Dressage Barn Gone Green

Minimize the environmental impact of your horsekeeping with advice from professionals.

Credit: J. Martinolich Joseph Martinolich planned and designed Siena Farm in Paris, Kentucky, from the ground up.

Creating an eco-friendly habitat for your horse might sound daunting, but every effort, big or small, has the potential to reduce your environmental impact and your utility bills. Whether you’re looking to design and build an energy-efficient barn or you would just like to make your horse habits more environmentally friendly, Dressage Today has consulted two experts in environmentally sensitive barns and farms to help you make “going green” just another part of your horse routine.

John Blackburn, of Blackburn Architects and author of the book Healthy Stables by Design, describes how he plans and designs a “green” barn, while Joseph Martinolich, an architect who specializes in equestrian projects, explains how landscaping and certain building materials can save energy and reduce environmental pollutants. You’ll also find a list of simple tips to keep your barn routine kind to the environment.

Design a Greener Barn with John Blackburn

When designing a green barn or renovating an existing barn to make it more environmentally sustainable, I find there are three important needs to consider:

• The health and safety of the horses.

• The goals of the owner—how he or she wants the farm to work.

• How the demands of the site of the barn affect the design depending on the climate and terrain. 

All three must be in balance, with the health of the horse being paramount. When my team and I build a barn, we think of how horses live in the wild. In nature, the horse can manipulate his environment in various ways, by going behind a hill for shelter or finding a group of trees for shade. We design the barn to mimic a horse’s natural environment and use lighting and ventilation to maximize the benefits of the barn’s particular location, which also results in more environmentally friendly structures.

Natural light and ventilation can be utilized to your advantage not only to keep your horse comfortable but to make the barn passively sustainable. In other words, the design of the barn itself should provide light and ventilation without using energy to run fans or lamps during the day. Besides being better for your horse, this also cuts utility bills and reduces environmental impact.

Barn Placement

In addition to contributing to the efficiency of a farm, the placement of the barn on the property can take advantage of natural winds, sun and drainage. While existing barns can present a challenge, the climate of a small area—or the microclimate—can be manipulated by planting trees or by using neighboring buildings to affect natural light, ventilation and drainage. This is what I mean when I say we must respond to the demands of the site.

To begin, we recommend that our clients contact their local county agricultural extension service to have the soil analyzed. In my opinion, the ag extension staff is one of the best resources for farm owners because they provide free information, perform soil and water tests and can advise on pasture management. Once the composition of the soil is analyzed, we use that information to determine the following: 

Pasture grasses: The soil should be adequate to support pasture growth and drainage below the surface.

Structural needs: The soil needs to
be structurally adequate to support the building.

Drainage concerns: Proper drainage ensures that storm or surface water is easily and efficiently dispersed. Soil that holds storm water can create conditions that destroy the grass growth and generate mud around the barn or in the paddocks.

Besides studying the ground, my team and I look to the weather for typical wind patterns and strengths. Using annual wind–pattern data generated by the nearest airport, we are able to determine the average monthly wind speed and direction.

We look at the natural vegetation, mountain ranges, water bodies and nearby buildings to understand the microclimate of the farm. This is important because even though the airport data might say that the wind comes from the southwest during the summer, it might actually blow in from the south on that particular property.

Aerodynamic Ventilation And Natural Light

Credit: Cesar Lujan Pegaso Farm is a 24-stall barn in Mettawa, Illinois, by Blackburn Architects. It was inspired by Chicago modernist and prarie-style architecture.

Horses are more susceptible to heat than cold, so when I design with regard to natural ventilation, I consider the prevailing summer winds. 

First and foremost, to ventilate the passively sustainable barn, we consider two basic principles: The first is Bernoulli’s principle, named for the Dutch mathematician Daniel Bernoulli, which explains how airflow lifts planes off the ground. Basically, as the air goes across the convex top of an airplane’s wings it moves faster than the air moving past the bottom of the wing. This creates lower pressure above the wing than below, causing the plane to lift. 

We apply that same principle to barn ventilation. We can increase airflow by placing the barn perpendicular to the summer breezes and use windows, Dutch doors or low vents where the horses are stabled to allow the air to come in. We recommend a steeply sloped roof so that when the breeze hits the barn, it flows over the roof like the top of an airplane wing, creating low pressure. Instead of lifting the roof, this pulls the air in the barn vertically out through the vents and skylights at the ridge of the roof. 

