A major question when contemplating horse ownership is where to keep the animal. After all, this isn't a dog for whom a kennel in the garage or living in the house with the family will work. No, a horse is a large creature that eats a good deal of food and produces waste products that must be managed.
For many horse owners, the ideal situation is to have a bit of space in the country where there is room for a horse or two. That way they can spend time and work with their horses every day. Of course, not everyone has an idyllic little country estate--or a large one, for that matter--and other options must be explored.
One of those options is a boarding stable. While this might seem like an easy solution, there are many aspects that the horse owner must consider. First, all boarding stables are not created equal. Some will provide excellent care for your horse and others, quite simply, will not. They'll take your money every month, but the horse might receive minimal care at best.
And, in some rare cases, horses get far less than minimal care. In 2008 a boarding stable operator in Ohio was arrested after authorities found six horses dead and other emaciated horses at her place. Granted, that is the exception rather than the rule, but it did happen.
How do you tell the difference in quality of care when you are looking for a stable? With the help of some experts in the field, we'll offer some suggestions that might help. Two of the experts providing background are Colleen Brady, MS, PhD, an associate professor in 4-H Youth Development at Purdue University and a member of the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service, and Krishona Martinson, MS, PhD, an assistant professor and equine extension specialist with the University of Minnesota.
Also, at one point in my life I operated a boarding/training stable and more recently have had to find a facility to board two horses for several winter months in Arizona. Therefore, I will share my experiences also.
Cost and Location
The first two issues that arise when seeking a boarding stable are cost and location. Brady estimates that the cost of boarding a horse normally runs from $200 to $450 per month. The cost generally depends on services provided. If you want your horse in a climate-controlled barn and to be handled on a daily basis, the tab can quickly rise high above the estimated $450 per month.
Geography also plays a role. If you live out West, you might be able to find a rancher who will allow your horses to graze his pastures for a relatively cheap rate. The problems, however, might include a fairly long drive to his ranch and a hike through his pasture to find and catch your horse. In more populous areas of the East and far West, there are fewer large-acreage farms and land is more valuable on a per acre basis. The result could be a higher boarding rate.
We were able to find a stable for our horses in Arizona for $200 per month. They receive the bare essentials: plenty of hay and fresh water and a spacious outdoor pen from which the staff removes manure daily. Other amenities are available, but there is an additional charge for each, such as daily exercising, feeding supplements and grain, and regular grooming, to list a few. Our horses are "easy keepers," and they have done just fine on hay during cold Wyoming winters. They'll get plenty of exercise when we ride them in the desert regularly, and we'll groom them before and after we ride them.
A prime consideration after cost is location. We feel fortunate that our horses will be stabled 20 minutes from where we'll spend much of the winter in Mesa. In addition, the stable is located near the base of Superstition Mountain with a number of riding trails within riding distance.
If you are a trail rider, look for a location with easy access to trails, such as the place we found in Arizona. When we operated our boarding/training stable in Minnesota, we had access to trails on adjacent state land. Most of our boarders did not have trailers. They rode the trails in the immediate area or made use of the arena.
Likely most important is proximity from your home for visits, however. "The stable needs to be located to ensure that you will visit regularly," notes Brady. "As a horse owner, even one that boards a horse, you still have a responsibility to monitor the care of your horse, and be involved with the stable manager in providing quality care. This includes regular visits to ensure the horse is cared for properly, and raising questions and concerns as they arise."
Thirty minutes is about the maximum length of time I would care to drive to a boarding facility. Beyond that, you are cutting into available time to spend riding or just being around your horse. In addition, the high cost of fuel can drive up the monthly outlay when you are a distance from the boarding stable. However, everything is relative, and if you live in a metropolitan area, a longer trip might be necessary. This might require a bit more planning on your part, such as spending weekends or long weekend days with your horse, rather than making daily visits.
One place to look for a boarding barn is in the Yellow Pages or online. Some states or areas have Web sites with directories of boarding and training stables.
Once you have earmarked some potential boarding stables, it is time to pay visits to the facilities. What do you see when you drive up to each farm? Is the place well-kept and do the horses appear to be healthy and content?
An important aspect of any stable, says Martinson, is cleanliness. Flies, mosquitoes, and ticks, she points out, are responsible for carrying a number diseases. A prime breeding ground for some of these reprehensible creatures is manure. Do boarding stable employees remove manure from stalls on a daily basis? Does there appear to be an established plan for its disposal?
