Aisle Be Seeing You

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Your barn aisle is the heart of your facility. It’s where your boarders meet and greet, where you may have 5 or 10 horses in cross ties down the center, and even on a quiet day, it’s the “grand vista” down which a visitor first gains her impression of your horsekeeping.

But is it safe? Is it giving the impression that you’re attentive to detail, in control of the whole situation? You certainly don’t need brass finials over each box stall and polished flagstone to show off your professionalism (although a little style always helps). Clean, simple, safe and well-planned aisles and work spaces make a huge difference for even the neophyte horseman who’s just shopping for a place to settle.

Maintenance

First, no matter whether you have simple dirt or the most elegant of patterned pavers, the aisle is going to look better if it’s clean, clear and well attended. A few strands of hay, a crooked blanket, a manure pile or two, and suddenly you look like Ma and Pa Kettle have moved in. You know it’s an anomaly, the aisle’s always swept and spiffy again by 10, but the impression’s been made.

If you can train your boarders to at least pick up after themselves (stop laughing, it could happen) that helps hugely, but there’s probably no substitute for training yourself and your staff to just scan and pick up.

Some barns effectively encourage boarders to clean by providing the right tools for the job. Betsy Kelley, a boarder at a large barn near Madison, Wisc., notes, “The aisles are swept after chores, and boarders are responsible for cleaning up any additional mess they create. Brooms should be chosen to suit the particular aisle—don’t expect boarders to use a little fluffy kitchen broom to clean a wide asphalt aisle—and if you want them to pay attention to the doorsills or corners, don’t leave them only a big stiff push broom.”

Your choice of maintenance tools is, of course, quite broad, from varied broom styles and sizes to leaf blowers and power washers. But don’t scrimp on supplying them. If the only broom in the aisle is that little kitchen model, and the big one’s broken, you won’t see a lot of enthusiasm from folks to pitch in.

On the other hand, a broom isn’t the only tool in the box: In desert areas, a daily hosing may be the perfect thing to cool down the whole barn when combined with a fan. Sweeping or blowing the aisles may bring up unwelcome dust and hosing or sprinkling with a watering can solve the problem.

If horses are out during the day, blasting the aisle with an electric leaf blower may bring the facility to great shape, although ear protection during the activity is a must—and no horses should be subjected to the dust, it’s for empty barns only.

For dirt, shavings or stone-dust aisles, a simple raking can often do the trick, especially if a tasteful and efficient herringbone pattern is used to work down the aisle, instead of random scrabbling. Think of it, if you like, as a nice Zen exercise.

When You’re Just Floored

Dealing with what’s underfoot, really, is the challenge. Whether you designed and built it, inherited it, or bought it and curse it every day, your barn aisle footing is a fact of life. Or is it? We’ve all known folks who bought old cow barns and either lifted the ceiling or dug out the slick concrete aisle to both provide headroom and safer footing.

Deciding to work with what’s there, or invest in something new, is the real trick. Often, it’s a step-by-step thing. If you’ve just built, and fancy flooring was not in the initial planning budget, then a nice raked dirt or sand floor will be perfect, won’t it? It’s what’s there, and until you make that lottery score, it’s going to stay there.

For the most part, packed dirt or clay will actually do quite well, and many longtime horse managers prefer to keep it just as it is, year after year. Barbara Stender, longtime New Jersey rider, trainer, show official, and equine masseuse, now living in Southern Pines, said she found her clay loam aisle far superior to the concrete one of her other facility. “Maintenance was simple—during a 12-year period during which we kept 6 to 8 horses and ponies, I scraped a little and added a bit more clay, but do not remember any memorable effort,” she said.

No one slips (unless the hose is left running), if you fall you won’t hit so hard, and people are less likely to leave their tack lying around on the ground. The occasional low spot is easy to fill in, and if you have horses that paw while tied, make the minor investment of a stall mat or two. The clay is also easier on the legs and feet, Stender notes.

Probably the most commonly found and popular flooring, however, is concrete, despite its potential drawbacks. After all, concrete gives you a floor that holds up to just about anything, can be hosed, blown or swept, and in case of infection, you can wash it down with disinfectant and feel reasonably effective.

That said, you’re also at the mercy of whoever pours the slab, hoping they’ve prepped the base and placed a thick enough slab that you don’t get frost heaves and huge cracks. Potholes in the aisle just don’t speak well of you. The slope of the material is also something you’ll want to pay close attention to, since a dip or rise that forces water to pool in the wrong place will be infuriating.

But the real key to successful, safer concrete in a barn is roughness. Whether it’s achieved by a raked or rough-broomed finish, stamping in horseshoe shapes while it’s wet, or mixing in gravel, you have to create a high-friction surface. Without it, you have an ice rink, even on a dry day. Horseshoes, on smooth concrete, are just skates, and they can quickly slide out from under the horse.

Say you’ve bought a great place, but it’s missing that friction component? Are you doomed to a summer spent holding a jackhammer to chip it out? Could be, but not likely. From rubber mats, to pour-on surfaces, to rubber or composite paver bricks, you can lay down a new top surface and prevent the falls and slips that would otherwise invite injury or lawsuit.

Looking for something as durable and cleanable as concrete, but not that flat? Baltimore-area horsewoman Janene Gerling Dunsmore notes, “I put in my barn aisle myself. Had a load of sand delivered, a load of interlocking bricks, sat down, and in two weeks, working about 6 hours a day, covered an aisle way 84 feet by 12 feet. I did it two years ago, and have received multiple compliments on how nice it looks. The horses do not slip on it, and it is very pretty. If I can do it, anyone can.”

