor repairs more frequently.
I personally do not like concrete floors to be used in stalls. I saw a lovely warm blood cut up its back pretty badly and have to miss work for a while because it rolled on a concrete floor and the bedding wasn’t thick enough. Concrete floors are hard on horses legs unless you use a lot of bedding. Also, floors that have been concreted don’t allow proper drainage of urine unless you slope them or install drains (both a lot of work).
If you use concrete you can over come most of the bad things about it by using rubber mats. I’m a big fan of rubber mats in general and use them in my stalls over dirt. They provide cushioning for the horses legs and I use less bedding with them because the dirt and the bedding don’t mix.
Barns with a center aisle are the easiest for the human taking care of horses. This arrangement allows you to work in the barn, clean stalls, feed, etc inside during inclement weather and is convenient because you don’t have to walk to multiple pastures, but merely walk down the aisle at feeding time. The center aisle can also double as a tie stall to brush and saddle horses.
One of the most convenient stall layouts is to have a center aisle with a stall door on the inside as well as a second stall door on the outside. It costs a little more to have the extra stall door leading outside, but it adds a tremendous amount of flexibility to your barn design. For example on my barn I have one stall where the second door opens to a paddock. This type of arrangement is perfect if you have a horse that needs protection from bullies, is in convalescence from an injury or for as a birthing – foaling arrangement. The paddock off the stall can be made up of round pen panels so you can remove it easily if you later don’t need it.
Wash stalls are great to have in barns if you can afford the space. An indoor wash stall will give you a convenient spot to bath your horse or provide water treatments to injuries. If you build one, be sure to put in concrete that is roughed up to provide traction. If you can afford both warm and cold water in your wash stall, your vet will love you.
Personally I like having a wash area out side as well as in. The outside area gives me a place to wash my horse where I can use the water to water grass. I like the idea that the water isn’t going down the drain but is instead helping grow grass so my horse can have a nice snack after her bath.
Dirt aisles are common and inexpensive, but contribute to dust in a barn.
Some options are to concrete or brick the aisle or to lay down rubber mats on the dirt
(or the concrete). We laid rubber mats down directly over a dirt aisle and saw our dust level in the
barn drop. Having a hard surface like concrete, rubber or bricks gives the barn a finished look.
You do not want to store a years worth of hay in your barn as it will add significant dust and fire fodder to your building. However, for convenience sake you’ll want an area where you can store smaller amounts of hay.
If you store hay in your barn be sure to place the hay on a pallet or the bottom bales will rot. The pallet lifts the hay off the floor and allows air flow under the bales.
The ideal location for hay storage is in a nearby separate building where the hay can be shielded from light. Hay will retain its nutrients longer if it can be kept in the dark and out of the elements.
Sawdust has become a very popular bedding. Its inexpensive, easy to use, has good absorbency and provides great cushioning. Many backyard barns have gone to the sawdust bales that are contained in plastic and control dust very well. If you get truckloads of it, you might want to consider a separate building for bedding storage because of the dust and mess.
The most important thing about the feed room is to make sure horses cannot get into it. Founder is a serious condition that can kill or cripple a horse and can result from over eating. Never just put feed in a barrel in a barn hallway. Horses will find a way to find it and open it up. The feed room door should have a horse proof lock on it. Horses can be regular Houdini’s if they know food is in a room. I have had horse open latches that I had trouble with. The best precaution is to have redundant locks so if one fails you have a backup.
Having a room in the barn where you can have a desk and phone is handy especially if you run rental stalls. Ideally this room contains areas where you can store things and has a lock. A stable office is a nice to have room if you can work it in.
You don’t have to live in a big city for parking to be a problem. It doesn’t take too many trailers and parking becomes a premium. Thought should be given to designating an area for trailers that has a good solid base. Parking a 4 horse gooseneck in a pasture might be fine on a sunny dry day, but what happens when its pouring rain and you rush a horse to the vet and your trailer is up to its axle in mud? If you have the space, a circular drive is appreciated by horse owners hauling trailers.
Designate an area where manure can be piled is critical. Ideally you want an area where the manure can be hauled off easily. Interestingly, I have several friends who are organic farmers and have invited them over to get manure as they need. This keeps my manure piles manageable.
Indoor arena location to barn
Barn-arena combinations are very popular especially in colder climates. Barns that connect to indoor arenas are very convenient but if you go that route you will need to address dust control head on. Since much of the dust problems have to do with the type of arena footing you use, I strongly suggest you budget for a footing such as rubber that has low dust issues.
My personal preference for keeping horses is to give them access to pasture as much as possible. It isn’t natural to keep horses locked in a 12×12 box in near isolation. Horses are healthier, happier, and work better when they have time to be horses. It’s a philosophy I’ve incorporated at my own small barn, but one I realize is difficult to incorporate at a boarding stable when you have more horses.
If you only have one or two horses, the easiest way to keep horses is to have stalls that have direct access to the pasture. If you have a lot of horses this won’t work. A horse could get cornered in the stall by one of the bully horses and get severely kicked and injured.
In our current barn we worked around this by subdividing my pasture so I only have two horses per pasture and both have access to their stalls. This allows them to have protection from the elements and if its just the two horses, they usually become buddies rather than rivals. If you have an extremely aggressive horse, this may not work. You may need to separate the more aggressive horse into a separate pasture. A cross fenced pasture gives you this versatility, just make sure you use safe horse fence and good fencing practices.
In some cases you may decide you don’t even need a barn. If you live in a mild climate, a pasture with a run-in shed may be adequate shelter for your horse. Just please provide some kind of shelter. Some people take the attitude that since horses in the wild live without covered barns they don’t need to put up shelter for their horse. What they forget is wild horses have access to trees, rocks formations, and other natural wind breaks that can provide shielding from icy storms and hot sun. A simple run-in shed is inexpensive and can make your horses life happier and make your feeding of the horse in bad weather more comfortable.
Additionally run-in sheds are a nice inexpensive solution if you have a horse that is suffering from being low on the horse pecking order and needs to be separated from the main herd. A pre-fabricated three sided run-in shed may be perfect for one or two horses. I’ve also seen portable carports functioning as a shed. If you live in a housing area make sure your HOA doesn’t object, but from the horse’s perspective, the carport is a welcomed cover.
Something to keep in mind if you end up separating a horse into a smaller area is herd instincts. Since horses are by nature herd animals, they usually like a companion. On our ranch in addition to our main barn, I have put inexpensive run-in sheds in different pastures so I have the flexibility to separate horses as I need. The run-in sheds are large enough to hold at least two horses. Having pastures with run-in sheds is also useful as a way to rotate pastures and still provide shelter.
Related Barn Design Articles
Barn Design Ideas for Hot Climate Barns