Why Your Horses Need Good Ventilation…


Here’s a wonderful article written by Cappy Tosetti which was published in Draft Horse Journal Winter 2006-2007 issue (Please visit www.drafthorsejournal.com for some fascinating history about draft horses and mules).  My thanks go to both Cappy and the editors of Draft Horse Journal for allowing me to present UP IN FLAMES to you.

Cappy Tosetti is a feature writer for Draft Horse Journal and also freelances for other magazines with a main focus on equine health/wellness, agriculture, small farm marketing, gardening, food and travel.  She divides her time between Surprise, Arizona and Lexington, Kentucky.


by Cappy Tosetti

     Somewhere in the darkness tonight, a spark will ignite in a barn, quickly spreading across the floor, creeping into corners and climbing high up the walls to the rooftop.  There will be no mercy as it engulfs everything in its path—bales of hay, bags of feed, tractors and tools, harness, tack and ribbons on the wall.  Trapped in their stalls, frightened horses will react with fear in their eyes and terror in their hearts as their world comes tumbling down.
Hopefully, it won’t be in your barn, but circumstance could bring it knocking on your door another time.  To avoid such a tragedy, it’s best to take action right now with winter on our doorstep, since the majority of barn fires seem to happen during the cold months of the year.
It makes sense, as the days grow shorter and it gets darker sooner, we tend to hurry up with our chores, heading back to the warmth of the recliner in the living room.  Humans don’t relish the chilly atmosphere out in the barn, so we start plugging in space heaters and close up all the windows and doors, forgetting that horses do just fine out there this time of the year.
Their bodies adapt to winter weather in many ways besides growing a shaggy coat. Each hair works in unison, straightening up so it “stands on end,” forming a larger insulating pocket of air between the skin surface and the harsh winter weather.  This is accomplished by a unique muscle attached to the lowest point of each hair follicle, triggering a contraction when it’s cold.
Their thick, blocky bodies retain heat for long periods of time, plus they have a massive digestive tract that processes a mostly fibrous diet that generates large amounts of heat.  They also have the ability to warm up the frigid outside air in their long nasal passages before it reaches their lungs. And that big soft muzzle is filled with a rich supply of blood, alleviating any chance of getting frostbite.
To minimize heat loss during cold weather, blood flow in tiny veins under the surface of the skin is blocked and rerouted into vessels deep within the body that carry warm blood to the heart, lungs and other organs.  More magic is going on at ground level.  A signal goes off, alerting the body that the feet are getting cold, so a direct shunt opens up, allowing more blood flow from the smallest arteries directly into larger veins.  Once their feet warm up sufficiently, the shunt closes again waiting for the next signal.  This same process happens in the ears, muzzle and tail.  There’s even something special that protects a stallion’s genitals.  Normally exposed to the outside so it can maintain a slightly lower temperature during breeding season, the hairless scrotum needs added protection on a cold, winter’s night.  Mother Nature came to the rescue, providing a nifty muscle called the dartos that simply puckers the scrotum up against the body—keeping it nice and warm.  How clever!
Many other physical changes occur that help horses adapt to winter’s chill, enabling them to survive and thrive quite happily outside the barn, even if we find it difficult to comprehend.  The important thing to remember is the barn is their residence—not ours!

