Have you thought about how to select a horse boarding facility? The best decisions tend to happen when the decision was made knowing the trade-offs (pros and cons) of all of the options available to you. It makes sense to make your selection of where your horse is going to live only after you have thought through and prioritized what amenities and services you want. And, you shouldn’t make the final decision on a boarding facility until you have completed due diligence on the facility itself, its staff, its pricing schedule, its operational policies and rules.
This article suggests a process to help you think through the things that you may, or may not, want in terms of care and stabling for your horse and it will guide you through the process of finding facilities that potentially meet your needs. This article will give you some guidelines on making your final selection and suggests a process for moving and settling your horse into their new home. Finally, this article gives some tips on how to be “politically correct” when you choose to leave a facility and move elsewhere.
Note on Trainers:
One caveat that complicates where you may choose to stable your horse is whether you or your horse will need to be in a training program. If one of your top priorities in selecting a facility will be the need for training services, it would probably be wise to determine what type of training program you want/need and start your search for your horse’s new home from that perspective. All of the considerations contained in this article relative to selecting a place for your horse to live are still pertinent, but you start to immediately narrow your options if you have specific training needs as most trainers are tied to a single facility either because (a) they own their own facility and run their training business from there, (b) they financially can’t justify traveling to multiple facilities or (c) because certain facilities require that all boarders be in training with the trainer(s) that “work out of” that particular facility and “visiting” trainers are prohibited.
PART I: Defining what you want from a Boarding Facility
By asking yourself some of the questions below, and hopefully making a list of your own, you should have a way to narrow down your choices and find the right stabling facility for your horse. In most cases, location and cost of a boarding facility are the both the initial and the final considerations of an owner when choosing a barn. Knowing what you will comfortably be able to spend each month, including routine shoeing and vet bills, is something you should establish before you start shopping and planning a move.
Keeping a horse is expensive, no matter how small your wish list for amenities might be, so be sure that your budget allows for not only monthly care and feeding expenses but also for emergencies. If you plan to compete, you should probably have a separate budget for all of the associated show costs. Location and drive time will be very important if you plan to ride often especially if you have other commitments such as a job or school. If you don’t ride very frequently, or if your horse is retired, location may not be as important as the care and monitoring services the boarding facility offers.
So before you start your search, before you call barns to ask questions, before you schedule farm visits for the list of finalists and long before you load your horse on a trailer, here is a list of criteria that should help direct you to the right facility for you and your horse.
- Do you want him to be outside all of the time?
- Can he be turned out with other horses or does he need to be by himself?
- Do you want him to have a stall?
- Do you want him to be inside in a stall at night and just turned out during the day (or vice versa)?
- Do you want him to have a stall with a run?
- What is the minimum amount of daily turn-out time your horse needs?
- Is it important to have a riding arena? How about an indoor or covered arena?
- Is it important to have jumps, cones, dressage letters, and cattle pens etc. in the arena or available for use? Would you rather the arena be clear of all obstacles?
- Is it important to have access to a trail system?
- Are you interested in keeping him at a facility that specializes in your discipline (i.e. dressage, hunter/jumper, gaited horses, trail riding, western, etc)?
- Is it important to be in a “show barn” or do you prefer a more laid back atmosphere?
- Are you looking for a barn with a greater percentage of junior riders or would you prefer to be in a barn that catered mostly to adults? Would you prefer a mixture of clientele?
- Do you care if the facility caters to more than one discipline?
- Do you want to be responsible for some of the care of your horse; for example, do you want to clean your own stall or provide your own feed or are you looking for a full service boarding facility?
- What is your definition of Full Service Boarding? For example, should it include blanketing, daily turn-out, managing farrier and vet care? Does your definition also include training or lessons?
- How important is it to have a resident trainer? In other words, is it important to you that no other trainers other than the one(s) associated with the facility will be allowed to teach/train at the facility?
- Do you want to be at a farm that mandates that you are in training or do you want to be able to choose to do “your own thing”?
- How important is it to have an on-site farm manager that does not travel to shows?
