How to Choose the Right Barn for Your Horse

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Horse in snow


Now that we have figured out how to choose the right horse boarding facility for you, lets talk about how to choose the right boarding barn for your horse.

Though it’s YOUR money and YOUR hobby, your horse is the one who has to live at the barn. No matter what, you must have goals for you and your horse. Keeping your horse at a barn that isn’t right for him/her isn’t going to help you achieve your riding goals.

A horse’s surrounding atmosphere has SO much impact on their overall health and wellbeing. Maybe you are moving barns because you aren’t happy with how your horse is going, how his/her training is coming along, or maybe, you just need a change. Sometimes staying with the same trainer, at the same barn, for too long, can create monotony and boredom for you AND your horse. Everyone grows as a rider, and your horse grows as an equine athlete too.

Facilities:
The facilities are probably the most important factor for your horse’s overall health and happiness. How much sun gets in the barn? Are there windows in the stalls, and if not, are their skylights to allow plenty of natural light? Are the ceilings tall enough for your horse? Is there plenty of ventilation? Windows, open doors; does a breeze run through the barn to allow fresh air exchange? Can the barn stay warm enough in winter without closing every door and window? If the barn is heated in winter, is there still fresh air allowed in the barn? Is there a safe place to tack up? Grooming stalls, crossties in the isles; or are you stuck grooming in their stall? How are the riding areas? Is the footing too deep or too rocky? Are the rings level? Are the rings watered regularly to keep dust down? Are the rings over-watered as to cause slippery footing? Is there somewhere to ride outside of a ring? It’s always good to ride your horse “out of the ring” at least once a week, even if it’s just at a walk and only for 5 minutes. Even a casual switch-up in riding environment is great for their brain and their body.

Turnout:
I touched on my 2008 turnout opinion already. Does this new barn’s turnout policy jive with your horse’s needs? Does your horse do well in group turnout? Do they offer group turnout? Are their different herds for mares and geldings? Are there different herds for temperament? Maybe your horse needs individual turnout, or possibly, that’s all they offer. If so, do they get all day turnout? Are they out for a few hours, or maybe every other day? Are the individual turnouts too big, too small? Are the pastures and/or paddocks over grazed? Are the pastures and paddocks full of green grass that is perfectly manicured? Lots of pretty green grass is a sign of VERY limited turnout!

Maybe you don’t want your horse going outside, or maybe your horse can only handle an hour or two of turnout and then they run. Do they accommodate no turnout? Is there staff around during the day to corral running horses? Does the staff bring in if horses if they don’t seem happy outside, and is there a charge for such?

One place not to be a crazy boarder: turnout terrain. People get awfully caught up with rocks and evenness of pastures. If your horse is a turnout horse, hills, rocks, and trees are not going to hurt. You want them perfectly safe from outdoor harm? Leave ‘em in.

If your horse can handle all day turnout, doesn’t flip out, and doesn’t get too crazy, then the pasture terrain doesn’t really matter. Horses are resilient, if they are smart. Horses are able to handle very “difficult” terrain if they aren’t bonkers. A wacky Thoroughbred that paces, runs, and generally freaks out may pose a threat to themselves if the terrain is uneven, but if your horse is a lunatic anyway, you may want to consider individual turnout in a smaller paddock as is.

Outdoor runs off the indoor stalls can be a great alternative to turnout. If your horse gets worked often (5-7 days a week), and they don’t NEED to get out and run around with a herd, sometimes, just a run off the stall to keep them moving is plenty. Sometimes board is more costly with a stall and run, but this is one of my favorite options for a horse, especially if they don’t do well in normal turnout situations.

Turnout Fencing
Aside from barn structures themselves, horse pasture fencing is expensive. One way to spot a low rent horse facility? Barbed wire fencing. One way to spot an uppity barn? Four rail white vinyl. Pick somewhere in the middle. Old fencing is not necessarily bad; just be sure to walk the fence lines during the barn tour. PVC fencing, and even 1.5″ electric tape fencing (if electrified) can provide great, and more importantly, SAFE pasture perimeter protection. No Climb fencing is good too, especially if topped with a wooden board and one electric wire.

Be wary of fencing too low, too loose, not electrified, or broken. STAY AWAY FROM METAL WIRE STRAND FENCING – DANGER DANGER DANGER!

Feeding Programs:
Many horse owners fail to research horse feeds and feeding programs and instead rely too much on trainers, barn owners, and barn managers to get horse nutrition right. If ever there was a need for proper horse care education, nutrition consultation would be top priority.

Not enough horse owners are involved in the care of their horses. I have asked so many horse owners how much feed their horse gets and they have NO IDEA!! This amazes me.

