When building or renovating a barn for horses, what they will be standing on is a very important consideration. Horses that are kept inside need to stand still on whatever is on their stall floor for long periods of time, which can be hard on their legs. For this reason, from a leg health perspective, flooring needs to be chosen carefully.
Maintenance is another factor. The upkeep of some types of flooring is easier than others. You may wish to have one type of flooring for aisles, and another in the stalls. The type of floor you will choose for a new barn will depend on the existing natural soil, what materials are available to you, and your budget. Here’s a look at the types of flooring found in horse’s stables.
Soil, Sand, or Clay
Leaving the existing soil in place is inexpensive and a healthy option for your horse, but your floors may require daily upkeep to keep them level and the soil may have to be replaced in time.
Clay-based soils will also need a lot of maintenance in horse stalls. Damp clay can be slippery or sticky and horses can dig holes and hollows depending on where they most often stand, paw, or walk around. It’s possible to install clay floors, and it’s recommended that these be laid over a thick layer of crushed gravel and kept clean and dry.
Sand is frequently used for stall floors. It is easy on the horse’s legs, non-slip, and requires minimal bedding material over top. It drains well and is replaceable once it becomes very soiled. Sand-bedded stalls may need “topping up” as sand is taken away each time the stall is mucked out. Sand colic is a concern if horses eat off of the floor. Sand floors also become uneven easily if the horse paces or paws in its stall. It may also be drying to hooves.
Wood was once the standard flooring material in horse stables. Wood floors are easier on a horse’s legs than many other choices. It’s warm, non-slip when dry, and has relatively low upkeep. Treated wood is required to prevent rot from urine and water spills, and to dissuade rodents and bugs from chewing through it. The wood planks should be at least two inches thick and sit atop a base of sand or gravel for drainage.
Any spaces between planks need to be filled with sand so that feed and bedding don’t spill through. The downside of wood floors is that they can be slippery when wet, they can hold odor, can be damaged by pawing horses, and can be hard to disinfect. The cost of plank flooring is one factor that makes this a less popular option than it once was.
Concrete flooring is very common in stables. It is very durable and easy to clean and is hard to damage. It can be slippery, so while very smooth finished concrete may be attractive and easy to sweep in feed and tack rooms, textured concrete is better for stalls and aisles.
If horses are kept in for long periods of time, it will be healthier for their legs if rubber stall mats are laid over the concrete, or at very least, the stall is bedded deeply. It also tends to be cold and damp, so some horses may be reluctant to lie down in their stalls.
Sometimes called limestone dust, this material, if installed properly, can be a comfortable, safe stall flooring. It must be well packed and level when it is put in. The benefit of crushed limestone is that it provides good drainage if properly installed several inches over a bed of sand. It’s also a non-slip surface. However, limestone can pack to an almost concrete-like hardness, which means stall mats and/or deep bedding will be needed to provide comfortable footing for your horse.
Interlocking brick or pavers are attractive, but present the same problems as concrete floors. Because of the grooves between the pavers, they can be a bit harder to clean. Rubber and synthetic bricks are other options, and these are easy on a horse’s legs, provide good drainage, and are non-slip. This is probably the most expensive option for stall and aisle flooring.
Several types of grid floors are available for stalls. These honeycomb-patterned grids are laid over a few inches of sand or crushed gravel and then filled with crushed gravel or stone dust to make a floor that drains well.
Asphalt is a bit easier on a horse’s legs than concrete and can be made so it drains relatively well. When first laid, asphalt is non-slip but may become slicker over time. It needs to be laid thick enough that it does not crack. It’s easy to clean, although disinfecting the porous surface may be difficult. Asphalt may be one of the less expensive options for stall floors and aisles.
Box Stalls or Loose Boxes
Recommended Code of Practice for The Care and Handling of Equines, a loose box should be 10’X10′ (3mX3m) to 12’X12′ (3.6mX3.6m) for an average size riding horse. These are minimum recommendations. If you have the resources to build larger stalls, you can, of course, build them larger. Larger horses will appreciate the extra room to move around, so if you have a draft or draft cross, adding extra space will help them move freely, and lie down without feeling cramped.
Although the recommended size for a foaling stall is the same as a regular stall, many people like more generous-sized boxes for mares and foals. The easiest way to provide roomy accommodations for mares and foals is to take the partitions out between two regular stalls. So you don’t have to build a stall specifically to be a foaling stall. Even if you don’t plan to have a foal, it is handy to design at least one stall with this in mind.
Standing or Tie Stalls
Standing or tie stalls need to be wide enough for a horse to lie down comfortably. Depending on the size of the horse, they should be at least 4ft to 5ft (1.5m) wide and 8ft (2.4m) long. There is usually a manger for hay at the front of a standing stall, so the width of this should be considered. A pony will need a shorter and narrower standing stall than a larger draft breed, which again will need more space.
There will also need to be a sturdy structure to tie to. It should be high enough so the horse cannot get its leg over the tie rope, but still, be able to reach feed and water.
In both standing and box stalls, the walls should be solid, sturdy lumber to at least 4.6ft (1.4m) high, and above that, grill or sturdy mesh so that horses can see each other. This also helps with ventilation and light.
Stall doors can be either swinging or sliding. In either case, there should be latches that undo easily, but that horses cannot tamper with. Many stall Houdinis have escaped and let out a few friends for an overnight stable ransacking. That ends up a clean-up headache for the owner, as well as a possible safety and health hazard for the horses.