- Will you be bringing a horse trailer or will you need someone from the boarding facility to be able to transport your horse for you from time to time? Will you need to store your trailer at the facility?
- Is it important to have a place to store your equipment? Do you feel more comfortable if you are able to lock or secure your equipment when you aren’t there?
- Is it important for the facility to have a boarder’s lounge or club house?
- Do you care if the facility does not have restrooms or if the restrooms are a Porta-John?
- Is it important to have your horse in a heated barn?
- Do you feel that it is necessary to have wash stalls, hot and cold water or laundry facilities?
After answering these questions and adding some of your own you should have a pretty good picture of what your ideal boarding facility should look like and it is a good idea to prioritize that list into what you “have to have” and what you would “like to have”. As you start searching for that ideal, keep in mind that even if the facility doesn’t have all of the amenities and programs that you are looking for, all well managed boarding facilities will have the following qualities:
PART II – What defines a “Well Managed” Boarding Facility
Well managed boarding facilities are first and foremost: CLEAN. A boarding facility may be old and it may not be fancy, but is MUST BE clean and clutter free. And though a clean barn is nice to look at, cleanliness is first and foremost a safety factor and secondly, is it a health factor. If nothing else, you are looking for a safe and healthy environment for you and your horse. There should not be layers of dust on everything, the aisles should be swept with nothing blocking the aisles, stall doors should have secure latches, and there should be no missing or oddly shaped or warped boards in the stalls or anything else that a horse could get caught on or a person could trip over. This is why, when you narrow down your initial list of facilities, you should plan to make at least one physical visit to each facility before you make a final selection.
Well managed boarding facilities are serious about their fencing, and more importantly, how their fencing is maintained. There are many types of fencing and they all have advantages and disadvantages. As long as the fencing is in excellent repair and has no missing or broken/sagging boards, sagging/loose wire, electric tape or electric wire that is “tied” together with no “charge”, the fencing should be workable. Note: If the farm is using wire or electric fencing and it is attached via “t-posts” make sure that all “t-posts” have safety caps on the top of each post.
The area around the fencing should be mowed not only for fire mitigation but to discourage horses from grazing under or leaning on the fence. The number of horses placed in any one enclosure should be limited to avoid overcrowding and fighting (if more than one horse is put in the enclosure). It is preferable that shared fence lines are separated or have “hot wire” on top to discourage fighting over the shared fence line. Horses are herd animals so they should be able to see other horses when they are turned out even if they are not turned out together. All turn-out areas should have access to fresh clean water in “horse friendly” tanks or automatic waterers.
Well managed boarding facilities have good footing in their arenas and these facilities are diligent about maintaining that footing. The definition of good footing varies greatly by discipline and geographic location and there are many different options that can be used to minimize impact, reduce shear, add traction, retain water, reduce dust and maintain consistency throughout the arena(s). Don’t forget to ask about footing and be sure to walk around on the arena when doing a farm visit as well as inquire about how the arena is maintained (i.e., how often, or if, it is watered, type and frequency of drags, erosion control, etc.).
Well managed boarding facilities have quality, consistent feed programs. They feed according to each horse’s need rather than a specified amount per head. Even if the facility has an up-charge for feeding more than their “usual” amount, you want to know that your horse will be fed in accordance with his nutritional requirements based on his size, age and work load. Inquire about the number of times the horses are fed each day and check out the quality of the grass pastures and the barn’s pasture maintenance program if your horse is to be stabled outside. Inquire about hay quality and options (grass, alfalfa, grass/alfalfa mixture) and inspect the hay when making a farm visit. If grain is included in the board ask about what grain options are offered and check on the brand(s) that the farm uses. If grain is not included in the board, ask about storage/security options if you have to supply it yourself. Ask if supplements are administered with each feeding and if there is a charge for administering supplements.
