When it comes to providing, planning and building shelters for our horses, what design aspects matter most? In this article, Dr Mariette van den Berg provides some handy tips and useful guidance on the location, design and construction aspects that horses will appreciate and you should consider when designing man-made horse shelters.
Why build a shelter?
Providing shelter can be considered a basic requirement and best practice for the welfare of horses that are pastured or kept in paddocks 24/7. However, a shelter can mean anything from a tree in your pasture to a man-made walk-in shelter or stable block.
While horses are exceptionally well-adapted to deal with cold and hot weather in nature, they do require protection from the elements from time to time – especially when it’s very windy, wet or extremely hot or cold.
In nature, horses use the variation in the landscape to find shelter or relief - just think of a forest area or the ponds and marsh lands where horses gather to cool off. In such natural conditions, horses roam over large spaces and can find these sheltered areas, whereas in a domestic situation, it’s up to us humans to mimic some of these shelter features. This can indeed range from planting a tree, shrub belt or cluster to installing man-made shelters.
If you are looking into man-made horse shelters and would like to redesign or add one to your pasture or paddock, it is important that you do some homework, not only to determine your budget, but also to ensure you are not wasting money on a design that doesn’t work. There is nothing more disappointing than building a shelter that your horses don’t use or building more shelters than are required.
Let’s address the five major aspects that you will need to consider when it comes to man-made horse shelters:
- The climate/weather impact.
- The position/location of shelter.
- The horse’s requirements (such as horse behaviour, herd dynamics and individual vs group housing).
- The building and design considerations (such as materials, dimensions etc).
- The budget and installation considerations.
Reviewing each of these five aspects will allow you to decide on the best possible location and design to meet the needs of your horses.
Climate and weather elements
Before you delve into the actual design of your shelter it’s important that you review the weather elements that come into the property. This will not only dictate the location, but also influence certain design features. In Permaculture we address this by conducting a sector analysis of the property.
Sectors are a way of considering the external energies that move through a system, such as prevailing wind direction, site orientation and aspect (north, south, east, west, etc.), winter/summer sun paths, underlying geological make up (e.g., bed rock causing clay or sandy soil types, etc.), fire danger areas, and so on. By identifying these factors we can take steps to either utilise or counter them.
In the article series – Equine Permaculture Design (which you can read at: https://bit.ly/2MRp0Yp), you will find much more detail on sector analysis.
Since these natural energies come into our system from outside, we can strategically place elements in our design to manage or take advantage of these incoming energies.
For example, by simply placing plants, trees or structures in the appropriate areas, we can:
- block the incoming energy flow (such as grow a hedge as a windbreak),
- channel the incoming energy for a specific use (such as redirecting water to a dam for later use) and/or,
- open up areas to allow the energy to enter and flow more freely (such as removing trees to let more sunlight into a previously shady area).
The best way to plan and visualise the sectors is to draw a diagram of these natural energies on your property map using transparent overlays. This way, will get a good overview of the major elements that are entering your property that you need to take into consideration when placing, designing and installing your man-made structures.
In the case of horse shelters, we are obviously building them to block energies such as wind, sun, rain, hail or even snow. Before you can map the elements you need to observe your property!
In most cases, these natural energies will not be fully valued on a single visit to a property. A full year or more of observation, information and longer time-frame data will be needed, as well as delving into the memory of long-term residents of the area.
If you just moved to your property, you will need to do some homework to make sure you get a complete picture.
Mapping the common weather elements coming into the property allows you to determine the placement and orientation of the shelters, but keep in mind that this can simply be seen as an initial suggestion that you can refine as you review and weigh all the other aspects.
The weather conditions that you might encounter more regularly will largely depend on your geographical location and climate zone, and this will often dictate the main purpose and design features of your shelters.
For example, in (sub) tropical areas, shelters typically have the main function of keeping animals dry during rain events, whereas in more arid areas they mainly keep animals protected from the harsh sun or strong winds.
These aspects will influence the building materials and design that you choose.
Once you have a good understanding of the major weather elements and natural energies coming into the property, you can start working on the placement of your man-made shelters. The following aspects should be considered:
Choosing the right site
Your shelter should be placed in an elevated and well-drained area avoiding very steep hillsides, as these areas are prone to erosion and runoff.
Build your shelter on a level site.
Orient the shelter away from the prevailing wind and rain direction.
Keep in mind the changing summer and winter sun angles.
