Boarding Stables: A Labor Of Love

Boarders are rarely completely happy with the facility where they keep their horses. There’s usually something they feel they could do better if they had the chance. But horse owners who don’t care for their own animals also rarely understand all the costs and issues that go into running a boarding stable.

We talked to boarding stable managers in every corner of the country this fall. The size of the operations ranged from a handful of horses to several hundred, and the board from $100 to $2,000 per month. Most of the businesses had around 20 horses with a monthly board that averaged around $300. We didn’t look at facilities that were strictly training operations, with the cost of the trainer being the major consideration rather than the cost for the care of the horse.

We found that the nature, and therefore the cost, of a boarding facility depends a great deal on the type of weather in the area and the proximity to cities. It should come as no surprise that the farther you are from snow and tall buildings, the less it likely will cost you to board (unless you’re in Hawaii!). It should also be no surprise that the smaller the staff/boarder ratio, the more it is going to cost to board.

If the stable has three feedings a day, hand walks each horse to its individual paddock, changes blankets to suit every owner’s whim and rakes the rings every day, it will cost more money. If horses have runs next their stalls instead of pastures and there’s no indoor arena, it will cost $200 to $500 less to board there than at a facility with more amenities down the road.

We wanted to determine if there are issues common to most boarding facilities and, if so, how they affect the clients. We often hear people complain about places they board, but this time we wanted to hear the barn managers’ side of the story.

The biggest surprise we found is that boarding operations are far from profitable. Most facilities we talked to estimate a per-horse cost of $100 (or less) below the board rate. We figured the per-horse cost to include feed, bedding, personnel, repairs, equipment maintenance, insurance, utilities, taxes and capital improvements. This doesn’t take into account mortgages or the time spent working there by the owner/manager.

“Boarders don’t understand the expense,” said Mary Warren of Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center in Huntington Beach, Calif., where 400 horses live. “They count the number of stalls and add up what we take in each month, but some don’t realize the cost involved in running a business.”

Among the costs that boarders just don’t think about is insurance. “Every year we go through 20 to 30 pages of insurance forms,” said K.C. Van Dyke, who runs Wellspring Farm in Wilmington, Del., which has 40 boarders and another 20 lesson and sale horses. “You’re always shopping around to get the best price and make sure that everything is covered,” she said.

If a horse operation is going to make money at all, it usually isn’t with the boarding but with other activities such as lessons, sales, rentals, breeding and shows. But half of the stable owners we found engaged in none of these activities. Why, then, do they do it’

Many barn owners also have a number of their own horses on the property. In a typical 20-horse barn, half of the horses may be owned by the stable and half will be boarders. The boarders essentially subsidize the horses owned by the stable and thus allow it to have better facilities, such as an indoor arena.

This means that many boarding operations take on the personal qualities of the owner, for better or for worse, especially if the owner lives on the premises. It’s not a typical business, even though a lot of money does exchange hands. If the boarder doesn’t like the way the owner does things or if the personalities of the boarder and the owner don’t mesh, well, the boarder is free to leave.

“You have to really love horses to do it properly,” said Kelli Mason of Letter Perfect Farm, in Uxbridge, Mass., who boards four horses and has five of her own. “It is important to put the horses first, no matter what, and that is sometimes hard if you depend on the income of the boarding business to sustain your lifestyle. You have to constantly pump money into your business. If something needs to be fixed, you can’t put it off.”

“Another really hard thing to do is get a good group of boarders,” said Mason. “And equally hard is getting good grain and hay delivered. It’s almost impossible to get shavings in the winter, so you really need to plan ahead. Fortunately I have boarders that have all had their own farms at one time or another and they are great. I love having them here.”

Most managers said their biggest problems involve staff. The traditional sources of low-cost barn workers, including working students and local people willing to work for minimum wage, have dried up. Many barns now have to follow the same 9-to-5 employment rules as downtown businesses, including overtime and benefits, instead of the longer hours of a typical farm.

Ann Miles of Newton, N.H., said that a potential boarder can tell a lot about the quality of a barn by asking: “Do you have workman’s comp for your staff’” She feels that any barn with more than 20 horses should be considered very commercial and that time management is an issue boarders should ask about. “A big stable keeps pulsing,” she said.

In addition to staffing, many managers face problems in dealing with the individual concerns of their boarders. “People too often forget to say nice things about what you do and only say things they think you did not do correctly for them,” said Jane Cory of Pleasant Hollow Farms in Coopersburg, Pa., who has 25 boarders and 25 lesson horses. “Most boarders are pretty good. Their horses are extremely important to them,” she said. “I just want them all to realize that their horses are extremely important to us, too.”

