Updated June 25, 2021
When it comes to creating a good home for horses there are two main things to consider, space to roam and shelter. Horses are happiest with ample safe outdoor space to roam and graze on and access to shelter to protect them from the elements. This provides quite a lot of flexibility in terms of design which can depend on your resources, available structures on site when the land was purchased, and the geography your sanctuary is built on. This resource will blend the two, with useful recommendations, whether you are adjusting what current structures and living areas you have to best suit the needs of horse residents or you are starting from scratch and want to know where to start for the best design choices for constructing ideal living spaces for horse residents.
Indoor Living Spaces For Horses
People have employed many different materials and structures for housing horses. In colder climates, we believe it’s best that horses have access to a fully enclosed pole barn with adequate ventilation. This is particularly true for very young or old or sick residents. Not only are pole barns less affected by inclement weather, water, and drafts, but they are also easier to get into and clean, which is very important for the health of any animal. The exception to this rule is for sanctuaries in warmer environments, where you can house horses in a three-sided structure that faces away from the prevailing winds if necessary. When it comes to sizing a horse’s indoor living space, there should be adequate space for horses to comfortable stand, turn around, lay down, and get away from other horses (if houses together). Dirt-covered flooring or another slip-resistant material is important for horse living spaces since slips and falls could lead to torn ligaments and joint damage. If your living space floor is concrete, you should layer a half a foot of dirt onto the concrete floor or use rubber mats if necessary (which are safer than concrete, but will require quite a bit of daily cleanup). Bare concrete and hardwood floors are not acceptable for horses.
You should provide dry and clean bedding in a horse’s living space, like straw or non-toxic wood shavings (there are pros and cons to each), and it’s important to give them extra bedding material in much colder weather. You must remove and replace all moist and soiled bedding every day to prevent serious health risks to horses. Saw dust is NOT appropriate as it can cause respiratory issues. There are products you can spread on wet areas such as hydrated lime alternatives like Sweet PDZ or Stall Dry to keep the living space free of moisture. If it’s your only option, you can provide a thick layer of (naturally-sourced only) sand, but it’s important to keep this material clean and dry as much as you can because waste doesn’t tend to absorb in sand like it does in organic material. Exhaust fans with locking shutters are very effective at keeping barns well-ventilated and dry.
A horse’s indoor living space needs to be waterproof and free of drafts, in both warm and cold conditions. Very high standing temperatures (especially combined with high humidity) can lead to exhaustion, dehydration, and dangerous side effects in horses. Therefore, you need to make sure that they can stay cool in the summer with ample access to clean water. If it gets too hot for them to be comfortable, you can provide a pool, hose off the horse, or use indoor water misting fans (keeping their power cables out of reach from horses!), but you have to make absolutely sure you aren’t getting their indoor living space or bedding too moist. Even basic circulating fans can be kept on automatic thermometers to keep residents comfortable, but you must ensure that all cables are safely secured!
Whether you a working with an existing structure or designing one, it is vital that the shelter have truss certificates that can handle 30 or more pounds of snow per square foot if you live in a cold climate. Keep an eye out for any structural movement or dry rot or cracking, especially around the joints.
If you have or are constructing an enclosed barn, you must check any attic wall spaces for snow that has blown in as it can cause rotting and mold where snow blows in and melts. It is also important that there is no risk of snow or ice falling off of structures and striking residents.
Ventilation helps control temperature and humidity levels and improve air quality. Poor ventilation can affect a horse’s respiratory health. Ceiling fans can help with air exchange. You should remove wet bedding and manure daily from barns.
If your barn is properly insulated from drafts, a horse’s body (especially a herd of horses in an appropriately-sized area) will provide a good deal of warmth. Horses are quite resilient in the wintertime, assuming you’re feeding them extra hay (and water) to make up for the cold. keep as close eye on the humidity.
Healthy adult horses usually will do fine during most winters. If the weather is seriously extreme and well below zero, you may choose to heat a horse’s living space, you should keep it no warmer than 50 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent excess moisture buildup. If you have a young foal or sickly horse resident then they should receive focused attention to their temperature needs as they may struggle with temperature regulation. Additionally, if you have recently taken in a horse from a warmer climate, they will need time and a space to adjust. The smaller the living space, the easier to keep warm.
