On those long winter nights, when frigid winds chill to the bone and snow or sleet or cold rain makes outdoor activities decidedly miserable, most of us like nothing better than to curl up with a good book and a steaming-hot beverage. Every now and then, we pull aside the curtains and press our noses to the chilly windowpanes and feel doubly glad that we’re snug and safe inside and that our beloved horses are out in their field.

What? Our horses, outside? On a night like this? Wouldn’t they rather be warm and dry in a barn?

Actually, probably not, says Nancy Ambrosiano of Los Alamos, N.M., U.S. Pony Clubber and co-author of Complete Plans for Building Horse Barns Big and Small, 2nd edition. ‘A healthy, unclipped horse will do just fine outside in most North American winters. Even in Fairbanks, Aka., where I used to live, many horses lived outside and rarely sought shelter–and that was in temperatures of down to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit! Of course, those horses were acclimated to the conditions, had very heavy winter coats, and were hardy and in good health.’

In truth, says Ambrosiano, barns and their amenities exist more for our own comfort and convenience than that of our horses: ‘It’s as close to having horses in our living rooms as we can get.’ She recognizes that many of today’s equines are bred for attributes other than woolly coats and all-weather hardiness. Still, she says, most horses conserve body heat efficiently and, therefore, need less shelter than we think they do. In fact, studies have shown that as turnout time increases, the incidence of colic and vices decreases–which makes sense, given that horses are grazing animals whose bodies and systems are designed to move about freely and to eat small amounts frequently. So, there are plenty of reasons to favor outdoor horsekeeping over stabling.

A Versatile Shelter Option

That isn’t to say that a treeless, windbreak-less expanse of field is acceptable, cautions Ambrosiano. ‘The British standard calls for a hedgerow in the pasture as shelter from the prevailing winds. In fact, horses need a windbreak more than they need a roof over their heads.’ In her years of horsekeeping, she says, she’s rarely seen pastured horses seek shelter from rain or snow, but she has observed that they’ll take cover in strong winds.

What about the horse owner? Grooming and caring for a horse in the great outdoors are challenging, to put it mildly. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some sort of compromise shelter–not confining like a barn but still offering a windbreak, a roof, a dry patch of ground, and maybe even lights and running water?

Thankfully, there is, and it’s called a run-in shed. At its simplest, a run-in shed is a two-sided pole-barn-type structure with a simple sloping roof, says Ambrosiano. At its most elaborate, a run-in shed might have three sides, an enclosed storage area for feed and tack, electricity, running water, and heated automatic waterers—in short, it is just one notch below a bona fide barn.

‘I’m a big fan of run-in sheds,’ says Ambrosiano. ‘They’re great for busy working people like myself: Having a horse in a run-in shed helps assuage the guilt over not being able to get out to ride for a day or two, because you know that your horse isn’t standing cooped up in a stall. Run-in sheds also are great choices for older horses that get stiff when they’re confined and are more comfortable if they can move around all the time.’ Exceptions are horses which are clipped, very young or elderly, in poor health or condition, recuperating from illness or surgery, or requiring confinement as a result of lameness or other injury. It’s probably not wise to take a stabled horse and turn him out in a field for the winter with no acclimation period.

Other pluses to run-in sheds are cost and simplicity of construction. Do-it-yourselfers will find the building of a run-in shed to be a fairly easy and straightforward project–one that can cost as little as $10 per square foot for a bare-bones shelter, according to Ambrosiano.

Are you sold on the idea yet? Want to build your own run-in shed? Here are Ambrosiano’s tips on siting and planning your structure. We’ll also pass along her suggestions on whom to contact for expert advice or assistance, whether you’re looking for just a few tips or for someone to do the entire job for you.

Plan Before You Build

You want your run-in shed to be sturdy, safe, and dry. Ensuring those things takes proper planning. Here are some things to consider.

Location, location, location. It dictates real-estate value, and it also can make the difference between a snug windbreak and a muddy, drafty enclosure. The ideal site for a run-in shed, according to Ambrosiano, is in the lee of a hill–just below the crest. Build your shed on top of a hill and you’re likely to have drafts; build at the bottom of a hill or in a valley and all precipitation runoff will pool–you guessed it–right where you don’t want it. But if your only two options are the top or the bottom of a hill, she says, pick the top.

One drawback to building on the side of a hill is that you might have to grade the site so that your horse won’t be standing on a slope when he’s in his shed. Even if you do have the site leveled, leave a slight grade–no more than two or three degrees–so moisture runs off. Ideally, the ground should slope slightly toward the back of the shed, so the entrance doesn’t become a quagmire when it rains or the snow and ice melt.

Make your shed an effective windbreak by orienting it so the prevailing winds blow against the outside of the walls instead of whistling through the entrance.

