Locating the Ideal Barn

Ranch, farm, field, or barn? When your horse needs a home away from your home, you want to board him in a safe, pleasant place. You might be dissatisfied with your current arrangement, have moved into a new area, or just can't keep your horse at home. Whatever your reason, you need to entrust your animal to caretakers. You'll pay others to assume some or all of the responsibility for your horse's daily care. Your boarding choice reflects your expectations. Locating the ideal facility requires you to think through what you expect for his care.

First, determine your involvement. Do you actively ride or show, or do you just need a place to house your horse for breeding, foaling, lay-up, or retirement?

Next, start compiling a list of barns that seem likely to fit your equestrian style. You can ask other owners, equine practitioners, or farriers for references, along with collecting names from local magazines, feed stores, and tack shops. Also contact associations or do research on the Internet (starting at sites like www.haynet.net).

With this list of possibilities, you're on your way to locating the ideal farm for your horse. As you contact barn managers, "vet" each facility by exploring at least the following eight elements. The example questions below will help you evaluate each element. Depending on your unique needs, you might want to add to this list.

1. Location And Access

If you're an active rider, look for a barn within a reasonable driving distance from your home and work. The farther your horse lives from you, the more likely you'll encounter obstacles on daily trips. Also consider how far away the barn is from the show or trail riding areas you frequent. Does the farm offer facilities and amenities that are important to you? You might have to drive farther to have more land on which to ride or turn your horse out.

Whether or not you plan regular visits, check out site access. Are the roads paved and easily driven, or would you have to travel through mud or pothole-infested gravel roads? Does the facility seem safe in its placement--not perched on a hillside or located too close to a potential flooding waterway?

2. Room And Board

Most barns will offer the basics of housing, feed, and water, or management might limit board to renting only a stall, pen, or space in a pasture, and you supply the feed. Or, the barn might supply full board, which includes all services along with top-quality accommodations.

The housing doesn't have to be a horse palace, but you'll want to avoid a ramshackle building. When you tour a site, evaluate the potential hazards in all enclosures. You should expect solid, horse-friendly walls, floors, and ceilings in the barn, and fences that safely enclose horses.

Check for easy access to stalls or pens, and make sure latches on doors and gates are secure. Note the type of feeding and watering equipment, and inquire about the barn's water supply. If the water is city water and the line breaks, how will the horses be watered? If it is well water and the aquifer becomes contaminated, how will the barn management deal with this? (For more on water, see "Testing Soil And Water" in the June 1999 issue of The Horse, http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=334.)

The type of feed that is fed might vary from horse to horse, or it could be one-type-fits-all. Ask about the typical menu--is it hay, pellets, cubes, or a mix? Can you supply your own forage to substitute or supplement? What about the feeding of grain, supplements, and/or medications--does that cost more in labor? If you can't be there for the vet or farrier and your horse needs to be held, is that included in the board fee?

If horses are turned out to graze in a field or pasture, inquire about the quality of forage. What's the size of the field, and how many horses graze there? What plant species are grown, and how is the pasture maintained? Does the barn charge extra to put on or take off blankets during turnout? How often are the horses checked for injuries or possible illness?

3. Attitude (Human Relations)

As you start investigating candidate barns, pay attention to how you're treated from your first call. Consider your initial contact as a job interview for the barn. You want to feel welcome even before you visit the place.

When you call, introduce yourself to the barn manager and inquire about boarding your horse. Listen for attitude, which can help you decide if the barn manager matches your needs and personality. Conflicts with a barn manager can make boarding your horse an unpleasant experience.

Does the barn have space for your horse? Find out up front if you'll need to put your name on a waiting list. Even if there's no room right now, you want to feel that the barn manager is interested in gaining your business.

Realize that the barn manager might screen you, too, since running a boarding stable involves financial and legal risk. A family-run barn that boards a few extra horses might prefer only a certain type of client who fits in with the lifestyle of the family.

Present yourself as a responsible horse owner and explain your expectations. You'll be asking a lot of questions, but be sure to listen carefully to the answers. And respond honestly to the manager's questions--don't say you'll be at the barn six days a week if you really only show up once or twice a week.

Tell the person a little about your horse, especially if you need to board a stallion, pregnant mare, weanling, yearling, or a horse with unusual needs. For example, if your horse is a cribber, you should mention this in your discussions with the barn manager.

When you tour a barn, the guide should point out features available to boarders. Pay attention to how the manager and staff deal with customers. Are they personable or brusque, efficient or cavalier? Even though you're matching your horse with a barn, you'll still be in regular contact with the management. A friendly, efficient attitude makes the business relationship more pleasant.

4. Attitude (Horsemanship)

A barn's reputation depends on who runs it, as boarders delegate the daily care of their horses to one or more people. When you visit, pay attention to all the people who care for the horses.

You want to trust your animal to horse people who are conscientious. As you tour a barn, observe signs of genuine concern. Your guide might introduce you to the horses--see how the horses react to someone walking past their stall or pen.

If you can, watch the barn staff handle the horses. Don't think you're spying, but see if everyone treats horses fairly and humanely--even if a horse misbehaves.

Certifications can indicate a barn's quality. Some state horse councils certify barns, and the British Horse Society also does this. Members of a barn's staff can earn certifications through organizations like the American Riding Instructors Association or U.S. Dressage Federation. Even without certification, you can estimate a barn's prosperity by how long it has been in business.

