Lighthoof: Designing a Horse Friendly Farm, Part 2

Are you designing your own barn? Lighthoof reminds us of a few considerations for the layout that prioritizes your horse’s physical needs and health in part two of this mini-series.

We talked about the reasons why you might want to design, or re-design, your farm using principles of horse-friendly farm design. Now, in this article, we will explore some requirements from the “physical needs” category and things to think about during your design process to best address those.

Fresh Air and Sunlight

The dairy industry did a study in which they replaced solid roofing panels with clear ones to let in quite a bit more natural light. The result on calf growth and vitality was impressive. Bringing in sunlight was a small change that improved the welfare of their animals! In designing an existing barn, or re-roofing, orientation and material choices can have a huge effect on physical well being and the feel of your barn.

Ventilation is even more important. The horse’s respiratory system has often been called the weakest system in the horse’s body. A barn without proper ventilation can be hazardous to your horse’s health. Consider that horses need even better ventilation in their living areas than a typical human home has. This can be accomplished with an open air design, stall windows and doors that can be opened, roof vents, and other ventilation devices that allow for clean, fresh air even when barn doors are closed in the winter.

For inspiration, Blackburn Architects create equestrian facilities that have excellent natural lighting and ventilation. They also sell barn plans called Greenbarns that are eco-friendly and horse healthy.

Movement, Movement, Movement

We say it three times because it’s so important! Horses need quite a bit of free movement to be healthy. It’s one of their most basic physical needs. In the wild, horses are constantly moving. It benefits their circulatory system, hoof health, digestion, bone density, muscle tone, and respiratory systems. Therefore, a key element of creating a horse friendly farm is designing in good ways for horses to stay moving all day long.

Turnout is going to be your biggest consideration. How much space do you have for turnout? Will you have to rotate horses or can you leave them out all day? Can you leave your horses out safely at night?

Is your turnout conveniently located to your barn? If you will be walking horses in and out twice a day, this can take up a ton of time if it’s a long hike from the stall door to the pasture gate.

If you don’t have enough space on your farm for all of your horses to be turned out in fields at the same time, you may want to consider a setup with run outs off of the stalls, or try a space saving track paddock. These solutions can increase the amount of movement your horse gets in a day and can save a lot of space.

In some climates, weather is a big concern. To make sure your horses can still get movement in bad or wet weather, your turnouts will need special footing and a way for horses to seek shelter in stormy conditions.

If you aren’t able to provide turnout conditions that allow for ample free movement, consider higher maintenance solutions such as a panel walker, hand walking, or play time in a round pen or arena as part of your routine to prevent primarily stalled horses from not getting enough movement.
Freedom from Flies, Mud, and Dust

While we are talking about turnout, let’s consider some conditions that make turnout less healthy for horses. Mud and dust can present health issues and are very common in smaller turnouts or paddocks that get a lot of use.

Muddy footing can be slippery, cold, and hold bacteria. Dust can be harmful to the horses’ lungs, irritate their eyes, and soil their food and water. Both mud and dust can lead to sand colic if feeding hay directly on muddy or dusty ground. Most soil types contain enough sand to build up in the horse’s gut over time. So, if it’s sticking to hay as it’s being eaten, your horse may be getting an accumulation of sand in his intestine. Prevent this by solving any mud problems and/or using a feeder to keep your horse’s hay off of the ground.

Some mud and dust situations are created from broken-down fecal matter, so planning a chore-efficient turnout setup to keep your area clean and free of old manure will prevent your horse from having to live in his own poop and keep your turnout from becoming unhealthy.

Flies breed in wet areas such as mud and manure, so design your farm and maintenance system to reduce mud in your turnouts and around your barn and remove or compost manure promptly rather than leaving it in piles around the farm. You will be rewarded with fewer disease carrying and pesky flies.

Overgrazed pastures will become muddy, weedy, and provide bad nutrition for your horses. Horse friendly farm designs will plan for good pasture management, which includes cross fencing to rotate your pastures, planning a horse density that your pastures can support, and maintaining your grass crop with annual fertilization and reseeding as needed.

If you don’t have enough pastureland to maintain good grass quality with the number of horses you have simply by rotating and resting fields, plan on creating heavy use areas with careful mud management so that your horses can get outside when you have to keep them off of your pastures while they re-grow.

Nutritional and Metabolic Management

A startling percentage of horses in this day and age suffer from obesity or metabolic disorders and are at risk for laminitis. For this reason, it’s considered horse friendly to restrict their access to pasture. Although your horse may disagree, keeping him from grazing fresh grass at certain times of the year – or all of the time – may be the kindest thing you can do for him. The tough thing is to accomplish this without reducing his access to free movement.

Not all pasture is created equal. Spring pasture is more dangerous than mid-summer pasture, and late afternoon pasture is more dangerous than early morning pasture. Sometimes even the weather the night before can make a huge difference in the sugar concentration which is the biggest factor in the grass’s suitability for consumption by an overweight, metabolic, or high-risk horse. It’s important to note too that stressed, overgrazed grass has a more dangerous sugar content than long, healthy grass. So, don’t be fooled into thinking your picked over pastures will be safe to graze since they don’t look lush anymore. For more resources on safe grazing, check out or

From a farm design perspective you have a few options. You will have to create an outdoor living space for your horse that’s grass-free. You can do this by making a smaller paddock, sacrifice area, or dry lot. Another option is to create a track paddock, which is a 12-20 foot wide track at the outer edge of your field by adding an inner fence. This gives your horse more distance to travel without having to remove the grass from your entire field. In either case, you will have to manage the footing in your paddock or track to prevent unhealthy mud conditions from forming. You might even consider Lighthoof for ground stability in these high traffic areas.

In the next few articles, we touch on some additional physical needs and look at solutions to accommodate the mental and emotional needs of horses as well.

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