The ranch house of an equestrian estate in the central Oregon countryside sits at the top of a hill covered in trees, beneath blue skies and rocky mountains
How-Tos Luxury Real Estate

The Mane Attraction: How to Commission an Equestrian Estate

For equestrians, providing safe, comfortable, and beautiful accommodation for their animals is just as important as the design of their own home. We asked the experts what you need to consider when planning a dream home for your horses

With walls clad in cedar and stone, roof tiles made from local clay, and an elegantly elliptical shape, the equestrian estate building melds beautifully into its surroundings, as though a feature of the landscape rather than a human-made construct.

While the exterior is impressive, however, it is when you step inside that the building really comes into its own. Here, ranged around the circumference, are spacious stalls from which nine curious heads look out, bright-eyed ponies watching each other, as well as the activity going on around them.

A blonde woman in a blue jacket and a riding hat rides a palomino pony away from the camera on a dusty country road, surrounded by grass
The special bond between horses and their riders means that owners want the very best living arrangements for their animals, wherever they are in the world. Image: Sitikka / Getty

The interior, made from faceted segments, is bright and airy, natural light channeled down from a triangular roof light at the apex of the structure. The temperature, thanks to carefully placed vents and doorways and an insulated roof, is pleasantly cool, ensuring the animals feel comfortable and happy.

“Because it’s round, the animals can all see each other and they like that,” says Guy Townsend of architects Horsley Townsend, which designed the stables that are located in undulating countryside in the north of England. “It creates a community both for the horses but also for the humans who love and work with them.”

A round stable block with five windows sits in a green field, with a tall tree framing the image at the front.
The curved design of Horsley Townsend’s stables in England doesn’t just look sleek, it also creates the perfect conditions for its inhabitants.

The relationship between horses and humans dates back more than 5,000 years. They have carried us long distances, pulled heavy loads, taken us into battle, and helped farm the land. While mechanization has sent them into retirement as working animals, many of us still spend our lives with them, developing long-lasting bonds.

Today, equestrian estates range from small-scale stables that house a handful of much-loved horses and ponies ridden by family members, to large professional estates such as studs, polo and racing stables, and equestrian training centers.

Often, they are found within the same area, which has coined the phrase ‘horse country.’

“There will be a combination of factors that attract horse enthusiasts, including proximity to equine services such as vets and farriers, roadways for ease of transport, suitable terrain for riding and training within the estate, as well as being near open spaces and trails,” says Matthew Johnson of Oregon-based Equine Facility Design, which has designed stables around the world. “These areas are likely to also have a rich history and long-standing tradition of horse-related activities.”

Beautiful blond cowgirl running her brown horse against a gorgeous hillside scene in Central California.
When the ride is over, time outside for grazing and socializing with the herd is essential, so an equestrian estate requires a minimum of 1-1.5 acres (0.4-0.6 ha) of pasture per horse. Image: Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty

One such area is the state of Maryland, where the horse industry includes commercial thoroughbred racing and breeding, but also more personal pursuits.

“With polo and steeplechase communities extremely active here, private farms to support these interests are avidly sought after,” says Karen Hubble Bisbee, principal at Hubble Bisbee Christie’s International Real Estate, an affiliate in the area. “Since the pandemic, we have seen a strong uptick in interest in all lifestyle properties and the activities that go along with them, making them more in demand than they have been in years.”

Horses are close to nature and are happiest out grazing, so you need replicate the outside conditions as closely as possible—Luke Jones

However, this increase in demand is not matched by availability.

“Like most regions of the country, our real estate inventory remains historically low, and this is also seen in the equestrian field,” says Rusty Underwood of Christie’s International Real Estate Bluegrass. “With an increase in demand for farms and a historically low turnover, competition for equestrian estates remains high.”

Horsing Around

So, if you’re looking to create your own equestrian estate, what do you need to consider? Your starting point is, of course, the horse. Whether you’re making a home for a champion thoroughbred or a child’s favorite pony, equines have similar instincts that shape the way they behave, and it is these that determine the building of stables (also called a yard or barn).

“You have to let horses be horses,” says Luke Jones, one of Australia’s most highly regarded equine architects. “Horses are close to nature and are at their happiest when out grazing, so when you bring them into a stable, you need to replicate these outside conditions as closely as possible. You must also understand that they’re a flight animal, and this triggers certain behaviors. Architects who are not accustomed to working with horses often make the mistake of making the breezeways [corridors] too narrow, for example. Being bumped can trigger flight response; horses have thin skins and can easily cut themselves.”

A grey and red-brick equestrian estate house with stables attached to the side overlooks some jumps in a riding arena.
A project in Adelaide Hills, Australia, by architect Luke Jones combines stables and a family entertainment building overlooking the jump arena.

A high-quality stable is akin to a five-star hotel, with every detail carefully thought out, from location and size to materials and well-being facilities that ensure a horse is happy and healthy.

Humans don’t like windowless rooms and neither do horses; natural light and good ventilation are key to maintaining their health. John Blackburn of Blackburn Architects in Washington, D.C., carefully studies a site to perfectly situate a stable.

“What microclimate has been created by features such as hills and trees? What are the wind and solar patterns? We position buildings so they take the best advantage of a site’s natural features and, along with carefully positioned vents, high-pitched roofs, solar panels, or skylights, allow air to be sucked up through the barn and out through openings in the roof even when the wind isn’t blowing, or the air is stale and hot outside,” he says.

“This ensures that bacteria, mold, and gases from the bedding are taken out and away from the horse. This also has the advantage of creating a cool temperature inside the stable. It can be 100°F (38°C) outside but 20 degrees cooler inside.”

