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Through all of our designs, we work to create environments for animals that lower stress and support wellness, and well-being. That means understanding how different species engage with the world through their senses and how their natural habits and responses influence their experiences in different spaces.

In general, horses are prey animals, making them very motivated to look for danger in their surrounding environment. So, creating veterinary spaces where horses will feel at ease can be particularly tricky.

Let’s look at some design concepts that can help.

Reducing Social Stressors
Horses are social animals. They like the reassuring presence of other horses. However, in hospital environments where every horse is surrounded by unfamiliar horses, interactions between horses can also be stressful.

The hospital design can set equine patients up for better success by eliminating fear-inducing social cues and reinforcing positive ones as much as possible. Below are some examples of strategies we use:

  • Design horse housing so healthy horses can see each other for reassurance.
  • Create wide aisles (14 feet or greater) to reduce the “gauntlet of horses” feeling that develops when walking down a narrow aisle.
  • In larger facilities, separate medical barns by sex. House stallions away from other horses.
  • Keep serious work-up spaces, such as arenas and exam rooms, out of the view of areas where horses may be out of control, such as the unloading yard. This will prevent horses from being agitated by other frightened horses.
  • Create flexible, partially open treatment and exam areas (when weather allows), to avoid the feeling of fear that develops from physical isolation. This open area can look out to calm areas on your site such as turn-out pastures.

The wide aisle in the medical barn at Tryon Equine Hospital helps prevent horses from coming too close for comfort.

Circulation and Traffic Flow

Create a quiet area for unloading. Horses arrive stressed and should be unloaded in a quiet area away from other activities and excessive traffic flow.

Throughout your hospital site, separating vehicular traffic from patient traffic can cut down on stress and create a safer workplace. For example, if vehicles circle around the perimeter of your site, horses should circulate through the center.

Horses experience heightened stress levels every time a door opens, or a new person enters a space. Circulation paths and hallways should flow around exam and treatment spaces to keep these rooms quiet and undisturbed.

Working with Horses’ Sense of Sight

Horses don’t have strong binocular vision or depth perception, but can see almost all the way around their bodies except directly behind their heads and three to four feet directly in front of their noses. They also have a keen sense of understanding of movement, light and shadow, etc.

To create spaces that work best for horses, light workspaces evenly. In barns, deep shadows and bright rays of light can be beautiful and comfortable, like standing in the dappled shade under a tree. But in spaces where horses are working or under stress, such as arenas or veterinary spaces, uneven lighting can create anxiety. Design these spaces with regularly placed, unobstructed lighting. If possible, use lighting that has a spectrum like natural sunlight. The best technology is LED lighting.

Allow horses to see what is coming. Anyone who has worked with horses knows they prefer not to be surprised. In arenas and work areas, it is better to locate visible doors at the ends of the space rather than the sides. This gives the horse a better chance of seeing an object or person arriving with both of its eyes.

Soften and filter natural light. Fabric-roofed arenas make for very comfortable indoor riding spaces because they filter natural light. The effect is a space that is bathed in soft, bright light. The idea of filtering natural light can also apply to traditionally built structures. High windows and skylights can be designed with translucent materials to evenly distribute the light in the space, minimizing shadows and glare.

LED lights, supplemented with lots of natural light, create even lighting that supports horses’ vision in this treatment area. The non-slip flooring helps to reduce fear as well.

Safe Flooring

Design floor surfaces to be solid and even. Horses are spooked by drains, grates, changes in materials, and other features in the floor surface that are difficult to see and visually comprehend. Drains can be placed to the sides or carefully obscured to reassure the horse that the floor is safe.

Slipping is dangerous, as well as scary. Horses hate to slip and will be especially anxious if they feel unsafe on the flooring. Inside the hospital, create non-slip flooring solutions such as:

  • Rubber matting designed for horses.
  • Poured soft-floor solutions specifically designed for horses.
  • Some textures of concrete.

Odors and Ventilation

Horses will also use their superior sense of smell to test their surroundings for safety. In addition to good basic ventilation to create adequate indoor air quality in medical barns and equine treatment areas, consider other sources of odors in the indoor environment and use ventilation strategies to prevent odors from spreading.

Separate surgery and procedure room air flow from the exam and work-up areas of the hospital. This strategy helps prevent the smell of blood and other potentially scary odors from becoming pervasive in the rest of the hospital.

Separate all dirty/utility spaces and do not recirculate air from them into any other spaces within the hospital. For example, a necropsy room or dirty laundry room likely smells terrifying to horses coming in for treatment.

Use natural ventilation in barns and treatment areas when possible, to reduce odors and to capitalize on natural scents from the outdoors.

Place manure and trash away from the main buildings and downwind.

Create Comfort

Do anything you can to help your patients be comfortable, particularly when they’re sick or injured. Keep barns above freezing in winter and free from drafts. In summer, temper the inside of barns by moving air, creating shade, and utilizing occasional supplemental cooling depending on your location. The medical barn indoor temperature range should be between 50 and 85 degrees.

Use appropriate, deep bedding and forgiving rubberized flooring to stand on in hospitalized areas so the horses may lie down or stand comfortably.

When medically appropriate, provide safe turnout for horses. Use easy to see fencing to keep horses from crashing into unfamiliar paddock or pasture fencing.

Viewing each space on your hospital site and within the buildings themselves through the senses, and with the understanding of your equine patients, will help you create a low-stress facility that will nurture their wellness and well-being.

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