The stalling game

Horse housing must be animal-friendly, not just good-looking

If horses had their way, there would be no stalls or barns. “We design stalls from our human perspective, as a place to put horses,” observes Eric Vogel, sales planning representative for Woodstar Products of Delavan, Wis. “But from the horses’ perspective, they were meant to run in the outdoors. It’s humans who put horses in stalls so that we can have a warm, dry place to be with them.”
Therefore a horse stall is inherently a compromise. Humans may want pleasing aesthetics and indoor comforts, but can never forget “that you’re asking a large and powerful outdoor animal” to accept confinement in a limited space, notes Rocky Gilreath, owner of Rockin J Horse Stalls in Mannford, Okla. “So whatever stall you build, the horse’s safety must come first. Some owners don’t fully realize the power of a horse. But a stall has to be strong enough so the horse can’t kick and bend the components.”
Though some manufacturers sell “light-duty” stalls, Gilreath does not. “Often the problem is that an owner builds a very nice-looking barn,” he relates, “but once the building is up, there may not be as much money left over for the interior. But you’re wasting your money if a stall isn’t heavy enough so that, when a horse kicks, it doesn’t give in. And you can’t have any sharp edges that can cut a leg or flank.”
Horses’ physical safety must also be complemented by concern for their emotional well-being. “If a stall is too small, it can cause psychological problems,” adds Vogel, “and proper stall size is a function not only of the size of the animal, but also how much time a horse will be spending in the stall.”
Beyond stall size, the other most important factor in making a horse comfortable inside a stall is the ventilation. In making its horse stalls, Woodstar Products takes the view that “it’s important to have good air coming into the stall, which you can achieve with grills around the stall,” advises Vogel. “Some owners want solid panels between stalls so that horses won’t fight each other. But we recommend side grills.” Even if a barn is not insulated and ambient temperatures permitted, he says, “You still need to change the air.”
Animal psychology is a vital consideration, “and part of that is the socialization of your horses,” advises Dennis Marion, owner of Innovative Equine Systems in Minden, Nev. “Horses like to see what’s going on. In the U.S. we’re getting away from our tradition of sliding doors that lock up a horse like it’s in a jail. Open stall fronts, which are new in the U.S. but common in Europe, allow horses to put their heads out and see each other.”
Traditional sliding doors, Marion believes, can be a danger to horses “if they try to rush the door and then hurt themselves. And for safety reasons, it’s also a good idea to eliminate moving parts within a stall.”
Marion agrees that grills in the walls of a stall can aid airflow and ventilation. And he strongly agrees with the perspective that horses are outdoor animals. Though some owners build outdoor paddocks adjacent to stalls, with Dutch doors that permit horses to wander in and out, he advises against the practice. Rather than a paddock, he says, “What horses need is to be outside in a pasture every day.”
In contrast to humans, “horses like to stay outside,” states Marion. “The only time horses really need to be inside a barn is if they’re sick. It’s the people, not the horses, who want to have a nice, cozy barn. But when you design a stall, you have to do it with the horse in mind.”

Dimensions of safety
As with many other aspects of keeping horses, opinions may vary on stall design. For example, on the issue of whether or not horses benefit by seeing each other, “you can talk to 10 trainers and get 10 answers,” laughs Gilreath. “And it’s the same thing with feeders. Some trainers think horses should eat off the ground and others disagree, and again you’ll get 10 different answers. Bedding is another area; you have several kinds of materials available and people have different ideas about what to use.”
But Gilreath comes back to aspects of stall design where there is broad agreement. Not only must stalls be made with quality components — Rockin J uses durable wood, framed by welded and powder-coated steel that can withstand equine abuse. “Safety also requires that stalls be tall enough so that horses can’t jump over them,” he says. For ventilation, he recommends a ceiling fan over each stall and grills in the bottoms of stall doors. “Horses can take the cold,” he adds, “but you don’t want them to be stifled by heat.”
These basics are applicable to virtually any horse breed, as are the standards today for stall sizes. Gilreath counsels that 10×10 stalls are tight, 12×12 is Rockin J’s most common order, and 14×14 is also beneficial for horses.
For his part, Marion suggests that stalls can vary somewhat in size according to the breed being kept. Quarter horses can thrive in 12×12 stalls, he says, while thoroughbreds may do better in 12x14s and draft horses or warm-bloods in 14x14s. “If a stall is too small,” he warns, “a horse can lie down and not be able to get back up again, because the horse has nothing to push against.” By contrast, horses kept in stalls that are too large tend be less active, he cautioned.
The double-wide stall needed for breeding, Marion continues, can be achieved by installing a hinged divider between two ordinary stalls. When the extra width is required, the divider can be lifted up to create the doubled space.
Marion shares Gilreath’s concerns that stalls require proper ventilation. “An opening in every stall is important,” he explains, “and in hotter climates you need grilled stall fronts and a fan in each stall.” He also echoes the concern over “light-duty” stalls being sold today. “There are kits on the market that simply don’t hold up,” he warns. “Horses are abusive animals that kick and scratch and can give their stalls a beating.”
Innovative Equine Systems uses fire-rated Brazilian redwood from managed forests, as well as tongue-and-groove plastic lumber, to build its stalls. All edges are framed in 9- to 12-gauge welded steel, not only for added strength but to prevent horses from chewing and ingesting any exposed wooden edges. The steel is also powder-coated and offered in customizable colors.
Flooring is another consideration in designing a horse stall. Marion’s company sells two types: rubberized and drainable flooring. The former can be used in stalls, alleyways, tack-up areas, washracks, and entrances, says Marion. Rubber pavers are favored for their slip resistance, durability, and elasticity. Weather-proof, frost-proof, and water-permeable, the flooring is quickly cleaned with a garden hose or power washer. Installation requires only a utility knife or band saw, plus an adhesive in some circumstances. “Especially in your alleyways,” he adds, “rubberized pavers really improve your acoustics.”
The drainable floor begins by laying a lightweight, semi-rigid plastic honeycomb mat and then filling it with drainage material such as decomposed granite or stone dust. When overlaid with bedding, the floor permits urine to drain and resists horses’ pawing action so that dangerous holes and divots are avoided.
As for bedding, Marion believes the choice may come down to geography. “It depends on what’s available in your area,” he points out. “In the Southwest, for example, you might use rice hulls. But in the West, maybe ground wood.” A problem with some bedding is the materials tend to raise dust, he continues, but recycled and shredded cardboard is now on the market which helps cut down on dust.

