Just like selecting a house or apartment can impact your quality of life, so does the place you choose to call home for your new horse. Finding the right boarding barn makes all the difference in your equine partner’s health and happiness, as well as your enjoyment of the time you spend there with him.
Another bonus is the social aspect of boarding. It’s a great way to meet other equestrians, and there’s usually someone to ride with or to lend a hand. You can benefit from other experienced equestrians and watch and learn from other riding styles. A busy facility exposes your horse to more activity and more things; this exposure can be beneficial when you take him to a show or other places to ride. Plus, the camaraderie of your barnmates makes riding and showing more fun.
Boarding options range from simple pasture board with self-care to luxurious full-service facilities with state-of-the-art stalls, impeccable arenas and acres of pristine fencing. Whether you board your horse by choice or necessity, here are some tips to find the facility that’s just right for you.
The Right Barn for You
Each barn has its own unique culture and ambiance, from cozy family-owned stables to large lesson or show barns. Clientele may be mostly kids, families or working adults. Some barns are slanted toward a particular discipline, while other large equestrian centers may house multiple trainers and disciplines. When beginning your search for a boarding barn, it can be helpful to ask local horse people for their recommendations. To find the best barn for you and your horse, you’ll need to do some research, ask questions, visit potential facilities and observe daily activities to see if it will be a good fit.
Price is definitely a consideration for a horse owner on a budget, but it’s never a good idea to sacrifice quality feed, safe fencing and footing, and consistent basic care just to save a few dollars. In general, you can expect to pay more for facilities that have more amenities and services. Determine which features are must-haves for you and your horse, and which are nice but not necessary.
Boarding rates don’t always compare equally, so be sure to ask what’s included with the monthly price you are quoted. For example, one farm may include bedding and hay in their rate, while another farm does not. You’ll need to factor in the additional amount it will cost you for those essentials.
Just like real estate, location is a prime concern when starting your search. Where are the nearest boarding facilities in your area, and just how far are you willing to drive? Also factor in the expense of gas and the frustration of time spent in traffic. Ideally, you’ll want a barn that is convenient to either home or work so that visiting your horse is easy to incorporate into your regular routine.
Quality care and safe facilities should be top priorities, so target your inquiries to cover these important bases. A visit to the barn will tell you much more than a website or phone call can. Your first impression of the facility should be that it is neat and well-maintained. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should appear that the safety and well-being of horses and riders is a priority. The horses at the barn should look healthy and happy—your clues to good care.
The barn should be reasonably clean and well-ventilated. Strong ammonia fumes signify that stalls might not be cleaned as often as they should. Inquire about the frequency of stall cleaning and manure management practices on the property.
Ask to see the stall or field where your horse will be living. Stalls and fencing should look sturdy and free of hazards like broken boards or protruding nails. Fencing should be a material appropriate for horses, and maintained in safe condition. Wood, woven wire mesh, PVC, electric rope or tape and steel pipe are among the choices considered safe for horses. Barbed wire is unsafe for horses and should automatically eliminate a facility from consideration.
Although grazing quality varies by season, you’ll want to make sure that pastures appear to be maintained properly—not overgrazed or choked by weeds. Also inquire about the number of horses per pasture, and who your horse’s potential turnout buddies might be. Living with a compatible herd is important for your horse’s well-being, and the barn manager should be sensitive to pairing compatible horses together to minimize stress and injuries. If your horse will be living outside, make sure there is adequate shade and shelter for all of the horses in his field.
Self-care, full-care, or somewhere in between?
Find out what services the barn provides, and what you will be responsible for. Some barns require you to sign on for all aspects of their program, including full-care and training or lessons, while others may offer these services à la carte, or not at all. The basics included in full-care board are typically feeding, watering and stall cleaning. Turning horses out and bringing them back in is often another aspect of daily care, depending on your horse’s living arrangements. Other services that may be available (possibly at an additional cost) include blanketing, fly spray, holding the horse for the vet or farrier, deworming, and bandaging or administering medication.
