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Housing Heavy Horses - Draft The Right Barn Plans

By Content Admin, 12/02/2020 - 5:08am

Blog By Nikki Alvin-Smith


The traditional working horse draft breeds of yesterday are seeing an increase in popularity in the U.S.A. due partly for their use as working horses on the homestead, but mainly as horses to own for fun and for competition in halter, driving and ridden classes. 

Following WW2, the number of draft horses worldwide was a pitiful number, particularly in Europe for obvious reasons. For instance, there were approximately only 2000 draft horses left in the U.K. Due to efforts across the world to encourage breeding, training and showing of these breeds, the number has multiplied exponentially since the 1970’s, and breeds such as the American Cream Draft have developed a sincere following.

The horsepower of the draft breeds, where the equine can pull double its weight, is no small feat. The ‘Gentle Giant’ nature of cold-blooded horses makes them attractive to own. They range from smaller sized breeds such as the Norwegian Fjord, Haflinger, Dale and Fell ponies to the dashing black Friesians and the huge Shires than can reach 19 hands in height. 

Most horse folks realize that larger horses require larger space for housing and shelter than their average sized equine counterparts. In general draft horse breeds are not necessarily taller than today’s performance horses such as the middle-weight Warmbloods, but characteristically their body types are wider. With the exception of Fell and Dale, Haflinger and Fjord draft breeds, the heavy horses are just that. Heavy! The weightiest of which is the Percheron, who can weigh in at a massive 1900 to 2600 pounds. Keep your feet clear!

In this article we’ll discuss horse housing for the larger beasts of burden. 

These powerful giants of the equine world can make a regular size horse barn look like a dollhouse. Ideal horse keeping needs for these breeds do not mirror the requirements for the average horse. The usual size horse barns with 10’ x 12’ or 12’ x 12’ stalls might technically accommodate the oversized horse, but certainly the stabling size is not the best possible solution for their comfort and wellbeing.

When a stall is a tight fit for a horse, not only does it limit their movement and may cause mental anxiety in the animal, it also increases the risk for the horse becoming cast and makes working around the stabled equine more difficult and even dangerous for the horse caregiver. 

The use of straight stalls was historically popular, but unless the horse is on a daily exercise program of some substance, their use restricts movement to such as degree that health issues including lameness, mental behavioral issues and gastrointestinal problems can occur. 

Freedom of movement for as many hours out of a 24-hour period as possible, is the best method to employ for maximum health and happiness for any horse. Certain breeds such as the Belgian, are particularly susceptible to illness from equine exertional rhabdomyolysis.  Also known as azoturia or tying up, this syndrome damages horses’ muscle tissue. Historically this ailment was commonly referred to as Monday Morning Disease. Working horses would be forced to stand idle in straight stalls for one day a week, Sunday, and when they returned to work the sudden change in activity could cause a tying up episode.

Due to their wider build the large draft breeds require plenty of room in door widths, entrances to the barn and aisleways. The ceiling height should be high enough that the horse does not have to hang its head low to fit, and provide good clearance above the horse’s head to avoid issues like poll evil. Grills or Dutch doors that provide a window for the horse to survey its surroundings should similarly be large enough to accommodate the bigger size heads of the large draft breeds. 

The walls of the stalls must be strong and sturdy, as 2000 pounds of weight pushing or rubbing against a pillar or wall can defeat an average framed barn build and result in injury to the horse and damage to the barn.

Don’t overlook the pounding that the floor of the barn will also endure due to the increased weight and large hooves of the heavy horse breeds, especially rough on floor if the horse is shod. Concrete floors are the best solution to avert ‘poaching’ of the floor as stone dust floors or dirt floors will not hold up well to the abuse.

If you are planning to house heavy working horses, the draft plans for your new horse barn should cover the essential components of construction, in terms of frame design, dimensional lumber and specifications of the space to maximize the form and function of the daily use of the barn for these huge equines.

Customized modular barn options are a good way to go, as all aspects of special needs for these breeds can be addressed. Additionally working with a company that innately has significant experience of daily work and ownership of draft horses as well as world-renowned craftsmanship talent in barn building by the employment of an Amish crew, can be a significant help in formulating the best possible design to house these magnificent horses.

Here is some succinct advice from Chief Marketing Officer Jill Siragusa, of leading modular barn builder Horizon Structures LLC, based in Atglen, PA, that provide horse barns nationwide.