Well managed boarding facilities have access to veterinarians and farriers and ideally these professionals visit the facility on a regular basis and are familiar with the facility. The farm should have a set procedure for routine health exams, vaccinations and worming. This is especially important if your horse is turned-out, or will live with, other horses. Well managed facilities require that any new horses admitted to the facility have a current health certificate and a current negative Coggins test. It is not uncommon for barns to require that new horses be quarantined for a short period of time before they are allowed permanent contact with other horses on the farm.
Well managed boarding facilities manage their facility as a business and will have a boarding contract that outlines what services they provide as well as any other obligations on the part of the farm or on the part of the boarder. A boarding contract may be very simple to very complex, but at a minimum it will specify services, prices for those services, billing procedures, payment policies and the rules and regulations of the facility.
PART III – Locating Facilities
Now that you have outlined the specific criteria that you will be looking for in a facility and have differentiated between the amenities that you must have and those amenities that are desirable, it is time to start finding farms that fit your requirements. Now it is time to go back to the location criteria. It just makes sense to try to find your ideal barn as close to your new home as possible. So how do you do that? Veterinarians and other equine professionals might know of someone (or someone who knows someone) or know of a facility that they would recommend. Ask the person making the recommendation if they could possibly make an introduction for you. Referrals, just as in a job search, are a great place to start. Just be sure that you still follow the Due Diligence steps outlined in Part IV, don’t just assume that because you were given a referral is the very best possible option for you.
Most likely, you will be turning to the Internet to help you. A great website for anything horse is www.polocenter.com. You can select “Boarding Stables – US” and the site will direct you to a list of states. Select the state you are looking for. This web site lists all boarding farms sorted alphabetically by city within the state. Some of the listings have direct links to the farm’s website and you will want to check these out, but this site also has listings that do not have websites and will show an address and phone number for the farm under that particular city. These farms may be just what you are looking for so don’t rule them out just because they may not have a website. Also, be sure and check surrounding cities because they may be a little farther that you thought you wanted, but don’t limit your options at this point.
Another site that does a good job of listing boarding facilities is www.NewHorse.com. You select “Finding a Horse Boarding Farm” and then select the state you are interested in. The listings are not in any particular order; although if you go to the very bottom of the page, you can get a sort for a single specific city. Once you select a farm, the first section of the page allows you to send an email inquiry to the farm you selected plus you can broadcast the same message to a number of other farms that are within a close distance to the farm you selected (the phone numbers and approximate distance from the farm you initially selected are listed). If you don’t want to send an inquiry to the other farms listed you do need to de-select them from the list. Underneath the “Contact This Horse Farm/Boarding Stable” section this site provides a summary of the features for the farm you are inquiring about and shows pictures if the farm has provided them. You can go directly to each farm’s website from this page but the icon is a little difficult to find as it is in very faint type font just below the “Contact Information” and just above the “Specialties, Services and Features” section.
EquineNow.com also has listings for boarding facilities. They have a section for Horse Farms and Trainers and you can narrow that down by state, breed, training (discipline) and farm (boarding, training, lessons, breeding, clinics, etc). You can further narrow the search by city. Once you select a farm, this site gives you a very nice summary of the farm, pictures if the farm supplied them, a nice easy direct link to the farm’s website, a contact form, the ability to send the link to a friend, and an automatic link to Google Map based on the farm’s address.
CentralEquine.com is another site that does have some listings for boarding farms. From their Home page select the “Directory” and the select “Farms and Stables”. The listings are sorted by either “most recent” or “oldest first “; although, you can sort by the first letter of the farm’s name if you know it. The information is concise, the web address for the farm you are searching on is listed and there is an automatic link to Google Map based upon the farm’s address.
Also check for websites that may be specific to your riding discipline. Such as Quarter Horse sites or Hunter/Jumper or Dressage organizations in the general in the geographical area you are searching. Take some time to check out any local tack and feed stores, many of them have bulletin boards with local farm and stable information on them. This can be a great way to locate farms or trainers, some of which might not be listed anywhere on the web. Just don’t put too much credence on any comments, good or bad, that the store clerk may give you. Remember, these farms, trainers and owners are the store’s customers so it is only good business sense for them to be careful about what they say. Remember, sometimes it is what they don’t say that is important.
