Building a Dream

The time has come to build your own barn. If you're lucky, all your bases are covered so you can avoid costly mistakes.

Finally! After spending so many years daydreaming about building your own barn, the time has come. Whether you are building a small, one-horse shelter or a 40-stall boarding stable, you need to consider all aspects of the barn very carefully. Something that seemed like a great idea on paper might not work out so well in reality, while other aspects not considered could save a lot of time, money and effort.


The first thing to do is to ask yourself (and others) lots of questions. Ask barn owners what they like and dislike about their barns. Write down their answers. A month or two down the road when you’re putting your plans on paper, you may not remember what they said. Then, draw a rough draft of what you’d want your barn to look like, inside and out.

Once your basic design is done, picture yourself in the barn, doing chores and working with horses. Don’t just think about it, visually run through everything including feeding, grooming, tacking up, turning the horses out and cleaning. It might sound silly, but visualization will help pinpoint potential problems in your design. Imagine someone walking down the aisle to get the wheelbarrow, then going to a stall to clean it. Is the storage room too far away from the stalls? Is it convenient or a hassle? What about the spot where you located the crossties? Will another horse be able to reach out and distract the horse that is tied? This could cause some serious problems in the future. These questions and others should all be considered as the barn design develops.


One of the first things to determine is the type of material to use for constructing the barn. The two most common types of barns are generally made of wood or metal. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. A wood barn is very attractive, but is normally more expensive to build and maintain than a comparable metal building. Upkeep of a wooden structure includes protecting all edges and other potential chewing sites with metal or rubber. Special types of rubber, which are used as flooring in ­athletic venues, can sometimes be purchased inexpensively from flooring companies and cover the sharp edges found on metal. The material can easily be cut and screwed onto the wood. This extra protection may initially seem expensive, but will save money in time.

Metal barns, on the other hand, are generally less expensive to build. But with metal barns come sharp edges that the horses may come in contact with which will need to be addressed. And, if the roof is metal, it would be wise to install a protective barrier to protect the horses, equipment, hay and anything else from the condensation that can occur. Jackie Fitch of Malabar Morgan Farm in Clearville, Pa., discovered a clever way to eliminate the “rain” that was caused by this condensation. She insulated the roof with foil-covered foam boards. The boards prevent cool air from contacting a hot roof in summer and warm air from contacting a cold roof, preventing condensation and eliminating the dripping. Before Fitch found this solution she had put rolled insulation under the roof, which became soaked with water and started falling down.

Besides the cost advantage, a metal structure will never be invaded by termites, but a solid, wooden barn is more likely to withstand a severe act of nature, such as a blizzard or hurricane.


One suggestion is frequently made by people who have built a barn: Make it larger than you think you’ll need it to be. Margaret MacDonald of Mini Mac Farm in Leverett, Mass., says, “Build it bigger. There is never enough room! We built ours larger than we thought we’d need, but it is still too small. We were more concerned with the needs of the horses than storing equipment.”

If you plan on having a center aisle, make it WIDE. When asked to think of something that they didn’t like about their barns, many people lamented that their aisles were too narrow. Jim Alexander of Border View Farm, Vt., built his barn in 1972 and he “made the aisle too narrow, and I’ve suffered with that mistake. Make it big enough to drive a tractor right down the middle of it. The labor that you save over the years will more than make up for the additional expense.” Many people suggested aisles that are at least 12 feet wide. And don’t forget to make the barn itself tall enough. Helen Allard admits that “in adapting the barn for horses, we added a U-shaped loft above the stalls and ends of the aisle. Because we’d originally used prefabricated roof trusses when we built, the added-on loft really wasn’t high enough. It’s very inconvenient when stacking hay. I hit my head a lot!”


There are many small, seemingly insignificant aspects of a barn that would appear to make little difference in the day-to-day operations. But even a small design flaw can lead to years of frustration. Monica Duncan of Quebec admits that her big mistake was “making the door sills too low. I was afraid the horses wouldn’t lift their feet up high enough and hurt themselves. So, because I had them made low, when there is a big downpour, or when snow is melting in the spring, the water flows into the barn aisle. I could raise the sill by pouring more cement on top, or laying down a thick wooden sill, but in either case, it will never be as water-tight as a single-pouring cement job because of our freeze/thaw temperature cycles.” And speaking of cement, make sure the contractor knows to run a broom across it to make the surface rough.

If you plan on installing windows in areas that are accessible to your horses, consider using Plexiglass. It is inexpensive, safe and not as unsightly as glass covered with wire.

Another small detail to consider is to shelter any openings with a wide eave. When snow, which has collected on the roof, begins to melt and then suddenly slides off, any self-respecting horse will get nervous as he goes in and out. Narrow eaves will also have the unwanted side effect of leaving piles of snow, which you will have to shovel, up against your barn.


When asked about how to improve a barn, many people mentioned things that were related to weather. Elizabeth Gouwens, who lives in Arizona, says, “Think about things like sun exposure, prevailing winds and weather patterns in your area.” The barn should be built and situated to provide the best protection from the elements while also allowing for good air flow and ventilation.

Ann Bartgis of Cedarvale Farm in upstate New York agrees, and suggests that daylight should also be considered. “If siting a new barn, go out to the site in the morning, say between 7 and 10 a.m., and see where the sun is, and again in late afternoon,” she says. “Check the wind too. A nice breeze through the barn and stall windows is a huge help, both for comfort and health of horses and humans. My barn…doesn’t capture any natural sunlight, however the aisleway is affectionately known by my blacksmith as ‘the wind tunnel.’ Pleasant to work in in the summer except when sawdust is blowing by, spooking the horses, or you’re trying to sweep the aisle in the other direction.”

And remember those winter snow storms. The pitch of the roof needs to be steep enough to allow snow to fall off easily and not collect in any one area. And once on the ground, that melting snow needs to go somewhere. Runoff from fields and areas around the barn can be a real problem. Make sure you have the area surrounding the barn properly graded away from the building to avoid becoming waterlogged.

Although building a barn that will perfectly suit your needs may seem like a daunting project, some preliminary groundwork and research will help enormously. Even if you can afford to hire an architect who will take care of many of the issues raised here, your input and ideas will still be necessary. Remember, extra time spent now can save you from many headaches in the years to come.






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