A question I often get from clients who are wanting to purchase a horse of their own is, "Where should my horse live?" Most of the time, the short answer to this question is, "At a boarding stable." However, anyone who's ever taken some time to look into boarding their horse knows that there are about as many different options as there are stars in the sky, and deciding where to put your four-legged friend can be as stressful as trying to pick a preschool for your child. There are of course countless factors to consider when choosing a boarding facility, and many are easy to overlook if you're barn shopping for the first time. To help you through the process of finding a place to settle your equine, I've compiled the following outline of the steps involved in examining facilities and exploring your various options, as well as some things I personally consider when looking for a boarding barn.
The first step is of course to know your budget. We would all like to pretend that money wouldn't factor into our considerations when it comes to providing housing for our equine family member; alas, the list of people I know who don't have to worry about what a stable will cost is shorter than Donald Trump's tiny fingers! Most of us are on a budget, and boarding will be one of the biggest (if not the biggest) recurring expenses of horse ownership.
It's impossible for me to say how much your monthly or annual board bill will amount to since it's an ever-changing market and what you pay will depend heavily on where you live. But in general, assume that the more amenities and services a facility has, the more it's going to cost. Sit down before you start your stable search and make a list, starting with the services and amenities you must have, then what you'd like to have, and ending with the things you could do without. This way, you will not only save time by not looking at facilities that don't even meet your minimum requirements, but you'll also avoid the pitfall of being enamored by the glitz and glam of a facility that offers much more than you'll ever use. For example, you may decide that you must have a facility with an arena, a round pen, daily turnout and a place to park your trailer. You can save yourself a lot of time and effort by looking only at facilities that offer these. If you plan on riding a lot in the winter, you may also decide that an indoor arena is a must-have; conversely, if you mostly ride in the summer you may think that an indoor arena would be a nice luxury, but that you could get by without it. If you want to do mostly trail riding and you don't have a truck and trailer, don't even bother looking at places without trail access. Does the facility charge more for a heated wash-rack and a cross-country jumping course? Unless you're planning on showing your horse and jumping cross-country, this barn will be charging you for amenities that you frankly don't need.
The next important consideration is location, location, location. The best barn in the world at the best price is meaningless if you can't ever go there because it's too far away! If you live in an urban area, be aware that you will often end up paying more for the convenience of a shorter commute to see your horse. A mediocre facility at a great location can get away with charging more than their services would be worth anywhere else. If you're like me and wouldn't skip a day at the barn come hell or high water, you may find that a conveniently located stable is a worthwhile expense since ultimately, you'll save money on gas and be able to spend more of your time in the saddle as opposed to in the car. In fact, given the choice between a lovely and well-equipped barn that was an hour's drive from me and a barely passable, old splinter-box of a barn that was only 10 minutes away, I would almost certainly choose the latter (and then I would get to work to make it a more liveable space). However, if you're only going to ride on the weekends when the weather is nice it may not hurt you to have to commute a bit farther for a better barn at a lower price.
Something to remember when thinking about cost is that your horse doesn't care how much green stuff is involved in the transaction, unless the green stuff we're talking about is his hay. In other words, don't assume that spending more money on his accommodations will buy your horse happiness. In fact, the best options in terms of the horse's well-being will in some instances be the cheaper ones. For example, a communal pasture a little ways outside of the city would be a preferable--and cheaper--option for a horse whose owner can't get out to see him daily instead of a private box stall at a big show barn.
Another decision you will need to make is how involved you want to be (or are able to be) in providing your horse's quotidian care. Some facilities will offer you different options when it comes to who is in charge of what aspects of your horse's maintenance, and each option will come with its own price tag. Other stables have only one option and if you don't like it you must simply find different accommodations. On the "cheap" end we have what's called "self-care," meaning you clean your own stall, provide your own hay, and show up at least twice a day to feed your critter and otherwise provide for his needs. Some facilities that offer only the self-care option may not even have an owner or a manager on the premises; they just count on the horse owners to take responsible care of their own horses. On the other (and pricier) end of the spectrum we have "full-care," meaning you could buy a horse, put him out at the stable, and as long as the (hefty) bill gets paid every month you can pretend you don't own a horse at all. Some full-care facilities will do absolutely everything for you--twice daily feeding and supplements, stall mucking, turn-out and exercise, training, arrange for farriery and veterinary care, deworming, blanketing, and so on--and this level of care will be reflected in the price.