As winter approaches, many people have the tendency to shut the barn door tight, figuring it’s best to keep things warm and toasty while out there doing chores and tending to the animals.  Soon, the air will stand still, causing a host of problems for the horses and safety issues within the environment.
Fresh, circulating air is vital for any living creature, especially a horse stuck in a stall, sometimes 24 hours a day during the winter.  When all the doors and openings are shut, inadequate ventilation can quickly cause the air to become stagnant, creating havoc on a horse’s respiratory system.
Just about everything in and around a barn can contribute to poor air quality, from the dust and molds lurking in hay, grain and bedding, to the ammonia fumes permeating from urine.  Then, there’s a laundry list of other nasty pollutants in the atmosphere: fungal material, bacteria and viruses, methane, hydrogen sulfide fumes from manure, plant material, insect parts, moisture and gases.
The dust that circulates in a closed barn can affect allergies in horses of all ages, especially older animals.  There’s also the chance of developing respiratory diseases like influenza and strangles.
It’s important to understand how proper ventilation in barns and stables can improve and protect equine respiratory health.  The ideal situation is when fresh air, or a barn ventilation system, distributes quality air throughout the building without causing drafts.  This is important year-round.  The moving air tends to sweep away dust and mold particles, as well as airborne viruses and bacteria.  It’s paramount to keep the air circulating, moving fresh air from the outside into the structure.  That’s why open windows and vents are so important.  You don’t want to just move the existing air around in a closed-up environment.
“Quality air circulation is definitely an important factor in designing and building a barn,” says Joe Martinolich, AIA (American Institute of Architects) and Director of the Equine Facilities Design division at CMW Inc., an architectural and engineering firm in Lexington, Kentucky.  “That’s why many of our designs eliminate the traditional hayloft of long ago.  It helps reduce the hazard where stored hay could easily ignite and cause a serious fire, but it also provides a large space for air to circulate.  You’ll see a lot of dormer windows and cupolas on the roof, adding a decorative and pleasing look to the design, but they also serve a dual purpose by being able to open, allowing the exchange of inside and outside air.”
It is also suggested to construct a separate building away from the barn to keep large amounts of hay and bedding traditionally stored in the loft.  This solves the problem of chaff (seed castings) and dust from the hay sifting down and triggering respiratory problems in the horses below.  Also, old hay and bedding have a tendency to form a layer of material on the loft floor, providing the perfect environment for mold growth, as well as a hiding place for rodents and birds.
“In an existing barn,” Martinolich goes on to say, “this design feature might not be feasible, but it’s worth investigating.  There are other means of opening up a barn to increase ventilation, such as adding roof vents or dormers.  But even if no physical changes occur to the building, the removal of large amounts of hay will reduce the amount of dust and thereby lessen the risk of fire.
Safety is always at the top of the list, whether Martinolich is designing a brand new barn, or offering suggestions to friends and clients in updating older structures.  “Sometimes all that’s needed is a bit of sandpaper.  Take for example the posts and pillars throughout the interior.  Do the corners form a square 90-degree angle?  Are there splinters on the edges?  If you do nothing else, gently sand those edges, getting rid of any bits of wood that can act like tiny pieces of kindling.  Corners that meet at a 90-degree angle tend to burn faster than a “chamfer” or 45-degree beveled corner.  Rounding those 90-degree edges not only reduces the fire risk, but also softens the edges so if humans and horses bump into them, it won’t smart as much.
This doesn’t mean going overboard, carving a skinny post to a point where the structural strength is compromised.  It shouldn’t become an overwhelming project either, climbing high into the rafters with bits of sandpaper.  If a fire starts and spreads in a wooden structure, pillars and posts will still burn.  This is merely one step in reducing one potential danger.  Ideally, every barn owner should regularly walk-through and inspect their stable, checking things off in a notebook—things that can be done today to help reduce the chances of a tragedy tomorrow.

