Preventing the spread of disease is a constant concern among equestrians, especially at busy barns where horses are always coming and going. Here are some ways to make biosecurity more manageable when building or renovating your facility.
Biosecurity is a hot topic among equestrians. As an architect specializing in the design of healthy equestrian facilities, I know that with deliberate planning, owners can rest easy knowing they are protecting their valuable equines to the best of their ability.
The US Department of Agriculture guidelines for privately owned horse quarantine facilities provide a starting point for ensuring disease-protected barns. The agency’s basic standards address requirements for fencing, entrances and exits, windows, lighting, loading docks, horse stalls, aisles, isolation stalls, showers, storage space, restrooms, ventilation, climate control, fire alarms and communications systems. Furthermore, quarantine facilities must have separate drainage and heating, ventilation, air conditioning systems, and physical barriers between animals. As expected, horses must be protected from physical contact with one another, their manure or other discharges.
Sounds like a lot, right? Let’s break it down. To limit the spread of disease, we need to manage:
- Farm entrances and exits
- People and equipment
- Horse spaces (outside and inside the barn)
Biosecurity outside the barn
Property access and signage
Ideally, there should be only one way to get to your stable. It should be marked as the main entrance, or the design and layout should make it clear. I recall being taught in architecture school that “good design does not require signage,” but signs are a practical “must” for most farms. Multiple entry points make it difficult to control who visits your barn. When we limit the number of access points (sometimes by locking unused gates), and direct visitors to designated parking areas, we’re gaining more control, which is what we want.
Since equipment can carry diseases, pests and weed seeds, it’s important to regularly clean and disinfect tools and equipment before and after use on crops or livestock. In barn designs, my creative team typically includes an equipment wash area with the equipment storage area. To be safe, we isolate it from the barn and equine areas.
Manure carried with stall bedding can spread disease on shoes, tractor tires, muck rakes, etc., and is, of course, a potential source of infection. We typically do not specify open-air manure piles/pits. Likewise, we do not encourage the spread of manure from horses onto pastures unless it has been adequately composted. Poorly handled manure can affect the quality of surface and groundwater because the piles contain phosphorus, nitrogen and pathogens. That’s why we carefully consider a property’s flood plain and slope during the design phase.
If your horse escapes, he might run to meet your neighbor’s (possibly sick) horse. Likewise, open fencing can permit non-equine animals from off site to gain access to your horses, paddocks and barns. Vegetation offers one attractive option for natural windbreaks. Double-fencing paddocks to isolate physical contact between horses can also be a good preventive measure, although we suggest you maintain auditory and visual contact for social well-being. To be mentally as well as physically fit, horses need to be able to see and hear one another.
Biosecurity inside the barn
There are many ways to incorporate natural biosecurity into barn designs. I think it’s the cheapest (in the long run) and most efficient way to go. For example, we specify light colors for building materials for better reflectivity and to expose areas in need of cleaning. We want as much natural sunlight as possible to flood the barn. By using skylights, and exterior Dutch doors that can be left open when weather permits, we allow sunlight to move across the stall floor and interior surfaces, helping to sanitize the barn’s interior. Sunlight, in combination with good natural vertical ventilation, helps eliminate dark dank stall conditions that cause ammonia gases that in turn cause odors. Those ammonia gases and dank surfaces breed harmful bacteria that can affect the health of horses, particularly young foals.
It almost goes without saying that cleaning and disinfecting stalls is critically important for a secure and healthy horse environment. We know that a 1,000-pound horse produces a lot of manure and urine. It’s not a big leap to conclude that a significant organic load exists in the average horse stall.
This brings up the challenge of disinfecting horse stalls. There are many variables to consider, including the type and concentration of the disinfectant, its duration of contact with the surface, the air temperature and more. Essentially, the more organic material present, the harder it is to eliminate toxins. Non-porous smooth wall surfaces are the easiest to clean and disinfect. On the other hand, a porous floor surface such as “popcorn” asphalt allows moisture to drain through, and permits a “flush down” of the stall when cleaning to help disinfect the area. A subsurface drainage system may also be considered (depending on the quality and nature of the subsoils).
Keeping feed in a clean, dry storage area and regularly inspecting it for insects, pests and mold is basic practice, but it always bears repeating. Rodents and pests can squeeze though very small openings, so make a habit of closing the door. Feed storage and delivery systems need to be designed to work with your budget and your operation. Whatever you do, pests will eventually find a way to get in, but there’s a lot you can do to make it very difficult on them. Rodents are not only annoying, but can carry and spread diseases. A hyperactive barn cat is not a bad backup system.
Quarantine is not just for sick or new horses – those that have left the farm for showing or breeding can bring home germs. These horses should be isolated for at least two weeks, with no nose-to-nose contact. Additional management practices include:
- Limiting shared airspace between quarantined horses and the general population. We encourage placing isolation stalls in a separate building, if possible. Vertical ventilation is a way to reduce the spread of infectious diseases.
- Managing insect populations by screening doors and windows and using insecticidal sprays.
- Separately equipping the quarantine facility.
- Siting your quarantine barn downwind of your main barn, if possible.
Biosecurity as part of your best management practices
By keeping vaccinations up-to-date, maintaining a clean facility, implementing biosecurity precautions, and regularly disinfecting your barns and stalls, you will be better able to prevent and control equine disease on your farm. But with proper and creative design techniques, you may be able to build in good biosecurity practices that will help reduce your dependency on maintenance practices.
Nontraditional bedding alternatives
When talking to clients about barn design, one of the things we discuss is what type of bedding will be used in the stalls. We’re seeing all kinds of new bedding types on the market, including wheat straw, barley straw, oat straw, paper fiber, recycled wood fiber and crushed wallboard. The properties of these and other materials are not as well known as the more traditional straw and sawmill sawdust or shavings. While some non-traditional bedding types have their upsides, others can pose health risks due to contaminants. As always, we want stall bedding to be free of dust and mold.
We’re also seeing biosecure mats on the market. These disinfectant-filled foam and polypropylene mats seem to provide some help with the spread of hoof and foot problems, and hold up well under extreme use. But they require proper maintenance and cleaning so they remain effective, and depending on your choice of product, could have a wide-ranging impact on your budget.
John Blackburn and his team used green building principles to develop Blackburn Greenbarns™, a line of pre-designed horse barns that provide aesthetics and functionality while emphasizing the safety and health of horses, humans and the environment. They are naturally lit and ventilated, use low VOC paints and finishes, recycled materials and FSC-certified lumber. They also offer additional green add-ons, such as solar panels and hot water tanks, and rainwater collection systems (blackburnarch.com). Blackburn’s book, Healthy Stables by Design, can be ordered through Amazon.com or healthystablesbydesign.com.