Ground floor opportunities

First the basics: The flooring of a horse stall should be easy on the animal’s legs, dry and slip-resistant, durable, level and easily cleaned and maintained.

Yet there are two flooring philosophies. Some recommend porous flooring that allows water and urine to migrate to the ground below, while others advise impervious options such as concrete, asphalt and solid rubber mats.

“The same two factors influence a customer choice of flooring no matter the economy — animal health and cost,” says Steve Hoppman, general manager for the Agromatic division of A.F. Klinzing Company in Fond du Lac, Wis.

The builder’s role, then, is “helping your clients find the right fit,” believes David Tubach, founder and CEO of  Point to Point Builders in Fairfax, Va.

“In cutting costs, customers usually skimp on two areas — flooring and stall fronts,” Tubach observes. “But since flooring gets used every day, whatever you install affects the use of the barn. That’s why going with cheap flooring just creates headaches. I try to steer people right, but sometimes they’re just penny-wise and dollar foolish.”

As general manager of   VaFac  in Fredericksburg, Va., Philip Pryor supplies Tubach with horse stalls. The company’s HorseStallsUSA division, he reports, “works with a range of clients. Some know what flooring options they want and some don’t. But cutting corners on flooring can mean a major renovation of the barn in just four or five years.”

Joy Koch, who like Pryor handles ComfortStall products from her business, SmartFarm HQ in California, sees the advantages of combinations in stall flooring. She recommends a sloped sub-flooring, padded in front, but covered in bedding in the back. Horses learn to leave their waste in the back, she says, keeping the padded area cleaner.

At RAMM Fencing of Swanton, Ohio, makers of a full line of equine products, president Debbie Disbrow cautions builders that “horse products are totally different than residential products. Flooring quality can make a huge difference when you’re talking about animals that can average 1,200 pounds each. Yes, you’ve got to make decisions according to the budgets and time frames of your customers. But neither can you leave with flooring products that increase wear and tear on their horses.”

Knowledge is the key to gaining an edge in the equine construction market. “Take the time and talk to experts in the field,” Disbrow counsels.

Personal experience
Though Tubach is himself a horseman, as an equine builder he still wanted to make sure he was recommending the best flooring materials to his clients. “So I installed six different options in my own barn,” he relates.

After testing them out, Tubach drew some conclusions. Customers who choose only natural flooring will find, he says, “Horses tear up clay or dirt, the bedding gets mixed in with it and then it needs to be hauled out. So you want to install a product like stall mats that separate the bedding from the floor.”

Selecting the right stall mats, however, takes some care. “You want a product that will stay flat and not bubble up, creating bumps and ridges,” he explains. “Mats need to be good quality and to be properly laid down. And avoid mats that are cheap or hard, since they’re very slippery.”

Selection of bedding is also important, according to Tubach. Bedding that contains more organic materials can hold urine rather than drain it. Any gravel used should be coarse to promote drainage. “I know of cases where six to eight inches of stone dust has been put down, with no crushed rock,” he adds. “With little air space, the material sucks up the water.”

Perhaps the worst bedding solution Tubach has seen was installed for an owner who “wanted a filter cloth with gravel and stone dust on top of it. All the manure worked its way through and clogged the filter material. The end result was a mushy mess.”

Before installing anything, builders should talk things over with their clients. “Find out how flooring and bedding options will fit into the amount of maintenance work the customer envisions,” he says. “If they don’t mind mucking the stall to save on up-front flooring costs, that’s their choice. But going with an alternative that may cost more up-front can, in the long run, save them time and ensure the horses are safe.”

Best for the breed
Taking horse breeds into account is another important consideration. “When you have a high-spirited thoroughbred or warm-blood, they do lots of walking and pawing. So they’ll cause more problems,” Tubach notes. “Yes, I know some people who race their horses and swear by dirt floors. But you need a big staff that can rebuild the stalls every six months.”

As for aisles, Tubach likes rubber pavers best. “But asphalt and concrete are common choices,” he points out. “If you install concrete aisles, use a very rough broom finish so the surface isn’t slippery — even if that texture makes it harder to sweep out. And keep in mind the texture eventually wears down from metal shoes in about eight to 10 years. But if you’ve got a concrete center aisle that’s starting to deteriorate, putting an inch of poured rubber on top is a good option that’s very economical.”

