Finding Hidden Hazards in the Barn

Hazards happen—we have all seen them and pray for the safety of our own barns. The tricky part is when a hazard may not seem like one. To help dissect some uncommon or unlikely culprits of disaster, members of the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER), and the University of Kentucky share some insight.


Our experts agree that one of the biggest hazards in the barn is the threat of fire. Not only can a fire take down a barn, it can take down several horses in just mere minutes. Rebecca Gimenez, Equine Special Expert on the NFPA’s Technical Committee on Animal Housing and TLAER teacher, shares how critical time is in a fire. “You have five to 12 minutes until the fire reaches full involvement, meaning that no firefighter is going to go in because the fire/flames have increased enough that the structural integrity of the building is affected, and usually two to four minutes until there is a non-survivable atmosphere of toxic smoke,” she states. Many barn managers cannot imagine getting all of their horses out in these time frames, hence why so many tragedies strike each year.

Basically everything in the barn is flammable, according to Equine Extension Specialist at the University of Kentucky, Fernanda Camargo. “Hay in the loft, bailing twine, clutter, blankets, bedding, flammable liquids (such as cleaning products and topical treatments), rags, tack, etc. Everything in the barn can catch on fire.” Rebecca adds to this list that spider webs, mats, and even the wood walls that make up the barn are also flammable. “It is just waiting for a spark from a poorly maintained electrical system or a stray cigarette,” she says. For those of you asking why it’s important to dust your barn for cobwebs, “[Cobwebs] catch the ‘fines’ of dust that fall all the time like hay dust, cells from hair, etc.,” explains Rebecca. “They will not start a fire, but when lit, they transmit the flames to other places they are connected to.”

A tip for preventing a big fire is to remove as much of the flammables as you can. Tracy Vecchiarelli, Senior Fire Protection Engineer at NFPA, suggests “Separating flammable feed in feed storage rooms over 100 square feet.” Rebecca agrees; “Minimize shaving and hay storage in the barn by storing it in another storage facility at least 50 feet away from the barn,” she says. “Firefighters call hay ‘fuel’ for a very good reason.”

Having wide doors readily available for emergency access is another point Rebecca highly stresses. “Hands down the best way to ensure a chance for your horses to escape (a fire) is to have a door on the outside wall, as well as one to the interior aisle, for each animal,” she says. Having all exits be functional as well as plentiful is important for not only escape, but smoke ventilation as well.


Tracy brings to light the concerns of electrical fires. “Electrical equipment and heating devices are a leading cause of fire in horse barns,” states Tracy. “This includes box fans, heaters, and lighting.” The best way to prevent a fire with electrical equipment, according to Tracy, is to regularly inspect extension cords and keep heating devices away from combustible materials. Fernanda adds that extension cords should always be disconnected when not in use and to also utilize electric conduits to keep wires safe and secure from rodents and horses.

Like all other clutter and equipment, Tracy stresses the importance of placement. “Horses can easily knock over electrical equipment or heating devices that are not properly secured.” She also mentions the importance of electrical equipment being specifically listed for use in outdoor environments.

Though barns may be full of combustible materials, having them far enough away from highly flammable objects can help prevent a deadly disaster. Rebecca shares that a lot of people aren’t educated in electrical work, which can lead to problems. “If your electrical panel and wiring is over 10 years old, because of agricultural laws, you don’t have to get it fixed, but you should,” she says. Fernanda agrees, stating that it is “always safer to have a licensed electrician do the wiring and repairs to be sure it is done safely and correctly.” At the very least, having an electrician look at the setup can make a difference in knowing if the barn’s setup is still safe.

Stall Safety

Depending on the barn, some horses stay in their stalls for long periods of time. Horses can get antsy, demanding, and just downright destructive if bored. In the stall, a horse has a plethora of potential hazards. According to Fernanda, horses can paw and create holes in the ground, where they can later get a leg stuck; kick and break boards, causing a leg to get stuck go through and/or cause lacerations; kick cinder block stalls and break a leg; get legs tangled in hay nets that are too low; and get their hooves stuck in the space between the floor and the stall door. Prop – erly maintaining the stall and ensuring the horse is in a good mental state will help in preventing these types of injuries, including the hardware and boards in the stall and on the stall door are properly secured.

In addition to potential external wounds, Rebecca notes the risk of internal injuries in stalls. “Lung injuries from ammonia are caused by urine and manure,” she states. Many barns tend to focus on the ventilation in the aisles, when ventilation in the stall is just as necessary. By adding a second exit, the horse gets much more ventilation and also has an exit in the case of a fire. Though many barns have box fans for their horses, it is not enough, according to Rebecca. She recommends avoiding cheap fans and purchasing one equipped for a barn, such as a UL507. Not only does a fan need to properly ventilate, but it also needs a safe plug to prevent electrical fires. This ties into Tracy’s point about the importance of being specifically listed for use in outdoor environments.

Aisle Safety

Aisle safety is just as important, if not more important than stall safety. Fernanda brings up clutter, and how even if it is organized, anytime you have anything in a barn aisle, it can be dangerous and pose a hazard. Clutter is not only a tripping hazard for riders, stable hands, and horses, but also a hazard for emergency personnel if they are in the barn during a disaster. Rebecca suggests calling your local fire department to see if they would be willing to visit your barn for a training situation.

Fernanda shares that common injuries can come from aisles that have little traction, “Concrete or asphalt floors can become too slick and shod horses may slip.” This can, of course, be more hazardous when wet.

Another thing to keep in mind is the hardware in the aisles. Be sure they are all properly attached and as safe as possible, especially bungee crossties. Rebecca shares tales of many horse and human injuries due to elastic crossties and suggests that horses receive proper training to avoid injury. “Teach your horse to tie or put something breakable into the system at the tie or halter,” she says. Crossties, especially the bungee ones, are designed to load a ton of weight, and if the bungee or the hardware snaps, the chance for laceration can be quite high.

Managing a barn is a tough job, especially when it seems that each day, the horses find a new way to harm themselves. Some of the discussed hazards may seem like common knowledge, but letting these types of things slip through the cracks is how disasters start. Be sure to check with your local and state laws on fire safety and animal housing to be sure you are doing all you can to keep your horses safe.

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