If absolutely necessary (such as housing a very young, very old, or infirm horse), you can use heat lamps, but you must make sure to keep electrical cords out of reach from curious residents and make triple sure to keep heating elements clean and dust free! Barn fires are tragically common occurrences. If you must use extra heat, use ceramic heaters, or if you have ample funding, radiant floor heating covered in dirt is the most ideal and safe heating solution for animals in barns. We do not recommend blanketing healthy horses because this can disrupt their body’s natural winter adaptations to withstand cold weather effectively. And remember to ensure the temperature isn’t too warm.
Determine if and at what temperature the indoor water supply may freeze in the winter. Be prepared to empty waterers at night and provide fresh warm water for overnight access. Automated waterers with heaters on thermostats can be very helpful for keeping residents safely hydrated all season long.
Outdoor Living Spaces For Horses
It is crucial that each horse in your care has enough space to walk around and run freely when they choose. At the very least, you should have about 75×60 feet area in which they can exercise without being stopped by a fence! This is critical for their physical and mental health, and as we do not advocate for the riding of any animals, it is important that all horses in sanctuaries are given the opportunity to exercise where they reside.
Ideally, the outdoor space should consist of horse-safe grazing pasture, and you should have at least two acres of land per horse, with a little more or less needed depending on the quality of pasture, season, and whether you’re primarily feeding them with hay or if they’re getting all their food by grazing. If you are caring for a number of horses getting their primary nutrition from pasture, you should have multiple pastures for horses, so you can let unused portions of your pasture regenerate while one is in use. Rotating pastures can also help reduce internal parasite prevalence in horses.
If attempting to make adjustments to the outdoor living spaces or designing those living spaces, be sure to recall animal-centered design. Ensuring there are dirt areas for dust bathing, interesting natural elements. You can increase the use of the pasture by adding temporary fencing to make “trails”. The fencing can be moved periodically to create a more enriching environment for residents. This may not be appropriate for all residents.
If a horse’s pasture is consistently muddy, make sure to provide ample space for the horses to keep their feet dry. Chronically dirty feet can lead to foot infections. You should also have a shady area in their outdoor enclosure that they can access on the hotter days of the year. Clean water should be easily accessible wherever horses prefer to spend their time!
Horses need a safely enclosed outdoor space to spend time and exercise in throughout the day (and a pasture to graze on if your land can nutritionally support a horse). The outdoor living space must be fenced in with materials that can’t be easily knocked or jumped over by a horse. There are a variety of different fence materials suitable for horses, including wood, woven wire, pipe fencing, or a combination. We do not recommend using barbed wire as it can injure residents. A horse’s fence should be stretched tightly if wire, at least five feet high in height regardless of material, and secured to posts every ten feet or so. If using no-climb fence, the bottom of the fence should be around a foot off the ground so horses can’t get their hooves trapped in the wire. Some sources recommend lower but it depends on the type of fencing. You should keep fence posts on the outside of the horse’s living space to avoid horses from running into them. Wood also needs to be inspected regularly to ensure that there are no damaged pieces or protruding parts that could injure a horse.
It’s very important that you know what kind of plants are in a horse’s pasture. Certain plants are toxic to horses, and you need to ensure that any dangerous plants are removed from the pasture before a horse is allowed to roam there. A local governmental agricultural department should be able to tell you what regional plants you need to protect horses from. You also should not let a healthy adult horse graze primarily on an alfalfa pasture; alfalfa is very high in protein and calcium, an excessive amount for most horses. Take your time introducing a new horse to your pasture as they need to acclimate to the new food source over a period of a few weeks. Otherwise, the horse is at risk of developing bloat and other gastrointestinal problems.
While this isn’t an exhaustive resource, we hope it gives you a good place to start!
Caring For Your Horse In The Winter | University Of Minnesota Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)
Managing Horses During Hot Weather | University of Minnesota (Non-Compassionate Source)
Equine Winter Care | University of Minnesota (Non-Compassionate Source)
Safe Fencing For Horses | Illinois University (Non-Compassionate Source)
Housing For Horses | University of Massachusetts (Non-Compassionate Source)