Knowledge for the curious rider

How to Get Natural Light into a Barn

Picture the sun setting on the horizon and warm light streaming through the windows of a bright and airy barn. Horses rest peacefully in the beautiful beams and guests linger to talk with one another.

Natural light in a barn COMPLETELY transforms the feel. Nothing is more depressing than sitting in a dark barn with low ceilings, solid walls, and only fluorescent lights illuminating the place.

If you want your barn to be a place where both horses and people relax, it is imperative that the design focuses on letting natural light in.

There are four main ways you can get natural light into a barn. This includes 1) adding structures to the roof that create more space for windows 2) adding windows directly to the roof 3) adding windows to the walls of the barn, and 4) adding windows to the doors.

Within each of these methods, there are specific features you can add like cupolas, skylights, and transom windows. Below is a summarized list of features by approach. If you would like a reference containing only pictures of these features, check out my visual guide.

Roof Structures Monitor
Roof Windows Translucent Ridge Cap
Translucent Roof Panels
Wall Windows Clerestory Windows
Stall & Standard Windows
Transom Windows
Door Windows Dutch Door
Entrance Door Windows

Knowing how to identify these features can help you if plan on purchasing a barn, are searching for a place to board your horse, or want to build your own barn. You will easily be able to recognize poor designs and dark facilities from photos alone.

Roof Structures: Monitors, Cupolas, & Dormers

Adding structures to a barn roof gives you more room to hang windows, which allow more light into the barn. These structures offer unique advantages like adding more space to the second story of the barn and creating a classic barn silhouette. However, keep in mind they are expensive to build and are difficult, but not impossible, to add to an existing structure. Therefore, these features are easiest to include on a brand new, custom barn, where the owner is willing to invest more money.


monitor roof, roof design, natural light
Photo from Adobe Stock

A monitor looks like a miniature home stacked on top a standard upside down “V” sloping roof. These raised structures or “monitors” are typically located dead center on the roof’s spine. Although a barn can have multiple monitors, a standard monitor roof has a single monitor that spans the entire width of the barn (shown above). This shape creates a classic raised center aisle (RCA) barn.

While the monitor itself will not add more light, the sides of the monitor give additional vertical wall space to place windows high up, and towards the center of the barn. This allows natural light to flood a central aisle. By using windows on all 4 sides of the monitor, you can ensure light will pour into the barn at all times of the day.

If the monitor portion of the roof has multiple, vented windows, barns with this feature can also have increased ventilation. Accessible windows that open, allow hot, trapped air to escape. Placing fans in the walls of the monitor or hung from the ceiling can also aid in forcing stale air outside.

Out of any of the roof structures, a monitor roof will add the most space to the upper level of the barn.  Since, a monitor roof maximizes the space available for windows, if you had to pick one feature to add, a monitor gives you a lot of bang for your buck.


cupola, roof design, barn design, natural light, natural ventilation, windows
A single cupola marks the center of this cross-aisle barn. Photo by JamesDeMers on Pixabay

If you have ever seen a weather vane spinning in circles on the highest point of a barn, chances are you have seen a cupola. Cupolas look like small castle towers sticking out of the roof’s spine. Their shape can range from a simple 4 walls, to octagons, or even a circle.

Cupolas not only range in shape but in size. You can easily find pre-made cupolas from Home Depot ranging from 18” to 60” wide, and the size you chose is usually proportional to the roof’s length.

Since they are a focal point, often you will find one centered on the middle of the roof. However, a larger barn and roof line may incorporate more than one cupola spaced at regular intervals. You will even find multiple cupolas stacked on top of a monitor roof.

As with the monitor, the vertical sides of the cupola allow additional windows or vents in the center of the barn. If you have a smaller cupola, it will likely be more important for airflow than for letting in light. However, larger, 5-foot-wide ones allow ample opportunity to add windows.

