by Liza Roberts
photographs by Nick Pironio
Some people build beach houses or mountain houses to get away from it all. Tina Shanahan built a barn. Home to two mares and a filly, the custom barn is the realization of a dream Shanahan, 54, has harbored since she was a horse-crazy girl of 7 in Alaska. It’s not her only dream come true: After 25 years in the Navy Reserves, the registered nurse will be promoted to rear admiral in October. And after years of riding, she won the world championship in the American Paint Horse Association’s Masters Amateur Junior Hunter Under Saddle, and is now ranked No. 2 nationally in the category.
All of that is impressive, but none of it makes her as happy as this: A gleaming new bells-and-whistles barn that now has pride of place beside the North Raleigh house she shares with her husband Kieran, N.C. Secretary of Public Safety. Their 12 acres include a pond, wooded trails, and lighted riding ring, which she happily shares with neighbors on horseback.
“It’s all I will ever need for a lifetime of happiness,” Tina Shanahan says of the barn and the horses who live here. They are American Paint horses, distinguished by their varied markings, and prized for their athletic ability, easy temperament, and versatility. They need to be versatile to achieve the titles Shanahan has earned, which require strength and finesse in the ring in English and Western styles.
She is a petite and cheerful woman, boosted a few inches by the cowboy boots on her feet, made from the skin of an ostrich she shot herself. “After a stressful day at work, or returning home from Navy duty, the barn is my Prozac… One whiff of the horsey smells of sweet hay and pine shavings, and the world just drifts away.”
Shanahan’s Navy duty and busy life kept her far too busy to consider keeping her horses at home until last year. But when she saw a window of opportunity, she took it. “I didn’t really need a plan, as I had built the barn in my mind for many years,” she says. “I knew exactly how I wanted it laid out.”
She wasn’t about to leave anything to chance. Shanahan interviewed several barn builders before finding her “barn-building soul mate” in Danny Gautier of Sanford. Then she became her own contractor, ordering lumber, brick, cement and supplies. She had to fit it all in around frequent travel as a full-time commanding officer for the Navy Reserves, and kept tabs on every detail.
“It started as a small little project,” says Kieran Shanahan, enjoying a sunny late afternoon at the barn recently. “But when Tina does something, it’s all the way.” Not that he doesn’t enjoy the end result, which includes a “man cave” for him upstairs, complete with pool table, dart board, table shuffleboard, bar, and large TV. He also has a new competition horseshoe pit in front.
Tina Shanahan wanted her husband to like the barn, and also knew exactly how she wanted the barn to look: like their house, which the couple built in 2002 and which sits 50 yards or so away. Like the house, the barn is made of red brick with white columns, lit by identical exterior light fixtures. The similarity is enough that when the barn door is closed, it looks like a small replica.
When it’s open, it’s not necessarily a barn in the way that most people think of a barn. It’s not dusty, or musty, or dim; it’s bright and elegant, spotless, and fully equipped. It’s more a “house for horses,” as builder Gautier dubbed it, than a barn: “Taj Ma Barn,” he calls it.
It’s bright because it’s flooded with daylight from wide doors on either end, and overhead lighting tucked into the recesses of a tray ceiling. It’s elegant thanks to custom stalls made by a steel fabricator in Aberdeen, wood paneling, and spacious dimensions. And it’s tricked out with goodies such as overhead misters for cooling down hot horses; a tack room with kitchen; a fireproof hay room; and a bathing and grooming stall made with the kinds of waterproof walls used in car washes. A retractable-roof shavings shed makes dump-truck deliveries of horse bedding a cinch.
The barn works hard, but it’s clearly a place meant to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace, too. Kieran Shanahan says he reads the paper every morning on the barn’s wide front porch, and the tack room’s kitchen makes it easy to serve visitors a glass of wine or snack.
“Every night after dinner we go there and just hang out with the horses,” Tina Shanahan says. Every night when she’s not reporting for duty, that is. “When you love something, you find the time.”