So you want to have your own horse farm. Should you build or buy? Hire a real estate agent or go out looking on your own? What about once you've acquired a facility--how do you manage the soil, fencing, employees, security, and manure? Four individuals versed in purchase, design, and management of horse farms shared their knowledge about establishing and getting the most out of your equine facility at the Thoroughbred International Exposition and Conference in Lexington, Ky.

"Treat your farm acquisition and management in the same way you should treat the horse business--don't check your brain at the door," said Arnold Kirkpatrick, president of Kirkpatrick & Company, a real estate and Thoroughbred brokerage, appraisal, and consulting firm, and moderator of the session. He suggested that people do their homework and make a plan establishing the type of operation, whether the farm is going to be public or private, its location, its size, whether it will be plain or fancy, and other aspects. "Each of the decisions is interactive with the other," he added.

If the farm is private and for mares and foals, a plain, functional facility is fine, he said. Whereas you'd want a much fancier place if you are doing sales preparation or standing stallions and hosted visitors regularly.

Leasing a farm is an option, and typically costs 3% of the value of the farm per year. However, Kirkpatrick cautioned that not many farms are available for lease, and you would typically have to agree with a "kick-out clause," in case the farm were to be sold during the lease.

"Even after you build your own farm, after a few years, you're going to find things you'll want to change," he assured, but that you should avoid "hyperadequacy," or building unnecessary and preposterous elements that provide little benefit for their extraordinary cost. He encouraged turning existing buildings into facilities that can be used, even for multiple purposes. For example, he said that you can stable horses in tobacco barns, with the added benefit of sound-proofing; when tobacco hangs to dry, it absorbs sound and creates a very quiet barn.

He explained that hiring a real estate agent is important. Real estate agents are licensed, regulated, and required to adhere to a code of ethics. It is important to look for knowledge, integrity (judged by "asking around and seeing if the guy's a charlatan or not"), experience, and follow-up skills. If you express that you are just starting to look for a farm, a good agent will stick with you. "If he blows you off, he's out for a buck and nothing else," Kirkpatrick said. Compatibility with your real estate agent is important. "If you don't like your real estate agent, (finding a farm) can turn into a long and arduous process."

Horse Pasture Basics

One of the first things to do once you buy a farm is to acquire maps, according to Tom Keene, president of the American Forage and Grassland Council. Aerial maps and soil maps (soil profile and contour) should be obtained to help lay out the farm. Of course the chosen layout first depends on whether you bought a turn-key operation or if you're starting from scratch with raw land.

Designating fields and paddocks is next, whether you're building new ones, using existing ones as-is, or altering ones already there. "It's important to get a system that you're comfortable with for many years," said Keene. He encouraged the audience to acquire the following from previous owners, if available:

  • Soil sample results 
  • Forage sample results 
    Fertility schedules
  • Spraying schedules 
  • Seeding schedules 
  • Mowing schedules 
  • Renovation
  • Any other information pertaining to the management of the land.

Owners who have this information available for reference are far ahead with their planning, he said.
Then he suggested establishing a database for each field, including:

  • Name/Number of field
  • Acreage
  • Plant constituency
  • Soil sample analysis
  • Forage analysis
  • Maintenance (seed, mow, spray, etc.)

Getting a soil sample of each paddock is important because you want to give the grass in each area the optimum growing medium. "It's very crucial that you get this done as soon as possible when you buy," he said. Compiling all this information and using common sense will help determine your plan of action for fertilizing, applying lime, seeding, and spraying.

For pastures, he said, the overall rule is "Green is good. Brown is bad."


When building a facility, "It is important that you participate in the process all the way through," said Larry Schwering, of Lucas/Schwering Architects, who started out as an architect with no horse background, but since 1974 has acquired a wealth of experience in designing equine facilities. "Secure a design team early on, and review some of their existing projects and talk to their clients," he suggested.

If you're making improvements to existing facilities, make sure that the buildings aren't historical structures that would require approval for renovation. Improvements can be made on some of these buildings, but only in compliance with the historical trust's guidelines.

Abandoned facilities can be tricky, because lead-based paint or asbestos might have been used on the structures; it is important to test for these dangerous substances. All underground storage tanks must come up as well, according to Schwering. Contaminated soil, sinkholes filled with oil, tractors, and trash also must be addressed.

Water, telephone, electricity, data, and sanitation all need to be planned for a new facility. Falling trees can interrupt the power supply, so underground utilities are preferable, although expensive.

