Often when we think of caring for our horses, the vision includes an impeccably designed and maintained stall. Because we find comfort and security within the walls of our homes, we sometimes assume horses must appreciate a snug home, too. But that is often not the case. Run-in or loafing sheds can be an economical and healthy alternative to putting a horse in a stable with stalls.

The needs of domestic horses
Many horses don’t live in the same type of environment their wild ancestors did. While the latter could cope with climate extremes, modern horses, especially those that have to deal with cold and snow, probably won’t be as well equipped. A wild horse or hardy backyard equine may be able to find adequate shelter in a line of trees, but your off-the-track Thoroughbred may need some additional shelter. Run-in or loafing sheds can provide that extra bit of protection from sun, snow, wind and rain. Run-in sheds provide you with a little more flexibility, too. You won’t need to rush home if it starts to rain or snow because you’re afraid your horse might get wet.

Pros and cons
Many vices stem from long hours standing in a stall. Weaving, wind-sucking, stall walking, pawing, and other undesirable behaviors can develop in a stabled horse. A horse kept outdoors with access to a run-in shed may become more relaxed and less likely to indulge in bad habits. Your horse’s physical health may benefit as well. Feet, legs and lungs may all be healthier when a horse is allowed to move more often, isn’t standing on a hard floor, and can breathe fresher outdoor air.

The downside is that not all horses know enough to get out of the weather and may need some encouragement, like a little hay in the corner, to lure them into the shed. As well, a bully in the group may not allow an underdog to get shelter.

Another drawback to run-ins is if your horse gets sick or injured and really needs stall rest or nursing. One solution is to find out if there’s a stable nearby you can board him at. Alternatively, you can build a partition in your run-in to make a temporary stall. You may also find it harder to monitor your horse’s health closely if you only have a run-in. It is more difficult to determine how many piles of manure he is producing and how much water and food he is consuming. If you have horses getting different feeds, you may have to be creative in how you separate them.

Choosing a location
Consider the location carefully before setting up a run-in. Take a look at the drainage in your pasture, where natural windbreaks are, where snow drifts and where the winds blow from. The ground should slope away from the run-in so water will not pool during snow melt and heavy rain – but not on such an angle that your horses aren’t standing on level ground.

The longest wall of your run-in should face the direction from which the coldest winds and rain come from – it will most likely be the north or northwest side. Access to the entrance should be free of obstacles, and the footing safe. Pay attention to how doors and gates will swing.

Size and structure
How big should your run-in be? It depends on how many horses you have, the space you have to work with, and your budget. A wide door is a must because it makes the run-in easier to clean out with tractor and bucket, and safer for the horse to get in and out. According to the Canadian Agri-Food Research Council’s Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farm Animals, each horse needs about 100 square feet of space. That’s equivalent to a 10’x10’ stall. If you have the resources, though, bigger is better. Minimum sizes may work for horses that get along, but not if a bully wants the space all to himself.

Also consider the size of your horses. An area suitable for an averagesized riding horse may not be adequate for a draft horse. Make your run-in large and high enough for your horses to stand, move around and lie down comfortably in.

Local by-laws also have to be considered if you are building a permanent structure. Check with your county, township, or other local government office about where you can build loafing sheds. There may be height, size, or location restrictions that you’ll have to consider. The alternative to building a permanent structure is a movable run-in kit. These can be dragged to new locations with a tractor, and may not require a building permit.

Maintaining your run-in
While hoof and lung health can benefit from outdoor living, they won’t if you don’t keep your loafing sheds clean. Loafing sheds need to be cleaned out as frequently as a stall does.

You may even decide to bed it depending on the footing and the time of year. A length of eaves trough across the entrance can help prevent water or ice from building up. You’ll probably need to replace the soil over time; the horses will tramp down the surface and some earth will be inadvertently removed during cleanups.

Before building loafing sheds, be sure to consider the needs of your horse as well as your own lifestyle. It may not be suitable for “special need horses” and show or performance horses who need to stay perfectly clean and protected. But for many others, they can offer an easier and more natural way of living.

Katherine Blocksdorf has been riding since before she was born. She is a horse owner and writer living in Southern Ontario.