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Build a Barn that Works

A well-designed horse barn saves you money, effort, and time, says a top horseman who's designed more than thirty horse barns. Here he helps you plan one that's right for you.

┬ęPractical Horseman. All Rights Reserved.

Horses, to me, deserve to be treated like family. That's why I pay as much attention to detail in building a horse barn as I would in building a home. A well-designed, well-built horse barn is light, airy, pleasant to work in, easy to keep clean-and every bit as comfortable as your home. In the long run, it pays off in lower upkeep costs, fewer vet bills, and added property value.

I've been in thousands of horse barns over the years and built thirty-three of them. So I've had plenty of opportunity to see first-hand what works and what doesn't in barn design. A few things I'll suggest as we go along may sound like extras, but to me they're investments that typically pay for themselves within three to five years and save you money after that.

The Right Site
Look for a barn site that's well drained and offers easy connection to utilities and to the road and/or your driveway. When you find your site, spend time there on a blustery day to identify the prevailing wind direction; then orient your barn with that in mind. You want good air circulation, of course (see "Air" on page 73), but you don't want your center aisle to be a wind tunnel-so orient it at about a 45-degree angle to the prevailing wind. If strong winds come from all four directions, you might build a square barn with entrances on all four sides and the ability to close down any one, two, or three as needed.

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Plan to put useful but less attractive features, such as your manure bin, out of sight of your house (and the road) but still convenient to the barn. Similarly, put your barn's delivery area where it's less visible-and put delivery and barn parking where they won't mix with horse traffic.

Layout Logic
Just as innovative home designs improve kitchen efficiency (for instance, minimizing steps from stove to refrigerator), good horse barn design can do the same for your horse care if you plan with these two rules in mind:

Save steps. Try to eliminate a step (literally) for each job you do: filling water buckets, feeding, tacking up. . . . If you normally take a hundred steps an hour caring for your horses, and your new design trims that to fifty steps, you've cut walking distance, saved time, and so reduced your "labor costs" (in time, or in actual dollars if you have barn help).

Minimize mess. Identify all potential sources of mess and plan your layout to confine that mess. In a four-stall center-aisle barn or smaller, for instance, cluster the stalls; that way, when you muck, the mess stays in their end of the barn. (More than four stalls? Put tack and feed rooms in the middle; saves steps and keeps the middle mess-free.)

You'll see these two rules in action as we go along.

Don't Skimp On Size
A major mistake of many barn builders is making the aisle too small. I've worked in barns with aisles so narrow that we had only an inch or so clearance on either side for a tractor and manure spreader to maneuver; we spent $1200 to $1500 a year just repairing doorways. I've also been in one pricey barn with an aisle too small for its big Warmblood residents to turn around in!

For safety and utility, I recommend aisles 14 feet wide instead of the more common 12. A 14-foot aisle gives you enough room to move equipment and horses, brings in plenty of light from the doorways at either end (more on them in a minute), and, because it doesn't require extra labor to build, doesn't cost a lot more than a 12-foot aisle. (Editor's note: For a four- or six-stall barn, Morton Buildings' expert Dennis Rusch estimates that going from a 12- to a 14-foot aisle, and from 12- by 12- to 14- by 12-foot stalls, increases total barn cost, including materials and labor, about 12 percent.)

For optimum traffic and flow, you'll want aisle doors to open to a width of at least 12 feet. I prefer paired sliding doors (not so heavy as single doors, and not so likely to sag); to admit light even when they're closed, I like their upper halves to be mostly window. (Where flies are merciless, consider screen doors: hinged inner doors of household screening at either end of your aisle. That's what many barns did before there were fly-control systems. In the 1970s, I spent $800 having a pair of these doors built for a barn; they lasted forever and kept it fly-free. I'd do the same again if I were building today.)

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