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A leg Up

A Leg Up

Barn Basics by Heather Smith Thomas

“At the very least, your barn should provide safe shelter for your horses and be a good place to work with them.”


hether you have a large barn or a small one, an inexpensive prefabricated building or a more elaborate construction, you can equip it the way you want—to make it more “user friendly” for you and your horses. At the very least, your barn should provide safe shelter for your horses and be a good place to work with them. When building a new barn or fixing up an existing barn, it often helps to look at a number of barns, and talk with people who have some experience with certain features, to get an idea of what you might or might not want. This is especially important when considering the health and safety of the horses in the barn. J. Clyde Johnson, DVM, retired practitioner and former AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners) President, has some good advice for people building or improving a barn. As an equine veterinarian, he has seen the problems created by barns or stalls that were not safe or healthy. A good barn is also a plus for the people handling the horses. “I have never envied the veterinarians who have to work on horses outside! I like to work in a 12’ by 12’ stall with a 7’ ceiling. I practiced for many years in Vermont and New Hampshire, where we had a lot of winter, but we also had barns,” he says. You don’t want the ceiling so low that a horse can’t put his head up, but you also don’t want it too high, says Dr. Johnson. The most ideal ceiling height will depend on the height of your horses. “For a 16 or 17 hand Thoroughbred, a 7’ceiling might not be high enough. But if your veterinarian has to work on a horse in a stall, he’ll want to use a stall where the ceiling is not too high. When he goes to float teeth or look at an eye, he doesn’t want the horse to be able to rear up out of reach. A proper ceiling height can often


save having to sedate the animal. When a horse can touch the ceiling with his ears, he knows where he is and is not as apt to try to go higher. And it’s much less dangerous to a horse to have a dropped ceiling or plywood covering over the rafters than bare rafters with sharp edges,” he says.

Safety Factors One of the things Dr. Johnson is always concerned about is stall safety, especially construction of stall walls. “I’ve seen cases where a horse got its foot through the horizontal boards on a stall wall,” he says. If you have a 12’ by 12’ stall using planks running horizontally as the stall wall, the long planks need some vertical supports to keep them from bending or bowing if a horse kicks them. “If horses get cast or kicks hard against the wall, they can push a board out enough to get a foot through between two boards. You need to put vertical strips along the wall, bolted right into the boards, so the span is only 4 to 6 feet between those supports. Then if a horse kicks or pushes on them he can’t get them separated enough to get a foot through,” he explains. A cast horse with a foot through the boards is in serious trouble. “I’ve seen some that lay there with a foot through

the boards, struggling all night to get free and there was nothing left but bone. Even the tendons were gone,” says Dr. Johnson. Horses can also break their legs in some circumstances. Removable stall panels—to make two stalls into a larger one for foaling—can be safe and efficient if created with horizontal planks. “The number of times you might remove that barrier between two stalls may be only once a year, so you want it sturdy. You can use lag bolts on the vertical strip or strips that reinforce the plank wall so the boards cannot come apart. You can make a groove in the barn wall and slide the board ends down into this groove to stack in there and hold them in place. Then you lag-bolt in the vertical supports, and the horse cannot move the boards. To remove the panel, you can use the same drill you used for putting in the bolts—put it in reverse and take them out. Then you can take the planks out and have a double stall,” he says. “This is better than using panels to divide a large stall; panels are a common place for horses to get their legs caught. Horses are like kids; they try everything and get themselves in trouble very easily,” says Dr. Johnson. Stalls should always be constructed with safety in mind, with no protrusions or sharp edges. “A horse can cut itself, even on a smooth stall.

Arabian Horse Times • June 2005

I have sewed up horses’ lips, eyelids and legs in stalls that seem perfectly smooth. So make sure there are no sharp objects such as nails or hooks. There are ways to eliminate the need for hooks (as for water buckets),” he says. The latch on a stall door—whether it’s a swinging door or sliding door— should be recessed and smooth.“When a horse gets scared and runs by it, you don’t want it to gouge out a strip of flesh,” he says. Regarding safety measures in the barn, Dr. Johnson advised having a good first aid box permanently located there, and it should be well stocked with whatever items you might need for emergency treatment or wound care. Feeding should be done as safely as possible, and hay is usually best fed on the floor rather than in a manger or hay net. “A hay net is an automatic hazard for getting a hoof caught, even if it is positioned high,”says Dr. Johnson. Dust and chaff can also fall into a horse’s eyes when hay is suspended this way. “Horses are designed to eat off the ground; they are grazers, not browsers. There is really nothing wrong with putting the hay on the floor, if you have a clean stall,” he says. “Any grain or feed supplements should be kept in a safe place rather than in the barn aisle. If a horse gets out of a stall you don’t want him to have access to feeds and gorge himself. You need a feed room; the horse would have to get through another locked door before he could overeat. Hay is not as crucial, but grain and feed supplements should always be out of reach,” he says.

Other Health Concerns Dr. Johnson says that next to safety of the horses themselves in a stall, ventilation is the most important aspect of a barn. “You don’t want snow or rain blowing in (and you need an overhang on your roof to protect against that), but you do need air movement. Many people think you

Arabian Horse Times • June 2005

“Stalls need good drainage to minimize the problems of moisture build-up. The best type of floor is something that is porous.”

have to button up a barn really tight to keep out the cold, but this is not a good idea—especially for horses. They need a lot of air, without dust or ammonia.” If a barn lacks ventilation, the ammonia from urine can build up to unhealthy levels. Horses are more prone to heaves and pneumonia, compared with animals like cattle, and cannot tolerate poor air quality in a barn, he says. “I’ve never seen a horse get sick from being too cold, if acclimated to the weather, but I’ve seen a lot of them get sick because they are too warm in a barn, and can’t get rid of the heat and moisture,” says Dr. Johnson. You need an airy barn. Otherwise you’ll find frost all over the ceiling and inside of the windows in the wintertime, from the moisture condensation, and there will be too much ammonia buildup. “Condensation problems can be partially alleviated with good insulation. The principle behind insulation is trapping air. However, you trap it, you provide some insulation,” he says. The air space is a buffer between the inside and outside temperature. You will be insulating against cold, and against heat. “A barn in North Dakota, for instance, might be protecting horses from 40 below zero in winter, and 95 degree heat in summer.” Stalls need good drainage to minimize the problems of moisture build-up. The best type of floor is something that is

porous. “I’ve seen horses on concrete, and I don’t like it. Even board floors are not the best for horses,” he says. They can be slippery as well as obstructing drainage. You can put mats over them to give better traction, but this does not resolve the drainage problem. A dirt or gravel base floor, with a lot of bedding, probably gives the best drainage, as well as cushion. “Then when a horse lies down, he doesn’t have any hard surface to cause pressure sores on elbows, hocks, etc. This is very important for newborn foals. I’ve often seen young foals in stalls without enough bedding, and by the time the foal is a week to 10 days old, he would have terrible sores on the outside of his hocks, due to damage caused while struggling to get up,” says Dr. Johnson. Traction is as important in the aisle and alleyways as in the stall. The surface should never be slippery. “Either a dirt floor, a textured concrete floor or textured pads or mats will work,” he says.

Heather Smith Thomas and her husband, Lynn, have been raising horses and beef cattle since 1966 on their ranch near Salmon, Idaho. Heather began breeding and training horses as a teenager and has been writing about them for 35 years, selling more than 3,800 stories and articles to 261 different publications. Heather has also authored 12 books about horses and cattle.


A Leg Up  

Barn Basics