There comes a time in every horse owner’s life when you need to find a new place to board your horse. It could be because the current stable has been sold and the new owners want to turn the perfect equestrian facility into a moringa farm (true story). Perhaps the owners have raised the board past where your budget allows. Or you’re moving far enough away and bringing your horse with you that the old barn isn’t commuting distance. And in some cases, the care falls short, and you want out of there.
No matter the reason, searching for a reliable, functional, safe, and fun environment to board your horse can be a challenge. Every farm owner and/or manager has his or her way of caring for horses, and what might work for one person may not work for you.
In order to ensure you find a place that is most likely to fulfill expectations, it’s wise to create a checklist of things you want, things you don’t, and decide which are deal-breakers. But remember, no matter which farm you choose, there will always be something that isn’t exactly what you wish it was. No place is ‘perfect.’
It’s a well-established fact that horses are herd animals and are mentally happier in group turn-out. However, some people opt for individual turnout because they show their horse and worry about injury, or their horse is one of the rare animals who dislikes other horses.
When touring a new facility, ask how the manager manages their turnout – how do they introduce new horses, for example. How large are the paddocks? And how many horses are in each? Overcrowding in too small a pasture can result in overgrazing, and fights and injuries. Ideally each horse needs two to four acres, but most places don’t have this size of facility, so responsible paddock management is needed.
Another element of turnout is if there are any all-weather turnouts areas for spring and fall, or what we in Canada like to call “mud season.” These paddocks will ensure your horse is out in a safe environment and not confined to its stall or slipping in mud and potentially pulling a ligament or tendon. Things like sacrifice paddocks and rotating paddocks are good management practices.
And given our winters, you should ask about plans for storms and ice days. Some boarding facilities have a “turn out no matter what the weather” mentality. How do you feel about this? And what does the manager do to ensure the paths to the paddocks (or arena if not attached) is maintained during the winter when snow and ice is an issue?
Ensure you examine the fencing. This varies greatly from farm to farm, with some using four-board wood, others tape, and still others electrical. Whichever option the farm uses, peruse the paddocks to make sure everything is in good condition.
What is the grass like? Are the fields over-grazed so horses are fighting over grass or hay? Is the footing hilly, rocky, or good? Walk around the paddocks and ask what type of grass there is and how the owners maintain the paddocks to ensure adequate grazing, or do they supplement with hay.
Grain and Supplements
Horse owners are often asked to supply any supplements and the manager/staff will feed. It’s not unusual to be asked to supply supplements in individual doses for ease. But other barns will divvy up the amount each feed. It’s not unheard of for some barns to charge a fee to feed extra supplements, or an extra feed at lunch or night check.
Managers needs to keep their farm running smoothly, so they will have a strict feed schedule and you will need to decide if it’s right for you and your horse. We’ve seen managers who also will only feed their grain of choice, so if you don’t want your horse on their brand/type then this is probably a deal-breaker. While it is easier for the manager to have the horses all on the same feed, horses are not always able to flourish on every feed and some need specific types. This needs to be a serious part of the discussion.
Is the hay in small bales or large round bales? Horse owners can often recoil at the sight of a large round bale in the paddock. Dust and other debris can develop in larger bales which your horse can ingest and have a reaction, including respiratory issues. But for farm owners who grow their own hay this is a massive cost-saver and may result in a more budget-friendly board bill.
Barns vary greatly between hanging water buckets and automatic waterers. There are pros and cons to each. Buckets allow managers and owners to know how much a horse is drinking, which is important always as dehydration can cause impaction and colic, but especially in winter and summer months. But water buckets require more work and if the barn has limited staff they may opt for automatic waterers. No matter which you choose to go with, you need to ask how often either are cleaned to avoid bacteria and mold build-up.
Take a look around the barn to ensure windows are available and are open if it’s nice out. Can horses hang their heads over the door? Is the natural light bright enough? Can they see their neighbors – horses are happier and more relaxed when they can see other horses.
Go into a stall and check that the boards are smooth and there are no nails or rough/sharp edges. Do they use stall mats? What type of shavings and how often are the stalls picked out? Are you banned from topping up shavings? If so, can you pay extra if you feel your horse needs more?
All of these questions are important to ask so you know what the routine is and won’t be shocked to find your horse standing on a mat with scant shavings.
Air flow is a major issue, especially during the cold months when doors are closed. Some barns have ceiling fans or high ceilings that help move air around. Ask the manager how they manage ventilation.
What type of footing is in the outdoor rings and indoor arena? Some facilities still use sand or dirt with oil or calcium to keep dust down. Some have invested in high-quality performance footing that you see at horse shows. Do your research to learn optimal depth for the type of riding you do. What works for jumping is different for dressage.
How often are the rings harrowed or watered? Daily or weekly? This will greatly affect the quality of footing. You don’t want deep ruts all around the perimeter.
Whether you can bring your own coach to a boarding barn or not is up the owner/manager. Both scenarios are common. You need to decide if this is a deal-breaker if you love your coach. But if you’re open to riding with the barn’s resident owner/coach then ask to watch a lesson or two.
Another element of lessons is having to ride during someone’ else’s lesson. Find out the barn rules. Are you allowed to ride during a lesson, but give right of way to the student? Is there a lesson board so you can plan your rides to avoid this issue?
Wash and tack stalls
Are there specially designated wash stalls? Is the water hot and cold, or just cold? Examine these areas to see how clean they are – it’s a sign of good management if the common areas are swept clean (even if usually by the boarders!) and organized.
Whether you love having your own locker or prefer to keep your supplies and tack in trunks will be a factor when you tour the facility tack rooms. Lockers allow the space to be neater, and usually you can lock your saddle and bridle and other items inside. But many tack rooms are wide open with saddle racks on the walls. You can ask how safe the tack rooms are, if there is a security system in place, and if there have been any issues with theft. If you do have surplus trunks, will the manager allow you to keep it on the property, or must you bring it home?
A sink for cleaning tack is handy, as is a fridge for keeping medications or even carrots fresh. A separate area for cleaning tack that includes a bridle hook and saddle rack is a definite bonus.
Blankets and Boots
This is another area where extra fees can creep onto your board bill. Nickel-and-diming about turnout boots might be a pet peeve, yet some establishments do this because they it takes longer for turnout and therefore increases labour charges. Changing blankets during the season is also an issue and must be discussed. Some managers will add a turnout over a stable sheet, but won’t remove the stable stable and put it back on after turnout. Decide if this is important to you, or perhaps if you’re up at the barn daily you can do these sorts of chores.
Some facilities offer laundry services for blankets, polos, brush boots, and saddle pads. If a barn does have this type of service, is there any extra charge? It is a convenience, but you can save money buy bringing your horse laundry home if you prefer and have the appliances that can handle it.
Most horse owners enjoy a hack or trail ride, but not every facility has the acreage to offer hours of pleasure trails. Barn owners are pretty honest about what sort of hacking options they have. It might be around a hay field, or perhaps the property is adjacent to a conservation area that has horse trails. It’s good to know ahead of time what is most important to you – a wonderfully groomed 20 x 60 dressage ring, a grass jumper ring, or acres of trails.
Searching for a barn to call home for your horse can be overwhelming, especially if you’re a new horse owner, or new to an area after a move. But keeping these factors in mind, create that checklist and you’ll be able to have your eyes wide open in choosing the best facility for you and your horse.
Next week we do a Boarder Checklist – what horse farm owners want in their clients!