Hoof Beats: Does My Horse Need a Barn?

The Pueblo Chieftain
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When I was a kid in New Jersey, all the horses I knew were kept in a stall in a barn, with the exception of a Western rent string owned by one of my father’s co-workers. He called it Romance Ranch and let me ride for free. Playboy, my neighbor’s horse, spent the winter in a snug, two-stall barn. After he was sold, I sometimes drove to Montclair to say hello and make sure he was okay. His new digs were in a 20-stall barn that looked exactly like big barns you still see today.

Large stables traditionally have stalls on both sides of a long aisleway, so that whoever feeds and mucks out can drive a truck down the center aisle. In some barns, the center aisle is long enough and wide enough to work a horse.

Private barns often have a covered turnnout in either end, for changing direction. Other barns have a single row of side-by-side stalls that face outside, with an overhang to protect the horses from rain. These shedrow barns, as they’re called, often have Dutch doors, so horses can see their neighbors. Most stalls at a race track are shedrows.

I once saw a private barn in California where each horse was housed in a separate building. They could hear one another, but not see or touch each other. Even then, without knowing that being part of a herd is central to a horse’s mental and physical comfort, I felt sorry for them. They seemed like prisoners in solitary confinement.

Throughout the centuries, horses in Europe and North America lived in traditional barns like the ones I just described. Horses were used by the military, to till soil for farmers, for mass transit — buggies and coaches — and by families to get from here to there. But after automobiles became popular enough that nearly everybody would afford one, the horse population dwindled.

Tom Bass, the legendary Black horseman in Missouri who loved his horses like family, once said, “Cars are the best things that ever happened to horses.”

The answer to the “does my horse need a barn” question is NO. He doesn’t don’t need a barn, even in parts of the country that have long, hard winters — like Colorado. What he does need are shelter and at least one buddy.

One of the horse magazines recently ran an article about “open” barns, with stalls that look more like split rail fences. Instead of high wooden sides, these wooden sides have spaces between each board that allows the horses to physically interact with each other. But this arrangement has its drawbacks. Keeping a stallion in one would not be a good idea. A frightened horse could be disastrous.

At one barn I saw, the trainer and his grooms had just brought a yearling filly in from the pasture to start training. She had horses on either side of her, but they weren’t friends — her friends were in the pasture. The filly tried to get back to them by scrambling into her feed tub and trying to climb over the wall between her and the horse next door. She had to be coaxed back down before the feed bin gave way.

To keep your own horse on your own property with no barn, you need a hay shed that’s open on one side, a freeze-proof  water source, a rodent-proof tackroom, and a fenced riding ring big enough that he can gallop and buck and play — also good for turning him out at night in hot weather. His “home” is a pipe corral or other covered area with rubber mats underneath his feeder, especially if you use a hay bag or feed him hay directly on the ground. If you don’t, your horse rums the risk sand colic — which can kill him. .

You also need a hitching rail for grooming and saddling your horse, and another horse or pony to keep him company — or a good-natured goat. Dairy breeds like Nubians are my first choice, especially ones who were raised and shown in 4-H. They’re funny, interesting animals in their own right.   

Joan Fry

Joan Fry is a lifelong horse lover and the author of “Backyard Horsekeeping: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need” (The Lyons Press, Revised Edition, 2007). She can be reached via email at joan@joanfry.com.

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