Building a safer horse barn

By Ashley Griffin, University of Kentucky

Barn Safety
horsestalls usa horse barnThe construction of your facility should be conducive to the safety and welfare of your clientele, employees, and animals. Several things need to be protected from horses, water, dust, and rodents in every barn. Some of these include foam insulation, stall latches, water or coil heaters, and electrical wiring. In addition, if your barn is a metal building, it is important that stalls be lined with wood or another protective covering to prevent injury from horses kicking through metal walls.

Key Point: If you have a “facility flaw” that is not safe or feasible to change, be sure to develop an appropriate protocol to prevent clients from using that area.
Key Point: Fire extinguisher placement guidelines should be obtained from your local fire department. A general rules is that there should be an extinguisher within 50 to 75 feet of any location in your barn. The extinguishers should be checked (and/or recharged) on an annual basis.

Proper and adequate ventilation has several purposes in a barn: to remove the heat produced by the horses’ bodies; to remove stale air, fumes, and odors; to bring in fresh air; and to provide air movement (without drafts). Strong odors in the barn can pose a hazard to the horses’ health and well-being. Inhalation of excess dust, mold, or ammonia can make the animal more susceptible to respiratory infections. It is not within the purview of this analysis to investigate the source of barn odors. However, if strong odors are present, the source must be located and cleaned, removed, or eliminated. Some potential sources include poorly cleaned stalls, moldy hay or feed, dead rodents, sick animals, and dirty water buckets. Heat will rise into air ducts. Stale air removal may require exhaust fans or systems, depending on the climate. Exhaust fans may lower the temperature, which will be advantageous in some climates and not in others. In large barns, a fan system will keep the air moving gently enough so that the animals or handlers will not get too cold. You can identify potential ventilation issues by checking for a strong ammonia odor when you enter the barn for morning feeding or by bending down and breathing 1 to 2 inches from the floor (where the horse usually eats).

Natural Light/Heat
It used to be common to see glass windows in barns, and although it was picturesque, broken glass was a real hazard. Plexiglas can break or shatter with a kick or frigid temperatures. Some modern barn designs have departed from the use of windows in stalls in favor of light strips in the roof and different lighting systems in the barns themselves. If the light strips have potential to be a fire hazard due to strong direct beams on a flammable surface (that is, hay and shavings), it may be necessary to create a barrier or divert the beam.

Wash Rack
The wash rack area can be one of the most dangerous places in a stable. Possible problems include a slick surface, a water/electricity combination, potential for water hoses and/or cleaning equipment underfoot, and tying, cross tying, or horse handler issues.
Select material and construction type for durability, ease of maintenance, cost, marketing value, aesthetic appearance, and intangible values such as pride and satisfaction. Higher quality may be more economical in the long run. Flexibility in construction, such as clear-span truss framing, will allow alternative use and the ability to remodel in response to changing needs of the operation.

Safety should be considered in the construction of a barn to protect humans and horses from unnecessary risk. This can be achieved with good design and construction. For example, plan the space to allow workers to feed and water horses without walking behind them and provide enough space for safe passage of horses and handlers through doors, gates, alleyways, etc.

Structure types. Various types of structures for horse barns include post and beam, clear span, masonry, or combination construction. Each type has advantages and disadvantages for stall barns.

Post and beam construction is common because posts support both the structure and the stall partitions. It is an economical construction in many cases, but the drawback is its lack of flexibility for remodeling as compared to a clear-span barn.

Post and pole construction with a trussed roof provides a clear-span barn and is a popular type of structure for stall barns and arenas. This type of construction does not involve poured foundations. Rigid frames, arches, and gambrel frames are other alternatives that provide a post-free interior. Posts for stall partitions must be added in this type of construction.

The building shell may use concrete block or poured concrete for the outer walls, with interior clear-span construction and wood stall partitions. An alternative is to use complete concrete block or poured concrete construction for both the outer walls and interior stall partitions. Poured concrete may be more expensive than concrete block construction. HBB

Ashley Griffin, University of Kentucky, is Content Design Leader for the national eXtension Initiative. Her article was written in collaboration with the eXtension Horse Community ( and can be found in its original online version at

Additional tips for fire safety in horse stables: Site planning

The following information was extracted from the publication, “Fire Safety in Horse Stables” prepared by Jennifer Smith Zajaczkowski, senior research technologist in agricultural and biological engineering, and Eileen Wheeler, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering at The Pennsylvania State University. The complete document, Catalog G-100, can be downloaded online at

Site Planning for Fire Fighting Facility design plays an important role not only in fire prevention, but also in fire suppression. Design the facility for accessibility of large rescue vehicles. Be sure that all roads and bridges providing access to the property and between buildings are large enough for emergency vehicles.

An effective tool to prevent the spread of fire between buildings is to place buildings at least 50 to 100 feet away from the stable. The 100-foot distance reduces the chance of fire spreading from building to building through radiation. The 50-foot gap between buildings provides access for fire-fighting equipment. The ground around all buildings should be compacted or sturdy enough to support the weight of heavy equipment, such as a fire truck, during wet conditions.

