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Book Review: John Blackburn’s Healthy Stables by Design

This book is at once a coffee table book of dream barns and a primer on how to build stables that are safer, healthier and cheaper to maintain.

Not many books can be “all things to all people,” but for horse people, John Blackburn’s Healthy Stables by Design, written with Beth Herman, comes close. At first look, it is a coffee table book filled with images of gorgeous barns and horse-related facilities photographed inside and out, day and night. The images often contain horses and people, capturing the equestrian lifestyle in action. The visuals are reason enough to own this book.

But there’s more. The other part of the title—A Commonsense Approach to the Health and Safety of Horses—refers to the content, which will make you look at barns as you never have before. For more than 30 years Blackburn has elevated “shelter” to a new level, integrating aerodynamic ventilation, solar heating and cooling, and the use of natural light into his stable designs. He is also a long-time proponent of sustainability, incorporating natural, local and recycled materials into his constructions.

In Healthy Stables he shares the wisdom he has gained—knowledge that any horse person can use, whether he/she is planning to build a million-dollar show barn or a simple backyard home for a couple of trail horses.

A few months ago I visited Heronwood Farm in Upperville, Virginia, where Blackburn and his former partner built one of their first projects in 1983, including a 20-stall broodmare barn and a 16-stall yearling barn. Despite their age, the barns are still stunning in their simplicity, functionality and attractiveness, with their siding of stucco and local stone fitting the Federal-style of homes in the area.

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The designers used vented skylights, eliminating the need for costly artificial lighting to help mares to cycle naturally and carry their foals to full term. Vents were positioned to carry air upward, unlike traditional structures that depend on breezes through front and back doors or circulated by fans—a practice that spreads bacteria and allergens.

Blackburn has since designed many structures in which the health and safety of the horses and horse people is the most important tenet. Not all are fancy.

“We design barns of all types, high-end to very basic,” he says. “A healthy barn does not necessarily require high end finishes. I never had a horse ask for oak-paneled tack rooms or heavy timber framing.”

Many of the barns featured are accompanied by diagrams of layout, construction elements and positioning on the farm so the reader gets the total picture.

“The health of the horse can be affected by every aspect of the farm, from the layout of roads and paddocks down to the selection an placement of the buckets in the stall,” says Blackburn.

That’s why I say, again, that this book should be required reading (a pleasant task) for all horse people. Whether your barn already exists or is a dream to be realized some time in the future, chances are you will read about changes you can make or features you can incorporate in your plans that will make your horses’ lives (as well as your own) safer and healthier.

About John Blackburn
John Blackburn serves as the President and Senior Principal of Blackburn Architects, a Washington, D.C. firm. He has 35 years of expertise in architecture and 30 years of work focusing specifically on equestrian architecture with more than 160 horse farm designs to his credit. His award-winning work is widely known for its beauty, functionality and sustainability.

Blackburn has built facilities for racing, polo, hunters and jumpers and Quarter Horses in a variety of climates and evolving site conditions and he has been featured in dozens of equestrian, architecture and luxury lifestyle publications.

Healthy Stables by Design: A Common Sense Approach to the Health and Safety of Horses, by John Blackburn with Beth Herman, is a 160-page oversized hardback with many color images. It is available on Amazon for $37.95

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