Walls and floors
According to Woodstar’s Vogel, the strength and durability of a horse stall depends on the fiber bending strength of the wood. “Oak is the strongest, but it’s not always available,” he explains. Exotic hardwoods are another solution, but his company uses southern yellow pine — the wood used in most roof trusses — for its strength and general availability. Woodstar also frames its wooden components in steel galva nized for long life and powder-coated to provide owners an array of color choices
“What you use can depend on the wood species available to you locally,” he notes. But barn owners cannot compromise on quality, whatever wood they decide on. “You could go down to the lumber store and buy some typical SPF lumber,” he cautioned, “but that would give you significantly less fiber bending strength.”
Like other manufacturers, Woodstar offers horse owners a range of accessories for outfitting their stalls. For example, Vogel says, “While some owners like their horses to eat off the ground, other owners would be worried about what their horses might be ingesting. So they’d rather have their animals eat from a rack; that way, they know what their horses are eating and there’s less waste.”
Feeding racks can be flush-mounted or corner-mounted to the wall of the horse stall. Swing-out feeders allow the owner or trainer to swing the rack into the alley in front of the stall, fill it with fodder, and swing it back into place without having to enter the stall. Swing-out water buckets also are available. “Some owners are leery of automatic waterers,” Vogel added. “They worry that automation can take away their control of how much water the horses drink.”
Vogel concurs that 12×12 is today’s standard stall size. He also suggests that rubber mats are now the standard flooring material, used perhaps in 90 percent of horse stalls. “We have owners who sometimes ask about concrete floors, figuring the floors would be easy to clean,” he continues, “but concrete is hard on the legs of a horse. Rubber mats can be taken up and cleaned pretty easily. And putting the mats over a dirt floor prevents the horse from pawing the dirt and making holes, which are unsafe and hard to clean.”
As for bedding, Vogel believes most horse owners prefer wood shavings, “but you need to remember that some wood species are more resistant to mold and mildew.”
Summing it all up, president Adam Busse of Classic Equine Equip., of Fredericktown, Mo., counsels builders, “The most important thing is what your customer wants. But with any stall, the top three considerations are safety, good hardware, and ventilation. After that, the question is what does the owner want as far as styles, colors, costs, and aesthetics?”
In addition to safety concerns cited by other manufacturers, Busse added that the spacing of bars in a grill “shouldn’t let a horse’s feet to go through” and that “nose openings can’t allow the animals to bite each other.” Further, while many styles of door latches are on the market, “you’ve got to make sure there aren’t any protruding edges that could hurt the horse.”
Busse affirms the standard stall size is 12×12, though 14×14 for warm-bloods and thoroughbreds may be advisable. The wood species used in stall components “depends on how much you want to spend, from southern yellow pine to Brazilian hardwoods,” he relates. Walls and fronts are framed in powder-coated galvanized steel. Then, once safety and hardware are addressed, Busse says good ventilation can be accomplished with vents, grills, fans, and natural lighting to retard mold.  
Feeding and watering? “It depends on the owner’s preference,” Busse believes. Flooring options? “You don’t want urine and dung to fall between the cracks of your stall floor,” he advises, “and a flooring material that provides a base that’s cushy enough so that standing isn’t hard on the horses’ tendons.” And bedding? “It depends on what part of the country you’re in,” he concludes, “but anything that soaks up urine and isn’t dusty is fine.”
Horse barn builders, Busse suggests, can boost their profits by offering customers a complete equine facility with building shell and interior stalls and furnishings. Dealing with a manufacturer such as Classic Equine “which can outfit the whole barn,” he points out, “means you only have to place orders with one supplier — and instead of building the interior yourself from scratch, you get quality components made under controlled factory conditions.”
A second advantage for builders of dealing with a full-line manufacturer, Busse continues, “is that we’ll have all the different styles available, from European to Western. Horse owners want to build their dream barn and so the more styles you offer, the more barn projects you can sell and build.”
For his part, Vogel agrees that “we’re seeing more builders providing turnkey barns for their customers. The post-frame construction business has evolved a lot from the old days when it was mostly supplying buildings for farmers who acted as their own general contractors. Now you’ve got people who keep horses as a hobby but want a really great-looking barn.”
By their nature, horse barns are built outside of dense urban areas and in more rural environs. Builders who serve rural markets tend to be smaller in size than city builders, Vogel observes, “and so rural builders tend to be more involved in all aspects of their projects. Besides, in rural areas there aren’t as many jobs as in a city. So offering turnkey horse barns is one way you can get more profit out of each job.”

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