The Perfect Small Boarding Barn

Dream versus reality: what one horseowner--and former boarder--learned from starting a boarding barn and testing the adage, "To get it done right, do it yourself."

| © Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

Your horse’s welfare is important. You’ve tried hard, with limited success, to find a boarding situation that meets his needs (and yours), and a couple of your riding buddies face the same challenges. When a small horse property in your neighborhood comes on the market, time with a calculator indicates you can afford it–while keeping your “day job,” of course–with income from a couple of boarders.

The dream builds from there. It’s a small place, so no problem doing the work; you figure you can clean three or four stalls in the time you now spend driving back and forth to your current boarding barn. With congenial boarders, you’ll ensure companionship for your horse and create the community that gives good boarding barns a social edge over private stables. Even your domestic partner, lured by the possibility you’ll spend more time at home instead of constantly leaving for the barn, gets behind the idea. Before you can say “manure fork,” you’ve sold your purely residential property and bought the farm. This will be the perfect small barn where horses, yours and others’, finally get the loving care you’ve wanted for them.

The dream of sustaining your own horse operation with personalized, small-scale boarding is widespread because it makes such outward sense: It’s a win-win situation for you, and for other owners who share your standards. That’s why I decided to undertake it several years ago. The experience didn’t go quite as scripted, as I’ll explain, but hey–little in life does. Along the way, I’ve acquired new perspective–not only on my own limitations, but on the boarding barn/boarder relationship: As a woman whose advice I value often says, every pancake has two sides. My hard-won wisdom may help if you dream of creating your own perfect small boarding barn; if you don’t, it may ease your communication, as a boarder, with your horse’s caregiver.

Starting Point

Here’s what I brought to the project. I’d cared for three or four horses years before, in cooperation with a neighbor whose barn I shared. I had further knowledge gleaned from the myriad equine experts I’ve been privileged to interview and write about. I’m reasonably fit, energetic and organized; a work history ranging from motherhood and retail management to equine journalism has equipped me for multi-tasking. My current home-office-based, full-time job meant someone would be on the premises almost 24/7. I also have a strong, horse-loving partner willing (and able) to repair anything from a leaking well hydrant to a sagging stall door.

The property we chose for this enterprise was, we knew, a work in progress. The five-stall barn needed serious upgrading. Outbuildings were in various stages of disrepair. Plusses were (1) adequate storage for a year’s worth of hay; (2) a small (almost as big as a standard small dressage arena) indoor ring, essential for year-round riding in our northern New England location; and (3) several acres of cleared paddocks with durable, safe electric braid fencing. The house in which we would live–almost an afterthought amid all the horse concerns–was okay. We already had a couple of boarders eager to bring their horses; what were we waiting for? Within weeks of signing the mortgage, we were in business.

Reality Checks

Fast forward a few years. We still have the little horse farm, but we’re no longer boarding. Whenever I re-tell the story of our foray into the horse biz, I compare it to marriage or parenting: However well prepared you think you are, it’s an experience you can’t completely know about until you do it. Some things we learned:

The sense of responsibility for others’ horses is overwhelming. It’s bad enough if your own horse lames himself with a wrong step in the paddock–we all know horses are self-destructive–but if it happens to a boarder’s horse, you always feel you should’ve been able to prevent it. (Chances are, whatever she says, the boarder concurs.)

“Good enough” when boarding is categorically different than caring for your own. An overscheduled day leaves no time to muck out and sweep first thing in the morning in your own personal barn? No problem; do it before evening bring-in (and skip the sweeping today if you need to). But a boarder stopping in for a midday ride may be dismayed to find her horse’s stall dirty–even if it will be clean before dinnertime.

A good time for repairs and maintenance is hard to find. Something always needs fixing on a farm. The job may entail noisy power tools, temporarily limited access for boarders to certain areas, or other inconveniences. These activities have a bigger impact at small facilities (where it’s harder to get away from the noise or disruption) than they do at big stables. And when the people operating the small facility have “real” weekday jobs, repair projects–along with other distracting activities such as unloading supplies–inevitably need to be scheduled on weekends. That’s the very time that boarders are most likely to want to ride, or at least to hang out at the barn, groom their horses and socialize. The result may be an uncomfortable rush to cram work into time slots, such as first thing Sunday morning, when no one is around.

