Some stables are so in demand they have a waiting list. Others seem to be built with a revolving barn door. You can find a suitable boarding facility if you first decide what you must have in a boarding arrangement and what you absolutely can’t tolerate, and then accept that you aren’t always going to be in control. It’s simple, really. All it involves is straightforward communication.
The fact of the matter is that the person in charge of the boarding stable – whether it’s the owner, trainer or barn manager – ultimately makes the decisions. Since the stable must cater to the needs of more than one client, specific barn policies are the only way to do it. It’s up to you to find a stable with rules that work for you.
Just as with any major purchase, it’s smart to have a checklist you can use when you visit different facilities. It will give you a visual way to compare the objective elements of your visit, such as whether they have jumps or trails or a lesson program, so you can weigh the cost. After that, factor in subjective observations, such as whether you think the staff is knowledgeable and if you have enough in common with the other boarders you’ll interact with, whether you plan to or not.
Before Choosing a Boarding Stable
- Create a checklist of your boarding needs.
- Ask specifics about a horse’s daily care.
- Observe how the staff cares for the horses.
- Check facility upkeep, including fences, stalls and storage areas.
- Determine exactly what the boarding contract covers.
Turnout is a huge issue. You know how much of that your horse needs and what will happen if it’s taken away. Access to trails is important to some riders, while others can’t imagine being at a stable without an indoor arena. And most riders want a large, safe arena in which to work their horse.
You also need to find out if the hours that the stable is accessible suit your needs. Some have a “lights out at 9 p.m.” rule, while others are pretty much 24-hour operations. Many stables have one “dark day,” where the stable is closed, except for staff to care for the horses, and some don’t allow access on major holidays.
Consider how important a lesson program is to you. You may want or need access to a trainer and appreciate a regular weekly lesson. If you have a favorite trainer, find out if he or she is allowed to instruct you on that property. Some stables forbid it. Other riders might consider lessons a pain in the neck, with “strangers” in and out all the time and the “lessons have the right of way rule” annoying to their riding schedule. There are pluses and minuses to boarding at a stable with a professional trainer-manager, as that trainer may “advise” you at times when you’d rather have privacy.
Weigh the overall size of the facility. Ask how many horses are on the property and what the maximum capacity is. Find out how many acres support these horses. Fifty horses on 10 acres might be rather cramped – or you might love the camaraderie of many people with their horses. Remember to visit the stable during the peak riding hours of 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. and on Saturdays, when most working horse owners are in the barn. Check your own most likely barn times to be sure you’ll be comfortable if you’ll be there at these times.
Busy barns generally have specific health requirements for the horses in the facility, ensuring they’re all properly vaccinated and regularly tested for diseases. This is a good thing, as it protects the boarders, especially in barns with a lot of traffic in and out of the facility. Heavy traffic exposes your horse to more diseases than will be likely in a more private barn, and it may also force you to vaccinate your horse for something you otherwise wouldn’t subject your horse to, such as rhino.
Find out if you must follow a specific deworming schedule. Some farms require daily dewormers, while others want paste dewormings with specific drugs at certain intervals. Be sure this works for you. Same with fly control. Do you have to give a feed-through fly-control product? Can you use spray-on pesticides? Is anyone willing to do that for you in your absence – and is there a charge?
Dogs. This is huge. If you must bring your dog to the barn every day, you need to find out what the rules are. If you can’t stand loose dogs around the barn – or any dog for that matter -you don’t want to board at a stable that doubles as a kennel.
If the stable doesn’t initially meet your needs in any of these areas, you should simply eliminate it as a possibility. You’re not likely to win a battle with the stable manager on these key points.
One of the most heated arguments between a boarder and stable manager involves the day-to-day care of the horse. This problem can usually be avoided if the boarder simply asks a few questions before accepting a stall assignment.
Find out how many times a day the horses are fed and at what times. If your horse only needs grain once a day, he may find it a bit difficult to accept when all his neighbors are getting breakfast, lunch and dinner. You also may find it a problem if the horses receive a heavy grain feeding at 5 p.m. and the only time you can ride is between 5:15 p.m. and 6.
Do the horses have access to hay 24/7? Is it shaken apart? Can it be watered down, if necessary? Is hay refreshed daily? Be sure to ask what type of hay is fed and then ask to see it.
Is water checked at least twice daily? Are there watering areas in turnout, and how often are the waterers cleaned?
Many barns limit the number of grains they’re willing to feed. Some won’t allow custom blends, while others will charge you a fee for having to handle an additional product. You’ll want to find out if many of the horses eat the same product you want your horse to eat.