“ The majesty of the heavy horse breeds is undeniable,” says Siragusa, “ And their mass and size can provide challenges to the their owners in both barn design and field/pasture fencing and care. I have personally owned a Clydesdale, Pete, who was my ‘heart’ horse for sure. I currently own a Fjord called Alex, and I am very fond of the draft horse breeds. They make the very best of companions with their docile natures and willingness to do whatever is asked of them. 

Here at Horizon Structures, our customized barn building options cater for everything from mini horses to the noble draft breeds. For the latter, we recommend stall of a median 14’ x 16’ for comfort and a good average use, or for the very largest of horses a 20’ x 20’ or even a palatial 24’ x 24’. The front stall posts need to be upgraded from standard 4” x 4” to 6” x 6” and walls must be constructed of larger dimensional lumber than usual too. The standard sidewall height is elevated from the usual 10’ height to 12’. While a standard size door width of 4’ might manage, increasing it to 5’ can be helpful. Kick boarded walls should be well braced to withstand rubbing, and obviously the height of the front and sidewalls can be elevated too. It’s prudent to think about how you will use the barn. For example, if you plan to breed these gentle giants, foaling stalls will need to be even larger.” 

These barn design adjustments are just a few factors that should be considered for housing heavy horses. Additional attention should be given to the heights of paddock fencing, its design, durability and strength, footing in high traffic areas such as gateways.

Due to their beautiful feathers and thick coats, draft horses require regular grooming to be kept in the best condition. Their fetlocks are prone to ‘scratches,’ a bacterial skin infection that commonly occurs in horses kept in muddy conditions. Their large hooves and weight tear up pasture quickly, so it is prudent to provide plenty of grazing acreage for the draft breed, or install a well-drained dry lot paddock where they can still move around without chewing up the earth beneath their humungous feet. 

Considerable storage space will also be required to house the large quantity of hay and bedding supplies that draft horses will require. Due to their size, the larger breeds of draft horses nutritional dry forage needs can be double the amount of hay that a regular horse consumes, up to 50 pounds a day.

A safe place to work with the horses for the farrier, vet and other medical professionals and also for the horse owner to utilize when grooming, saddling and harnessing must also be considered. For driving enthusiasts the provision of a place to store the large amount of tack required for harnessing such as collars, and the safe dry spot to ‘garage the carriage’ also require some thought.

On a personal note I own and have owned many cross breed horses in my career that include the heavy breeds of Belgian and Percheron. Their amiable natures, intelligence and stoic disposition make them a true pleasure to own and to work with on a daily basis. 

My husband and I trained both my late 16.3.hh. Dutch Warmblood/Percheron cross Charrington WVH, and our 26-year-old Andalusian/Percheron cross Tiberio Lafite WVH, to Grand Prix dressage. 

While driving has always been the forte of the heavy breeds, the modern day twists on utilizing these breeds across other performance platforms has facilitated more use of the registered draft breed stallions and breeding mares, and provided a valuable source of income to the not inexpensive business of draft horse breeding and showing.

I will add that based on my experience, our standard 12’ x 12’ stall with a 4’ sliding door set on 4” x 4” posts was not sufficient. My horse Charrington aka Charlie, sadly suffered from sweet-itch his entire life and no attempted remedy was successful. His repeated tail rubbing against the door of the stall and walls in summer months required additional structural support and bracing. This need became particularly apparent after I arrived at the barn one morning to find the 90” tall stall door with grill, had been pushed out and off its track and sat on the floor. The stoic Percheron part of Charlie thankfully prevailed, so he just stood there looking over it with an expression of, “ Look how clever I am,” on his face. 

Building the right barn for working horses might take some extra thought but it will make daily life much safer and happier for both horse and human.

Nikki Alvin Smith

Nikki Alvin-Smith is a seasoned freelance writer who loves to share her lifelong experience with everything horse, farm and travel. Her work has been printed in more than two hundred equestrian magazine titles worldwide and her published articles number in the thousands including travel and lifestyle press.

A Brit who has called New York home for more than 37 years, Nikki brings a unique perspective to her writing.

Her experience as an international level Grand Prix dressage competitor, coach and worldwide clinician, with a youth spent showjumping and foxhunting, provides lots of educational truths and fun moments to share with the reader. Additionally she has been a horse breeder/importer of Hanoverian, Dutch and Iberian horses for 25+ years.

Together with her husband Paul, also a Grand Prix dressage rider, she lives in the beautiful Catskill Mountains of New York and operates an organic hay farm and dressage yard. She is the proud mother of three children, Tristan, James and Chelsea (twins), and the latter two have kept with the horse riding as adults.