Most facilities, however, will fall somewhere between these two extremes. The most common meaning of the term "full-care boarding" is that the daily chores will be taken care of, but anything above and beyond feeding and mucking either has to be done by the owner, or an additional fee can be paid for the stable to take care of it. Another common option is to have the stable provide hay, but the owner takes care of his or her own stall cleaning.
While it may be tempting to just jump on the cheapest option offered, be honest with yourself about the amount of time investment you'll be able to make, your level of expertise on equine care and nutrition, and your physical capabilities (that wheelbarrow won't push itself, after all!). Would you know where and how to buy, transport and store enough quality hay to last your horse through the winter? Don't opt for self-care if you travel a lot, live 20 miles away from your barn and work a full-time job, or if you have family obligations that absorb most of your free time. There's no conceivable way you'll be able to make the minimal number of twice daily trips to the barn required to feed and muck, and the one who will suffer will of course be your animal. Also, consider that the "cheaper" option may not be cheaper, after all, once you figure in the cost of hay, gas to and from the barn twice per day, and not to mention whatever your time is worth. I have crunched these numbers before, and surprisingly it often ends up being far cheaper to pay for full care! That being said, I personally always opt to take as large a part in my horses' care as is feasible, because for me, daily involvement in even the most mundane of chores is one of the joys of horse ownership--not to mention I'm extremely particular and I strongly believe that no one out there mucks a stall better than I do!
You may also find that the stable has different (and differently-priced) options for how isolated your horse will be. Oddly enough, most barns tend to charge more for more isolation, even though this is the least favorable option in the opinion of your horse (and remember, your horse doesn't care how much you spend on his accommodations). Whenever possible, your horse is better off with compatible company in a larger space than he is alone in a smaller space. I cannot stress enough the importance of the words "compatible" and "larger space" here. If there are too many horses packed into too small of a space--especially without enough free-choice food for all--there will inevitably be conflict and any money you might save by going with the communal option will soon be spent on vet bills. Even in a large enough space with plenty to eat, certain horses may just have compatibility issues, and any good stable manager will be alert to changes in herd hierarchy that result in someone getting excessively picked on. If your horse is older, underweight, or has any special dietary restrictions or needs, then the communal option might not be advisable. Obviously, in instances of communicable illness, a horse should be kept isolated as much as possible until the risk of infection has passed. And keep in mind that any horse kept in isolation for any length of time requires a bigger time commitment from his owner to "be his herd" for the sake of his (the horse's) mental health.
Unfortunately, most of the stables I've seen with the communal option get a little overzealous when populating the shared spaces in order to maximize their income, so if you are considering this option take some time to observe the communal pen your horse would be in. If there's not enough space for horses to be fed without risk of getting kicked by the next horse over, it it too small of a space for the horses in it. Also, if there is no way that all of the residents can get protection from the elements at one time, the space is not sufficient. Enough shelter for everyone at once may not matter on a moderate and calm spring day, but when flies start biting or hail starts falling, it will be important for each resident to be able to protect himself. If a stable's communal pen doesn't meet these minimum space requirements, then I personally opt for a private run with a shelter or a stall. As long as my horses have a next door neighbor, their social needs are mostly met and I don't have to worry that they're not getting the nutrition they need or that they are standing outside on a miserable day. Also, I can rest easy knowing that I'm less likely to have unexpected vet bills for an ill-placed kick from a stable-mate.