Beyond light and air, cupolas give a barn a unique sense of character. If you want some inspiration for unique cupolas, check out this article from This Old House for a collection of pictures.


dormer, dormers, roof design, barn design, natural light, windows
Four dormers protrude from the roofline creating space for windows to be hung. Photo by Roger Starnes Sr on Unsplash

Unlike a classic barn monitor, which is a modification of the spine or center ridge of the roof, dormers are modifications on the sloped sides. Dormers are structures that jut out from the normal roof line as if someone drew a horizontal line through the roof’s inverted “V” shape. These structures create an outward facing, vertical wall to place windows.

A dormer can contain either a single window or multiple, depending on the look the owner wishes to achieve. If a small dormer with a single window is favored, a roof may have many dormers on each sloped side.

Typically, dormers are used in homes to increase the amount of space available on the upper story in addition to providing more light. In barns, dormers can be especially useful if owners wish to close off a second story for livable space.

Roof Windows: Skylights, Translucent Panels & Ridge Caps

Beautifully lit barns often have light pouring in from the roof. A major advantage of letting light in from the ceiling is that no area is off limits. Unlike windows on walls where light can only shine so far into the building, windows built directly into the roof means light can reach the most confined spaces.

While some may refer to any window on the roof as a skylight, I make the distinction here between translucent panels and ridge caps from tempered glass skylights. Due to the difference in materials, these vary widely in their performance and effectiveness, therefore they are distinctly different features.

Translucent Panels and Ridge Caps

skylight, skylights, natural light, roof design, barn design, aisle, stalls
Plastic skylight panels line the central barn aisle. Photo by Christel Sagniez on Pixabay

Home Depot markets clear roofing panels and translucent ridge caps by brands such as Suntuf, Sunlite, and Sunsky. These fiberglass reinforced plastic or polycarbonate (plastic) panels have the same ridge and valley shape as corrugated metal, which makes them an appealing addition to a sheet metal roof.

Although these seem like an affordable solution to let light in at $20-$40 a panel, using plastic as “skylights” comes with its drawbacks. Plastic panels may scratch due to impact, yellow overtime due to UV exposure, or leak due to stress caused by wind. Hansen Pole Buildings warns that these panels cannot be walked on or insulated, and may cause condensation indoors. They recommend reserving plastic panels for the building sides or reinforcing them with a steel “X” to prevent compromising the structural integrity of the roof.

Ultimately, even though you will see these plastic roofing options on barns, there is a reason Home Depot primarily markets them for greenhouses. If you care to use these translucent panels, they are most effective as clerestory windows.


Photo by Marly Mele on Unsplash

A more structurally sound, but expensive option, is to let light in from the roof using standard tempered glass skylights you would find in a home.

There are two main types of skylights, fixed and vented. Fixed cannot open, which means you will not get the added advantage of increased ventilation, but it is far more affordable than a vented one. A small, approximately 2 ft by 2 ft fixed skylight will run $150, not including installation.

Vented skylights can either be manual, electric, or solar powered. Since skylights in a barn are likely high up, manual skylights are not recommended. For cost comparison, the same size, electric or solar powered skylight as the fixed skylight above will cost at least $1100. These are a serious investment, but splurging on vented skylights will ensure you not only get increased natural light, but increased ventilation.

Wall Windows: Clerestory, Transom, and Stall

Clerestory Windows

barn, barn design, exterior, clerestory window, unique window, natural light, barn entrance, skylights
Unique clerestory window above the entrance. Photo by Jennifer Murray on Pexels

Simply put, clerestory windows are windows located above eye level. While technically the windows in a monitor roof, cupola, dormer, or skylight qualify as clerestory windows, other places to find them include above the barn entrance doors and under the eaves of a barn’s roof.

If a barn owner wants to make a statement, adding unique clerestory windows to the wall above the entrance doors add personality. Circular windows (pictured above) or a panel large panel of glass will allow light to shine down the aisle of the barn creating a warm and homey environment.

Another clever place to use them is the wash stall where walls are often solid cement. While this is ideal to withstand constant water exposure, horses often hesitate when entering these cold, confined spaces. Placing clerestory windows higher up on the walls helps the area feel less claustrophobic and more inviting. In addition, a well-lit area makes it easier for a caretaker to notice cuts, scrapes, or other physical issues with the horse.

