In Chester County, Horse Stables Get the Luxury Treatment
Thanks to firms like Archer & Buchanan Architecture, barns are more functional and beautiful than ever.
There are more than 10,000 horses in Chester County, Pa.—about one for every 50 residents. Even after years of gradual suburban encroachment, a special part of the county remains hunt country. To experience it, leave Unionville and head out in almost any direction toward Embreeville, Marshallton or West Chester (to the northeast), Coatesville (to the north) or Cochranville (to the northwest).
To be more accurate, perhaps we should call it horse country—as not every horse owner mounts up to follow the hounds across streams and fences. And while elaborate party barns and stately bank versions may be more in vogue these days, it’s the simple pole variety that serves as the staple of stables. “To be truthful, the basic look of stables hasn’t really changed that much in recent years,” says West Chester-based Archer & Buchanan Architecture’s Richard Buchanan, who’s built many custom horse barns. “At the same time, owners are looking for ways to make barns better for the horses.”
And for themselves. Jacki Russell recently decided it was time to build something new for her horses. “The old stable was pretty ugly and had been used for smaller polo ponies,” says the former banker. “I have a pleasure horse more than 17 hands (about 5-foot-9) and needed more room.”
Russell’s new stable has seven stalls with a center aisle. She was able to install a back door and window to each stall, so her horses have a view of a bucolic fenced-in area. The stable has a bathroom and rooms for storage and other usages. It also has an automated watering system and a sturdy washer and drier. “Horse blankets are particular smelly,” notes Russell.
On the outside, stable barns may not have evolved much in recent years, but the interiors have. The trend is toward larger stalls like Russell’s. “They also tend to have higher ceilings than those before the 1960s, because the stalls in older barns often housed cattle,” Buchanan says.
Cattle are generally docile animals. Horses, Buchanan notes, “have a tendency to act up and hit their heads if the ceilings are too low.”
Many of today’s riders want (or need) bigger horses. Some are a cross between sturdy Percherons and lighter breeds—even thoroughbreds—and are thus a good size for sporting activities. “Fences look a lot smaller when you’re on a bigger horse,” says Buchanan, who’s a rider and member of a local hunt.
For Buchanan’s clients, the minimum number of stalls for a barn is four, while the average is six to eight. “Some of the large commercial stables in the area may have 40 to 50, which gives you an economy of scale,” he says.
Some larger European operations have tried to do away with stall cleaning by installing mechanical mucking devices with underground conveyors to move the waste away. “You’re probably better off just using a pitchfork and a wheelbarrow,” Buchanan says.
But while mucking hasn’t gone away, industrial-strength rubberized mats make stalls more comfortable for both horse and mucker. Security and safety are also major considerations. “Motion-activated wireless cameras are taking the place of the older cable setups,” Buchanan notes. “They’re especially handy if you have broodmares—you can just look at your phone and monitor what’s happening. It’s a nice safety feature.”
Few things are more frightening in horse country than a barn fire. A common cause is spontaneous combustion caused by heated chemical reactions when hay is stored while still wet— a threat that can be lessened with better ventilation practices. Worn electrical wiring is another culprit. Protecting it through tough but flexible conduits is one way to lessen the dangers. Smoke detectors are also a good investment. “Rodents are a special problem with barns because they can chew through wiring,” Buchanan says.
Not all creature comforts of modern horse barns have to do with the horse. Historically, many farmers in Europe and pioneering regions of the American Midwest built second-floor living quarters above their barns and stables. Body heat from the animals provided some warmth for the humans above. Animal smells were another matter.
While few horse owners would consider that arrangement today, some people do build barns with attached apartments for the owner or a hired hand. More often, extra space is added to handle traditional barn functions. Russell’s separate rooms are for storing feed, a large fan and other functions.
Increasingly, Buchanan is seeing tack rooms used as meeting places. “Some are beginning to have a clubhouse atmosphere,” he says. “Furnishings are moving from laminate to granite.”
Entertainment components can also be added to make the time spent caring for horses more comfortable—especially if the owner’s house is a good walk away. “I’m working on a new barn in Cochranville that will have six stalls and a lovely big tack room,” Buchanan says. “It has a full bath and showers and a full laundry with robust machines.”
There will also be an attached apartment with a firewall in between. “[The stable is] two stories high, with a spiral staircase to a library,” he adds.
Sounds like the perfect place on a winter’s night when the weather outside is unfit for beast—or man.