A skylight in the ridge of the roof serves two purposes. It lights the interior of the barn naturally, so you generally don’t need electric lights during the day, and it heats up the air near the ceiling, which creates a temperature difference between the ceiling and the floor. What happens next is called the chimney effect (or stack effect) that explains why, when you light a fire in the fireplace, the smoke goes up the chimney. The fire heats up the flue, which pulls the air up and out of your chimney into the cooler outdoor air. In the barn, the warm air rises through the ridge, drawing cool air into the barn through the windows or Dutch doors at horse level.

In the winter, the barn is designed to have Dutch doors or windows that can close and keep the temperature within 8 to 10 degrees of the outdoors. Heated barns are comfortable for people but bad for horses and use a lot of energy. A horse going from a 60-degree barn to 20-degree outside temperatures finds himself in an unnatural and often unhealthy situation.

Besides making the barn more environmentally friendly because it is less reliant on fans and lighting, our passively sustainable design creates a healthier environment for horses. 

Ammonia and bacteria build up in the stall bedding and can cause odors, but the sun shining across the floor of the stall through the Dutch doors, skylights or windows, particularly on the south side of the barn, purifies the stalls to some degree. 

Vertical ventilation pulls the airborne pathogens and odors up and out of the barn, and therefore diseases are not transported with fans from one horse to another across the length of the barn. However, we do often opt to put fans in the corner of the stall to allow the horse to stand in or out of the wind and control his own temperature.

Many barns have haylofts; they are often dark and dank and limit ventilation and natural light. We avoid haylofts when possible or design an open loft. In existing barns, simply removing the hayloft and opening the barn to reveal more natural light and ventilation can make a huge difference.

Active Sustainable Systems 

In addition to designing a passively sustainable barn, active systems can be added to generate power, recycle water or use energy from the earth as heat. Agricultural structures tend to have roofs with a large surface area that can accommodate many solar panels. In some locations or situations, they can be used to generate enough energy not just to power the barn, but to run the entire farm. 

Wind energy can be utilized, for example, with a wind-powered pump. Geothermal energy—heat from the earth—is another option, depending on your needs and location. Ultimately, the best approach to designing a barn, eco-friendly or otherwise, is to make sure that it accommodates the safety of the horse.

Build a Greener Barn with Joseph Martinolich 

A barn—or any structure for that matter—will be around for decades, and it seems logical and appropriate that the environmental impact of the materials that make up the building should be carefully considered. 

There may be immediate effects of making green decisions, such as lower utility costs, but over the long term the building owner, the land and the local and regional environment will be affected positively as well. 

Unlike office buildings or houses, an entire barn is not typically heated, air-conditioned, or lighted. Barns are inherently low energy users and should be designed and built to be as efficient as possible.

Consider Your Materials 

Credit: Cesar Lujan John Blackburn designs for aerodynamic ventilation and natural light. These factors can help make a barn more passively sustainable.

When renovating or building a new facility, it is important to know the origins of your chosen building materials. Recycled products are good for the environment. I often specify rubber brick flooring in aisles because it is slip-resistant and recycled rubber products are available. Wood is a natural material and many people love the way it looks and feels. Even though it can deteriorate and it’s not the easiest surface to clean, it is a renewable resource. 

I also try to use nonpetroleum based products. For instance, most barns have asphalt or fiberglass shingles, which are made of petroleum byproducts. They are common and cost-effective, but if you want to consider the full environmental impact, other roofing materials, such as metal, may be more sustainable.

The use of prefinished products is another way to help the environment when building a barn. For example, stall fronts can be purchased already assembled and painted, concrete block can be bought precolored and wood products can be factory finished. 

Factories have superior environmental and quality controls when they paint fabricated products, so those who build the barn don’t have to handle the chemicals released into the environment when painting, cleaning brushes and disposing of paint. With today’s technology, it’s easy to find prefabricated products that are durable for the job and still environmentally sensitive.

As you select products, consider using materials that are locally sourced or fabricated. If you can get materials you need from within your geographical area, those products do not have to be transported far to your location and you save the residual transportation costs.