Supplements are a headache for boarding facilities because so many horse owners have varying desires and needs. In fact, some stables either refuse to allow supplements or require that you enroll in the SmartPak program, which delivers supplements monthly in convenient one-feeding packs complete with the horse’s name on it.
Bedding is a big issue for many boarders, as it’s one of the ways a stable can cut costs. Look into several of the stalls and assess if the horses are comfortably bedded or appear to be shortchanged. If it’s straw bedding, decide if that will work for you or if your horse is likely to eat it. If the bedding is shavings or another product, ensure that it’s one you’re comfortable with. Look to see if there are stall mats, and if so, determine if they are flat. If they are rolling up, that could cause you to trip every time you walk into the stall.
Ask questions about who handles your horse, including the people mucking out the stalls. While you may think the stable manager is kind and gentle, the guy she hired to muck stalls might think all horses are killers and need to be handled with a heavy hand. Are the horses handled with lead ropes or do they all get a chain over the nose? Ask what the qualifications are for staff, and who does what and when.
Turnout is becoming scarce in many areas. Some stables charge more for turnout, and even then there may be a three-day-a-week maximum. Find out what the barn policy is and, when you visit, walk out to the turnout areas to assess their suitability to your horse. Are they rich, grassy fields that will be too rich for your horse? Or are they sand lots that make you think “sand colic”? Check the policy about halters (are they on all the time?) and blanketing (are they checked regularly and changed when necessary; is there an added charge?). The same goes for fly masks and bandages/boots.
Know who is cleaning your horse’s stall every day, and if the policy is for the same person to do the same stalls. If your horse becomes ill, sometimes knowing if the manure and urine output seemed normal, low or heavy can give your vet clues to the illness. Ask who does the feeding and watering, too. These tasks are far too important to leave to a careless person.
Find out who’s living on the premises, and if they’re part of the actual farm operation. The farm owner’s 90-year-old grandmother might be sweet, quiet and unobtrusive, but she also may not be much help in summoning the veterinarian in an emergency.
Be sure you establish who has the authority to call the vet if your horse is ill. This may already be farm policy, but you don’t want to wait until your horse colics and the manager frantically tries to reach you to get an OK to call the vet – but you’re out of town. If you don’t own a trailer, will the barn ship your horse for you? If your horse needs an injection three times a day, is the farm manager qualified to do it or will you have to make other arrangements?
Ask about the vet, farrier and dentist. Must you use the farm’s professionals, or are you allowed to call in your own? Find out how often they routinely visit the facility and if you’re supposed to schedule your own services. Don’t forget to specifically ask if these services are scheduled without your knowledge or approval. Get in writing whether you pay the vet and farrier directly or if you pay the farm. You may want to determine if there’s an added fee for this service.
Decide What You Need
- Turnout rules, areas
- Stable hours
- Tack care
- Full service (horse tacked up, groomed, etc.)
- Transportation for horse if needed (ill)
Extras to Consider
- Round pen
- Lunging facilities/rules
- Indoor arena access
- Dressage arena
- Driving access
- Trail-class obstacles
- Cattle for cutting/roping
- Wash stalls
- Lesson program/trainer
- Laundry facilities
- Barn microwave
- Tack/equipment storage
- Hot and cold water
- Summer stall fans
- Personal trailer parking
- Daily grooming
- Tack-up services
Policies to Check
- Emergency vet care
- Scheduling farrier, vet and dentist visits
- Required vaccinations and dewormings
- Farm hours
- Feed schedule
- Outside instructors/teaching at the facility
- Required head and foot gear, if any
- Hay, grain and supplement distribution
- Turnout schedule
- Visitor traffic
- Staff requirements
- Payment issues
- Insurance coverage
What is the visitor policy? Establish whether anyone else is allowed to ride your horse in your absence, and do they need to sign a release. This would include if you ask a friend to come in and exercise the horse while you’re on vacation, for instance, or whether you can hire someone at the stable to do it for you. Are you limited in how many friends you can bring into the barn at once?
If the facility also puts on clinics or horse shows for outsiders, decide if this will affect you in any way, such as by limiting your access to an area or just because so many additional people are on the property, and if that will bother you. Are the event attendees allowed free access to the boarding barn?
Looks and Appearances
Of course, you want to board at as scenic and pretty a facility as you can afford. Safe fencing is more important than a pretty site, though, and cleanliness far outweighs brass stall-door handles. A pretty stream running through the back pasture won’t do you a bit of good if the horses aren’t allowed to be turned out.
You want to be happy when you walk through that barn door, not annoyed. This may start right in the parking lot. Is there ample parking room? Can you park your trailer? Does the area turn into a slimy mud pit when it rains?
