Setback Laws for Horse Farms

October 26, 2022

Hi, I'm Paige, half of the duo behind Fairway Stables™

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Whether you have a small residential property that’s big enough for some horses or you’re looking to build an equestrian property, you have a lot to consider – design, planning, zoning, and setback laws.

Table of Contents

Setback Laws for Horse Farms

What Are Setback Laws and Why Do They Matter?

Property setbacks are building restrictions imposed on property owners. This may be a distance from a property line, curb, or structure in which you’re not permitted to build. Essentially, property setbacks tell you where you can and cannot build.

For example, property setbacks can be the distance between your property line and the sidewalk or the area permitted between houses.

Setbacks provide:

  • Better services – keeping space between homes and structures ensures that first responders can access the property in the event of a fire or another emergency. The same goes for utilities, sewer, and other services.
  • Better lighting – setbacks ensure that there’s ample space around the structures to allow visual access and natural lighting.
  • Better ventilation – having homes or buildings too close to others impacts ventilation and air quality.
  • Improved landscape – even urban environments have green space and landscaping around buildings, which is important for making properties look comfortable and inviting.
  • Better sound insulation – sound can be intrusive, but property setbacks help with sound insulation by keeping buildings a set distance from noisy environments.
  • Safety – in the case of a natural disaster like a fire or earthquake, having space between structures ensures they don’t fall onto each other.

Determining Setbacks

Property setbacks are mandatory when several humans are cohabiting, but they do vary by local government ordinances. Each municipality has its own rules, even between zoning districts.

These requirements pertain to existing buildings, additions, and the land where you intend to build. You can research the setback lines for the city or municipality you’re looking to build on your own or by working with an architect or design professional. A land use attorney can also help you determine setback laws.

If you have existing structures you wish to keep, it’s possible that they already violate setback laws. The original builder could have intentionally violated the setback laws, or they may have obtained a variance from the local municipality or homeowners’ association. With the latter, this should be part of the public record.

How to Set Up a Horse- and Code-Friendly Property

Setbacks apply to virtually every type of property but designing a horse property requires a lot of planning.

Hire an Architect or Engineer

If you’re using pre-existing or stock buildings, you may not need an architect or engineer. If you’re designing your own property and buildings, however, it’s important to retain an architect, engineer, or design professional to ensure you’re doing everything right.

Architects are experts in all phases of design, including site design, permitting, budgeting, and more. They can coordinate engineering for you as well, especially if you’re looking to build large structures like enclosed arenas.

You may have an idea of how you want the property to flow, but the architect can keep an eye out for the “big picture” and plan for challenges like natural disasters or natural obstacles.

In addition, some states require that a licensed architect or engineer to design structures larger than 4,000 square feet to protect safety and ensure compliance with building codes.

If possible, look for an architect or engineer with experience designing equestrian facilities or horse properties. This will give you the best combination of design knowledge and an in-depth understanding of how an equestrian property needs to flow, both for function and aesthetics.

Perform a Feasibility Study

A feasibility study analyzes a property to ensure it’s feasible for its intended use. Equestrian facilities will include zoning, water rights, irrigation, septic location, easements, soil conditions, setbacks, and more.

The feasibility study should be performed before you purchase land to ensure it’s appropriate for your needs. If you already own the property, however, you should still perform a feasibility study to understand its potential and use.


If you have a special property with a condition that imposes some hardship on your land, such as a natural stream or an unusual plot shape, you may be able to get a variance. This is an exception to where the setback once was.

Variances aren’t guaranteed, however. If the hardship is common in the properties in the area, you’re not likely to qualify for a variance and you’ll be bound by the same setback laws.

Program Your Property

Programming is a term that describes the initial phase of systematically evaluating your goals to determine all aspects of your project. It’s part of the first stage of the design process. If you hire an architect, they will include this information in the questionnaire process.

Fencing, shelter, and water are critical for horse properties. Once these needs are met, you can consider what you want for the property, such as an arena, stables or storage barns, a wash rack, a tack room, and more. This should all go according to priority.

Construct a Site Plan

A site plan is the drawing of the property from an aerial view. It will include all of the programming and setbacks, including requirements for permanent buildings, easements, right of way, and more. If necessary, the site plan will include drainage and excavation.

This part may require some troubleshooting. For example, your septic and drain field will determine some of your site plan. If your current drain field fails, you will need a drain-field reserve. You don’t want this placed under an arena, as it will make it virtually unusable if your septic fails.

You should also consider where your water is available and where it needs to go. Think not only of the horses and other livestock, but if you’re going to have plumbing in the stable for a wash stall or bathroom. These will need to connect with the sewer or septic system. The same applies to electricity.

Choose Knowledgeable Contractors

Some people take a DIY approach, especially if they’re only putting up a small barn for a few horses and some fencing. Even slightly more complex projects may be appropriate for hiring subcontractors yourself.

If your project is complex, however, it’s extremely time consuming to gather bids and sign contractors. In this case, it’s the best use of your time and money to hire a qualified and reputable general contractor.

Your architect or engineer may have recommendations for a general contractor. If you’re working on your own, be sure to ask your social network for referrals. Like other professionals, it’s ideal to work with a contractor who has experience with equestrian properties.

