When I moved out into the horse country of Florida in 2010 with my family, we had grand plans to build the perfect horse barn on our new property. We envisioned a structure with lots of masonry and large timbers to match my surroundings. After all, beautiful horse farms drew us to the Bluegrass in the first place.
My, how things change. In our case, functional and flexible won over these loftier plans, but we couldn’t be happier with the result. Let’s face it: What does a horse really need? Beautiful barns are a monument to horses’ human caretakers rather than to the horses themselves. Wild horses were nomadic creatures of the steppes and windblown plains, superbly suited to extreme temperatures and weather. Subsequent domestication has developed an animal more suited to human endeavor but still not far removed from his ancestors.
Horses tolerate heat and cold much better than their human handlers. However, in most climates, horses do need to have shelter available from wind, precipitation, and sun. Inevitably, inclement weather blows in while you are not at the farm. Blankets that were too hot on horses earlier in the day can become soaked inside and out. If the horse is clipped for competition or other athletic endeavors, the natural defensive barrier of the winter hair coat has been removed. These horses do need a little help from their friends; a run-in shed could be that solution.
You might have a barn and wish to augment turnout with basic shelter for your herd; you might be considering temporary housing until you have the time and/or money to build a barn, or you could be reconsidering the need for a full-sized barn altogether. A highly adaptable run-in shed might be just what you are looking for and can meet any of these needs at a price that won’t break the bank.
Basic Design Concepts
The same rules apply to all kinds of horse housing—elaborate barns or the most basic run-ins. One of the most important decisions is where to place the building. Good natural drainage away from the building pad on all four sides is essential for horse health (as it reduces standing water and mud accumulation) and building longevity. If you build on the side of a slope, make sure you can cut the grade down on the high side to cause runoff to go around the shed instead of through it. Also, consider convenient access to the shed for occasional maintenance, its proximity to water and electricity, and the costs involved.
Once you have determined your shed’s general location, consider the prevailing winds. Our forefathers knew exactly how the winds worked on their farms and situated their buildings accordingly. Now, this essential information is not as obvious to those who spend our days inside or working off the farm. Typically a three-sided structure, the run-in should be oriented to protect horses from wind-driven rain, sleet, and the sun. If prevailing winds are out of the Southwest, for instance, the open side of most well-planned run-ins will face to the North or Northeast. This provides shade and wind protection except for the rare storm out of the Northeast. A south-facing open-faced shed will need a substantial overhang to provide adequate shade.
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“Besides providing shelter, run-ins provide a useful means of catching and containing horses in need of medical examination or treatment,” adds Eric Peterson, DVM, an equine practitioner in Lexington, Ky. “They must be large enough to allow the animal to turn around and avoid injury as they are caught, but not so large that other horses turned out in the same field to interfere with the process.”
For instance, when constructing one of our run-ins, we centered it on a fence row with a flexible gate system that allows access to two different pastures or both. This allows us to segregate animals when we need to. Each half of the run-in is 16 feet wide–large enough to stand alone as protection for a few horses. We can open the full 32-foot width to either pasture when rotating by installing swinging gates in front of the run-in. When we open both pastures in the winter, we remove the gates to allow access from either pasture. This size accommodates six or more horses easily when fully opened. We rotate cattle and horses on our pastures, and both benefit from the protection it affords.
When determining your run-in’s size, consider the number of horses that will be turned out at any time. Horses need room to escape each other when they all want to be in the shed. An excellent general rule is to allow two horses per equivalent stall size of about 12-by-12 feet (i.e., a run-in for four horses would have 12 by 24 feet of space). These are loose rules that vary by horse breed and size; remember that crowding too many horses into a run-in is dangerous for horses and handlers and potentially damages the structure.
Herd dynamics should also affect run-in size decisions. According to Bob Coleman, Ph.D., PAS, associate director for undergraduate education in equine science and management and extension horse specialist at the University of Kentucky, another rule of thumb for shed size is 100 square feet of space per horse for the first two horses using the shelter and 50 square feet for each additional horse.