Plan – Prepare – Prevent

Like everyone else with horses, you are obviously busy from morning until night with your own laundry list of daily chores and responsibilities.  Adding another project to that list can sometimes be vexing, but in this case, it’s important to take the time and effort, preferably with the help of an outside expert.
The first people to call are your local firefighters.  They’ll be more than happy to come out to your property and give you suggestions for making your barn and home a safer place. Ask them to bring a fire truck so you can visually see if they can get down the driveway and actually turn around.  Discuss access to your barn in the dark, availability of proper water resources and if they have any experience haltering and leading horses.  You might not be home if your barn goes up in smoke.  Can your local firefighters grab onto a horse and lead it out?
Ask them to put on their full firefighting gear and walk up to your horses.  Sounds silly, but it’s a good way to see what kind of reaction your animals might have.  This is also a good suggestion for families with children.  Youngsters are frightened enough when a fire breaks out, and doubly scared when a giant masked “creature” comes pounding at their door.  Many times, little ones hide under the bed where no one can find them.
This is the time to ask questions.  It’s also the perfect opportunity to talk about fire prevention, safety and an evacuation plan if something does happen.  Include all family members, staff and volunteers working on your property.  Also practice evacuating the building with your horses.  How swiftly and efficiently can you get them outside to a safe pasture or into a trailer for a fast get-away?  Practice this in the daytime and also in the dark of night.  Knowledge is a key ingredient when it comes to safety.
Clydesdale and Belgian breeders and brothers, Gary and Scott Nebergall, Arthur, Illinois, agree, “Please don’t put this off.  We know it sounds like a lot of extra work and time, but taking these steps in protecting your home and horses is definitely worth the effort.
“We all think we’re pretty savvy when it comes to knowing about fire safety, but in reality, there’s so much more to learn.  We lost our brand new barn and five valuable horses in 2000 with one careless act—something we’ll never forget.  Part of the building had some finishing touches to complete, including a small attached apartment.  We were in the midst of staining some cabinets, and left a pile of rags on the floor overnight, figuring we’d finish up in the morning.
“The building and just about everything in it was gone before dawn.  It was a nightmare.  A fire is a daunting and devastating experience that rips out your heart and leaves you numb.
“Fortunately, five other horses did survive that night.  As we huddled together close to them with family and friends, we promised to build another barn; knowing this time, fire prevention would be foremost in everything we did.”
Gary and Scott contacted their local fire department, who eagerly met with them at their new property, helping them locate the best place to build a new barn—near a good source of water, and away from the prevailing winds that blow across the winter landscape.  They also incorporated a few new things into the plan: a steel structure, a separate storage building for hay and bedding, a vaulted ceiling without a loft and exterior doors on each box stall for easy exit and escape for their draft horses.  There’s also a halter and attached lead rope (with glow-in-the-dark reflectors) outside every horse’s door (interior and exterior) for easy access, especially if an emergency happens at night.
They also organized a barn safety and fire prevention workshop at the veterinary clinic where Scott works, inviting clients, horse owners, farmers and friends to learn more from their local firefighters. “We wanted to do something positive.  There’s plenty more we can do—starting in our own backyard by observing and practicing a sensible approach to safety and fire prevention.  We can also schedule more clinics and encourage others to do the same.  It’s never too soon to be prepared!”
Jim Mehring, a retired firefighter and chief from Brookfield, Wisconsin, applauds their actions.  “Take advantage of the resources in your own community.  Give your local fire department a call and ask for their help.  We were always delighted to hear from individuals, schools and groups, especially 4-H clubs and other youth organizations.
“Sometimes people are afraid to ask questions or they think it’s a bother for us to come out and do a walk-through.  Quite the contrary.  Your tax dollars are paying for fire protection…and…prevention.  It’s always better talking about fires and what you can do to avoid them, than having to respond and report a tragedy.
“Your fire department will give you a check list, plus you can do a simple search on the Internet, typing in two little words: barn fires.  All sorts of great tips and information will pop up, giving you a jump-start in setting up your own planning and procedure protocol.  Review that check-list and update it as you make changes around the barn and on the property.  Your insurance agent just might be inclined to lower your premiums if you install heat and smoke alarms, fire extinguishers and a sprinkler system (with adequate water pressure).”

Here’s a start:

  • No smoking!  No exceptions!  Not in the barn, hay/bedding storage area, tack room, back room, any room.  Post signs inside and outside all doors.  Put a butt can in your parking area so arriving visitors can extinguish their cigarettes.
  • Keep things neat and orderly.  Get rid of cobwebs, bird nests in the rafters, clutter in the corners.  Wipe dust off light fixtures, outlet covers, switches and panel boxes.  Sweep and rake all hay, bedding, dust and dirt on the floors daily.  Wipe down stall doors and panels regularly.  A clean barn is a safe barn.
  • Inspect all wiring—hire a professional electrician if possible.  Enclose wires in metal conduit or metal wrapped cable to avoid chewing by rodents and bored horses.  Some dogs and even cats are prone to chomping down on wires.  Don’t use extension cords unless absolutely necessary and then only use heavy duty grounded cords.  Use them only for a particular project when you are physically there.  Don’t leave them unattended.
  • Light fixtures should have dust and moisture resistant covers, surrounded by a wire cage bulb protector.  Motors—used on fans, water pumps and other equipment should have moisture/dust proof on/off switches and should not be within 18 inches of any combustible material (hay, bedding).  A fire resistant shield should be placed around that material to protect it from any heat given off by a motor.
  • Space heaters—one of the biggest contributors to fires—should never be operated near your horses.  If used in tack rooms, heater units should never be left unattended—even the newer models that promise to turn off if tipped over.  Many of them do not contain safety devices which prevent overheating.  Heat lamps are another major source of barn fires.  They are often place too close to hay and bedding which can easily ignite from the generated heat.
  • Hay and bedding.  Countless fires are caused by the spontaneous combustion in hay that’s baled before it is cured—wet hay can heat up and spark many a flame. Reduce the risks of fire by storing this material properly, preferably in a separate building away from the barn.  A handy, smaller area in the barn is fine for daily use, preferably surrounded by concrete walls.
  • Manure piles should be at least 20 feet away from the barn to reduce the chance of combustion fire.  If possible, consider removing and spreading the much into windrows that can be turned into compost. (A cost-effective and efficient way to process this constant end-product found on every farm.)
  • Avoid piling oily tack or hoof cleaning rags in a heap.  They will heat up from the oil and petroleum saturation, and can easily catch fire.

It’s easy to read this and conveniently think it will never happen to you, so why bother?  Just ask Brian and Colleen Coleman from Schulenburg, Texas.  They can remember their nightmare as if it was yesterday.  “We were living in Alberta at the time, breeding and showing Percherons and Clydes.  Sadly, on a warm January day, the manure pile overheated, sending sparks directly into our wood-sided barn, turning things into a raging fire that destroyed everything, including many of our horses, our equipment, wagons and tack.  There’s just nothing like it—fire changes everything in your life.
“Our new barn here in Texas is a steel structure, and you can bet there are no manure piles anywhere near the buildings.  We’re also incorporated fire prevention into all aspects of our operation.  It’s the right thing to do.”
Often, things are not in our control, even when everything possible is done to maintain a safe environment.  Belgian breeders, Tom and Dorsey Apthorp from Chardon, Ohio, can attest to that.  “Last year in January, Dorsey was at work and I was in the hospital,” Tom sadly remembers.  “It was midnight when the fire broke out and ravaged just about everything, including the stallion, L & C Korry (the sire of Korry’s Captain), owned by Earl Sorenson of Iowa.  We lost eight other horses, too.
“The cause of the fire stemmed from a lit cigarette tossed haphazardly into the hay by an unknown source.  We’ve rebuilt and moved on, but our hearts are still heavy with the events of that day.  You never forget.  You can only hope it never happens again to you or to anyone else.  Never take anything for granted—be prepared and do your best in providing a safe haven for your family and animals.”
Like the phoenix rising from the ashes, the Apthorps and others forged ahead, continuing to share their lives with the animals they love.  They took a tragedy and turned it into a positive move, sharing their stories with others in hopes that fire sirens will sound no more where horses live.
A special thanks to firefighters everywhere putting their lives on the line every single day for all of us.  We salute you and invite you out to the farm anytime!

As an additional note, when Ed Scott (our knowledgeable hay man) sent us some great information for wildfire structure protection, he also mentioned this:

“Spanish horses, mules and burros here in Northern New Mexico are left in pasture through winter.  This is the southern Rocky Mountains and in January can dip down to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.  About the only extra consideration they receive is hay and breaking ice on the water trough if it gets too thick.  We always feel sorry for them but they seem to survive and look fine in the spring.  They hurdle together and under trees in storms.”

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