Depending on your layout and your comfort level, privacy may be an issue. If the barn and parking area are close to the house, you will be aware of boarders’ comings and goings–and, unless your home has aggressive window treatments, you may sometimes feel you’re living in a fishbowl.

You may be the last one to get to use the facilities. It’s normal to defer to the needs of those who are actually paying you for the use of the barn and the ring. (After all, you live on the place, so you can use it any time!) A busy Saturday of schooling and lessons may end with your realization that you never got your own ride in.

The cost of insurance may surprise you. Many regular homeowner policies can be adapted for coverage if you keep a couple of horses for your own private use, but everything changes the moment commercial activity enters the picture. Commercial activity includes–but is not limited to–keeping others’ horses for compensation of any kind (including bartered barn work as well as cash), lessons or clinics. Even a small boarding operation will probably require a policy that is tailored for commercial farm purposes and includes hefty liability protection. The annual premium will vary with your location and the policy details, but it will easily go into four figures. Some carriers’ agents may make periodic on-site visits to be sure your operation complies with safety standards.

Set It Up for Success

If you have your own dream of the perfect small boarding barn, here are some tips that, although they won’t solve every problem, will smooth the way.

Make big repairs before the boarders arrive. The cash flow from a full barn can be useful for your startup, and (maybe even more significant) prospective boarders may be eager to move in. But you–and they–will get off to a better start if you aren’t trying to arrange basic fix-ups (such as fencing, arena footing or stall structures) around the needs of the horses and their owners.
Set reasonable limits up front. It’s much easier to have policies in place from the beginning than to start changing rules in response to problems that crop up. In addition to the standard safety regulations, tailor the rules to your own needs. For instance, consider stipulating certain times when the barn and/or arena are not available for boarders’ use; this could be certain hours or could be an “off” day each week (for obvious reasons, not on the weekend). When you’ve decided on your barn rules, post them in a visible place and give all boarders a copy.

Avoid under-charging. As a first-time small boarding-barn operator, it’s easy to underestimate the value of the time and labor you’ll contribute to the business when you calculate the costs side of the ledger. (It’s also tempting to believe you can offer quality care plus a personal touch at significantly less than big commercial barns in the area!) For better long-term customer relations, figure board charges on a basis that seems to give you a generous margin at the outset–you’re less likely to have to raise board after a few months because you initially under-estimated some factors. (Chances are, your rates will still be lower than those of big barns offering comparable amenities.)

Find a sterling hay source ahead of time. Good hay, and plenty of it, is essential to equine contentment. Conversely, one load of bad hay (coarse, unpalatable, weedy, dusty or moldy)–often the result of being forced to buy hay in a pinch–can trigger a cascade of problems in your barn, including the onset of respiratory illnesses. Whether your hay source is a local grower or a distant provider, you need dependable quality and dependable supply before the first horse arrives.

Get supplies delivered when possible. Every trip you don’t need to plan to pick up feed or bedding gives you more time for riding (or for making repairs). Many local feed stores will deliver large orders within a certain radius for no extra charge. Some hay growers also have the necessary equipment for delivery in bulk.

The Next Chapter

Because we’re located on a busy road and the place is obviously a horse farm, would-be boarders still knock on our door from time to time. Although we have to turn them away, it’s become a nice way to meet additional members of the local horse-owning community. Two of the friends who boarded here subsequently found ways to keep their horses at home.

We ourselves have acquired a couple of additional equines (funny how that happens when you have an empty stall). In fact, after falling in love with one spectacular Morgan mare and then finding a second, we’re contemplating another “dream” project. After all, how much more work could it be to create the perfect small breeding farm? If we find out, you’ll be the first to know.

This article first appeared in the May 2006 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. For guidelines on how to choose a boarding facility that fits your horse’s needs, see “Find the Best Boarding Barn” in the November 2007 issue.

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