While they need to see each other as they are herd animals, horses also have a hierarchy to consider—Charlie Hay

Horses need to be able to move freely around their stall; the industry standard for the size of a stall is 12 feet by 12 feet (3.65m x 3.65m), although they can be larger.

“And while they need to see each other as they are herd animals, they also have a hierarchy, so we recommend privacy screens that can be installed to stop one animal seeing another that they don’t get on with,” adds Charlie Hay of Killahy Equine, Australia’s award-winning equine design and construction firm whose clients include the Australian Turf Club.

“They can also get stuck when lying down [cast], and if this happens they can fret themselves to death as they panic, so we like to install casting rails, which gives them something to push against to get to their feet.”

Materials also need careful attention. Thick nonslip rubber flooring is softer on hooves than concrete, which also means the need for less sawdust or straw, reducing waste. “A kick from one of their hooves is the equivalent to a one-ton weight, so materials need to be robust and not splinter leaving hard edges when they get hit,” says Hay, who tests his options with a sledgehammer.

The barn at the equestrian estate Luke Jones designed in Adelaide Hills, Australia, provides cooling respite from the heat of the sun, as well as welcome shelter on wet and windy days.

The focus on horses’ health means solariums, treadmills, and cold-water spas that aid healing are increasingly the norm in a modern equestrian estate.

“Other technologies include automatic watering and feeding systems, surveillance cameras, and air-filtration systems,” says Johnson. “Smart barn technology can also monitor temperature, humidity, ventilation, and feeding schedules, allowing owners to remotely monitor their horses’ health and well-being.”

For a client’s equestrian estate in Woodland, Washington, Johnson created a high-tech manure composting system. “It included a specialized turning and aerating system that promotes rapid decomposition without the need for manual pile turning,” he says. “The resulting compost serves as a natural fertilizer that is easy to use and eco-friendly.”

Well-designed stables also include plenty of storage, with rooms for bedding and feed. Tack rooms, with their expensive saddles and other pieces, need to be kept dry and fully secure. “We are now doing extra rooms such as virtual polo rooms, which are used for practicing technique,” says Billy Richardson of Scotts of Thrapston, based in Northamptonshire, England. “They are designed so that the ball can be hit against the wall and returned in a different position.”

A traditional-style barn with stables is shaded from the sunshine by two tall trees
Barn specialists Killahy Equine built this traditional-style timber-and-stone stable block for a client in Balhannah, Adelaide Hills, Australia, offering easy access to the paddocks.

Stable Style

While horses’ needs are paramount, stables must also meet those of the owner, too, and this is where the initial brief is important.

“What are your hopes and dreams, what do you want to do with your horses?” asks Jones. “From a practical perspective, for example, if you’re wanting to breed horses, you’re going to need stalls that are large enough for a mare and her foal.”

Equestrian estates are legacy estates­. These are special places, designed to last for generations—John Blackburn

Aesthetics are also important. Horsley Townsend’s stables in England are shaped to complement the round riding area alongside them.

“A rectangular building alongside a round one would not have looked seamless,” says Townsend. Scotts of Thrapston also use service corridors to the rear of the stables. “This allows all the benefits of a barn while keeping the appearance of traditional stables,” says Richardson.

A woman and her horse stand in a shady wooden barn, with mountains seen through the entrance
The barn at Coyote Rock Ranch in Oregon, by Blackburn Architects, is light and airy, with spacious stalls large enough for mares to live in comfort with their foals. Image: Blackburn Architects and Chad Jackson Photography

When Blackburn Architects designed Coyote Rock Ranch in Oregon, an equestrian estate for breeding American quarter horses, the firm specified local timber and copper so the buildings blended into the desert environment. The design team also built a second structure that, as well as staff housing and an office, features a lounge where the owner can exhibit her collection of books and western riding memorabilia.

“It has become more than a place to keep horses,” says Blackburn. “It’s also where the owner can entertain guests and relax with visitors.”

Equine Facility Design is increasingly asked for ‘barndominiums’. “These combine a stable with living quarters for people,” says Johnson. “One recently completed project features stalls for six horses and support spaces, while above there’s a 2,160-square-foot (200 sq m) residence with a modern kitchen, bedrooms, and decks on both sides offering stunning views of the property.”

A woman sits on her dark brown horse in front of a u-shaped stable block
An English stable yard by Scotts of Thrapston is traditional enough to fit in with the surroundings, but features all modern conveniences for equestrians. Image: Scotts of Thrapston

Stables are complex buildings, and the brief is followed by a site visit, then master plans of the site, and architectural drawings. It can take up to two years for the build to be finished; even longer if planning permission is difficult to attain.

“In the U.K., is it often easier to renovate existing buildings or demolish and rebuild rather than start from new, as the planning laws are restrictive,” says Townsend. “I had one owner who sold a property in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and moved to a farm 10 miles (16 km) away outside the area. Creating a change of use for the existing buildings was easier than trying to build new.”

However, time and attention to detail results in an equestrian estate that will never lose its value.

“Established farms in the most sought-after locations with existing infrastructure, buildings, barns, fencing, indoor and outdoor arenas, and housing, are extremely desirable, particularly if they are in turnkey condition,” says Hubble Bisbee.

“Often, these treasured properties remain in the same families for many generations, making them precious commodities, and sought after when the rare opportunity to acquire one presents itself.”

“Equestrian estates are legacy estates,” says Blackburn. “These are special places, designed to last for generations. Every detail is considered to ensure the structures delight our clients, and—most importantly—keep their equine partners happy and safe.”

Ready to move to the equestrian home of your dreams? Check out the best on the market, and read more from the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of Christie’s International Real Estate magazine here.

Banner image: Coyote Rock Ranch, Oregon. Blackburn Architects and Chad Jackson Photography