QUESTION: Does your horse do well on grass hay, or do they need the extra energy of alfalfa?
ANSWER: [blank stare]

QUESTION: What kind of grain does your horse do best on?
ANSWER: [shoulder shrug…guesses wrong]

Before you move barns, find out what your horse is currently eating, think about your horse’s weight, their energy level, their stamina, and their current and future work load. You would be surprised about how much of a difference grain and hay choices make on your horse’s overall performance, attitude, and condition. Most barns feed a standard “grain” whether that’s Purina Strategy, Nutrena Safechoice, or a plain sweet feed. Stay away from cob. If the barn uses a plain sweet feed, lookup the protein, fat, starch, and sugar nutritional data and sources. Overly “hot” horses, horses working VERY hard, fat horses, skinny horses, or sluggish horses should always have their feed evaluated, possibly by a veterinarian or horse feed product specialist (most are cool if you can find ‘em – check the feed company’s website).

Additionally, most feed bags suggest feeding A LOT of grain (wonder why?) Start with feed recommendations, talk with your vet, and watch your horse for improvements. Make adjustments when necessary, and ALWAYS make horse feed changes slowly!

Added horse supplements, additional grains, and roughage sources are a possibility for your equine. Find out if the barn will feed these additions, what charges are associated, if they want YOU to purchase the products, or if THEY’d rather purchase the products and bill you. Some barns require supplements to be bagged, others don’t mind as long as everything is labeled. Some barns will NOT feed supplements. Make sure you know what they feed, how they feed, when they feed, and of course, if their feed practices work for your horse.

Maybe a barn don’t feed supplements, but everything else is near perfect. If you’re already going out to the barn 5-7 days a week, you can always feed the supplements yourself. It’s a compromise, but at least you’re in charge. Of course, depending on the supplement and what it’s used for, missing days may be impossible. But, sometimes we definitely over supplement our horses.

Trainers sometimes can be the worst horse supplement advice givers. Always consult a veterinarian if you are unsure.

Hay is an important part of the feeding program, and with gas prices expanding, affordable land shrinking, and the plight of the American farmer increasing, grass hay is getting harder and harder to come by. In these economic times, there is no such thing as affordable hay, and there never will be again. If you find a barn that grows their own hay, good for you. Not every barn has 80 acres (that aren’t subdivisions, yet), and the equipment to cut and bale hay.

If your barn makes it’s own hay, be sure the hay is good quality (not weeds), clean, dry storage is abundant, and hay production is ample. If your barn buys hay – which most do these days – trace the hay source, type, and find out how stable their hay delivery is. Changing hay sources and types, unless done gradually, should be avoided. For picky horse or sensitive horses, changing hay, even if its grass hay to a different grass hay, can be difficult (eg. the runs, or worse).

Perhaps your horse can’t handle high quality hay. Arabians horses who don’t do well on rich hay may be faced with explosive diarrhea, or colic episodes; see if the barn can provide lower quality hay if necessary. If a barn won’t make special purchases for you (and you may be required to sign a lease so the barn can buy enough hay in advance), will the barn feed hay that you bring yourself?

Hay prices are astronomical, and if there is one place a boarding facility looses money, it’s on hay. If a barn is trying to save a few pennies on hay, make sure it’s not detrimental to your horse’s health.

Stalls and Bedding:
Horse stalls and bedding usually have more effect on horse owners than they do on the actual horses. However, there are a few points to consider while looking at a stall. The first few we already covered in the facilities section: ventilation and natural light. One more important factor is stall size. 18 hand horses don’t like 10’x10′ stalls. Heck, 17 hand horses don’t like 10’x10′ stalls (unless there is a run off the back). Most horses do fine in 12’x12’ stalls, but the bigger the better, and ceiling height makes a difference in both ventilation, and of course, a horses ability to stand up comfortably.

Many, many people get too worked up over bedding, the amount, and the quality. Yes, bedding and shavings are important. But, you must understand, most stalls nowadays have mats. If the stalls have thick rubber mats (preferably, not over concrete), bedding is not needed for cushion, only for absorption. Just because you wouldn’t lay down on the bedding doesn’t mean your horse cares in the slightest. The amount of bedding is only determined by your horse’s quantity of urine. SERIOUSLY! I know, at the horse shows, you always bed them deep, but remember, most of the stalls at horse shows don’t have rubber mats! Once again, with rubber mats, there isn’t a need to bed your horse incredibly deep. If the bedding is off-colored due to moisture, urine, or because your horse is a complete slob, as long as it doesn’t smell like ammonia, it’s fine for your horse. Your horse will survive in a dirty stall. Not all horses use the potty equally. If your horse is a pig and doesn’t go in one spot, it’s proof your horse doesn’t care if their stall is dirty! YOU may care, but your horse will be fine.