The three rating systems for building materials are flame spread, smoke development, and fire rating. Each rating system compares how well the material in question behaves in a fire compared to a standard. The standard materials are concrete and raw wood, usually red oak. Flame spread ratings indicate how well or poorly a material will prevent flames from traveling along it. Concrete has a flame spread rating of 0 and raw wood, 100. The lower the flame spread rating, the longer it takes for flames to traverse the surface of the material.

A good or low smoke development rating indicates the material produces less smoke as it burns. Less smoke improves visibility, decreases the quantity of noxious gases, and decreases fire progression through smoke particles and gases. Fire ratings tell important characteristics about how long (in minutes) the material contains a fire. The longer the progression of the fire is blocked, the greater chance rescue and fire suppression efforts will have at being successful. Each rating has inherent differences in controlling fires. For example, metal siding on a barn has a good flame spread rating, preventing the spread of flames, but since metal is a good conductor of heat, it has a poor fire rating because it could conduct enough heat to ignite combustible materials behind it. Use rated fire retardant/resistant products, such as masonry, heavy timber, or fire-retardant treated wood whenever possible. Masonry will not burn, but may be too costly to install, and because masonry construction is so tight, it tends to obstruct airflow.

Heavy timber has a greater ratio of volume to surface area. The small surface area compared to the total volume prevents the wood from burning as quickly. In heavy timber construction, fire chars the wood to a depth of approximately 1 inch. The charred surface prevents the flames from accessing the wood in the center of the post, maintaining its structural integrity.

Fire-retardant treated wood decreases flame spread by 75% (flame spread rating = 25 for treated wood, 100 for untreated), and if the treatment is properly applied, it will be effective for at least 30 years. Lumber or plywood treated with fire retardant releases noncombustible gas and water vapor below normal ignition points, usually 300–400 degrees C or 572–752 degrees F. When the wood is exposed to flames, a hard-carbon char layer forms on the surface of the wood, insulating it from further damage. Because of this insulation (charring), heavy timber and wood treated with fire retardant retains its structural integrity longer than unprotected steel during a fire.

Treated wood products may withstand the harsh, humid barn environment better than untreated products, but is dependent on the ingredients used. The fire-retardant ingredients can be more corrosive to fasteners, especially in a high-humidity setting, characteristic of barns and indoor riding arenas. Be sure that any fire-retardant treated wood is stamped with either the Underwriter’s Laboratory or Factory Mutual seal to assure the products meet recent fire-retardant standards of the American Wood Products

Some care must be given to selecting fire-retardant lumber and plywood. The fire-retardant ingredients contain inorganic salts, such as monoammonium and diammonium phosphate, ammonium sulfate, zinc chloridem, sodium tetraborate, boric acid, and guanylurea phosphate, and may not be safe for chewers, cribbers, and foals. Most salts are watersoluble and will leach out of the wood if it is frequently washed (such as a wash or foaling stall) or if the barn is continually damp due to poor drainage or inadequate ventilation. In these situations, select fire-retardant wood with low hygroscopicity. Instead of salts, low hygrosopicity materials use impregnated water-insoluble amino resins or polymer flame-retardants grafted directly to the wood fiber. These retardants bond directly with the wood and will not wash out.

Lightning Protection Systems
Starwood Rafters horse barnAll barns, regardless of age, should be outfitted with a lightning protection system, commonly referred to as lightning rods. Lightning storms occur in every state, but most prevalently in the central and eastern United States. It is estimated that there are 40 to 80 lightning strikes per square mile each year. Lightning is a stream of pure energy, 1⁄2 to 3⁄4 inches thick, surrounded by 4 inches of super-heated air, hot enough to boil and instantaneously evaporate all the sap from a tree at the moment of impact. It looks for a path of least resistance from ground to cloud and has the potential to burn, damage, or kill anything in its path.

A properly installed and grounded lightning protection system is good insurance to minimize the chance of a horse barn catching fire from a lightning strike. The metal air terminal (rod) is the highest part of the building to intercept the lightning bolt, and direct it through a heavy conducting cable, deep into the ground to be harmlessly dissipated. These systems are inexpensive to install on existing or newly constructed barns and should be periodically inspected by a qualified professional to ensure that all connections are intact and still work properly. Lightning protection systems should only be installed by a certified installer, not by an amateur.

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One thought on “Building a safer horse barn

  1. Kris Owen

    On page 50, there is a side bar to the article on “A Safer House Barn” (May ’11), referencing a PSU document (G-100).
    Not only are the references in that document incorrect and out of date, but the document is not even availiable from PSU.
    It would seem that a bit more research would need to be done to put the correct information in your publication, or at least verify with someone in nthe field that the information is up-to-date.

    Kris Owen
    Arch Wood Protection.