Horse-Friendly Facilities Design

by Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

The horse industry's sensitivity to the country's overall economy makes these trying times. Attracting more clients is the first thing most horse business owners think they must do to survive. So they try to think about how they can make their places more people friendly, price their services differently, etc. In my experience over 50 years, however, watching expenses offers the biggest payoff when times get tough. And one of the best ways to keep expenses down is to make a facility horse friendly before you worry about making it people friendly.

During a typical quarter, Meredith Manor has about 145 horses on campus in eight different barns. We maintain six indoor arenas as well as outdoor riding areas. Over the years we have 'use tested' many different horse management practices. We have abandoned many of them and refined others. I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that horse-friendly facilities are the most cost-effective facilities in the long run.

By horse friendly, I mean a facility that is as comfortable and safe for horses as possible. That means surfaces that allow horses to walk around and turn around without worrying about slipping. It means stalls built so that horses can see what is going on and interact—or not—without getting annoyed or being annoying. It means feedstuffs that give horses a lot of satisfying chewing time. It means management routines that favor what is best for the horses' safety and comfort rather than what might be most convenient for people.

A horse-friendly facility includes these basic design elements:

Horse-friendly footing. People spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars researching and buying the best arena footing they can afford. It may not be fancy but, in my opinion, high-moisture sawdust from green wood that is constantly watered so its moisture content stays high makes the best horse-friendly arena footing. We get green sawdust from local sawmills. We water most of the arenas by hand with hoses but two are watered using a purpose-built tank. We keep wet spots, a common problem in arenas with automatic sprinklers, from developing by watering in patterns. Every so often we work the subsurface with a tiller but never very deep. If the subsurface gets slick anywhere, we add some cinders on top of it (a free by-product from our state's coalmines). In the winter, we add rock salt to the water supply to keep the moist sawdust from freezing up.

Horses need comfortable footing any place and every place they are moving around, not just in the place they work. Paved roadways and aisles are people friendly but they are hard on horses and slippery under many conditions. Injuries are likely when a shod horse gets antsy on a paved surface. I have seen many accidents that would never have happened on horse-friendly footing.

We long ago did away with paved surfaces here at Meredith Manor. Now we build our roadways using layers of graduated aggregate, the largest rocks at the bottom up to the smallest at the surface. Then we use cinders to fill in around the top layer and level the surface. We roll and pack the roadways hard enough to support horses but it is not as hard as concrete or blacktop and definitely not as slippery. If you only look at roadway building and maintenance costs, paved road surfaces may look more cost effective. Add in vet bills and the associated costs when horses are laid up because of footing-related injuries such as stone bruises or falls, however, and aggregate roadways hold their own.

Paved aisles look really nice and are easy to maintain, but they are slippery and hard on horses' feet and legs. We use compacted soil (a mix of sand and clay from our own property) in our barn aisles. Because some of the dirt gets raked away by daily maintenance, the aisles need topping off and compacting every 4 or 5 years. We feel these periodic costs are more than offset by our reduction in veterinary costs and in wear and tear on the horses.

We have a building separate from the barns and arenas for the farrier and vet to use that has a concrete floor covered with rubber belting. We also have a couple of outdoor wash areas with rubber belting (the rubber belting is another mining industry by-product). Those are the only hard surfaces our horses deal with.

Horse-friendly ventilation. Respiratory problems inevitably result when horses constantly breathe dust or when moisture builds up inside a barn. There should be a continual exchange of inside and outside air, even if that means the temperature is not very people friendly in the wintertime. We have a slight gap where the roof meets the top of the outside walls in our pole barns. That allows a good exchange of inside and outside air without subjecting the horses to any drafts.

At one time, we thought it was really nice to have an arena connected to one of our barns so students could tack up and head into the arena without having to go outside in bad weather and so on. That warm fuzzy thought lasted only until we realized that arena dust was migrating into the barn and affecting all of the horses. I used to show the students how to use a special needle to flush out the horses' tear ducts when their eyes got runny. Now that all of our barns and arenas are separate, I do not have to teach that any more.

Horse-friendly aisles. Besides making sure the footing is horse friendly, we use barn aisles only as passageways, not as storage space or workspace. To keep those passageways horse friendly, we do not allow trunks, tools, wheelbarrows, blanket bars, bandage boxes or any other projections or potential projectiles that could cause injuries.

I firmly believe cross ties are good for railroads. While cross ties may be people friendly barn equipment, they are not horse friendly (some might argue they are not people friendly, either, if a barn princess lays claim to a whole section of an aisle for herself). A cross-tied horse obstructs traffic flow. If someone tries to lead another horse past, the cross-tied horse may feel trapped or, at the least, feel like his space is being invaded. No matter what the reason, if an aisle argument breaks out, no one wins and the end result may be a call for a vet or an ambulance or both.

Horse-friendly grooming areas. Horses feel safest in their own space. Their stall is their personal space, the environment where they feel the most comfortable. There is no need for kicking or biting or any other kind of defensive posturing because no other horse ever comes in there to argue about anything. The horse can just go there and relax and hang out.

The only one who regularly enters the horse's stall space besides the horse is the student assigned to work with him. If that student acts politely and waits at the stall door for some kind of sign from the horse that it is OK to come in rather than barging in uninvited, the horse stays relaxed and comfortable while he is being haltered and groomed and tacked up. Grooming in the stall makes it more likely the horse's handler will heed the horse—give her full attention to him—rather than paying attention to her buddies in the aisle talking about what music they like or what kind of pizza they plan to order for dinner or whatever. (And picking out feet in the stall is actually people friendly, too, because it minimizes aisle clean up.)

So we groom and tack up horses in their stalls because it is the best place to keep the horse relaxed, give the horse our complete attention, and start our work session off in the best possible way. Then we use the unobstructed aisle to move the horse out of the barn and off to wherever it is we are off to.

Some people like to argue they cannot manage their facilities the way we do at Meredith Manor because they do not have access to green sawdust or cinders and the like. That may be true. But even if they cannot find local materials that are both horse friendly and cost effective, they can always look at their current management practices and put horse-friendly choices before people-friendly ones.

A horse-friendly facility impacts the bottom line directly because good design and horse-friendly management decisions mean fewer vet costs for injuries or colics. There is a noticeable difference in the horses' psychological comfort. They are more relaxed, even at feeding time. They are less inclined to make faces at other horses or hassle one another because things are set up so that everybody has their space and nobody invades it without permission. A horse-friendly facility is indirectly people friendly because horses that are not irritable or fretting all the time are just nicer for people to be around.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

Ron has been teaching "Natural Horsemanship" before it was cool. No matter how long you have been riding, MM will improve your riding immeasurably! Appreciate that you will not be riding a "made" horse all the time and value what each horse has to teach you. It is soooo WORTH it!
Debra Davidson Jennings: 1993 Riding Master III Graduate