There have been lots of articles and blogs lately that talk about what makes the perfect boarder or what makes the perfect barn manager. But none of them have addressed what I have felt makes for THE perfect boarding barn.
I have been on both sides of the fence. I had my own farm that I leased and ran as both a boarding farm and non-profit rescue facility for 6 years. I also have managed farms and I have been a boarder. And now I finally have my own farm. So I know what it is to be both a boarder and a barn manager and an owner.
When I leased the barn, which was for 6 years, I had several boarders and I was probably the happiest I had ever been as a horse owner, because the barn was run exactly as I wanted it run. And you know what? My boarders must have been pretty happy as well, because the only time they left was if they were moving from the area. My long time boarder, who was with me almost the entire 6 years, left to find a barn closer to home. She was back within 6 months, after boarding at 2 other barns. I had a waiting list and never advertised.
When I ran the barn, I like to think that I was pretty easy going. I would feed whatever the owner wanted. The horses always had clean, good quality hay and the water buckets were dumped and cleaned daily and refilled with fresh, cool water. Water troughs were dumped daily and scrubbed of algae. The fencing was safe and kept in good repair, I always had grass and good footing. Stalls were mucked daily and bedded deeply. I blanketed in the winter and horses were hosed off in the summer. I really had no rules, other than keep the barn clean and leave things as you found it.
And isn’t that really what we all want as horse owners? Good feed, safe facilities, fresh water, clean stalls and ample turnout with grass? I don’t think that the services I provided were above and beyond what every horse deserves. I think that is what every horse and its owner pays for and should receive.
So why is it so hard to find a barn that cheerfully offers these basic services?
When I gave up the lease on my barn and became a boarder again, I admit, it was hard going from having total control of your place to placing the care of your beloved horse in someone else’s hands.
I found I had to make a list of what was most important for me. Besides the obvious, which I mentioned already. Because I had a “special needs” horse, it was important to find a barn that would adhere to his diet (Tucker had EPSM. His diet was planned by a vet and was crucial to his well-being) and due to his extreme allergies to bugs, he could not ever be turned out at night. That was hard, as most barns in Florida turn out at night during the hot summer months, and finding a barn that would bring him in by noon and not leave him out all day in the heat and storms, was hard to come by. It seemed that I had to choose either option A or option B and there was no wiggle room.
Finding those 2 criteria meant that perhaps some of my “basic” requirements” may have to take a back seat. The trick is to find what you can live with and what you can’t.
After a few moves (one barn quickly went down the tubes as the manager decided that running a barn was hard work, another barn decided not to be flexible with turnout), I found a setting that was a bit of a drive for me, but allowed Tucker to eat what he wanted and go out during the daytime. But fencing sucked (they did have hot wire, so I was able to live with the unsafe fencing) and I had to understand that I would have to clean my buckets (and eventually dump them daily when that stopped happening), that the stall was not going to be immaculately cleaned (just add some additional time to the barn visit, and go over the stall yourself) and dump and clean the troughs yourself. This worked fine until the care unexplicably and utterly deteriorated. Then it became a situation where boarders were teaming up to cover for one another if one of us had to be out of town. We knew horses would not have buckets topped off during the heat of the day, they might be forgotten and left out in the heat or a storm, hay might be forgotten and god knows what else. For months, we covered for one another, until one by one, we were able to find new barns. During that time, manure and fly management ceased to exist, grass turned into sand and weeds (and some toxic weeds for some fields), and the suddenly quiet and happy barn turned into nightmare with boarders complaining nonstop and weekly arguments between boarder and barn management. My happy place was no longer a fun and happy place. Some boarders were lucky and found great barns, others were not so lucky and went from one hell hole to another. I stuck it out longer than some other boarders because I had to stick to my list and I did not want to trade one set of problems for another.
I finally found THE perfect boarding barn. And it hit me. I finally realized what THE perfect boarding barn was all about!
You see, at the barn I moved to, before purchasing my own farm, there are boarders who have been there for TWENTY years! One doesn’t have to be a genius to know what the secret is.