He recommended constructing pull-offs on farm roadways so that equipment and vehicles can pass one another. Parking areas must be established for visitors, staff, personnel, and maintenance equipment. It is very important to have enough room for an emergency vehicle, such as a 30-foot fire truck, to get around the farm.

Entry and perimeter gates make a statement about a farm and provide a level of security to the owner. It's important that emergency vehicles have access to these gates. Other additions to a facility might include:

  • Maintenance facilities
  • Hay/straw storage
  • Full farm/support buildings
  • Standard barns
  • Foaling barns (with larger stalls, rounded corners, and sometimes a small laboratory)
  • Personnel offices (a comfortable space to relax and do job)
  • Main office (sometimes the first thing you see—makes a statement)
  • Breeding Barns (including a secure paddock in case a mare gets loose)
  • Isolation barn (remote)
  • Lunge rings
  • Hot walkers
  • Show areas (to bring out a stallion or yearling and show him to visitors)
  • Run-in sheds
  • A place where horses can be loaded and unloaded safely
  • Cemetery

Managing the Farm

 "We need to plan before we make our mistakes," said Steve Johnson, general manager of Margaux farm in Midway, Ky., who reviewed the essentials on design and management of a horse farm.
He gave a few pointers in management-friendly design:

  • Fencing can run up and down hills, but he said to make sure that the gate is not at the bottom of a hill (where the ground washes away or stays muddy).
  • He recommended using creosote posts for fencing that come with a 20-year warranty. "The first part of a post to rot is the top, so protect post tops," he said.
  • If using double fences, it's important to make sure you leave enough room for a five-foot piece of equipment (mower, etc.) to travel between the fences.
  • He said the shop and the outbuildings are the first things you should build. 
  • Horse barns should be on top of a hill for better ventilation.
  • Automatic waterers should be placed at the highest point in the field. He discourages watering horses from ponds because of diseases that can lurk there (leptospirosis, bugs that harbor Potomac horse fever, etc.).
  • You can put overhead utilities in an area that they will be behind treelines and out of view.
  • Natural hues are the best for landscaping on farms to accentuate or hide different areas.
  • Always leave at least 5 1/2 feet between a tree and a fence.
  • He reminded farm owners to always keep the blueprints and design drawings of the farm for future reference, and to keep accurate records.

Since labor is at least 40-50% of a farm's operating cost, he emphasized the importance of logical design and good equipment. "Get the right equipment, and keep it in good shape," he said. He suggested an exercise walker as a labor-saver in preparation of horses for sales, especially since it helps with the attitude of the workers.

Johnson said to make sure you give the employees a reason to want to work on the farm (such as good housing). "They're there for the lifestyle, not the check," he said, and pleasant attitudes can go a long way in the farm's successful operation. In terms of the hired help, he recommended that one person be hired for the maintenance of 10 horses (that don't require preparation for show or sales), although a 1:8 ratio (one employee to eight horses) is better. Typically he has two people working in a 20-stall barn.

Manure Management

After establishing the farm and hiring highly qualified personnel, there's another problem to solve—that of quickly amassing horse manure.

For years, our choices for manure disposal have included spreading straight from the barns to the field, feeding it to cattle (straw bedding), or paying someone to haul it away.

"Spreading can tear up the fields and lead to accumulation," said Ron Wallace, president of Equine Farm Management, which advises in the management and operational needs of horse farms, and president of Equine Muck Management (EMM), which provides on-site composting service to the Central Kentucky area and helps farms process their muck in a more environmentally friendly manner.

He started composting first because it reduces the volume of waste. "The material loses 70% in volume, most during the first one to three weeks of composting," he said. Additionally, composting increases nutrients in the final product, has anti-fungal properties, and eliminates weeds, pathogens, and parasites.

Composting is an eight-week process. "Wind rows" are built (lines of the manure to be composted) with the slope of the land on open acreage, and rows are turned 10-15 times. Nine cubic yards of manure, or four to five tons, can be composted per acre.

"The temperature in the rows reaches 150-170 degrees. That's what sterilizes your compost," he said.

What can be restrictive is the cost of the equipment (around $250,000), but that is why EMM provides it as a service to farms.

He estimated that a farm with 300 horses would require about two to three acres minimum to begin composting in addition to a muck pit needed for storage prior to the compost cycle.

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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