Wash Stalls—the Wet and Dry of It

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A wash stall, whether it’s just a solitary unit or one of ten in a system, is one of the smartest things a good manager installs and maintains at any horse facility. Whether you’re finishing young stock for the halter ring, cooling off hard-working jumpers or showing future clients the amenities you offer, the wash area is critical. It’s an indication of your attention to detail and the ideals of equine hygiene. Besides, it just makes life so much easier.

When planning a wash stall, keep in mind the wear and tear it has to endure, and build accordingly. Your wash stall must be able to handle the avalanche of mud that falls from a grubby broodmare, flow enough water to rinse a whale, provide perfectly non-slip footing, hold fractious youngsters still enough to bathe, and store enough shampoos and coat conditioners for a Hollywood starlet.

No Swamps, Please

You can install a wash rack near any area of a barn, either out under the eaves, at one end of an aisle, in a corner of the paddock or between two sheds for a double windbreak effect. Your number one challenge, though, is to get rid of the water that will otherwise be pooling in your boots, flowing down your aisle and swamping the main path to the ring.

Keep it simple. No matter where you’re planning to locate the wash area, make sure you first raise the level of the footing—a 10-foot by 10-foot or larger square—at least 6 to 12 inches above the surrounding area.

Then, if you’re on packed earth or gravel, you can dig a subsurface to keep your feet dry. Dig a trench 10 to 14 inches deep sloping away from the rest of your operation. Line the bottom with a couple of inches of gravel and set a length of perforated PVC drain pipe on top of the gravel. Then surround it and fill the trench with more gravel to help water percolate into the ground naturally along its route. If your soil holds a ditch well and you’d like something above ground and simpler, dig a small open swale leading downhill from the stall. Since this amounts to free irrigation, you can even landscape it nicely and hide the fact that it’s just a ditch. The key is to give the water—all the water—somewhere to go.

Dry Feet, What a Concept

Now that you’ve solved the drainage aspect, you can attend to what’s underfoot—preferably something like rubber mats that are just as grippy wet as dry. Thick, flat mats are great, offering a smooth, non-slip surface that has the added benefit of preventing injuries in case of falls. Given the inevitability of a cranky or upset horse, or one that just doesn’t want its face splashed, someone’s going to sit down hard at least once.

Don’t use thin, warped mats that you’re recycling out of a stall because you’ll trip constantly over their curled corners. If you’re washing on a gravel base, only thick, solid mats will keep the horses from digging to China as they fuss.

In lieu of mats, many folks use the easily-cleaned and high-traction surface of concrete, etched when it was poured with a coarse broom. It hoses and sweeps well, but can take a toll on hocks, elbows and heads if a horse falls on it. If you plan on building more than one wash rack, it might make sense to have one with mats for the fractious horses and one with plain, rough-swept concrete for the old campaigners no more likely to throw themselves down as they are to sprout wings.

If you do lay a concrete footing, be sure to drain it well and install plenty of reinforcing bars throughout. And don’t scrimp on the thickness—use at least three inches, but more ideally six. Water pooling in the area can undercut your platform and the next big animal that stomps down in the right spot might crack the slab into pieces. Frame the edges with pressure-treated 2 by 6s or 2 by 8s to prevent scrapes on horses that misjudge the step.

A third option is hard-packed asphalt, although it’s more difficult to keep clean since dirt eventually fills in the crevices and makes it look like a dirt floor. Again, make sure it drains well. Watch out for the corrosive action of some liniments and bug sprays. They’ll eat away the surface over time and create unexpected craters if a particularly caustic product spills. As with concrete, frame the edges. Not so much because of scrapes, but because asphalt crumbles if it is not packed and then supported by another structure.

Hold That Horse

Keeping the horse centered on the wash pad is the next challenge, and that calls for a really solid anchor—something on the order of a 100-year-old oak tree that won’t budge when pulled upon. For the main tie post, a telephone pole, railroad tie or at least a pressure-treated 6 by 6 are good options as long as the post is set deep in plenty of concrete.

You’ll also spend less time chasing horses in circles if you fence the wash area on three sides. The railings can either be matching, solid wood rails that double as handy shampoo shelves, or some type of commercial, pipe-rack arrangement that holds the horse still, like a set of durable veterinary stocks. 

Never install a light section of fence that can break, or sink a post in an inadequate footing of concrete that will lift from the ground under a horse’s strain. The sight of a terrified horse pulling a post or a chunk of concrete down the driveway is horrifying. Experienced horsemen know that you’ve got to either tie your horse to something that gives right away (like a bungee-cord strap or a breakaway hay string) or something that won’t ever give, using a halter and solid lead rope. If a horse in your barn has learned to sit back and pop ropes and halters at will, you need to take his training sessions well away from the wash rack. But be ready for him to test the system when he gets there.

Water, Water, Everywhere

A well-designed, draining wash rack with a scenic view won’t do much good if your spigot is broken twice a week or the hose is periodically stomped into fettuccini. Above all, be aware that hooves and teeth are hard on more than just grass and fingers. Protect any water lines, above or below ground, from being crushed or pulled loose. Buried lines need either plenty of soil on top (24 inches or better) or an extra sheath of PVC pipe.

Above-ground pipes, whether steel or PVC, can’t withstand kicks; nor can tangled halters and ropes, because they’ll break when you least expect it. Box in exposed pipes and faucets with a wooden post and shelf arrangement, allowing your hand, but not your horses, to get to the handles. It also offers support for insulation if you’re in a freeze-prone area. Supply your wash area with an easily rewound hose reel as well, and keep it in good repair if you hope to have the hose rolled back up at least once a day. And if you’re facing early-winter or late-spring freezes, be sure to remove the hose from the faucet attachment every night and drain it.

The Bottom Line

Once you’ve gotten your footing elevated and drained, your water supply protected and your horses in place, the chore becomes much simpler. If you’ve taken advantage of an existing corner, a nearby spigot and a good slope, you’ve probably built your wash rack for less than $200. But if you’ve got a yen to spend $500 or more, start moving bedding and redesigning a stall, because you’re ready for the indoor washing circuit. And that’s a whole other story.