While you are at the tack or feed store, check to see if there are any local publications that might have ads or listings for farms or trainers in the area. Again these people may advertise locally but may not have the ability or time to set up a web site. Occasionally, once you know the name of the local publication, some of the publications are online and you can gain access to the most current advertising information that way.
PART IV – Due Diligence
Be sure that you do research not only on the facility, but find out as much as you can about the owners, managers and trainers that are associated with it. After doing your research, make a short list of facilities that appear to meet your criteria. A phone call, or email, to the Farm Manager or Head Trainer would be the next step. Ask as many questions as you can via phone (based upon your criteria you set in Part I) and get a feel for the farm and its program. Eliminate any facilities that do not meet your needs or don’t quite feel right. Your last step will be to actually visit the farm(s). You may have to schedule an appointment to do this, just be sure you have enough time allotted for your trip to get all of your questions answered and adequate time to just walk around and observe not only the facility but how the horses in their care look and behave. Also note how the staff interacts with both boarders and their horses. Be courteous, but feel free to stop and ask any boarders that may be around any questions you may have about the facility, trainers or management. You can also ask the farm for references if you are comfortable following up and calling them.
Remember, the things you will be specifically looking for will be:
- Cleanliness of the barn and how well the facility is maintained
- How the stalls are cleaned and bedded
- Fencing and how it is maintained
- The number of horses allocated to each enclosure
- Arena Footing and how it is maintained
- The Feeding Program(s)
- How feed and hay are stored and administered
- How often are pastured horses monitored, fed and watered
Also be sure to ask about:
- The Farm’s Hours of Operation
- Days the Farm may be closed
- Turn-out Options and Hours (length of turn-out)
- Staffing and the Staff’s Qualifications
- The Owner’s Background and Involvement with the Operation
- Who is in Charge of Day to Day Operations and their qualifications
- What kind of turn-over does the facility experience (staff and boarders)
- Barn Rules (e.g. supervision of children, are dogs allowed, arena usage)
- Storage Facilities (tack, tack trunks, blankets, trailers)
- Special or Extra Services the Farm provides and the associated costs
- Does the Farm carry insurance, do the trainers also carry insurance
- Ask if there an emergency or disaster plan in place
- Request a copy of the Boarding Contract and any other required paperwork
Review the Boarding Contract carefully before making a final commitment. If you have any questions, make sure that you have a satisfactory answer before signing any documents. Be sure you understand the pricing and specifically what services are included in that price. Ask if the farm requires a deposit and make sure you understand when the deposit needs to be made, if the deposit is refundable and under what conditions it would be withheld. Before you move in, it is also good to know what type of notice requirements the farm has should you would decide to leave. It is also a good idea to talk to the farm’s regular vet and farrier so that you will feel comfortable with them working with your horse.
If a trainer, or training services, will be involved it is a good idea to make sure you have an up to date price sheet from them and understand what their program entails. Discussing and clearly stating your goals with a new trainer will go a long way in making that relationship a satisfying one.
If you are going to engage the services of a trainer, or if being in a training program is a condition of boarding at the facility, it is very important that you observe a lesson (or lessons) taught by the trainer and/or actually watch them ride and school one of the horses that they currently have in training. You need to make sure that their teaching style is compatible with the way you learn and that you are comfortable with the way they handle a horse. If it is at all possible, take a lesson or two from this person on a school horse before making any decision to sign up for their program. Ideally, it would also be beneficial to observe them at a horse show and evaluate their set-up, their schooling techniques as well as having the opportunity to watch them ride.
Most trainers are flexible up to a point, but if your goals differ significantly from the programs that they offer, it may be better for you to seek out someone else. Make sure that you understand if you will be required to pay for a certain number of contacts each month from the trainer or if all of their training services will be ala carte. If you are required to purchase a “package” in advance ask if you can you carry over monies from one month to the next or if the policy is “use it or lose it”. Ask what happens if your horse, or you for that matter, is laid up and will not be in training for a period of time. And be sure you understand what will happen if the trainer is at a show and you choose not to participate Will someone else take over “training at home” or are you on your own while they are gone? What arrangements are made if there are services that the trainer normally provides that you will still need while they are away?