The shed walls should be a minimum of eight feet high at the low (back) side. The pitch of the roof depends on personal taste and climate requirements, but generally, it should not be less than 4 ½ or 4 inches of rising for every horizontal foot. The rise in the roof toward the open end will create a taller wall at the front of the shed. Often the front wall is left open up to eight feet high and sided above to ¬increase shelter from sun or precipitation.
Run-ins can be built from the same materials used for horse barns. Masonry is durable but expensive. Wood is less expensive but requires more maintenance. In any case, remember the horse will have access to both the inside and outside of every wall, so the building must be sturdy enough to withstand the occasional kick and should have no sharp edges on which a horse could scrape or cut himself. Metal-sided run-ins, the least expensive in most regions, should be lined with wood inside to prevent a horse from kicking through the walls and sustaining a serious injury. Also, eliminate sharp siding edges.
Prefabricated metal structures can be the quickest housing solution, shipped straight to your site. Use care to fasten these structures securely to terra firma to prevent wind damage. Run-in sheds, as a whole, are not designed to be portable. But many owners will move the sheds regularly (which often weakens the structure) or do not fasten them down sufficiently to endure wind and weather extremes.
These buildings are called run-ins because horses can and do run in when looking for shelter. Therefore, the footing needs to be a non-slip material. A run-in floor is typically natural earth augmented with at least 4 inches of Class I sand or a similar material–preferably atop geotextile fabric to reduce sand loss due to water runoff. This will provide a tough, easy-to-clean surface that will withstand pawing and exposure to urine. Some owners build a high-traffic pad (made of geotextile fabric, No. 4 crushed stone, and a dense grade aggregate installed over an excavated area) for drainage and then place the run-in shed on the pad, adds Coleman. Shavings can be used as a topper, but soiled shavings should be removed on a regular basis to avoid moisture buildup. Also, remove manure to prevent flies from gathering and breeding, though the need will be less frequent than in barn stalls since horses are not confined.
Case in Point
When we decided to build a free-standing run-in shed, we set a budget of only a few thousand dollars. We used six treated 6-by-6-inch posts set in concrete to create two bays, 10-by-16 feet each. We then built the roof with a front overhang to increase the sheltered area to approximately 14 feet in depth. The idea was to maximize roof area while keeping the front of the side walls far enough back to reduce the chance of a horse being trapped in a corner by an aggressive pasture mate. The overall shelter area was large enough for the six or so horses we anticipated would use it. The pitch is 7/12 (seven inches vertically per 12 inches horizontally), primarily for aesthetic reasons. Two large beams support the front roof structure because of the combined load of the main roof framing and the front overhang. The walls are constructed of vertical rough-sawn 1-by-6-inch lumber attached to horizontal framing material attached to the posts. We used hot-dipped galvanized nails for all fasteners and added a shingle roof to match other structures on the farm. Metal also would have worked well.
This run-in shed is now well over ten years old and has required no maintenance other than cleaning out the manure and replacing the footing with fresh Class I sand every few years. Also, as in all our equine housing, we check regularly for loose nails, sharp edges, or other apparent hazards.
We chose not to run power or water to this run-in because of its proximity to the barn and outside float waterers, although many owners opt to add these for convenience. Another common addition to this basic design is a hay storage area, often as a center room between two run-in areas. These vary from a few partitions made from pipe gates to fully enclosed rooms. This arrangement is particularly useful if your horses are housed in adjacent pastures for extended periods. Water at the shed might be useful for the same reason, although if you use a frost-proof hydrant, it should be separated from the turnout area to avoid potential injury.
An alternative run-in concept is created from a portion of an existing structure.
The main appeal of the run-in concept is the horse’s freedom to move about at will without human interference. You can design your shed as elaborate or as basic as you like and still adhere to this concept. A run-in shed’s flexibility makes it one of the most useful structures on a farm.