Ask about the feeding program at the barn as well. How many times a day do they feed? Small, frequent meals are ideal for horses. Is feed provided by the barn? If so, find out what kind. When you visit, look at the quality of the hay being fed. (See “Selecting the Right Hay for Your Horse” for tips on evaluating hay quality.) If your horse needs extra feed or a different type of hay or grain than the barn provides, ask if that can be accommodated. If pasture grass plays a role in your horse’s nutrition plan, find out if the barn provides additional hay needed in the winter or when there is not enough grazing available. There may be an extra fee for this if it’s not factored into the regular board.
Making sure your horse gets the feed and supplements that he is supposed to is a top priority for boarders. If someone else does the feeding at the barn, clearly prepackaging and labeling specialized rations can go a long way toward ensuring that your horse is fed properly.
Maintaining a consistent supply of fresh, clean drinking water is another important horsekeeping issue. Ask if the facility has automatic waterers, or how often buckets and troughs are checked and refilled. When you visit the facility, take a look at the buckets and troughs. Dirty or empty water sources should be a red flag.
While you are entrusting some or all of your horse’s care to someone else when you board, it’s important to remember that you are still ultimately in charge of monitoring his condition and being his advocate.
A Healthy Place
Most boarding barns require proof that a horse is up-to-date on vaccinations and has a negative Coggins test (for equine infectious anemia), so be prepared to produce these documents before your horse moves in.
In addition to vaccinations, deworming is an important part of routine horse health care. Some barns want all resident horses to be part of a strategic deworming plan for the property, while others may leave it up to the individual owner to stay current. Find out what the expectations are. It’s always a good sign when a facility is concerned with keeping the horses on the property healthy.
Some farms have a preferred vet or farrier. If you want to use someone else, make sure that’s OK with the management. Will your current farrier and vet travel to the facility? Equine health and hoof care professionals are crucial to your horse’s well-being, so get those ducks in a row when moving to a new barn.
Rules & Regulations
The golden rule of boarding is “get it in writing.” You should have a signed contract that spells out rates, policies and official barn rules. A written contract protects both you and the barn owner. Although it may be the last thing on your mind when moving in, your boarding contract should also stipulate how much notice is required when moving out. When parting ways, even if the experience has been less than ideal, do everything in your power to leave on good terms. The horse world is a small one, and you never know if you might want or need to return to that facility.
Liability is a big concern for barn owners. You and any visitors will most likely be required to sign a release form in order to ride on the property. Note that some farms permit outside instructors to come in and teach, while others do not. Be sure to ask about the farm’s policy on this if you plan to bring someone in to train you or your horse.
Use of the Facilities
While safe living quarters and quality care for your horse are top priorities, being able to enjoy riding and spending time with your horse at the facility is also important. Check out the riding arenas. Do they have good footing that is maintained regularly? Are any of them lighted? In colder climates, an indoor arena may be a priority if you want to ride through the winter. Sport-specific amenities such as a cross-country course, full-size dressage arena or availability of jumps will be on the wish list for some riders. If you are a die-hard trail rider, access to trails will be something to consider, whether on the property or nearby public riding trails.
If the barn you are considering has official operating hours, make sure that the time frame is compatible with your riding schedule. Availability of some amenities, such as arenas, grooming areas, turnout paddocks and wash racks, might be an issue at a busy facility. Inquire about peak usage times (such as after school, early mornings, et cetera), and if priority goes to lessons or trainers. Even better, arrange to visit at a time you would typically plan to be at the barn so you can observe how things run.
Following proper arena etiquette is not only polite, but it also maintains the safe flow of riding traffic. Find out the expected “rules of the road” at the barn. Typically, these include passing left shoulder to left shoulder for horses traveling in opposite directions, and faster gaits get the right of way.
Outside of the rules, common sense, awareness of others and good communication help keep everyone safe in a busy arena or facility.
Finding the perfect place to board is well worth the search. Knowing that your horse is in good hands at a safe place will bring you peace of mind while allowing you to ride and enjoy time with your horse.
This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Your New Horse (formerly Horses