Horses’ hooves are hard on high-traffic areas, and your run-in shed and the ground in front of the entrance are no exception. Ambrosiano recommends building up the ground in and around the site of your run-in shed with round (not sharp-edged) gravel, which packs and layers well and also affords excellent drainage. She prefers gravel to sand, which washes away and gets dragged out by hooves too easily to make it a cost-effective, low-maintenance footing choice. The exception, she says, is if you’re building a shed for an elderly or invalid horse, who will appreciate a soft, sandy bed on which to lie. (Note: Horses fed on sand can ingest it and eventually develop sand colic. If you must use sand in your run-in shed, feed your horse away from the sandy area or from a rubber ground feeder.)

Horses are notoriously poor at guarding their hips against encounters with narrow doorways, and they’re likely to use even less care when moving in and out of a run-in shed, cautions Ambrosiano. ‘You can’t just think of a run-in shed as an outdoor stall,’ said Ambrosiano. For a horse pastured by himself, she says, the shed should be at least 12 feet by 12 feet (deeper if you want to give him more room to get out of the weather), and with no doorway for him to bump. ‘If more than one horse will be using the shed, you can’t just double the length. I think that three stalls’ width, or 12 feet by 36 feet, is the minimum amount of space that’s safe for two or three horses. The entrance should be extremely generous–I recommend at least 12 to 15 feet–with no doorway at all or, at most, short walls in the front. I’d rather have a horse be a little cold than be trapped inside a shed, being kicked or bitten by an aggressor, and with no room to escape.’

You can facilitate that escape and also minimize the potential of injury by rounding the corners of vertical interior posts so horses will slide through corners instead of becoming wedged in, Ambrosiano suggests. ‘The construction is similar to the way cross-country fences are built,’ says the experienced event rider. ‘Surfaces are rounded instead of squared off, so a horse that hits a fence will slide over it instead of getting stuck or hurting himself.’ The same goes for the shed’s exterior, she says: Make sure there are no sharp external corners to give a nasty bump. (Telephone poles are excellent choices for supports, she says.)

Finally, allow ample head room in your shed, says Ambrosiano, who recommends at least an eight- or 10-foot ceiling—enough so that even a rearing horse won’t strike his head.

‘When you’re deciding what materials to use to build your run-in shed, think of horses as beavers, bulldozers, and battering rams,’ Ambrosiano suggests. ‘The materials and the construction must be able to hold up under wood-chewers, kickers, rump-scratchers, and fighters–not to mention whatever weather and temperature extremes your area may be subjected to.’

She recounts cases of flimsy or poorly secured metal roofing ripping off in strong storms and ‘slicing horses open,’ and of horses suffering injuries when a well-placed kick splintered a thin board. She recommends choosing four inch by four inch or thicker boards (pressure-treated so they won’t rot) for the walls and using tie-downs or strapping to secure the roof.

Another common construction failing is securing hefty lumber with flimsy nails and hardware. Ordinary nails can bend, break, or pull out of the wood, says Ambrosiano. Ring-shanked nails (aka pole-barn nails) are sufficiently sturdy and are much less likely to pull out. Choose hinges and other hardware items that are tough and durable enough to survive temperature extremes and general abuse, such as pulling and tugging on a frozen-shut storage area door.

Need Expert Building Advice?

If you need some help getting started building a run-in shed, plenty of resources exist, says Ambrosiano. Her first recommendation is to contact your area agricultural extension service (if such an office exists where you live). ‘They might have a horse specialist who will come out and take a look at your property, make suggestions, provide referrals, and even test your soil,’ she says.

Check advertisements in local or regional equine publications for names of barn builders. Ambrosiano calls most of these professionals ‘great to work with,’ and says that most will be happy to do as much or as little as you want—from building a turnkey structure to assisting the do-it-yourselfer.

‘Talk to area horse people,’ Ambrosiano recommends, ‘particularly if they have a barn or a run-in shed that you admire. Builders’ supply and farm supply store personnel also can be excellent resources.’

Even if you’re Mr. or Ms. Fixit, don’t attempt to wire your run-in shed for electricity or to run a water line yourself if you’re not experienced in those areas, Ambrosiano advises: Such projects can be a little too daunting–not to mention potentially hazardous–if you lack the know-how. Having electricity and running water in your shed can be ‘great advantages,’ she says. ‘And who knows?’ she points out. ‘If the site of your run-in shed is ideal, you’ll then have the option of someday turning the structure into a hay shed–or even of adding onto it and turning it into a barn.’

With thoughtful planning and modest financial outlay, you can construct a run-in shed that will give your horse the advantages of both turnout and stabling, and that will help to keep him safe, happy, and healthy in any weather.