What she chose to install was a series of octagonal pavers, each with a small, rectangular section projecting off one side. These pavers provide an interlocking cobblestone effect. The bricks are available at Home Depot, Lowes and other home centers, and lay well over a packed sand or dirt base with sand between. As for the precision of installation, Janene says, “I wanted mine to not look so ‘brand new’ so I did not do it so ‘perfect’ and I think it looks really great in the barn. People think it is a very old brick aisle we built a new barn around. We love it.”

Serious safety fanatics swear by the rubber-based approach over concrete, either interlocking rubber mats or recycled rubber pavers. The number of rubber and composite mat manufacturers is enormous, with great features such as beveled edges, interlocking puzzle-like sections, drain holes, ribbing, ridged or pebble finished—the challenge is finding the one that fits your budget both in initial purchase and in freight costs, since good-quality rubber matting is heavy.

Stuff in the Way

Let’s assume you’ve got your aisle flooring totally under control, and you’re still looking to perfect the safety and effectiveness of your aisle operation. The pitfalls, simply put, are the things you let people leave out there. Shovels, wheelbarrows, trunks, saddle racks—they all have their purpose, but not in the passageway.

If you can identify a corner, a cupboard, even give up a stall to create a storage space for the other awkward things, you will go far to prevent both accidents and clutter from building up. And anything else that’s got to be in the aisle, stuff that just has to stay handy? No problem, just make sure it’s soft. That’s right, soft.

Metal hooks and hangers, if they project at all, should be vinyl-covered and curved back onto themselves in a shape that won’t hook flesh or bruise hips. Consider those new flexy rubber hooks, which will hold heavy stuff without hurting anyone. For a really smooth look, get rid of the halter hooks and hang halters on a rounded wooden knob or sliced end of a jump pole, so they’re off the ground and handy. And don’t roll up the lead ropes in complex patterns, but loop them cleanly over the halter for fast access in emergencies.

Train your clients as well to be cautious about how they put up halters, no matter where. “If they are buckled around a rail, it should be high enough that a pawing horse can’t get a hoof in the halter,” notes JC Dill, a Portola Valley, Calif., horsewoman for 30 years and AFA certified farrier for 14 years. “Ditto for halters at a hitching rack after the horse is tacked up. This is especially important for nylon halters.” It’s the sort of thing you can’t be there to supervise every moment, so the constant emphasis, along with other safety guidelines, is a repeated requirement.

There’s always a better place for stuff than in the main aisle. Eileen Morgan, owner of The Mare’s Nest in Pennsylvania, says, “I have two fire extinguishers in the aisle area and one in the hayloft. I have a hay ladder which is offset in the little ‘mini aisle’ perpendicular to the main aisle. I have a sink which isn’t hooked up, shelves, buckets, a larger bridle rack, the faucets, and a wheelbarrow tucked back there. . . I keep my feed in a separate building along with tack trunks, saddles, blankets, etc. I’ve had a horse or two escape and when that happens, if they can get to grain or tack you are in trouble. If they get to hay, it’s better since they stand there and eat instead of trashing the rest of the barn.”

If you have a blanket holder on the front of the stall (try not to, they catch dirt and give excuses for stuff to accumulate there), at least be sure its edges are rounded and smooth. Consider using canvas bags attached to the rail, like small hay bags, where daily essentials such as bell boots and turnout boots can be stored.

Behavioral Issues

As Morgan notes, being aware of potential issues such as escape artist horses is a wise approach. Having the evening’s hay set out by the stalls doesn’t give the crispest look to the aisle, but it’s certainly safer than having supplements, grain or saddlery out there for escapees to tangle with.

Handling the manners issues of stall-bound horses is another thing to keep in mind. They’re happier if they can get their heads out to look around and be sociable, but that comes at the cost of their being able to bite and harass all passersby. If you are designing a new facility and will have an open-door policy, you might set your aisles a bit wider to accommodate a safe distance between horses and people.

Alternately, if you have acquired a place with open-top doors and aisles where there’s no getaway, don’t be casual about the risks, falling into the trap of just repeating, “watch out for Buster, he’s a bit grabby.” Lay hands on a stall guard, or some smooth 2-inch by 4-inch mesh, a full-height grill, whatever it takes, before you end up in court.

All Tied Up

Reams have been written about cross ties, whether they’re safe or not, what to use as the tying material, etc. Still, most stables do have them so here are a few tips.

What can you do to avoid the occasional disaster? In the words of Singie Williams, owner of Chestnut Hill in Spring Grove, Va., “Generally avoid confusion and distraction.” Remind clients and visitors that loose dogs are a danger, small children are at risk, and loud voices and waving arms will get someone hurt.

Don’t let yourself slip into cross-tie disrepair either, clipping a spare stud chain on a broken safety catch in a pinch. Where possible, add in a safety link of string or rubber inner tube and be sure the quick-release snaps are all working.

If your cross ties are along the center aisle, allow only the steadiest of barn residents to be in that lineup. Ask clients to groom and tack up the less-predictable creatures in a separate wash stall, or tied to a ring in their box stalls.

Since the aisle is often the main artery in any barn, making sure of its safety and aesthetic quality will help keep horses and people happy.