Build a Barn that Works

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.


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.

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.


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.


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.)


Good air flow is crucial to your horse’s health. <

Vent-style windows (2 by 2 or 2 by 4 feet, opening in to a 45-degree angle on a hinge or chain) high in your outside walls, where horses can’t reach them, let in air and light.

The higher warm, stale air can rise in a barn, the more cool, fresh air you’ll pull in. (One reason I don’t recommend lofts: They create low ceilings, trapping that warm air.)

Install a roof exhaust fan. It’ll cost about $140, and a cupola to house it may cost $200 from a contractor (or $50 to $100 from a home-supply company such as The Home Depot)-but it’s an investment in your horses’ health. (An alternative: Install two exhaust fans, one at either end, near the roof peak.)

Ceiling fans over stalls improve circulation.


Good lighting makes everything more pleasant. The better lighted a horse barn is, the easier it is to work in-and the fewer flies congregate in it.

I recommend windows and skylights wherever possible (though not where they’ll subject horses to unrelenting sunlight in hot weather-one reason for placing stall windows high, as recommended above). The more you use natural light, the lower your electric bills. (Note: Most “leakage” from skylights is actually built-up condensation. Prevent it by insulating your roof or lining it with plywood.)

Put a light in every stall, overhead or high on the back wall, on its own switch so you can turn it on without lighting the whole barn.

For aisles, use 8-foot fluorescent “tube” lights, one or two strips wide as needed, with switches at both ends of the aisle.


I like to line aisles and stalls with slab concrete: an 18-inch border around each stall, with the aisle-side slab extending another 18 inches (36 inches total) to border the aisle. (I set stall partitions on top of the concrete.) In the stalls, the concrete prevents pawers from digging holes in corners or by the door. (I’ve never seen a horse dig in the middle of his floor.) At doorways, it gives a smooth surface going in and out and makes sweeping easier.

For the aisle surface, I like asphalt if I’m on a tight budget and interlocking rubber pavers (about $7.25 per square foot) on a bigger one. Asphalt is easier on horses’ legs than concrete, and less slippery; it’s also easier to maintain than dirt or gravel. Pavers, which come in black, green, or terra-cotta red, are attractive, resilient, and non-slip. (They are, however, more trouble to clean. Sweeping isn’t all that effective, and blowers make barn air even dustier. You can hose them down-or use a yard vacuum; mine cost about $60 from Home Depot.)

For stall flooring, I recommend a 10- to 18-inch gravel base, topped by 6 inches of clay or base rock. Over that, if the budget permits, I like rubber pavers; they stay in place and drain well. Without pavers, flooring requires more maintenance: Over time, holes develop as urine drains down and gets cleaned out. Filling in holes once a year keeps the surface reasonably level.


I like stalls square and at least 12 by 12 feet (14 by 14 is even better), with a 10-foot clearance to the rafters. The bigger the stall, the less its occupant walks in soiled bedding-so the easier it is to clean and the more you’ll save on bedding in the long run.

Prefab stall partitions run a standard 7 feet high, either solid or topped with bars. The bars promote air flow; they’re fine for walls on the aisle. Between stalls, solid partitions are safer-in case neighbors don’t get along.

Center the stall door in the aisle wall. Then hang the feed bucket in one corner of the stall and the water bucket in another. That discourages horses from dunking their feed (a habit believed to cause colic) and so minimizes mess.

Do use:

Doors with wooden lower sections and bars above.

Hinged doors: Hung correctly, they’re nearly maintenance-free-and easy to clean around because they close tightly.

Full-length “expanded-metal” (mesh) doors for air flow if you’re in a hot climate-unless you bed on shavings, which would fly out and litter the aisle every time a horse moved. You’ll also want solid outside doors to close in bad weather.

Don’t use:

“Dutch doors” (half-doors). I know people enjoy looking at their horses looking out over Dutch doors, but a horse rests best when he knows his stall is his private bedroom and he can stay quietly within it. Besides, a horse who hangs his head out will chew the door and anything else in reach.

Sliding doors. They always end up dragging on the ground or getting stuck partway open, requiring monthly readjustments.

Solid metal doors-unless you want to stay awake all night. You can hear a horse pawing at a metal door a quarter-mile away.