- Place shelters away from fences and gates. This makes cleaning easier and there will be plenty of room for horses to get in and out. This will also be safer, as horses won’t crowd and bump into fences or lean on gates.
- If you are considering a shared or central point shelter across adjoining paddocks, you will have to place it on the fence line and integrate some gates. You will have to consider the type of divider or fence between them and add gates that are safe and can withstand horses leaning or pushing against them.
- Avoid placing shelters in corners as this limits access and often increases compaction around the site.
- Never place your shelter in waterways such as wetlands, creeks, ditches or flood zones. You don’t want your horse standing in wet ground, and the shelter will be more susceptible to rot. It will also be more difficult to clean.
- Consider accessibility for horses, people and vehicles that might need to enter. This may entail lane ways and pathways, which you may have to set-up concurrently with the shelter installment. Be sure that alleys and paths are wide enough for your wheelbarrows and other equipment.
- Remember to plan for utilities such as water and/or power. Make sure that you install these in the early stages.
- Integrate manure bins and composting bays beside the shelter for convenience. This will allow you to keep your shelter area tidy and save time and labour in moving manure (and bedding) away.
- Keep your shelter away from septic drain fields or any other building features!
- Avoid placing your shelter under or in close proximity of any large trees, which could potentially fall on your shelter during storms.
- Check your local council’s regulations for additional information related to horse stables/shelters if available. Often, shelters and stables will have to be placed a certain distance away from natural waterways due to potential runoff.
Using your property map and keeping in mind the above-listed requirements, it’s time for you to draw the possible locations for your shelter(s). After that, it’s time to start thinking about the shelter design!
The horses’ requirements
Like an architect who considers the preferences, needs and movement of people in a new house or office building, we have to be aware of the horse’s size, needs and movement, as these will have a large influence on the success and use of the shelter we design.
Most importantly, when designing or redesigning shelters and other horse buildings, we must understand the horses’ ethology and behavioural needs.
Horses are strongly social. They are herd animals who experience a higher comfort level when they maintain visual and physical contact with other horses. They have a rich and varied social life that includes activities such as play behaviour and mutual grooming behaviour.
Keeping horses individually can pose problems and, often, people do not design shelters to cater for these needs.
For example, individual shelters with three solid walls, all facing in the same direction are likely to be used less if the horses can’t see outside the shelter or they lose visual contact with other horses.
A way around this problem is to consider a more open panel design that encourages visuals.
Horses also prefer to hang out together along fence lines and may prioritise company above any protection from the shelter. In this case, you are better off designing shelters in an arrangement that encourages visuals and herd behaviour. This may mean making some imaginative design adjustments to still keep their orientation away from sun and wind.
If you are designing a group shelter it is most important that you consider your herd dynamics. In any horse herd there will be differences in ages, temperament and dominance over resources, which may affect the use of the shelter by certain individuals. Horses lower in the herd’s pecking order could be prevented access to the shelters by more dominant or aggressive horses.
Another behaviour to acknowledge is that horses often tend to loaf and lay on surfaces that are dry, have a certain texture and feel comfortable to them.
A concrete floor will not encourage horses to make much use of the shelter and can even be a slippery hazard.
In addition, research shows that surfaces have a major influence on the blood flow and health of hoof tissues. On softer surfaces (pea rock, sand or some rubber mats), blood flow within the hoof will improve and trickle through all the small or microvenous vessels, irrigating all the tissues. On hard surfaces (cement or wood blocks), tissue perfusion dramatically decreases, blood moves faster through the foot and must stay in the large vessels.
Building and design considerations
Now that you have considered your horse’s behavioural requirements, you can start bringing things together for the design and decide on building materials.
The following aspects should be taken into consideration:
Number of shelters:
The aim should be to build group shelters and avoid a number of individual shelter structures unless this is a requirement, for example, when designing an agistment operation or for horses that for some reason, cannot live in a group. Even when having to accommodate horses individually, shelters can be paired or grouped into one structure.
It is great to see how many more agistment operators are now providing both, group and individual housing options to their clients. Having many individual shelters can significantly impact the aesthetics of your property unless you are very creative with materials and blend the structures into the landscape as much as possible.
Your shelter should be large enough to allow all your horses to stand and lie comfortably at the same time taking into consideration that bossy horses should not be able to completely ban the underdogs from entering the shelter.
