What Is The Future of Boarding?

Better days: When good winter rains turned our fields green and lush.

Everyone who works in the horse business is always trying to predict the future. Breeders try to predict buyer demand. Barn owners try to predict boarding demand. Trainers try to predict the kind of help and programs clients will be looking for.

We’re all also trying to predict costs of those products and services, so that we and our clients can budget affordably.

In the last two years, the price of hay and grain has skyrocketed. There are myriad reasons for this—increased fuel costs for harvest and delivery; less land on which to grow hay, either because of development or because the land is being used to grow more lucrative crops, such as corn for ethanol; and out here in the West we are even finding ourselves in competition for hay from the Chinese. (Here in Northern California, there is an outfit whose entire business is gathering enormous quantities of hay for shipment to China. It’s the largest hay distributor in the area, and none of the hay is available to us in California.)

Plus, we’re in a drought, the worst here in 20 years. So we can’t even rely on the grass in our fields to cut our hay costs. Our fields are almost bare, and I’m desperately waiting for the rains, which barely came last winter, to come this winter and induce our grass to grow again.

Our Phoenix Farm is sort of medium sized—larger than a private farm, but not a massive 60-horse boarding operation. We can keep 20-ish horses here, but at least in California, that’s becoming an unsustainable number from a commercial aspect.

We don’t have the space or equipment to buy our hay in bulk—we don’t have a massive hay barn to store hundreds of bales, and we don’t have a hay squeeze to move those bales. So we’re relegated to buying hay at retail prices, which averages $5 to $8 per bale more than if we could bring it in on a tractor-trailer in a bulk shipment. (Our East-Of-The-Rockies readers will not doubt be thinking, “Just move the bales by hand, you wimps,” but our Western bales are a very different animal than East Coast bales—ours weigh 100 to 125 pounds [sometimes more], not 40 to 50 pounds. You need hay hooks to lift them, and I can only carry them 20 or 25 feet at a time and stack them two bales high.)

With some of the horses we board, we break even on what we charge for board. On others, we lose money, because they eat so much. We don’t make really make a profit on the boarding part of our operation, because the market won’t bear what it we have to pay to get hay, grain and bedding delivered.

For this, and other reasons, we decided two months ago to move most of our business to a larger boarding facility just down the road. Because they do have the capacity to buy in bulk, they can actually charge less for board and still make a profit. We are then able to make money on our training, and our clients get some amenities we can’t offer (like a lighted covered arena) for less money.

Although we’re very happy at our new facility, I can’t help but worry about the big-picture implications. Most people start their horse career at small or medium-sized barns, and I fear that model isn’t sustainable. An ancient, unreliable hay squeeze can run high four to low five figures, and the construction of a structure to keep your hay protected is certainly a five-figure proposition.

So it looks to me like the future may be at large boarding facilities. They have their wonderful points, but I fear they can be a bit intimidating to newbies.

There’s no easy solution here, and boarding has always been a razor’s-edge proposition. I’m grateful there are places that can do it well and are available for owners and trainers. But the change I see ahead is going to be a difficult one to navigate, and we must all learn to be flexible in finding the best ways to keep and care for our horses.

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