Except in stormy or truly frigid weather, I bathe horses in an outside wash stall. (It can be a simple rough-concrete slab with crossties and hot and cold running water-probably less than $1000 to install.) If you use hot water, cover the horse, bring him in, towel him off, cover him again, and walk him until he’s dry (all things you should do bathing inside, too), he’ll be comfortable and he won’t catch a chill.

Inside, then, instead of a wash stall, I like a cleaning stall where you can groom, rinse boots, clean tack, and bathe in bad weather. Put a drain in the center of the floor; make the floor brushed concrete, sloped 4 degrees toward the drain. Line the side walls with storage cupboards; in the rear, put a large steel sink, a counter, windows over the counter, and more cupboards. (Lack of storage space is most barn owners’ number-one complaint. As you’re planning your barn, make a list of every item you might use on, near, or around horses. Then find or build a home for it-in a closed cabinet where possible, and away from your major source of dust, the stalls, because even closed cabinets can’t seal out all dust.) Some people want wash stalls totally bare, or with minimal storage high up. But in the thirty years I’ve built barns, this layout has never resulted in a horse injuring himself, his caretaker, or the furnishings.


No matter how tight your budget, I recommend separate tack and feed rooms-because clean tack hung in a feed room will quickly accumulate dust. If you’re short on space, you can partition a 12-foot stall to give tack its own closed area (see drawing on page 72). Use windows to let in light and reduce mildewing. (Your tack may dry out faster, but that’s an easier problem to fix.) Give yourself counter space and plenty of storage cabinets. Spring for a mini-refrigerator (about $140; it’ll quickly pay for itself keeping expensive medications from going bad). If there’s room, another sink lets you mix medications, wash dishes, etc.


Keep only about a week’s worth of grain and a day’s worth of hay in your feed room. Store the rest in another building, for both cleanliness and cost. (Storing hay in the barn raises your fire-insurance premium-more than doubling it in California. And some insurance companies won’t cover barns that store hay.)

Other feed-room pointers:

  • Line your grain bin with sheet metal to keep rodents out. If you use two or more feeds, add partitions to keep them separate.
  • To minimize mess, load one day’s worth of hay (one or two bales) in a wheelbarrow and wheel it over from your storage area in the morning; stow it in your feed room between meals.
  • Install cabinets to store supplements. First, though, measure what you’ll be storing; gallon jugs and quart bottles won’t fit on shelves of a width and height meant for coffee mugs.
  • If you’re installing a washer and dryer, put them here (not in your tack room; they’d add too much moisture to the air).


Build a “utility room” to store mucking and cleaning tools-pitchforks, shovels, muck baskets, wheelbarrow, vacuum, etc.-separately from feed, tack, and other equipment. The area needn’t be large; about 3 by 8 feet of floor space will suffice. (You have more space? The washer and dryer could go here.)


Access to light (see page 73), water, and electricity by every stall saves steps. Group switches, spigots, and electrical outlets between every two stalls.

Water: I’m convinced that the most healthful way to provide water is by individual bucket, filled not from a hose (you’re tempted to skip rinsing the bucket before refilling) but from a spigot; putting spigots between stalls makes it convenient, too. (Spigots project about 3 inches; set about 30 inches above the ground, especially in a 14-foot aisle, they aren’t a safety risk.) In my experience, automatic waterers are impossible to keep clean-and they invariably get broken and flood stalls.

Having hot as well as cold running water available lets you take the chill off baths and clean horses and equipment much more effectively.

Electricity: Make it your safety goal never to need an extension cord in your barn. Install electrical outlets everywhere you might ever need them. Along with the regular 110-volt outlets, include at least one 220-volt: for your hot-water heater, for a dryer if you’re installing one, and maybe for things like x-rays now and then. Even if it’s used just once or twice a year, it’s worth the $40 cost to install. (Have an outside wash rack? Consider putting an outlet there, with a snap-close cover to keep water out.)


Installing a restroom in your barn is not a big expense. If you hire a helper, state law may require a restroom. Even if not, it both saves you steps and minimizes mess (you’re not tracking mud and muck into your house).

This article first appeared in Practical Horseman magazine.

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