There may be fabricators in your area that can ship to you over a short distance, which often keeps the cost down and the wait short. Locally buying items such as stall fronts, mats, lights, feeders or hardware lowers the overall environmental impact of the project.


Incorporating skylights, cupolas, dormers, stall doors and end doors with windows into your design will allow as much natural light as possible to illuminate the barn. This will lessen the need for artificial light and reduce the environmental impact, lower energy use and decrease operating costs.

When you consider lighting the barn, incandescent bulbs are not as long-lasting and use more energy than compact fluorescent bulbs, which work well in certain applications. LED lighting today is more prevalent. Even though there is a higher initial cost, they run for thousands of hours, are very efficient and put off less heat than incandescent bulbs. 


Credit: Max McKenzie River Farm in Leesburg, Virginia, by Blackburn Architects.

Use landscaping to your advantage to deflect or guide breezes, to provide shade and to add beauty to a project. Metal barns get very hot on sunny days, and the material radiates that heat into the building. When you plant trees to shade the walls, they will be noticeably cooler. 

Deciduous plants (those that lose their leaves seasonally) shade a building during the summer but allow sunlight to shine through and warm the area in the winter. Evergreen trees and bushes keep their leaves year-round and can be used to deflect winter winds if planted in thoughtful locations. Conversely, during the summer in a warm environment, you can capture the breezes by guiding them with a hedge. 

Landscaping also helps complete your project and can make you feel like the barn is set right into the environment. Trees add beauty, property value and character, so use them to your advantage. 

Environmentally Friendly Horse Habits with Petra Z. McGowan

• Invest in recycling bins if you haven’t already. It is a simple concept, but I still see so many barns or show grounds that do not have recycling bins.

• Use only as much of a grooming product as you need. Using too much of a shampoo, for example, often does not necessarily lead to better results.

• Don’t stockpile grooming products. Your horse probably does not need five different coat conditioners.

• If you use traditional, nonbiodegradable shampoos, be mindful of where the water runs off to avoid contaminating natural water bodies.

• The majority of old horse shoes end up in a landfill. Encourage your farrier to avoid the dump and recycle the shoes that cannot be used anymore. Set up a shoe recycling station in your barn and find a local scrap-metal place that will pick them up.

• If you need to dry-clean show clothes, keep an eye out for green dry cleaners and avoid those that use the chemical perchloroethylene, or “perc.” It is a toxic chemical that is harmful to both people and the earth. Instead, opt for dioxide-based dry- cleaning that cleans just as well and is toxin-free.

• It is difficult to find eco-friendly grooming tools, as plastic is not environmentally friendly and not all wooden tools are made from sustainably harvested materials. I have yet to find truly green grooming tools, but bamboo wood brushes might be a good option.

• If you need to oil your tack, use olive oil as an alternative to more processed oils.

• Avoid using chlorine bleach in your barn—whether it be in your laundry or in daily cleaning. You can use baking soda, vinegar and lemon juice to safely clean water troughs, buckets or feeders. 

• Explore alternatives for recycled bedding. Shredded paper can make an excellent, 100 percent eco-friendly recycled bedding which is dust-free and great for horses with respiratory issues. To access it, locate a local document-shredding company and ask for shredded paper with nontoxic, soy-based inks.

• For more tips, visit 

Petra Z. McGowan lives on a 40-acre ranch in Manitoba, Canada. An avid horse lover, she also worked for a variety of beauty and personal-care brands such as Rimmel, Sunsilk and Nexxuss. In hopes of creating a line of nontoxic equine grooming products, McGowan partnered with Terra Laboratories, a company specializing in formulating environmentally-friendly human-care products and launched EcoLicious Equestrian in spring 2010. 

John Blackburn, AIA, is president and senior principal of Blackburn Architects, P.C. He has more than 35 years of experience in the field and has won numerous awards for various projects and designs. His equestrian work includes more than 160 projects that range from training facilities to therapeutic riding centers to polo barns. 

Joseph Martinolich, PLLC, has experience with a wide range of architectural building types but first became interested in equine projects because of his wife’s interest in horses. His first equestrian project was a two-stall barn in his own backyard. Since then, he spent 17 years at CMW Architects and served as principal in the firm and director of equine architecture before establishing his own firm. He has designed and planned equine facilities nationally and internationally, including areas such as the Middle East, China, Mexico and the Caribbean. 






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