Things to consider and questions to ask
Choosing where to board your horse can be a very personal decision based on your riding pursuit, pocketbook, and other preferences. Boarding operations come in all sizes, ranging from high-end stables with 50-plus equine inhabitants to the backyard barn with just a few clients. Some places specialize in housing horses engaged in a particular discipline, while others accept horses of all types and talents. And features that are important to some horse owners are not important to others. For this reason, arm yourself with a checklist when going to evaluate potential facilities so you can select a barn that best meets your needs.
First consider a farm’s proximity to where you live, its monthly cost, and whether you desire access to a trainer, indoor arena, and other amenities. Jenny Baldwin is an international FEI dressage competitor and certified Swedish instructor who has earned the title of Grand Prix Champion for the United States Dressage Federation Region 5 and the Rocky Mountain Dressage Society for four consecutive years. She has generally boarded at large facilities because, as a trainer, this gives her access to horse owner clientele. Also, her clients’ horses and her own require immaculate care as top-tier competitors, so there are several features she finds relevant in large stables.
People and Policies
When searching for a large boarding stable, Baldwin suggests selecting a property owned by someone who is a rider and/or is involved with horses in some manner. “Otherwise,” she says, “shortcuts might be taken if the person is not familiar with horses or sensitive to the needs of horses and horse owners.”
In her experience, good barn managers are hard to find and even harder to keep, and so the stable owner should be an integral part of managing the horses’ care.
Many boarding facilities have rules, which Baldwin feels are good as long as there aren’t too many restrictions, which can become frustrating and burdensome. Good rules are easy to understand and implement, such as: Be courteous to everyone at the barn; clean up after yourself; and honor an arena schedule for riders and instructors. Rules that are too strict, especially related to arena use and hours of access, tend to limit a rider’s activities or enjoyment at a facility.
Avid endurance rider Dana Cernak agrees that rules are important as long as they aren’t too taxing. Cernak boarded her horse for many years but currently runs her own home-based boarding facility in Longmont, Colorado. At her farm, for instance, it is simple courtesy to respect quiet hours, when boarders are not permitted at the barn, between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Cernak insists anyone coming onto the property sign a liability release; this applies to not just the horse owner but also his or her friends and relatives. She sends out boarding contracts in advance of the horse moving to the property so there is no misunderstanding of the boarder’s expectations for what she will provide. Contracts include information ranging from day the boarding bill is due to what services the farm will provide. It also allows for how the contract will end; for instance, a written 30-day notice to vacate the facility is fairly standard. As a potential boarder, this is important so you can decide if you are willing to comply with the facility’s policies before signing the contract and moving your horse to the property.
Amenities and Approaches
Baldwin stresses the importance of clean water and quality hay and feed as primary features she looks for in a boarding stable. Hay should be clean and fresh and not riddled with mold or dust. Preferably, horses receive hay three or even four times a day in addition to turnout.
Speaking of turnout, ask how much the farm provides for each horse. How much turnout you want depends in part on whether you are boarding a frisky show horse that could hurt himself in a large field or a youngster that needs a sizable area to exercise, says Baldwin. What is the material and state of perimeter fencing? And is the turnout solo in small paddocks or with a herd in a spacious field? Baldwin recommends selecting turnout options appropriate for the horse and its temperament as well as your riding goals.
Similarly, stall size depends on whether you are boarding a Warmblood or an Arabian. All horses need a minimum 12-by-12-foot stall, but a larger horse needs more space to stretch out while lying down without danger of getting cast. Regardless of stall size, look for hazards such as sharp protrusions and stall doors that don’t meet flush with the floor or bottom rail, if it’s a sliding door, when surveying a stable.
Safety is of paramount importance for anyone looking at a boarding facility. In most higher-end stables, the fences, stall doors, and the facility in general are already safe, says Baldwin. Nonetheless, examine the details, especially in older facilities that have endured years of wear and tear.