If the stable’s owner/manager lives on the premises, he or she faces the additional problem of being constantly available to the boarders. If the barn is always open or even just from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., some boarders seem to expect that the stable manager will always be there to solve their problems.

An on-site manager’s living space should be his sanctuary and not invaded except during an emergency, and he should be allowed to ride his own horses in peace. At the same time, the facility needs to have a set arrangement for fielding problems and requests as they arise during daylight hours, such as changes in feeding or turnout.

“It would be nice if the boarders realized that there is just one of me and 32 of them,” said Cathie Gudgel of High Meadow Farm, Duvall, Wash.

Once you’ve identified several facilities that may suit your style of riding and could serve your needs, you will need to ask a number of questions at first contact on the phone and then again when you go to visit. These invol ve:

• Boarding fees
• Services offered
• Fees for extra services
• Availability of trainers
• Hours and other restrictions

The trainer can be a real sticking point. The barn may have its own trainer and you may even be required to take a set number of lessons per month. If you don’t want to use that trainer, and you aren’t allowed to invite in your own instructor to the barn, then you’ll have to be willing to trailer out.

Another sticking point is the time a facility is open. Some barns insist that boarders be gone by 6 p.m., making them unsuitable for people who work. Some facilities are closed on Mondays in order to give staff a day off or to get maintenance done or just to keep the place quiet for a day.

We find “closed Monday” a difficult policy to endorse, since a committed horseman doesn’t want to be told that he doesn’t have access to his horse. If the horse spent a long weekend showing, it should be checked on Monday. If the boarder has to be away for the weekend, then another day is added to the time away from his or her horse.

While we understand that it’s easier to do maintenance when boarders aren’t present, there are other solutions. One facility is closed on Monday until 3 p.m., so boarders can still come in late. Another doesn’t have staff available, except for feeding and turnout, and boarders who are used to having help with grooming thus take care of themselves. If rings need to be watered or raked or carpentry work needs to be done at any time during the week, then boarders should be informed and should expect to adjust.

There can be other restrictions that should be clear before deciding to move in. Ask, for example, when jumps will be set up and removed, especially in a “mixed” facility of jumpers and dressage riders. Can a boarder store their trailer at the barn’ Can other boarders ride at the same time as scheduled lessons’ Can boarders bring their dogs’

All this adds up to something that is hard to define, a barn’s “aura.” Some barns are friendly and open. Others seem catty and tense. The personality of a barn, and the quality of the care, isn’t always determined by how fancy it looks. The atmosphere is usually set by the personality of the manager, so it’s important to meet the manager face-to-face before deciding to move in.

The best managers solve problems before the boarders even know they exist. “Boarders should not need to know about the problems,” said Curtis and Lisa Steinman of Carousel Equestrian Center in Chino Valley, Ariz., which has 30 boarders. “It’s our job to keep them from knowing that we have problems. It only comes up when they expect to get more than their fair share.”

“It is hard to please everyone at the same time, although we try very hard,” said Joanne Brown, of Deer View Training Center in Kingwood, W.Va., which boards 30 horses. “We look at the best interest of the horse and the safety of our boarders.”

Boarders also often discount the importance a public stable’s social atmosphere and special facilities. K. C. Van Dyke said that when boarders move out in order to keep their horses on their own property, many actually stop riding. They find they don’t like to ride alone.

Bottom Line
People who run boarding stables usually don’t have MBAs, and maybe it’s a good thing that they don’t. Business-school grads wouldn’t tolerate a business with such a low profit margin, and then there wouldn’t be many places to keep our horses.

The boarder should realize that a barn owner will set any policies he wishes. The boarder can’t change that, and it doesn’t help to complain about things you can’t change.

Many of the barn’s policies depend on limited facilities and fixed costs, such as amount of turnout and staff. If what you want changed will cost too much money, it just can’t happen. Other policies will depend simply on the personal priorities of the owner, such as what the barn hours will be, how long the horses will be turned out, or where jumps will be placed in the ring. Again, these policies may not be flexible.

Therefore, research your options thoroughly before choosing where to keep your horse. Decide before you move in on the issues that are vital to you and those where you can compromise. After you move in, always be open with the barn’s management about potential problems as they arise rather than just complaining to the other boarders, and you’ll more likely find a way to work things out.

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