A recommended size is about 3.5-4m x 3.5m per average sized riding horse (about the same size as a stable). However, if you can provide a larger space, you should because dominant horses may make it difficult for others to stay in the shelter if there is limited space.
It might sound obvious but, be sure the ceiling is high enough that a horse will not be able to hit its head. Ideally, a ceiling should be eight feet or higher.
There are always exceptions, for example if you create a two-sided, triangle or quadrant shade and/or windbreak which often is not fully enclosed.
As mentioned earlier, horses need to see other horses, so a three-sided, roofed walk-in shelter may not be ideal unless you integrate a stable block and walk-in shelter for two or more horses.
Therefore, it is important that you consider the number of partitions or walls you would like to build and whether any design structures can be integrated to increase visuals and limit the walls to two, one or even none. This will also largely depend on the purpose of the shelter. If you use it mainly for shade, you may not require any walls, whereas if you deal with lots of wind, you may want to have one or two walls depending on the most common wind directions.
If you build partitions, they should be strong, smooth and free of projections. They should be at least fencing height (depending on the size of the horses), or greater, and extend to the ground, so a horse cannot get its legs caught under it when lying down.
If you want to utilise stable area, you could extend your stables into an extra walk-in shelter for multiple horses or individual horses that are kept in adjoining paddocks.
If you decide on a more enclosed shelter design, make sure you build in sufficient airflow or ventilation in the shelters.
Central or shared shelter designs
If you are intending to build a central or shared shelter that covers adjoining paddocks, it is important that you consider the dividing fence or partition design and materials.
This design helps to encourage group loafing and contact while keeping horses in separate paddocks.
The dividing fences or partitions should be safe and will have to withstand horses leaning into them. The location of these central or shared shelters should also be carefully selected to avoid corners and should be away from any major gates.
There are numerous materials you can use to construct shelters; aluminum, zincalume, (colourbond) steel, wood, brick, stone, concrete, polyester and rubber. The type you choose will largely depend on the cost, purpose, design and your personal preference.
Just like fencing, you also have to weigh up the safety, durability and maintenance aspects. For example, if you only require shade you could opt for a shade sail structure with no walls, which will be less costly than a shed structure made with steel or wood.
Consider making your shelter portable so it can be dragged to different locations as you rotate your pastures so you can avoid having a shelter in every paddock.
The shelter area should be surfaced with a suitable material to prevent soil being washed out and to cope with high traffic.
The surface should extend further than the covered area to the high-traffic area where horses walk in and out.
There are different types to consider, such as river sand, pea rock, crusher dust, erosion titles/mats and woodchip. Your choice may also depend on whether you want this area to serve as feed station and/or a loafing area.
Many horses seem to like loafing and sinking their toes in a deep layer of pea rock or fine (5-7mm) drainage gravel, but they won’t lie down on it and prefer lying down on a deep, soft layer of wood chips or shavings.
If you intend on feeding horses in shelters (for example using slow feeding hay systems) remember that feeding on dusty, sandy or muddy ground can lead to ingestion of dirt and serious digestion problems.
Rubber mats or rubber pavers can work well to provide a clean feeding area. To avoid horses competing for access to the feed you could include separate feed stations in your design.
Water points can also be installed in shelters to reduce contamination and exposure to the sun.
Budget and installation
Like with any project on the property you will have to budget for your shelter(s). Any of the suggested designs can be achieved on a small or large budget depending on the materials and the assistance you need to get it constructed. You may be able to recycle or buy second hand stable walls that you can turn into shelter partitions or recycled wood and steel. You may have the time and skill to build the shelters yourself or with some help. Alternatively, you may have to hire a contractor, in which case it’s important that you have a design drawing available.
There are companies that offer shelter designs and installation packages but, be critical, and ensure it serves the main purpose and meets the horse’s needs. Check if they offer custom design. Do your homework and view their shelter structures in your region or obtain some references to see how they work on other properties. The internet is also a great resource as there are many forums and social media groups where horse owners and equestrian centers share their designs and experiences.
Once you have installed your shelter, observe how the horses use it and, where required, make adjustments. Also keep in mind any maintenance work, which will largely depend on the materials that were chosen. A structure totally made of aluminum/colourbond will require very little maintenance compared to a structure made of wood, which may need treatment or painting.
On a more frequent basis it is important to keep the shelter clean, picking up manure and maintaining the surface.
Happy horse shelter designing!