It is all about giving the paying customer what they are paying for! Just as I used to give my paying customer what they were paying for, so does this barn. There was no question about what I was feeding Tucker. When I was looking into new barns, I actually had a barn owner tell me that Tucker would be just fine eating what the other 19 horses in her barn ate, never mind his EPSM or what the vet said. The arrogance on the other end of the line was mind boggling and I quickly ended our conversation. Not only could I feed the feed that Tucker needed, but EVERYTHING on my list was being checked off: morning turnout, check. water buckets cleaned daily and replenished with cool water, check. Good quality hay, check. Stalls cleaned daily, check. Pasture, manure and fly management, check, check, check. Lots of grass, safe turnout and no weedy fields? Three more checks.
And because the barn owner was giving her paying customers what they wanted, I noticed something amazing. There was so much respect and love and admiration for this barn owner, that when something happened (dog sick, gotta run to the vet; sick/injured horse, hurricane approaching), boarders appear almost from thin air to help! When there were hurricanes approaching, numerous boarders showed up to help finish barn chores and get the barn safe. After one storm, the son of one boarder appeared first thing the following morning and picked up the tree branches that were blocking the driveway and disappeared before anyone knew he was there. I never once heard a boarder complain, and there is no barn drama whatsoever.
When I traveled, I got text messages letting me know Tucker was fine. I get cute photos of my barn cat Hobbs, whom everyone has fallen in love with! When I retired Tucker and bought a 2nd horse, the owner offered to build a stall for me! (sadly, just before she began to add on to one of the barns, one of the long time seniors passed away, solving the stall problem.) Even though I no longer board there, we still meet up for lunch and breakfast and stay in touch via fb and texts.
So what are clues to finding THE perfect boarding barn?
Well for starters, ask how long other boarders have been there. Is there a trend of longevity or is it a revolving door policy? If the barn is advertising every month for stalls available, that could be a clue. Great barns may not need to advertise. My farrier, vet and a local tack store owner all recommended my last place. I just had to wait 6 months for an opening. I had never even heard of this barn, yet one of the local dressage judges boards here, so I knew that it must be a good place. So just because you have never heard of a place or seen it advertised, don’t think that THE perfect place doesn’t exist! If you can, meet the boarders. They will give you clues as to whether or not they are happy.
And of course, look at the horses and the facilities. Are the horses in good health? Good weight? Are they happy or do they all pin their ears and cower in the back of the stalls, which could indicate rough hands? Are stalls cleaned to your satisfaction with ample shavings? I briefly boarded at a barn where I ended up supplying my own shavings as the owner felt that one bag was enough on the rubber mats. Tucker was 2 at the time and there was nothing worse than seeing him nap in his stall, lying in his own pee. Are the barn aisles clean and is the fly population under control? Is the place clean and tidy or littered with trash and weeds? Are the pastures lush or sandpits? Here in Florida, lots of farms give up trying to maintain grass pastures. That is fine by me, as long as they at least make an effort to keep the weeds away. It is a big turnoff to me if a horse is standing in a weedy field. It is easy for toxic weeds to invade if the fields are not kept manicured. While you are checking out the fields, stick your finger in the water trough. Is it clean and cool or dirty and hot? In Florida, water troughs should be dumped every day and refilled the next morning. This is why I only use muck buckets for my water instead of big water troughs. They are easy to dump and scrub. Is the fencing safe? Once you find what you think is a great fit for your horse, I suggest making another visit if possible, just to be sure that it is a good fit and that the owners weren’t pulling a bait and switch on you! One barn I moved to was lovely when I visited, but when I moved there 2 months later, there was trash everywhere and the lush pastures had become overgrown with weeds. Be sure to check the feed and hay. If they are reluctant to show you the feed room, run. We sent one of our horses off to college with my daughter, where we were told he would be fed what we wanted. She even showed me the feed room. But after a month, he began to lose weight. She discovered that the feed room was locked. Eventually my daughter learned that he was being fed a cheap all stock feed and coastal hay. (I showed up the next day with the trailer and brought him home.)
If you are unhappy at your current farm, be sure to do your homework and evaluate a new barn very carefully. You do not want to go from a bad situation to one worse. I have many horror stories to relate of both myself and friends who ended up in worse situations. And be sure to ask friends, your farrier, your vet and even the local tack or feed store what they have to say about a potential barn. And ask them if they can recommend a place if you are having a hard time finding one on your own.
Now that I have my own farm, I am once again able to enjoy being the owner/manager. I don’t offer boarding, but I know that my horse and donkey are pretty healthy and happy!
If every barn owner and manager gave their paying customer what they are entitled to, there would be a lot more perfect barns and a lot less grumbling and barn drama!