Brady sees fences as a most important consideration when keeping horses either at home or at a boarding facility. The fences, she says, should be at least four feet high and the fencing material should be sturdy, but of a type that if a horse were caught in it, he would not be injured. This, of course, immediately rules out barbed wire.
If horses are turned out together for exercise or to graze, how many are there in the group? Horses have an established pecking order with one being domi-nant and the rest falling into place on down the line. Does the dominant horse appear to be overly aggressive to the point that a new arrival would face danger of injury?
What kind of shelter is offered at your prospective boarding stable? Brady points out that tie stalls are not as common as they once were, but that they still provide adequate housing if space doesn't permit box stalls. Tie stalls, she says, should be at least five feet wide and 10 feet long. It is imperative, she adds, that horses housed in tie stalls be exercised daily and turned out whenever possible.
A better option is a box stall. Brady's recommendation is that the stall be a minimum of 10-by-14.
What are the horses' diets? While Martinson makes the point that most horses are overfed by their owners, it is important that you meet your horse's nutritional requirements. At least 50% of the diet should be forage, either in the form of grass or hay, she says. The horse requires 1-2% of his body weight per day in forage. Then you can supplement him based on his individual requirements for weight gain, loss, or maintenance.
When checking out a boarding stable, examine the hay the barn employees feed. You will want to find green, sweet- smelling hay, rather than bales that are crusty brown or moldy.
What are the immunization requirements at the boarding stable? Not only should you seek to protect your horse against disease, but you also will want him to share an environment in which other horses also have been immunized against such maladies as influenza, rabies, and, in some situations, strangles and herpesvirus. (It's important that owners vaccinate their horses against other diseases as well, but these are the main diseases that are transmissible from one horse to another).
What about deworming? Does the stable have an ongoing plan for deworming, or is it up to you? If your horse runs in a pasture or exercise area with other animals, you will want them all to be on a preventive care program to cut down on the potential for parasite infection.
How about farrier work? Does a farrier come to the stable on a regular basis, or is everyone on her or his own for arranging hoof care?
Another important aspect to consider before making your final decision is whether the other boarders are satisfied with the care their horses receive. Talk with them and find out. Chatting with other boarders can provide you with a wealth of information about the facility.
It is also important to learn a little about the other boarders. Do they share some of your interests in the horse world, or, for example, are they competitive dressage riders when all you want to do is trail ride? Are they friendly? Supportive?
"The stable will not only be a home for your horse, but is also a place you will hopefully spend much of your free time," says Brady. "It is important that the personality of the stable fits your personality, and that you have shared goals and interests with the stable managers and the other clientele."
Do the owners of the facility appear to have the best interests of both you and your horse as a high priority? Do they offer options that might help reduce the cost of boarding your horse, such as cleaning your own stall if you can get there on a regular basis or doing other tasks around the stable? You won't know until you ask.
Some stables allow owners to provide their own feed, while others require you to feed theirs. That also can be true with farrier and vet work. Before joining a barn with these rules you should be sure the quality of feed and care are up to your expectations.
What about tack storage? Is there a secure place to store your saddle, bridle, and other equipment so that you don't have to haul it back and forth each time you go to the barn? Ask other boarders if there's any problem with owners "borrowing" their equipment or supplies when they aren't around.
Finally, you should become familiar with the barn's rules and regulations. The owners of most boarding stables will ask you to sign a contract that will stipulate your rights at the facility as well your obligations.
Normally, there will be a section in the contract that deals with handling emergencies. In the event that your horse requires immediate veterinary attention, such as with an injury or colic, does the stable owner have the authority to call in a veterinarian without your approval? What is the extent of treatment you wish to approve without being consulted? Suppose you are out of the area on a two-week vacation and can't be contacted when an emergency arises. Would colic or another surgery be within your realm of economic possibility? It is better to have such parameters set in advance.
What you should be looking for in a boarding stable is a "comfort zone" for you and your horse--a place where your horse is well-cared-for and where you can relax and enjoy good companionship with animals and humans alike.
Brady, C.M.; Kanne, K.S.; Russell, M.A. AS-553-W: Introduction to Housing for Horses. Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service, 1997.
Martinson, K. Caring for a Horse on a Budget. University of Minnesota Extension News, May 2009. www.extension.umn.edu/extensionnews/2009/horses-on-budget.html.
About the Author
Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.
POLL: Colic Surgery