Where you board your horse can make or break your equestrian experience. When you have confidence in the care your horse is receiving, you sleep better at night and travel without worry. When your fellow boarders are friendly and share your riding philosophy, you look forward to every trip to the barn. When the facilities are well run and well maintained, you can devote all of your energies to the pursuit of your riding goals. No facility is perfect, of course, but one that falls significantly short of your expectations can make going to the barn a stressful chore rather than a relaxing respite.
That’s why it is so important to determine your requirements ahead of time when searching for a boarding barn and to organize your efforts in a way that increases your chances of finding a situation that meets those needs. This goes beyond the question of stall versus field board. Details such as the barn’s distance from your office, the availability of people to help with farriery and veterinary visits, or policies governing the use of outside trainers and coaches may seem minor at first but can ultimately make all the difference in your satisfaction with your boarding arrangements.
When looking for a new boarding barn, set yourself up for success by first pulling your thoughts together. To help you, we’ve compiled a list of seven steps to use when starting a search. If your move is imminent, these steps will help you to organize your efforts and reduce the chances that you’ll forget to inquire about something important. But even if you love your current boarding arrangement, it’s wise to periodically revisit your requirements and preferences for keeping your horse: There may come a day when you have to move, possibly with short notice, and it will be helpful to have given the matter some thought beforehand.
LIST WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO YOU (AND YOUR HORSE)
Before you visit a single farm, make a list of everything you want in a boarding barn. It goes without saying that you want a safe environment for your horse---you wouldn’t consider any farm that didn’t provide that---but this list goes beyond those requirements to address the amenities and services that will add to your comfort and enjoyment. Start with the non-negotiables: amenities you won’t consider giving up, which might include trail access, an indoor arena or the ability to bring in your own feed. Then, work your way down to the “nice to haves,” such as blanket-changing services. Consider your horse’s needs as well. If he’s sociable, he may do better in an open, airy stall with lots of contact with neighbors. On the other hand, if he’s a sensitive type, he may want a quiet, secluded place to eat undisturbed. The resulting list will be unique to you and your horse and will give you a clear picture of the barn where you’ll both be happiest.
DETERMINE YOUR BUDGET
This is where your vision of the perfect boarding barn meets the hard reality of your pocketbook. If you are currently boarding your horse, consider whether you can afford to pay more or if you need to spend less. If you aren’t boarding a horse currently, review your monthly finances and determine how much money you will have available every month without fail. Late or unpaid board doesn’t just make for awkwardness when you visit the farm: In many states, the person owed the money can put a lien on your horse and sell him to settle the debt. Next, focus your search on facilities that can provide as many of your desired amenities as possible for the amount you can pay. Remember, though, that the advertised monthly boarding price may not include “extras” that you consider essential, such as a private turnout area or unlimited free-choice hay. You won’t know the real costs until you meet with and interview the barn owner.
CONSIDER TRAVEL TIME
When considering a boarding facility’s location, pay attention to the roads you’ll need to take to get there. A trip that requires 20 minutes at off-peak times may take twice as long at rush hour if you’re traveling over major traffic arteries. When will you most likely be driving to the barn? Will you go straight from the office or head home first? Research the traffic you’ll most likely encounter in those locations and at those times. Also consider how far the boarding barn is from your riding buddies, the places where you regularly ride and your preferred show or event venues. You don’t want to feel isolated from the rest of your riding community.
With this in mind, you can likely rule out some options. Then, once you’ve zeroed in on a particular facility, do a few trial runs---driving from your usual starting points (home or office) to the barn during different times of day---to see firsthand how that location will work for you.
Many boarding facilities are easy to find because they advertise in local equestrian publications, but many more don’t. To really learn all your options in a specific area and price range, ask horse owners and professionals in the area.
Start by talking with your own riding buddies, but move beyond your usual crew to cast a wider net. You can also ask for input from online discussion groups and on social media, but keep in mind that the feedback you get may be fueled by individual idio-syncrasies and personal grievances.
Veterinarians and farriers are often great resources in the search for a new boarding barn because they’ve likely visited most of the ones in your target area. They may not be willing to make recommendations about specific facilities, but they can alert you to their existence so you can find out for yourself if one is a good fit. Also, go to as many shows, events and clinics in your area as you can, without your horse. Such visits give you time to look around and get a feel for the place, and you may have the opportunity to chat with current boarders.