Set a Budget

Budgeting is possibly the most nerve-wracking aspect of the entire process. The architect and general contractors can help you determine the project requirements and costs, individually, so you can see what you’re working with and save money where possible.

It’s a good practice to pad your budget by 10% or more. It’s common for projects to come in over budget but rarely under. Certain costs, such as materials and labor, often increase as time goes on and the project timeline is stretched.


If your budget allows you to complete the entire project all at once, great! For many, this won’t be the case. Cash flow and time limitations may necessitate phasing to complete the project. Here are the general steps:

1. Provide safe shelter, fencing, water access, and hay or grain storage to bring horses onto the property.

2. Remodel existing structures on the property.

3. Add pasture areas, an arena, a second stable, etc.

4. Build storage for equipment or supplies, landscape, and set up composting.

Phasing is typically tailored to your project, goals, and budget. Generally, the idea is to work from the must-haves to the wants, just like your programming and budget planning.


Construction is when all the hard work with planning and design become real. Construction may take weeks, months, or years, depending on your project’s complexity.

Remember, construction is not pretty. You will have torn up lawns, dumpsters for trash removal, and dust everywhere. A good contractor will clean up after themselves and keep things as tidy as possible, however. This is a good opportunity to get rid of any junk on the property as well.


Big, open pastures provide the spaces horses need to be happy and comfortable. If you have multiple horses, providing ample space allows them to find areas to stay by themselves or escape conflict. Ideally, you should have a minimum of 1,000 square feet of turnout per horse.

Horse-Safe Fencing

Fencing is an important part of a safe and secure facility. The wrong fencing can cause injuries – sometimes severe – or allow horses to escape.

Different fences require different considerations, such as water drainage, grounding, and more. Electrified fences keep horses in and minimize injuries if they do get tangled in the fencing, but some people prefer wood or PVC fencing.


Natural shelters like trees and hills provide shelter for horses. If you have a flat property, horses may be subject to high winds and sun and require shelter in the pasture. Run-in or in-and-out sheds are suitable for pasture shelter, but be sure to position them to block weather from the wind direction.


Horses enjoy living outside, but you may want a barn for practical purposes like farrier and vet appointments and grooming or tacking up in winter. An equestrian facility designed for boarding or riding will likely need a stable or barn as well.

The biggest considerations with a barn should be ventilation to preserve air quality for the horses, water access, natural light, and the appropriate size and number of stalls. Some nice things to include may be an indoor or outdoor wash stall with hot water access, a tack room (heated or not), aisle or stall footing, a tack room, and a storage room for hay, feed, and bedding.

Manure Storage

Horses produce a massive amount of manure. The average horse produces about 9 tons of manure each year. If you have more horses on the property, that’s a lot of manure. If you wish, design an area for manure that’s hidden from your neighbors or your home (if onsite). You can also include a composting system to turn manure into soil for fertilizer.

Horse Trailer Area

If you have a horse trailer, you will need an area to store it safely. This area should have easy access to maneuver the truck and trailer. Avoid putting your trailer area close to obstacles that could injure a horse during loading or unloading, such as fencing, or create too claustrophobic of an environment.

Riding Arena

If you’re including an indoor, covered, or outdoor arena on your property, a lot of design will go into it. Arenas are highly technical and require drainage, a base, safe footing, and fencing. Work with an architect or contractor to determine the best option for your property.

Round Pen

Round pens are useful for equestrian properties of all disciplines. While it’s not a necessity, if you do want a round pen on your property, you’ll need to determine the best place for it with your existing structures. It will also need good footing, like the arena. Once you’ve determined that, you can purchase prefabricated panels.


The requirements for preparing and maintaining paddocks or pasture vary by region. Your local extension service can provide information about soil preparation, irrigation, and planting for your area.

Tractor and Equipment Storage

If you don’t have an existing area to store equipment, include it in your planning. Consider not only the equipment you currently have but what you may add in the future, such as a manure spreader or a tractor.


What is zoning?

The purpose of zoning is to separate land uses. This ensures that uses are compatible, development standards are used for the type of zone, and each development doesn’t place unreasonable burden on its neighbors.

How do I find out what my property is zoned?

You can call your local municipality’s office or visit the website to find out what your property is zoned.

What are the setbacks on my property?

Setbacks depend on the zoning classification. You will need to determine your zoning in order to find your property setbacks. You can find this information by calling your local municipality’s office or checking the residential and commercial zoning tables on the website.

Do I need a change of zone on my property when the county already changed my property to a commercial zone?

The land use designation is different from the zoning designation. Some parcels may have land use designations that don’t correspond to the current zoning classification. These two classifications must agree, so you may need to apply for a change of zone application on your property.

How many horses can you have per acre?

The general rule for keeping horses is one to one-and-a-half acres of intensely managed land per horse as a starting point, plus one additional acre per horse. Some areas may require two acres of land per horse. This is highly variable by the location, however.

Build a Horse-Friendly Property

Designing and building an equestrian property is no small task. With so much at stake, it’s important to make sure you’re complying with local laws and regulations, including setback laws for your property’s structures.

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