Swinging doors should open out into the alley, and be kept shut at all other times. They should fasten securely shut so horses don’t escape. Sliding doors should slide smoothly. Grain room doors should be locked. Doors should be at least 4 ft (1.2m) wide.
Aisles or Alleyways
Alleyways between stalls should be at least 10ft wide (3m). The wider the better, so there is room for horses to pass when being led, or be tied to groom.
All lighting and wiring should be installed with safety in mind. All plug-ins in stables should be GFIC receptacles, and wiring should be rodent and moisture-proof. Check what type of lighting is recommended for outdoor use in your area. Fluorescent bulbs may not work well in extreme cold. There should be safety cages around light bulbs, and they should be placed where horses cannot reach them. Switches should be well out of reach of curious horses. Try to arrange light fixtures so there is a minimum of dark or shadowed areas. Work areas, tack, and feed rooms should be well light for safety.
Windows provide natural ventilation and lighting. Incorporate as many as possible in your stable design. They should be covered with a grill or mesh so horses can’t break the glass. Windows that swing open may work better over the long run than sliders that tend to fill with dirt and chaff making them stick.
Feeding and Watering Equipment
You’ll need to decide how you will water your horses when they are stabled. The most economical option is a bucket hung upon the wall. Buckets on the floor can get knocked over making a mucky mess. In the winter, heated buckets keep the water free of ice. Electrical receptacles with GFCIs will be needed close by for each bucket. Automatic waters mean no carrying sloshing buckets, but it is more difficult to monitor the horse’s intake. You won’t know how much (or little) your horse is drinking. Some horses may be fussy about drinking out of them, and they need to be insulated against freezing temperatures. The bowls need frequent cleaning.
A bucket on the wall can suffice for feeding concentrates out of, or you can purchase wall-mounted feeding tubs. Hay can be served on the floor-wasteful if the horse throws it around and soils it. Or you can build a manger for hay. Mangers need to be deep enough to hold the hay and have no gaps that horses could catch legs in if they lay down beside it. They also need to be easy to clean. Wall-mounted racks and hay nets are not recommended for everyday use because they make the horse or pony eat in an unnatural position with its head up instead of down. Hay nets are also a hazard because horses can easily become entangled.
Bedding For Horse Stalls
The most common horse stall bedding materials are straw and shavings. Depending on what’s available in your area, there may be other options you can consider.
Clean straw is preferred for mares and very young foals. Some horses will eat straw bedding-a problem if you are trying to keep your horse on a diet. Oat straw is more absorbent than wheat straw, but it is also tastier. Any straw you use should be dust and mold-free. Saturated straw is heavy to clean out, and it is difficult to separate the manure from the clean bedding, which can slow down cleaning. Two bales should bed a box stall adequately. You might want to add extra during cold weather or in anticipation of foaling.
Shavings are very popular and can be delivered by truck or purchased by the bag at feed stores. A special manure fork is needed to pick manure out of the shavings without removing too much of the bedding. Check for wood splinters as you spread the bedding. Softwood shavings are preferable, and black walnut shavings can cause severe problems. If you are buying shavings from a nearby woodworker or lumber mill, be sure to ask what type of shavings you are buying. About four inches of bedding in a stall makes it comfortable. If you are using stall mats, you can use less.
Sawdust can be used. Again be sure you know what type of wood the sawdust is from. This isn’t the best choice for horses with respiratory problems such as COPD, as it does tend to be dusty until it settles.
Wood pellets are compacted and dehydrated wood shavings. Many people find cleaning stalls with wood pellets, which break down into fluffy, absorbent wood shavings, easier with less wasted bedding. The cost may be initially more expensive than wood shavings, but because there is a lot less waste, you may find that the cost is balanced out. The pellets look hard and uncomfortable, but a sprinkle with the water hose expands them into fluffy bedding.
Shredded paper can be obtained in some areas. If your horse eats its bedding, this might be a good choice. It isn’t dusty, but you might have a problem with skin allergies to the inks. Paper is very absorbent, so it will wick away moisture readily. It also biodegrades quickly, allowing your manure pile to shrink when it dries out and breaks down.
Peat moss can be bought at co-ops and garden centers. Peat moss is sometimes used as a base underneath other types of bedding. When it is dry, peat moss can be quite dusty, and if it dries out too much, it is hard to get it to wick up moisture again. Use caution with horses with respiratory problems.
Hemp is becoming more popular. Hemp bedding may be available in some areas. Suppliers claim that it is more non-allergenic, biodegradable, and overall less dusty than traditional beddings, improving stable conditions and protecting the respiratory systems of horses and owners. They also claim higher absorbency, quicker decomposition, and better odor absorption. Those living in colder climates may appreciate hemp’s higher thermal rating, keeping horses warmer while they sleep.
Stall mats, although an added expense, can add to the comfort and safety of the flooring in a stall and save the quantity of bedding material you’d otherwise use. There are several types to choose from in a variety of price ranges.
You might be tempted to use old hay for bedding. Horses will eat even spoiled hay that may give off mold dust that can result in lung damage. Hay starts to ferment quickly when wetted resulting in odor. It is difficult to clean. Hay is also more expensive than straw or other beddings. Hay for bedding is not a good idea.