VISIT AND ASK QUESTIONS
Once you’ve identified farms that meet your needs, in a workable location for a monthly fee you can afford, it’s time to take some tours. There’s no substitute for checking out prospective facilities in person. You can only truly evaluate a place if you see it for yourself. It can help to take along a knowledgeable friend for a different perspective. Together, you are less likely to miss anything of importance.
Go in with an open mind but with a clear idea of what you’d like to see. Talk to the person in charge of the actual horse care, such as the barn manager, and---if possible---speak with current boarders as well. It can be helpful to bring a list of questions to ask, and don’t be shy about jotting down notes and answers, especially if you’ll be visiting multiple facilities.
Your questions will be specific to your own needs, but here are a few that might make your list:
• Is someone onsite 24/7?
• Who handles the daily care of the horses? How can that person be reached? What is the backup plan if he or she becomes ill or is injured?
• What services are included in the boarding fee? Can you pay for extras, such as blanket changes or holding the horse for the farrier?
• How much storage space is allocated to each boarder? Is there room to park a trailer?
• What is the turnout schedule and policy? If necessary, can your horse have a customized schedule?
• Can you bring in your own trainer, farrier and veterinarian?
• How is deworming handled? Can you make your own arrangements or must you follow the barn program?
• Is there a pest-control program in place, such as manure removal, predator wasps, vegetation control or a feed-through fly control product?
• Can you supply your own feed or hay?
• Is the facility closed to boarders at any particular times? Ask whether the barn hosts private lessons, programs or events that may result in restricted access to riding rings and other amenities.
REQUEST A TOUR
While you are at the facility, ask to see the whole farm, including all barns and outbuildings. Also ask if you can walk the fields where your horse would be kept. As you look around, remember that an adequate, safe property may not look fancy---just as a fancy-looking property may not be safe or adequate---but here are some basic standards to take note of:
• Barn: Is it dry, clean and well ventilated? Any ammonia smell is worrisome because it indicates a lack of cleanliness or ventilation problems. Are there cross ties or other safe, well-lit, covered areas to groom or handle your horse? Are there fire extinguishers?
• Stalls: Are the walls smooth, sound and free of nails and splinters? What is the flooring? If there are rubber mats, do they lie flat, even at their edges? Are any dirt floors free of low spots or holes? Is there enough bedding? How often are stalls cleaned? How is watering done? Is there a backup for automated systems?
• Paddocks and pastures: Is there access to shade or shelter for all horses at all times? Is the fencing sound and safe? What is on the other side of the fence---this is important if a horse should escape. Is manure regularly picked up from the fields? Do you see any weeds and/or toxic plants or trees? If you are visiting in the fall, spring or summer, be sure to ask about winter conditions, including whether there is sufficient drainage to prevent mud and standing water.
• Feed and hay storage: Is feed kept in rodent-proof bins? Is a feeding chart posted where important information about each horse’s diet or medications can be updated? Is the hay kept out of the weather? Does it look and smell fresh?
• Arenas: How does the footing look? How is it maintained? Is there a schedule governing the use of enclosures by boarders?
• Tack room: Can you secure your equipment with a lock? Is there enough space for all your items?
As you take your tour, take note of how the horses look. A content, happy herd of horses in good condition with bright eyes speaks well of their environment and care. There may be less than healthy or well-adjusted horses at any given facility, but more than a few of these might indicate an underlying problem.
SIGN A CONTRACT
You’ve identified a great barn, asked the right questions and taken a look around. Everything seems perfect. Now, ask for the boarding arrangement to be spelled out in writing. Contracts may seem excessively formal and fussy, but they protect everyone affected by the agreement, including your horse. A boarding contract can be as detailed as the parties want it to be and, for the most part, the more details that are made plain in the document, the better. At a minimum a contract needs to state how much is to be paid each month, for what services and how the contract can be terminated by either party. You can find many examples of boarding contracts online so you can draft one yourself or compare the one the facility already uses. If the facility owners refuse to sign a contract, you are wise to wonder why and be hesitant about entering what is, at its core, a business relationship with them.
Boarding facilities vary in size and services with good reason: There isn’t one perfect place for every horse-and-owner combination. But chances are you can find an ideal situation with just a bit of forethought and careful consideration. When that happens, your horse’s home becomes your home away from home, and everyone thrives.
About the author: Ellen Mosier is a freelance writer/editor, licensed massage therapist for both animals and people and a library cataloger. As a kid, she rode every chance she had. About 20 years ago, Ellen finally got a lovely Arabian–Appaloosa horse of her own named Tsina. They currently live in northeast Oregon
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #467, August 2016.