Whether you choose the communal or the private option, take the time to inspect the enclosures where your animal will be kept. You are looking for logical, convenient layout, safety, accessibility, and comfort. Obviously, the enclosures should be sturdy and in good repair, without protruding nails, sharp edges or fences held together with bailing twine. The ground should be fairly level and free of holes or manure that's been there longer than its current resident, and it should also be sloped for drainage during wet weather so that your horse will always have a dry spot to stand. If the ground is in bad shape, sometimes you can fix it with nothing more than a shovel and a plan, but if the barn is simply built in a spot where all the drainage runs back into the stalls, it may be unresolvable. Gates and doors should all be wide enough to allow for the comfortable passage of a horse with his saddle on or a loaded wheelbarrow, and their latches should be easy to open and close for any animal with a thumb, yet impossible to open for livestock lips. It must have a safe place for your horse to eat, preferably at ground level but not directly on the dirt (an old tractor tire over a large rubber mat is one of the best systems I've seen), and obviously it must have easy access to clean, potable water 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.
Your horse's enclosure should include a shelter that is of adequate height for his size so he may have protection from wind and precipitation in the cold part of the year and from sun and bugs in the summer. A well-thought-out (i.e. one facing in the right direction for its geographical location) three-sided shed is the ideal house for most horses since it provides them with the protection they need without blocking their view of their surroundings. While a cozy, four-walled, draft-free box stall might seem better from the point of view of a human, many horses are very uneasy when they can't see out of their enclosure, and all horses' sensitive respiratory systems suffer when the air is stagnant. Also, a horse's ideal temperature range is much lower than ours, so the chilly, drafty winter air that sends us scurrying to the nearest heat source is perfectly comfortable for our equine friends with their wooly, winter coats.
While some conscientious horse-owners may be tempted to provide their equine with excessive protection from the elements, there are also those at the other end of the spectrum who present the argument that "horses live outside in the wild without a loafing shed and they do just fine, so I don't have to make sure he has access to a shelter." This argument is flawed, however, because horses in the wild have the space and the ability to provide for themselves. They can indeed seek shelter when they need to, and wild horse herds have been known to simply outrun extreme storms or huddle together to keep warm. When we lock a horse in a small corral, we take away a number of his mechanisms for protecting himself from harsh weather and so we must provide it to him wherever he is kept.
If you decide to go with full-care, or at least a stable that provides your horse's feed, the next thing you need to pay attention to is the quality and quantity of the barn's feed. This is a big one for me when I'm looking at facilities. A place that doesn't have good quality hay or that doesn't feed enough is not a place I would put my horse, regardless of any other factor. Roughage is the most important thing for your horse's digestive and overall health, so the hay he will be eating should be taken quite seriously.
The first red-flag that tells you there's a problem with the hay or the quantities fed is underweight horses. If a facility has all underweight horses, that's probably a sign that something is off with their feeding program. One or two underweight horses is to be expected for reasons that are outside of the stable's control, but the majority of the critters you see should be plump and shiny and perky. Underweight, rough-looking animals can also be a sign that the barn doesn't take its parasite control or hygiene very seriously.
After verifying that the residents look good, ask to see the hay they feed. Is it moldy or musty? Full of weeds, bugs, rodents or cat pee? Is it stored under some sort of protection, or is it just left out in the elements? Can the barn manager tell you about the hay's origin and background, e.g. which cutting it's from, if it was grown with or without irrigation, how it's been stored since its harvest, its moisture content, if it was baled under satisfactory conditions, how it's been screened for and protected from potential risks such as blister beetles or other toxic substances, and where it was grown? Has it been sent to a laboratory to test its nutritional value and content? One of the most important questions is, do they have a consistent dealer for their hay, or do they never know for sure where the next batch is coming from? If they do not have a working relationship with a consistent dealer, be wary of boarding there because no matter how good everything looks on the day you visited, you have no guarantee that they'll have the same quality of feed in 6 months when you're moving your horse in. Does the stable count on reliable help, or flakey employees that may or may not show up some mornings? Do they have a consistent feed schedule (i.e. one in which the horses are fed at close to the same time every day), or are they more or less just fed once "in the morning" and again "in the evening"?