Check out the fencing. Be sure it’s secure, tall and safe. If it’s straight wire, note if it’s electric. If it’s wood, check for missing or cracked boards and loose or protruding nails. Wire mesh should be straight and taut. Ditto for the new electric tape fences. Can you work the gates?
In the barn itself, look for cobwebs, general debris and hazards. Is equipment properly stored and in its place? Are the aisles clear of equipment and easily passable? Are there fire extinguishers evenly distributed and easily located?
When you’re in the barn, go into a stall or two – ask permission if there are horses in the stalls before entering – so you can assess the general cleanliness. How much manure is in the stall? Check water buckets for slime and feed tubs for debris. Buckets and tubs should be clean. Look for nails, cobwebs and broken areas in the stall. Does the stall have a window for ventilation? Is there proper identification on the stall door for each horse, including the horse’s name and the owner’s name? This card might also include the horse’s feed schedule and amounts, and emergency phone numbers and contacts.
Look in the feed room to judge for potential rodent problems. Feed should be swept up and stored properly. Ask to see the feeding list to find out if horses are truly fed individually or if everyone gets one scoop whether they need it or not.
Check to see if the feed room doubles as a storage area for items that should be elsewhere, such as paint cans or pesticides. Check the tool area to determine if the basics – pitchforks, brooms, rakes, etc. – are in place and in useable condition.
If there are personal lockers/bins/closets, note how large they are, if they lock and what you think you could store there. If not, find out how other boarders handle their personal tack, grooming supplies and other equipment. Are you willing to turn your car trunk into a makeshift tack room?
Talk to the boarders, at least saying hello to gauge the overall friendliness of the barn. This is a personal determination. Some of us like chatty, enthusiastic barn friends, who comment on everything. Others prefer people who have a more laid-back, private demeanor. Either way, you should believe you will fit in well with the people at the barn. If you’re a strict boots-and-breeches show rider who gets into every new trend, but the majority of the boarders are trail riders who don’t know a diagonal from a lead, you may feel out of place. Watch how other boarders ride and care for their horses, as this can give you feedback on the barn’s general training and management levels.
Your barn visits – always visit at least twice before making a decision – should include an opportunity to watch the person in charge at work. Observe a lesson, if possible. Or watch that person work with his or her horse or interact with a boarder or barn complaint. Drop in at the time you’d normally go visit your horse. You can use this information to determine if you like the overall aura.
Finally, assess the extras in the barn. You’re paying for everything, whether you use it or not. If the barn has fancy door handles on every stall, incredible PVC jumps that look like they’d fit in Madison Square Garden, wash stalls, laundry, microwave – the list is endless – you can rest assured that these items are factored into your boarding cost. If you’ll never use a jump, you may not want to board at a facility that emphasizes keeping up with the latest jumper trends.
In this litigious society, few business owners are going to take on a student or boarder without a contract and liability release. Be sure the contract is legally binding and that both parties sign once you’ve decided to board. You need to ensure that the specific items in the contract are ones you can live with, including:
Who makes emergency decisions and who is responsible if a blatant emergency is missed or ignored.
- The insurance the stable carries vs. what you’re expected to carry yourself.
- The payment policy, including due date, late fees, interest, etc.
- What occurs if you fall a month behind in payment. What about two months? Three?
- Exactly what expenses the stable owner is responsible for vs. what the horse owner is responsible for (mortality insurance on the horse, hay, grain, supplements, farrier, veterinarian, dentist, tack theft, lost items, injury by your horse, injury to your horse by a fellow boarder, injury to you or a third party, destruction of property by you or your horse). If your horse eats more or less grain or hay, is your fee adjusted up or down to compensate? Are there feeding limits or requirements? If your horse must go on a special diet, can/will the stable compensate (for example, if your horse is diagnosed with EPSM, will the stable ensure a low-carb/high-fat diet)?
- How much notice you receive when rates go up.
- How much notice you must give if you decide to move out.
- Whether there is a minimum lease arrangement involved. (Do you have to stay a year?).
- The exact costs of any “extras” you might desire, such as if the facility offers clipping services, tack cleaning, turnout (if extra, specify how much turnout costs) and so on.
You might find it helpful to request a sample monthly bill, based on your current needs.
Shop around. Compare costs among the stables in your area, weighing what you’re paying for vs. what you really need and want. Make a list of what you simply can’t live without and what you absolutely can’t live with.
Finally, be open with the stable manager. He or she wants you to be happy in the barn, as otherwise you’re just another boarding-facility headache. With a little foresight, you make the boarding relationship work for both of you.