Richard III’s Shakespearean battlefield cry, “A horse, a horse. My kingdom for a horse,” has come to describe that one essential thing in a given situation.
Fresh, circulating air is the essential veterinarians urge when planning barn upgrades that most affect our horse’s health and well-being. Designs and management
strategies to reduce airborne dust and ammonia go hand-in-hand with prioritizing ventilation.
Minimizing injury risks and a suitable place for the veterinarian and other care providers to help your horse rank highly, too.
Even the most meticulously kept stable is loaded with tiny, respirable particles that impact our horses’ vulnerable respiratory systems. Forage is the healthiest diet foundation for most horses, but it’s also one of the biggest sources of these invisible bits of organic matter that trigger irritation and inflammation in the respiratory tract.
Traditional bedding is right up there with hay as a source of organic dust. Ammonia is another inescapable element in the stable and it’s harmful—for your horse and for you.
Whatever the airborne particles consist of, ventilation keeps them moving along rather than settling in the horse’s breathing zone.
If you are building a new barn, you’ll want to maximize natural breezes by positioning the barn and the breezeways in their predominant path. Make those aisleways wide—ideally, at least 14’—to maximize airflow intake, and choose ceiling heights and air exits to harness the tendency of warm air to rise.
Installing more windows and/or doors is your best option in barn remodels and upgrades. The more places air can enter and exit, the better. Horses in stalls with two doors or windows, for example, benefit from living in an airflow corridor.
Shed-row barns with stalls that open only on to the center aisle can be problematic, notes Dr. Wren Burnley of Northwest Tennessee Veterinary Services, in Dresden, Tenn. “Even if the center aisle is getting great ventilation, the ventilation can be very poor in the stall itself,” she said. “Unless there’s a window facing the outside, they can’t be getting fresh air.”
Keep It Cool
“A lot of our barns like to keep a temperature that’s comfortable for ourselves, or maybe they want to keep things warm so their show horse doesn’t grow a heavy coat,” said Dr. Megan Snyder of Damascus Equine Associates in Mount Airy, Md. “But that’s not good for horses’ lower airways. It’s better if we keep ourselves and our horses bundled up to keep air flowing.”
In the Texas area’s hot climate, Dr. Beau Whitaker of Brazos Valley Equine Hospital in Salado, Texas, finds spray foam insulation on the barn ceiling helpful with cooling in hot weather and for retaining warmth in the cold months.
The tendency for warm air to rise, a.k.a. “thermal buoyancy,” is most powerful when there’s a big difference in the outside and inside air temperatures. When it’s warm outside, it’s not so effective. Fans can help move air year-round and can be especially helpful during warm weather.
Choose fans built for outdoor use and with safety features that protect a curious horse from touching the blades. Position them out of your horse’s reach, connect them directly to a power circuit, and consult with an electrician to ensure sufficient power and safe connections. Extension cords are generally not advised in the stable.
Ceiling fans are typically a good option. They are usually quieter than smaller, portable fans and—assuming there is a high ceiling—can be installed out of the horse’s reach.
Limiting the amount of dust in our horses’ environment is veterinarians’ top recommendation for protecting their respiratory health. Hay storage, aisleway, and flooring are among many design choices that affect the quantity of respirable dust.
“I’ve had horses who are affected with respiratory problems just because hay was stored in the stall next to them or the aisleway outside their door,” noted Snyder. “And storing hay above where horses live is not ideal, because the dust just falls down on them.”
Even though many of her clients think their hay is “not dusty,” she noted that “Hay is grown in the field and has its own natural dusts and molds that seem to really exacerbate a number of the respiratory cases that I manage.
“A Haygain Hay Steamer is on the list of environmental changes we can make that help us manage respiratory cases,” Snyder continued. “There’s no cure for these diseases, so it’s all about management. We can use every medication and inhaler out there, but if we don’t change the management strategies, we’re not going to make headway.”
Low-dust bedding is important in dust reduction, too. Cardboard bedding products have helped minimize dust, in Snyder’s experience, whereas pelleted bedding emitted dust when it was stepped on and kicked around.
“Flooring that’s comfortable for the horse to stand and lie on is the first consideration,” noted Whitaker. “There are a lot of matting and synthetic options now.”
Whatever the flooring, proper drainage is critical to reducing buildup of harmful ammonia in the barn. “We have wooden boards in the floor, with shavings on top and road base and pea gravel underneath that,” Whitaker explained. “The urine filters down through that and it really keeps the ammonia smell down.”
Single-piece flooring systems seal to the stall wall to prevent urine seepage and accumulation. As long as bedding is sufficient to absorb urine, it can be easily removed during regular stall cleaning to greatly reduce the ammonia build-up.
While some of us consider a powerful ammonia smell a normal part of the barn life, it’s actually unhealthy for horses and humans.
The ammonia smell comes from urea, which is a byproduct of digestion and metabolism of protein in the horse’s diet. The more protein they consume, the more urea produced.
Exposure levels of 220 ppm (particles per million) for 10-30 minutes is enough to irritate the respiratory tract, eyes, and nose. In the stall environment, concentrations of 80 to 450 ppm are found within 12” of the floor. Unfortunately, that’s where our horses’ noses are for several hours of the day.
Irritation occurs at lower concentrations when prolonged. In general, if you can smell ammonia, it's already at a level that’s harmful for your horse and for you.
Safe Spaces for Horses and Humans
A safe space for rehabbing horses is something Burnley recommends from personal experience. At her home barn in Fulton, Mo., she built an approximately 60’ x 40’ paddock in an “L” configuration. The shape allows horses to move around outdoors but prevents full-on gallops possible in bigger turn-outs. “In the sport horse world, it’s amazing how often you need a turn-out place that is small and safe. Where you can, encourage them to walk, but not to run, run, run,” she said.
Burnley chose a crushed stone footing. It’s good for horses that can’t be turned out on grass, and it doesn’t get muddy. Mud can be hard on hoof health.
Veterinarians also recommend and appreciate a safe space to work on your horse. Burnley requires clients to have a set of stocks to contain their horse during reproductive exams to protect her from getting kicked.
Cross-ties are another option. And the space should be easily cleanable. “It’s nice to have a concrete floor with mats, especially so there’s no dirt around if we’re doing joint injections,” Whitaker noted.
Think Injury Reduction
Horses are masters at injuring themselves. Anything that is sharp or protrudes into their environment, or within their curious clutch, should be as horse-proof as possible and checked regularly. Door latches that slide back into place, bucket holders that won’t snag an eyelid or lip, and stall walls that won’t trap the hoof of a rolling horse are on the long list of considerations.
A little bit of forethought, with your horse’s health at the forefront, goes a long way in the barn upgrade process.