If possible, hang out around feeding time and watch their procedure. Do the horses get frantic when the feed comes out, or are they calm and respectful? Frantic or overly-rude horses at feeding time tells you that the residents have probably been waiting on an empty stomach for too long. What size portion does each horse get and how is that portion determined? Is the obese pony receiving exactly the same ration as the underweight off-the-track thoroughbred? Do they have a scale for measuring portions, or are they just "eye-balling" it? I'm not so uptight about my horse's feed ration being exactly the same each time that I believe it has to be weighed out daily, but a stable that claims to feed a certain amount should have a way to periodically check the portions they are giving to ensure some sort of consistency. Barns that measure rations "by the flake" are far too common, and the claim that each horse "gets two flakes per feeding" tells you absolutely nothing about what your horse will be served. Two flakes on one bale of hay might weigh 20 pounds, while two flakes on another bale might not even weigh three pounds, not to mention the nutritional deviance from one bale to the next could be staggering. Most importantly, the individual(s) in charge of feeding should feed mindfully, meaning if a horse seems to be losing weight and is cleaning up his breakfast in less than an hour, then his ration should be increased before he gets dangerously thin. Conversely, a horse who is morbidly obese and collecting fat deposits in his crest and over his tail head should not be absentmindedly and unquestioningly poured a coffee-can full of sweet feed twice a day; nor should the horse who is still hip-deep in hay from breakfast be thrown another full ration of hay at dinner time that he will only be sure to poop on.
If a stable owner or manager can't answer your hay questions satisfactorily, seems cagey about the topic of feed, or engages in feed practices that are antiquated or grossly misinformed, be prepared to walk away, regardless of how nice a place may seem. All the amenities in the world won't make up for nutritional deficiencies, and a poor feeding regimen or low-quality feed could potentially cost you your horse's life. Sadly, I've heard too many stories that ended with the lamentation, "I wish I had known that the stable's feeding practices were harming my horse so I could have gotten him out of there before it was too late." Don't take for granted that the owners or managers are nutritional experts just because of their job title. If they are truly equine professionals and nutritional experts (as they should be, but often are not), they will not only be able, but glad to answer any questions you may have and adequately address all of your concerns.
Lastly, don't forget about your own creature comforts and social needs when deciding on a boarding facility. While not as important as your horse's needs (you get to go home, after all, while your horse is home), your ability to enjoy the facility you choose should still be relevant. A too-full, ill-equipped or poorly-organized facility is not only uncomfortable and difficult to enjoy, it can also be dangerous (too many people lined up at the poorly-placed arena gate can lead to wrecks, for example). Not having room to store your tack might seem like no big deal, but you'll be cursing the lack of this amenity in no time when your car starts to smell like a dirty hoof pick. And if you are unable to ever get a ride in because the arena is so packed all the time with the other riders, lungers, and lessons, then you are throwing your money into a hobby without getting to even enjoy it. This would be like buying your ski-season lift tickets only to wait in line at the chair lift and never actually ski! A particularly attentive barn owner or stable manager will also cater to his boarder's need to rest, lounge, socialize and network by providing some sort of a communal area with seating, a bulletin board, beverages, and protection from the elements.
If you don't already know someone at the barn you are considering, take some time to meet some people who seem to be permanent fixtures of the place to get an idea of the social ambiance. While many of us don't own horses as a means to socialize, a barn with an uncomfortable or tense social dynamic can impede your ability to enjoy your animal and use the space. Like any environment with people in it, most barns will have some level of gossip, drama or conflict, but it shouldn't get in the way of the boarders' use of the space and amenities or spill over into generalized feelings of negativity. Also, don't forget to consider the barn's type and level of competitive interest and if it's compatible with yours. A dressage rider at a barn full of team ropers would likely not be very easily accepted into the group and would potentially have trouble finding the time to ride in an arena full of steers and flying ropes. Likewise, a pleasure rider will find much more enjoyment at a barn with like-minded individuals, a competitive hunter-jumper would probably most benefit from sharing his or her space with others who practice the same sport, and a serious show barn is no place for a weekend trail rider. Not only is it pleasant to share interests with your fellow boarders, you will also find many more learning opportunities surrounded by people who practice what you do, as well as potential "trailer-pooling" buddies to go events with.
In conclusion, know that no facility (or at least very few facilities) will be 100% perfect, so you must be prepared to make some sacrifices; but, hopefully, after reading this you will be better prepared to think about the potential impact of those sacrifices on yourself and your horse, as well as know what compromises you can't make.