PART V – Settling In
Once your horse has arrived at his new home, it is always a good idea to give him a little time to adjust to his new surroundings. Make sure someone is keeping an eye on him to make sure he is drinking enough water and that he is resting quietly. Usually, the horses are the easy part. To ease your transition, good communication will be your best ally. Make sure that you have given all pertinent information on your horse to the person in charge at the new facility, including feeding instructions, supplements or medications that have been, or need to be, given. Be sure you have included any information on quirks or special behaviors that might be pertinent in caring properly for your horse. Make sure you have given the farm all of your contact and insurance information as well as an alternate person to contact if you cannot be reached.
If possible, set up an account with the local veterinarian in advance so that there is no question about financial responsibility in case of an emergency. If the farm doesn’t have a formal Advance Medical Directive with instructions for how to handle a serious emergency with your horse in the event that the farm is unable to contact you, you should make sure that you have told the person managing the facility whether your horse is a surgical candidate, or under what circumstance he might be a surgical candidate, and under what conditions you would choose euthanasia. You should discuss your riding and training goals with your new trainer (if you hired one) as quickly as possible after your arrival. During this discussion you should establish a short and long term plan with him or her. Having this discussion on a somewhat formal basis at the start of your relationship will allow you and your horse to progress toward your goals. This conversation should also establish some financial parameters so that you won’t be surprised with an unexpected bill and your trainer will have an idea of what your training and/or show budget will be.
And one final reminder, ongoing open communication with the trainer and the farm manager of any facility is critical for your experience with them to be successful. They may not always give you the answer you want to hear, but your problem will never be addressed if the only people you complain to are the other boarders at the farm. Taking your issue or concern to someone that can do something about it is the only way it will be resolved. Your boarding experience will, in the long run, be a much happier one if you treat your relationship with the farm as a professional one.
PART VI – When it is Time to Move On
Inevitability, everything ends. But just be cautioned that the equestrian community is a very, very small world. It will be in your best interest to leave in an impartial manner meeting any obligations that you have under the terms and conditions of your boarding agreement. If you are leaving a barn on good terms, which is what happens in the majority of cases due to situations where kids go off to college, job relocation or the sale of a horse, your departure will typically be handled graciously and with good wishes on the part of everyone.
Still, even in these situations the correct protocol usually involves giving a minimum of a 30 day written notice to the facility stating the date that the horse will be vacating the premise, payment in full of any outstanding charges and instructions for applying any deposit refund due. You should return or replace any borrowed supplies and/or equipment with a note of thanks and you should make sure that you have accounted for all of your belongings. Check to make sure that you don’t accidentally take something that isn’t yours when you leave. Be sure and write down any feeding or special care instructions that you may need to relay to the barn manager at your new facility. It is not necessary to explain why or where you are going and “less is sometimes more” when you are putting it in writing.
Unfortunately, there will be times when differences cannot be resolved. Hopefully in these instances the parties involved have made an attempt to rectify the situation, but sometimes it is just better for everyone involved to just move on. If you are leaving because you are unhappy (or if you have been asked to leave) the protocol is still pretty much the same; although, you may feel that you need to leave the facility immediately rather than waiting out your notice period. Typically, if you leave without notice, or sooner than your contractual notice period, you will forfeit your deposit and you will still contractually owe board through the end of the month regardless of the date you leave. Check your boarding agreement to see how this situation will be handled.
No matter whether the reasons for your departure are good or bad, it is critically important that you make sure that you have taken care of all financial obligations in a timely manner. Barn managers, trainers and facility owners do talk amongst themselves. Some facilities will do a reference or credit check on potential boarders and they may be reluctant to accept someone who has a reputation as a “bad payer”. Trainers generally will not accept any transference of a client if the new client has outstanding obligations to a former trainer/facility until such financial obligations have been satisfied.