Horses are many wonderful things, but clean is not one of them. They sweat in summer and get muddy in winter, and in either case that leads to bathing. Whether your horse-washing area is as simple as a bucket, sponge and tree to tie the horse to, or as swank as a fully enclosed wash stall with warm water and heaters, your wash area sees lots of use year-round. Here’s how to make it as user-friendly as possible.
Well-designed wash facilities are appreciated by staff that use them every day, and boarders give weight to a barn’s bathing amenities. Warm water and concrete will cost you up front, but they may earn you clients in the long run.
Whether you end up with a muddy bog or a sparkling horse spa depends on how well you plan, construct, and manage this important part of your facility. Take the time to design a wash area that fits the needs of your clientele and your budget, and you’ll have a low-maintenance amenity that saves wear and tear on humans and horses.
Your plan should consider the following:
• Location. A wash rack should be convenient to use, but not so close to other activities that spray or runoff interferes with riding or other grooming. An outdoor wash rack is best located in the sun for visibility and air-drying potential; indoor wash stalls will be wet and noisy, so should be far from tack and feed areas, and away from arenas where lessons are given if possible. Locating indoor wash stalls near laundry and restroom facilities will save you money since water and sewer hookups are nearby.
• Water—from a frost-free hydrant in cold climates—should be run adjacent to the wash area in a pipe size that will deliver strong water pressure. Heavy-duty hoses are worth the cost, but must be kept away from hooves to last. Consider an overhead hose boom, available from catalogs, to keep hoses out of the way. At the least, provide a good storage hook or hose reel. Pressure nozzles that cannot be easily removed from hoses will save water. Though more expensive, brass nozzles usually are worth their cost.
• If you opt for heated water, you’ll need a protected, enclosed cupboard with electricity for a hot water heater as close as is safe to the wash area. Consider a modern tankless heater if your budget allows; it will require a gas line for heating efficiency, but you’ll save money over the years and have the luxury of hot water that never runs out. Consider removing the water mix handles, or lock the heater cupboard, to prevent every user from customizing the water temperature.
• Electricity and water don’t mix, so be sure all wiring is properly installed by a licensed electrician who can help keep you and your horses safe. To reduce the risk of problems, do not include electrical outlets in the wash stall area. Horses and handlers are much safer clipping and vacuuming on dry ground far from wash areas. If you opt for infrared or gas heaters above the wash stall, consult licensed contractors about the safest installation techniques.
• Size matters: small wash racks are both inconvenient to use and dangerous for grooms. While some farms use small pre-made pipe frame stanchions with a removable butt bar, the frame’s bars block much of the horse you wish to wash, and present a safety hazard for handlers whose arms can be smashed against the bars. Some horses refuse to stand politely in these confining pipe restraints, and very tall and very small horses simply don’t fit in them.
Commercial stables will be safer and their residents happier with wash areas that are at least 8 feet wide and 10 to 12 feet deep, and that are built with a solid wall or a pipe rail behind the horse. This allows room for the horse to walk in and comfortably turn around, and for the groom to easily reach all parts of the horse. Partial or solid walls between wash bays, if possible, keep unruly horses in check. Crossties at the front of the wash area are a convenient and safe way to restrain the horse, and the wall or rail at the back will discourage the horse from pulling back against the restraints.
• Drainage must be considered at every step of your project. You don’t need an engineer to tell you water runs downhill; keep that in mind throughout the design process and you’ll build a useful wash stall. Forget that gravity fact and you may end up with a swamp. Locate your wash area at the high point of the surrounding area, then make sure the slab or footing is even and has at least a 2% grade to handle runoff. Install a grate of some sort where wash water leaves the slab to keep manure and horse hair out of all septic lines, or they’ll clog and quickly become useless. Runoff water should be just that: water only.
• And speaking of runoff, you’ll need to plan for that, too. While some stables have the luxury of letting wash stall water simply irrigate an adjoining paddock or landscaped area, many urban stables will face a serious problem with wastewater that must be directed. Options include tying in to a municipal sewer system, building a leach field or a septic system, or collecting runoff for recycling. Recycled water could be used for irrigation or dust control. Cities may level fees for your stable’s sizeable contribution to the sewer, and a septic or leach system will incur significant costs to build, but you must plan for the thousands of gallons of soapy water that will be generated each year by a wash stall.
• Consider your building materials carefully. A concrete slab, though costly initially, will provide a tough surface for years of carefree horse washing. Gravel or septic rock floors may drain well, but many horses do not like to stand on these uneven surfaces, and they can sore their soles. Asphalt or compacted road base (or similar base material) covered with rubber mats are also possible washing surfaces.
If you do opt for concrete, score the surface with a stiff broom or leaf rake when it starts to dry for a less-slippery surface, or ask your concrete contractor if he has other tools to rough the surface. (Don’t forget a lucky horseshoe in the slab!)
If you do pour concrete, you’ll need at least a 6-inch-thick slab for horses, and your concrete contactor may suggest rebar or steel wire inside the slab for extra strength. You’ll need to locate a drain and grate (if you tie into a drainage system) either in or alongside the slab.
• Installing railings and tie posts? They should be heavy-wall galvanized steel, at least 3 inches in diameter and set through the slab at least 24 inches at the time it is poured. You can sleeve railings and posts by insetting a galvanized pipe of slightly larger inside dimension than your finished pipe outside diameter, which will allow you to slip out the railings if needed and leave a flush slab that can be used for storage at a future date. If you opt for rubber mats over the slab, be careful: some mats become very slippery when wet, and ring mats that drain well will trap manure and hair.
• An indoor wash stall presents additional materials challenges. You’ll need to direct the water outside with a drain system, and you’ll also need to protect the wash stall walls from moisture. Your local home improvement center may have the answer: FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic) or similar panels designed for people-shower walls make terrific horse-shower walls. They’re lightweight, relatively inexpensive, and come in large sheets, which can be attached to stall walls for almost seamless protection. Countersink screws into plastic washers, then caulk corners and edges with generous amounts of silicone (and consider that an annual job). Don’t forget a weathertight light fixture. Vapor barriers and other waterproofing steps may be needed depending on your barn; a local licensed contractor can offer suggestions for a watertight wash zone appropriate for your area.
• Don’t forget storage for your wash area. Horses and handlers will be safer without a clutter of shampoo bottles, sweat scrapers, and hoses underfoot, so consider something as simple as a plastic laundry basket or as deluxe as a pre-fab plastic storage cupboard mounted near the wash stall to keep soaps and washing tools handy, but corralled. You’ll also need a designated and safe place to keep a muck bucket, shovel and broom for manure. An inexpensive plastic laundry sink can be mounted near the wash area for washing buckets, bits and leg wraps.
A thoughtfully designed wash area is important for the safety and happiness of your horse and human clients. Because the greatest cost is initial construction, a great wash stall is an investment that will pay off for years to come.
Keep It Clean
Once you’ve designed and installed (or upgraded) your stable’s horse washing area, your work has just begun. Now you must teach your staff and guests to maintain the area. Signage and rules will reduce wear and tear to you and your facility. Post wash rack rules and enforce them from day one.
Rules might include:
• Pick up all manure and hair immediately. (Try humor: “The Poop Fairy doesn’t work here. Please clean up after your horse!” has produced good results for one stable owner.)
• Turn hoses off while shampooing.
• Please don’t squirt the neigh-bors.
• Establish a time limit for wash stall use during peak stable hours (i.e., Saturday morning).
Suzanne Vlietstra is president of Hobby Horse Clothing Co., a show apparel manufacturer, and lives with her family on their 50-horse boarding facility in Southern California.