The Perfect Outdoor Exam Area

Tips on having a safe, suitable place for a veterinarian to conduct a variety of exams on horses.
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Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst

Horse people understand that it can be difficult to work outside in the weather and the elements. We have all had mud up to the tops of our boots and fingers frozen stiff by biting winds. Equine veterinarians spend much of their time outdoors, which can be great on crisp, fall days, but might not be so nice on the hottest days of summer or the coldest days of winter. 

Many equine veterinarians do not have indoor facilities and most still do farm calls. The least we can do to make the most of a veterinarian’s time and provide for the most successful outcome is to understand the elements of a good outdoor exam area, so that his or her job can be done as efficiently and as comfortably as possible.

Let’s start by looking at the types of spaces that are used for outdoor examination:

• Riding arenas are used for pre-purchase exams, lameness workups and gait analysis.

• Round pens are used for longeing or free movement in a controlled environment.

• Straight trotting areas are required for lameness exams.

• Areas where a horse might be held or tied are used for stationary exams and mobile X-ray, or to check vital signs before a horse enters the hospital.

• Stocks may be used for restraint when required.

Understanding that this is a wide variety of spaces, we think it is important to review some common tools for making all of these outdoors spaces more effective and comfortable:

Locate the exam area in a quiet portion of the site. Outdoor examination is usually done close to where the horses are unloaded. As a result, it is often located in busy areas of the site. This is not ideal for the veterinarian, as distractions can take away from exams. The exam areas should therefore be planned carefully. They should be close enough to unloading areas to be convenient, but far enough from other vehicular traffic, loud noise and activity to be free from distractions.

Provide windbreaks. In large parts of the country, the winter winds can be quite unpleasant. It is important to do a good job of creating windbreaks when possible. Here are some practical solutions:

Create a solid partition on the side of the exam area that faces the prevailing winter winds. For many people, this means blocking the northwest side. For exam areas, this can be a solid fence. For larger spaces such as arenas, a row of hedges or bushes can really help. In the Western United States, in areas that suffered from the dust bowl, farmers planted wind blocks to slow wind and prevent soil erosion. These blocks are created from thick evergreens such as juniper bushes that remain foliated during the winter.

Create shade if possible. Even if you cannot afford a true indoor exam area, a shady spot can make summer examinations much more pleasant.

Metal covers work well because they hold up to the sun. But be sure to provide a space between the metal cover and its sides so that it breathes and doesn’t become overly hot.

Trees are excellent and are the first choice for shade because they don’t make the area below them hotter. If anything, the area below a tree is cooler. Deciduous trees allow the exam area to be sunny and warm in the winter and cool and pleasant in the summer. It is nice to have trees around arenas and round pens, as well, for the same reason. Choose trees that are known to be neater and tidier, avoiding trees that drop limbs and seed pods.

Some round pens are manufactured with a cover. If you’re considering purchasing a round pen, look into this feature, as a covered pen would allow you a place out of the elements all year long.

Locate water and power. It’s a great idea to have water and power in any area where horses undergo medical examinations. A freeze-proof yard hydrant will work through the winter. Electrical outlets should be provided with waterproof covers for safety.

Make the space more comfortable. For the coldest days, an overhead radiant heater can make an outdoor covered area tolerable. These should be mounted high on the wall or ceiling for safety. In the summer, a slowly oscillating fan under a covered space can make a hot day more comfortable. It is better not to use any sort of misting or washdown protocol to try to cool a space in the summer, as this will increase humidity and encourage the growth of bacteria.

Make the area the right size. The following are minimum ideal sizes for outdoor exam areas:

• arena: 100 by 200 feet

• round pen: 60 feet in diameter

• trotting area: 10 by 100 feet

• stationary exam area with no stocks: 16 by 16 feet

• area with stocks: 18 by 24 feet

Notes on Footing

The quality of the footing in outdoor exam areas is critical to their function. If the outdoor exam area is an arena or round pen, you already know that the footing in these spaces is of the utmost importance for reasons of safety and maintenance. Round pens in particular must be safe because the horse is working in a tighter circular motion. A detailed discussion of the footing in these spaces warrants its own article, but it is important to note that safety is a primary consideration in places where pre-purchase exams, lameness exams and other such exams are being conducted, as an injury caused by an unsafe area is a risk that you do not want to take.

In trotting areas where specific lameness tests are done, a long, straight line of hard footing is preferred. This is typically asphalt or concrete. Of the two, concrete can be safer because it is free from the oils that are integrated into asphalt. A hard-packed gravel area like a driveway might work as well, but the area should be free from sharp or angled rocks.

As trotting areas can freeze in the winter, locate them on the south sides of buildings so that the sun can melt any snow quickly. Covering a trotting path would be ideal, but it’s not always possible or practical.

For covered exterior exam areas, use a broom-finished concrete for slip resistance. Rubber mats can be placed in the exam areas. These should be completely glued and sealed to the concrete below or, alternatively, regularly moved and cleaned to prevent trapping pathogens.

Requirements for Stationary Exam Areas

For stationary examination areas outside, follow these rules of thumb: Size these areas no smaller than 16 by 16 feet. If the horse spooks, it might be necessary to get out of the way quickly, and you want to room to move out of the way.

Create openings in the exam area. There should be two openings in the enclosure that enable the veterinarian and/or technician to get out if the horse panics.

It’s better not to tie the horse. If tying the horse is necessary for the procedure or situation, the tie device should be extremely sturdy and designed specifically for this purpose. It’s better for a halter to break than the tie bar, as the latter can be very dangerous.

Create more room if stocks are to be used. If stocks are used in an exam area, the area should be 24 feet long and 18 feet wide at minimum to allow the horse to be led into and out of the stocks safely. If using stocks, the exam area should be roofed to protect the stocks and to create a more acceptable enclosure for examination and procedures requiring this type of restraint.

Provide cleanable surfaces. Like any exam area, the surfaces in an outdoor exam area should be cleanable between horses. At minimum, this means sweeping them and allowing sunlight to disinfect the surface. It is better to be able to truly disinfect them, which means that you should have access to a hose and disinfectant, and the water should drain to the back of the exam area, away from the entrance to the exam area.

Take-Home Message

Well-designed outdoor exam areas play an important role in a variety of services, from pre-purchase exams to vaccinations. It’s easy to forget that a good design process applies as much to these outdoor spaces as it does to indoor spaces, the better to create environments that are productive and safe. It’s easiest to think of the outdoor spaces of your hospital or farm as “outdoor rooms.” Just as you would for indoor rooms, plan the sizing, layout and functions of these outdoor rooms so they can be pleasurable places to work.