Trainer:
Choosing the right trainer for your horse is just as important as choosing the right trainer for you. Not all trainers work great with all types of horses, just as not all trainers work great with all types of people. Make sure the trainer’s philosophies work with the goals you’ve set and the needs you’ve identified for your horse. Maybe your horse has been “babied” a little too much and needs to be pushed, or maybe your horse gets scared quickly needs a trainer to gradually introduce new challenges. Some horses do much better with a VERY assertive trainer, while others respond better to simply consistent expectations.

YOU may not be the best person to judge what kind of trainer your horse needs. Some people think their horse needs one thing, when all along it’s an entirely different approach that the horse responds best to. Again, don’t make TOO many assumptions about horse trainers based on gossip. You need to judge for yourself, and ALWAYS watch a trainer ride! The best teacher in the world may be the WORST rider! If you are looking for a trainer ride your horse, make sure that trainer is a good, effective rider that is clear and consistent with their communication to the horse.

Preventative Care:
Sometimes people forget preventative horse care is important part in not only care of your horse, but the health of an entire barn. Vaccines, de-worming, night checks, experienced staff, and horse “traffic” all play a role in preventative care for your horse.

Of course, a barn SHOULD require proof of vaccinations prior to any horse moving in, but in reality, a barn owner, manager, or trainer can tell if you are up on your horse’s vaccinations by the barn you are coming from, if you have been showing (and what shows you are showing at), what vet you use, and of course, just by YOU. Depending on the barn, the barn’s vet, how many horses travel to shows and clinics, and the amount of new horses coming and going, the barn will require mandatory vaccinations. Of course, geographic regions also determine necessary vaccines. Always talk to your vet, find out if your vet has had any experiences with the new barn and the health of their “herd”. Don’t pry for personal questions, just ask how the horses are cared for from a veterinarian’s perspective. You probably won’t get any “dirt”, but you should get a clear picture of how and what your horse will need if you were to move them there.

Negative Coggins is something that is usually more area specific. If you are traveling to horse shows, a negative Coggins is generally required.

Many barns fall short on de-worming programs. I prefer a barn to either require the daily de-wormer (strongid C, strongid C2x, Continuex, Equi Aid CW, etc), or the every other month rotation recommended by the barn vet, with the BARN giving the de-wormer. Too many times I have seen the “reminder” to de-worm your horse and I know that half the people forget, are a month late, buy the wrong kind, or just don’t think it’s that important. Worms are real, worms are a big deal, worms can be controlled! So, make sure the barn has something to not only keep track, but enforce whole barn de-worming program.

Night Check is something that is imperative to a horse’s well being. Of course, 9 times out of 10 night checks will not find anything wrong in the barn. But it’s that 1 in 10 that can really catch something, like colic, a horse cast, an allergic reaction, a horse just not doing right. It’s a great way to make sure the barn is secure, the horses are good for the night, and you can sleep soundly knowing night check is routine.

Good overall common sense and experience from the staff go a long way towards happy and healthy horses. Even if it’s just the trainer, the barn owner, or the barn manager, someone who is there EVERY day when the horses come inside unconsciously performs the “everything okay check.” The lost shoe, the cut, the blanket falling off, the wraps taken off, the hot horse cooled, the horse not eating or drinking like normal, the sound of a lame horse walking in the isle. Whatever little idiosyncrasies, an experienced handler or manager will see it, hear it, or feel it! Of course, even something can go missed with 10 staffed people each with 20 years of horse experience, but if NO-ONE there knows your horse or horses in general, EVERYTHING is going to be missed.

Farrier and Vet:
Your horse may have special needs, or maybe you have special needs that are gratified through your horse’s farrier and vet, but let’s stick to your horse for now.

If your horse either needs special shoeing, special attention from a vet, or has a long history with a vet, make sure that the barn “allows” other vets and farriers to be used. If the barn move is “normal” and a horse’s feet and health generally “normal”, changing vets and farriers usually isn’t a big deal.

But, if you REALLY like your vet or farrier and your horse has been doing GREAT with both professionals taking care of him/her; make sure you can bring them along to the new barn and make sure both your veterinarian and farrier can make the trip to the new barn.

Environment/Atmosphere:
Very important for the person, it is actually important for your horse as well. Maybe in a slightly different way, but if the barn has a bad feel, if there is chaos, lots of drama, bad schedules, or inconsistencies, your horse is going to feel calm or stress whether its directly from the bad environment, atmosphere, or the effect on your mood. Either way, bad feelings can bring a horse down as much as a person.

There are probably a million more sub-topics regarding selecting the right horse boarding facility, barn, or stable for your equine. This is a good start.

When you are looking for a new barn, consider what is best for you and what is best for your horse. Make lists, compare, and don’t settle. Compromises are fair and reasonable, but sacrifices are not. Horses are too expensive; get your money’s worth for you AND your horse.

Related Citizen Horse Articles
How to Choose the Right Barn for You
Horse Supplements: The Evolution
Leaving a Barn: The 30 Day Notice