Transom Windows

Transom windows are windows attached directly to the top of a door frame. Although they are above eye-level like a clerestory window, their location is what distinguishes them. When used above a barn entrance door like above, light will flood the central aisle.

These windows can be used over any door in a barn, including exterior stall doors.

In general, windows placed higher up on stall walls are an asset in barns. Eye-level windows must be covered with unsightly metal bars for the horse’s safety. They the let light in, but make the barn feel like a prison. Like clerestory windows, transom windows are too high to cause injury and do not need guards, so they let light in without obstruction.

Stall Windows

Standard stall windows do not need much explanation. Horses love them because they can see outside, and staff love them because they can easily see when mucking out stalls. The most common types of stall windows will be a tempered glass covered by a metal guard or a hinged window (these are discussed below with Dutch Doors).

Metal guards for windows are recommended for two reasons. First, they prevent horses from chewing on the wooden window frame, which will ruin your stables and obviously isn’t great for them. Second, they prevent a horse from landing a kick on the window and shattering it.

Door Windows: Dutch Doors & Entrance Doors

Exterior Dutch Doors

barn design, exterior, door design, dutch door, window, natural light
Photo by Falkenpost on Pikabay

Ever drive by a barn and see horses sticking their heads out of the back of their stalls? The bottom half of the stall door is shut while the top half is open. This style door is known as a Dutch door.

Dutch doors are a phenomenal asset because they give you the option to completely close up the barn in cold weather, snow, or rain. On sunny days though, an opened top door half creates a large 4 ft by 4 ft window to let light flow in. Some Dutch doors even have a barred window in the top half to light into the barn even when shut.

Exterior Dutch doors commonly give horses access to a run attached to their stall. However, they can be beneficial even when a run isn’t present. In the event of a fire, exterior doors that let horses out, without having to walk through the barn, can save both a person’s and horse’s life.

These doors also offer other advantages including allowing neighboring horses to see each other and increased ventilation. If you have the money in your budget to have these additional exterior doors on the back of your stalls, they are well worth it.

Entrance Doors Windows

Photo by Skyler Ewing on Pexels

One of the fastest modifications you can make to a barn to swap out solid wood barn doors for ones with built in windows. These doors will immediately make the barn look more inviting, and allow you to monitor activity outside. This is particularly useful in the winter when the barn is shut up and you want to see if a vet, farrier, or boarder is pulling up the drive.

A unique idea for a barn door is to use a garage door lined with windows, similar to what you might find at a brewery or fancy coffee shop. Since garage door hardware is designed to easily lift the door with minimal effort, say goodbye to throwing your full body weight at a solid barn door to get it to slide open.

If you are looking to purchase pre-made barn entrance doors with windows already built-in, check out this picture gallery at Classic-Equine Equipment.

Final Thoughts

Natural light in a barn makes it feel like an extension of the outdoors.

When building or renovating a facility, putting careful thought into maximizing the amount of natural light in the barn will pay off. Not only will you pay less for electricity, you and your horses will feel more at ease in the space. If your barn is a business, having better light, ventilation, and a more inviting feel, will justify competitive prices and sell the space in impression alone.

Despite the benefits, many barn owners skimp on adding windows and hinged doors due to the cost. Frankly, adding complex structures to a barn’s roof and framing holes in the walls is more work. However, don’t feel like you need to add 20 windows to have the perfect barn. A few strategically placed windows or hinged doors that take into consideration sun’s locating during the day make a world of difference.

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Jen & Indigo

Horse owner & educator

Hi, I am so excited to have you join me at Good Old Horse! When I retired my horse (Indigo) in 2016, I switched from spending time in the saddle to spending time around the barn. Caring for an aging horse has taught me more about soundness, commitment, and care than I ever thought possible. I am definitely the owner and he is the educator! At Good Old Horse, I am sharing what I have learned from owning Indigo for the past 16 years.


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