Having specific areas for washing, grooming, and farrier and veterinary work are important for not just convenience but also safety.
Another feature Baldwin takes note of is the footing in both indoor and outdoor arenas and how well it is maintained. Without good footing, horses can incur limb injury from repetitive concussion during training.
Many horse owners these days are well aware of biosecurity practices that help mitigate the risk of infectious disease spread at a facility. At the very least, ask if the facility requires a health certificate and negative Coggins test for horses arriving to the premises—both for visiting horses and resident horses. Find out if the boarding facility has a closed or open system (i.e., do they allow riders to trailer in outside horses for lessons or friends to trailer in for a ride with you?). To protect boarders’ horses, some facilities don’t allow trailering in of nonresident horses other than for special events.
Atmosphere and Expectations
Baldwin also assesses a facility’s general atmosphere. Are the people there happy? Is there a positive feeling at the barn, or is there a negative overcast?
“You may want to visit the barn on different occasions and at different times,” says Baldwin. It also helps to talk to the boarders to gather their impressions of how well their horse is faring at the facility and how happy they are with the care. Another consideration is how handlers treat the horses. In addition, is there rapid turnover of barn help? Are the facility’s staff members pleasant, and do they seem to enjoy their work?
Above all, take note of the resident horses’ body condition, the bloom to their hair coat, the condition of their feet, and their attitude when people are nearby. These particulars can tell you volumes about how well (or too well) the horses are fed, the quality of health management, and how happy the horses seem with their surroundings and handling.
Cernak finds that facility cleanliness is key to understanding how well a barn manager takes care of the property and, ultimately, the horses. She recommends that prospective boarders meet and interview the people who run the barn and to be wary of any hesitations when they respond to questions. Trust and transparency are big factors in boarder satisfaction.
“It is good when, as a boarder, you get a warm, fuzzy feeling when stepping on the grounds and interacting with the barn personnel,” says Cernak.
Similarly, as a stable owner, she says it helps to express the specifics of what she expects. The saying “your mother doesn’t live here” is appropriate in all cases; people should pick up after themselves and leave an area in the same condition in which they found it, or better. Another critical feature of a boarding barn is that personalities between boarder and stable manager need to click, says Cernak. This is not always the case, but it makes for a much more satisfying experience. She has learned to listen to her gut both as a boarder and a barn manager—if something feels “off,” then it is likely to be the case going forward.
“As a barn manager, I want people to come to meet me, see my facility, check the quality and storage of the hay, and evaluate the tack room and storage space for their equipment,” says Cernak. They should survey the size of the runs, stalls, and pasture turnout to see what is available and how that fits with their horses’ needs. For example, requirements for stabling and turnout may be different for an older, retired horse than they are for an equine athlete that is ridden every day. Cernak also wants to know all about each horse’s history, particularly any vices, difficulty with handling or herd dynamics, or medical issues. Sensible rules stipulate that the horse has a current negative Coggins test and is dewormed and vaccinated regularly. These practices are good for both the incoming horse’s health and that of the resident horses.
Other pertinent things to find out include who scrutinizes horses daily for injuries—the barn manager or staff—and alerts the owners of a suspected problem. This also applies to lost shoes or other situations that could impact a horse’s health or soundness. Also, it’s important to know how a veterinarian will be contacted if a horse gets injured. The horse owner must give permission for the barn owner to contact a veterinarian and to act as agent on their behalf if they can’t be notified in the event of a crisis.
Whether you are looking at a big boarding operation or a small facility, the above-mentioned considerations apply. However you choose to evaluate a boarding barn, be proactive in your research and visit the property on multiple occasions. Also, take the time to talk with other boarders about their satisfaction with the business. Remember that, yes, your horse lives on the property, but you will also be spending a significant amount of time there, so you need to feel comfortable with the boarding environment. Once your horse is settled in and a part of the farm’s daily routine, you can rest in the quality of your carefully selected farm, focus on the enjoyment of riding, and maybe make a few new barn friends in the process.