5. Services

The services a barn offers reflect its business focus. In general, stable businesses fall into one of these types--training barn, riding club, public boarding stable, private stable adding boarders, breeding farm, lay-up facility, or retirement farm. You'll also see combinations of these types in some facilities.

Look for a professional approach to business, even in a "backyard" facility. You don't want your horse at a disorganized place where the staff runs out of feed or avoids paying veterinary bills.

As indications of businesslike methods, expect to see evidence of processes. Systems tell you the barn will supply the services you pay for. A well-run barn has a tidy tack room and posts schedules of treatments. Stall charts or stall nameplates with feeding instructions are other signs of professional management.

Written agreements between management and clients confirm understanding. A boarding agreement can establish guidelines and responsibilities of both parties (see "Boarding Contracts: Parts 1 and 2" in the November and December 1998 issues of The Horse, http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=570 and http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=582).

Ask to see the boarding agreement in advance. A complete one should list your contact information, insurance agent, preferred veterinarian, full description of your horse, emergency contacts, and people to whom you give permission to ride your horse. Don't be put off by a policy of isolating horses new to the farm--such a precaution indicates a concern for the well-being of all horses on the property.

Investigate the barn's commitment to safety. Posted rules alert everyone to safety guidelines. Ask about any waivers you're expected to sign, and find out how the facility plans to handle emergencies such as accidents or natural disasters.

Also, look at the horses. Do they appear healthy and content? Are their feet cared for? This is especially im-portant if the staff provides grooming and other health care services, besides just feeding and turnout.

General services, included in the boarding price, usually cover regular cleaning of a stall or pen. Check that the stalls appear to be cleaned according to the schedule described.

6. Amenities

Extras can be non-existent or range through a complex listing and pricing of services. Find out how the barn staff handles the extras, and if they supply medication, blanketing, clipping, or daily turnout for a stalled horse.

Barns might handle veterinarian and farrier visits. You could pay the professional directly, or the barn might pay and bill you. Not all barns will have a person available to be present during treatments, so you might have to attend to your horse on these occasions.

As you tour a property, ask questions about where people groom, tack up, bathe, and clip horses. If the barn has grooming or wash stalls, how many are available for the number of horses boarded? If you're expected to tie your horse to a fence rail for any reason, does it appear solid and secure?

Visit the tack rooms and ask about hours they're locked. Note barn lighting and faucets, along with restrooms and telephones. A fancier place will have a lounge or clubhouse, and possibly locker rooms, showers, and a laundry room.

If you're a rider, explore the opportunities at or near the facility. Look at location, size, and footing of outdoor and indoor riding arenas. A complete riding stable should have turnout pens and a round pen for schooling or longeing. For pleasure riding, the site should be near trails or open space. Barns with hunter/jumpers might provide jumps, cavalletti, and/or a cross-country course.

Don't forget to note parking space for cars and trailers. If you ride early in the morning or in the evening, look for placement of lights in arenas and parking areas.

7. Atmosphere

Atmosphere involves more than the management. Find out about the barn's community, starting with what kind of customers the barn attracts. In general, most owners enjoy being around owners with similar interests. A showplace might not fit your style--you might prefer casual schooling wear and everyone else is in boots and breeches. Enthusiastic youngsters could distract you, while they might consider middle-aged riders to be grumps.

If you're a sociable person, you probably expect fellowship among the other boarders. Ask how everyone shares com-mon areas like the barn aisle, wash rack, and turnouts. For example, if one person wants to school over jumps, can others still ride in the arena?

Some barns post specific hours of operation, or might be closed one day a week. At a lively place, riders probably all show up on weekends. If you're also a "weekend warrior," think about how several people share a single power outlet, or a single hose on a hot summer day.

Look closely at security in the communal tack room. Will you have to protect your grooming gear in a locked tack trunk, or stow your bridle and riding helmet in your car?

8. Value

Is the boarding fee reasonable and are extras fairly priced? To rate the value of services a stable offers, shop around your area for a comparison. In boarding, as in other equestrian expenses, price often reflects worth.

A pasture board fee of $100 a month can supply quality care, depending on how you evaluate the previous seven elements. Realize that an upscale barn's fee of $1,000 a month that covers everything might cost the same as three or four months board at a typical barn, but it could be well worth the cost to you if it fits your needs and your horse's needs.

By rating a facility's features in these eight elements, you'll be able to predict how it fits your needs. Before you bring your horse to a new home, you'll feel comfortable knowing that your research found the ideal barn.

Barn Turnoffs

Upkeep and attention make a barn pleasant. Boarders caution against these indications of a less-than-perfect place:

  • Dirty or empty water buckets
  • Dirty, smelly stalls
  • Broken fence rails
  • Anyone smoking in the barn
  • Unruly dogs wandering freely over the property
  • Unruly kids wandering freely in the barn
  • Overgrown weeds
  • Clumps of moldy, discarded hay
  • Anyone over-disciplining a horse
  • An ill or unkempt horse
  • Holes in pastures
  • Unsecured feed (allows pest/critter access)
  • Poorly maintained gates and latches
  • Unhealthy looking horses
  • Rude or unhelpful management

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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