Concrete can be as durable as rubber pavers, however, if the concrete is poured with wire mesh. “But it’s important to get fiber-mesh concrete. The shards of fiberglass mixed in with the concrete prevent cracking and breaking. And it doesn’t cost that much more than traditional concrete,” he reports. On the other hand, Tubach continues, “Asphalt aisles get very slippery when wet leaves, hay or debris get on its surface.”

The right choice
For her part, Disbrow believes a host of variables govern the choice of flooring: What kinds of horses will be in those stalls? Do the horses have “bare feet” or wear shoes? Is the base of the stall usually dry or often wet? How much time are the owners willing to spend maintaining the stall? Do they want a long-lasting floor?

If the base of the stall is often wet, for example, a dirt floor will develop holes and uneven ground that presents a danger to the horse. The floor will be more difficult to clean, while an increased need for more bedding will boost overhead costs for the owners. In this case, Disbrow suggests, stall mats could be a good choice for flooring.

Builders who really want to know the market should study flooring needs for every area of the barn, not just horse stalls. “One example is a wash stall,” Disbrow explains. “Rubber wash-down mats make bathing horses a breeze. They allow the water to flow through and help horses not to slip, with or without shoes. And if these mats make things easier, your customers will be happier.”

Disbrow acknowledges that even experts do not all agree on flooring preferences. “But as the builder,” she urges, “you should be an information source for your customers, spelling out all the relevant facts and options.”

Professional knowledge
Katey Williams, who handles corporate sales for Promat Inc., concurs that “many potential customers just aren’t aware of flooring alternatives.” Based in Woodstock, Ont., Promat is the maker of StableComfort, a multi-celled mattress filled with uniform-sized rubber crumbs and topped by a layer of industrial-strength geotextile.

Whether a horse owner prefers dirt or cement flooring, Williams continues, cushioning is a key for equine health. “The decision depends on the type of barn, the foundation surface and if it’s in direct sunlight,” she says. “You want cushioning that mimics the outside turf.”

StableComfort is designed to be therapeutic by reducing leg fatigue, joint stiffness, and fluid buildup. For these reasons, the product is popular in rehab centers and recovery stalls.

Impervious flooring, Williams contends, can cut owners’ bedding costs by 50 percent — or even eliminate the need for bedding. “Less bedding reduces dust and takes away the danger of having hay in a foaling area,” she adds. StableComfort is marketed as an alternative to rubber mats, one that eliminates curling along the edges and prevents hay and dirt from getting underneath. “It’s a clean system because it doesn’t allow ammonia build up and can be mopped and disinfected,” she says.

Though rubber mats remain a product of choice for many, Agromatic’s Steve Hoppman warns not all rubber products are alike. “Product cost, installation cost, durability and warranty should all be considered when choosing flooring,” he says. In recommending a solution Hoppman considers the substrate. “Compared to dairy barns that typically have concrete floors, horse stalls are often on compacted dirt,” he notes.

In that case Agromatic’s 3/4-inch thick Cirrus mats are a good choice, while the company’s 1-inch thick Kura mats offer an upgrade with more cushioning and other features. Kura mats are designed for solid surfaces, while Cirrus mats work on soft or hard surfaces. But regardless of the mat chosen, Hoppman advises, “Interlocking edges are essential. The mats become like one continuous piece of rubber. So they’re less likely to move and cause horses to trip.” Proper anchoring keeps mats from moving.

In his experience, VaFaC’s Pryor has found the professional horse trainers usually know the kinds of flooring they want, but “those new to horses, or who just see them as a hobby, sometimes know very little. So they can make the mistake of dealing with flooring options as an afterthought.”

Pryor believes that builders should have a professional level of knowledge. “For example,” he points out, “do you know that rubber pavers in the aisles should have a minimum thickness of 1-3/4 inches? And they should never be glued down because then you can’t properly wash them and get rid of bacteria that cause infections? And that you need a rubber paver specifically suited for horses, since other pavers can’t handle the acidity of horse urine? Make the wrong choice and those pavers will crumble in three or four years.”

Talks with clients should cover “the type of horses being stalled and how much time the horses will spend in the stalls,” Pryor says. “In rural areas, stall flooring might not be nearly as critical as it is to those with very limited acreage. Inclement weather can be an issue when horses end up in their stalls for a long time.”

In the end, Pryor notes, “You as the builder have the responsibility for knowing local building and environmental codes — and you have responsibility to your clients to provide quality flooring solutions that meet their needs and really work.”

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