Handing over the reins to someone to care for your horse is comparable to handing over your child to a daycare – it can be emotionally challenging. Even when you do find a great home for your equine partner, things can change in the blink of an eye: personal situations arise, riding goals change, sudden injuries happen, personalities clash, farms get sold. Likewise, if you’re the stable owner looking for a prospective boarder, finding a person who will be a good fit into your program can have similar challenges.
It’s hard on everyone to change barns, particularly the horses, so it’s important to take the time to make an informed decision so that everyone involved has the greatest chance for a successful, long-term ‘stable’ relationship.
THE BOARDER’S PERSPECTIVE
First and foremost, understand your needs, and the needs of your horse. If you are a casual adult rider looking for a quiet and similar-minded group, then a highly-competitive show barn full of teens may not be the right place, even if it does have all the bells and whistles.
What are your top priorities? Consider consulting your vet, farrier, or coach for expert advice so that you’re best prepared to ask the right questions. “The biggest mistake we see potential boarders make is that they don’t ask enough clarifying questions. They may ask if it’s group or individual turnout, for example, but they won’t ask what that turnout program entails, like what happens when it’s muddy,” notes Tennille Kerrigan, the owner of Stonewood Equestrian in Pickering, ON.
Potential boarders should make a list of expectations that are important to them. “There should be a reasonable expectation for the care offered for the amount of board charged, and many are trying to get champagne on a beer budget,” notes one horse owner. In addition, the general philosophy of the barn is important to consider and that the horse owner find a boarding facility that either a) regards the horse in the same way as the owner, or b) provides an environment that allows the horse owner to employ his/her own way of thinking.
If you’re considering a full-service training facility, “Do your homework on the skill level and experience of the trainers and coaches to know if it’s the right fit for your riding needs,” suggests Danalynn Rooks, EC hunter/jumper/equitation judge and owner of Maple Meadows Equestrian Centre in Pitt Meadows, BC.
Beyond the basic needs of your horse that need to be met – nutrition, water, shelter, health and safety – assess the quality of the pastures; safety of the shelters, stalls, and barn(s); the water system; the level of expertise of handlers, staff, and trainers; as well as the general philosophy of the barn owner toward horse health. “A well-managed facility will have a customized nutritional and turnout program based on your horse’s body condition, have free-choice water, a well-maintained and safe facility where the horses look happy and healthy,” notes Al Macleod of Macleod Equine Veterinarian Services in Caledon, ON. Alf Budweth, an Animal and Equine Nutritionist and owner of Nobleton Feed Mill in Nobleton, ON, concurs. “The feeding program should be in line with their life cycle [age], body condition, and current energy needs. A show jumper and a retired horse should clearly have different feeding programs.”
In addition, Macleod says that, “It’s most important that facilities have a protocol and parasite program in place in accordance with their vet. It’s important that there is a good working relationship between the stable owner and the vet and a level of comfort, trust, and open dialogue with everyone involved ensuring the best health care for your horse.”
Equally important is hay quality and quantity – a hot topic with horse owners. “A lot of boarder’s quibbles with management are over hay availability and quality,” notes one horse owner. Budweth says that as a rule, the average-sized horse (1100 lbs/500 kg) should receive one-half to three-quarters of a bale per day, ideally where they have a bit of hay in front of them all the time to ensure proper gut motility. As well, it should be “green and clean first-cut hay.”
“Facilities should conduct hay analysis testing, ideally each season, so you know where you’re at for protein content and can adjust your feeding program accordingly,” says Budweth. Any feed company in Canada can do this test, which costs about $35. “It’s a small cost to ensure the health and well-being of the horses.”
Take a look at the condition of the horses’ hooves at the facility. “If it doesn’t look right, it isn’t right,” warns Brian Keir, a farrier in the King Township area of Ontario. “If the toes are long, chipped, or cracked, then the maintenance program likely isn’t managed well. Without proper maintenance, horses begin to trip, have lameness, jumping, and lead issues, and even back problems,” he adds.
THE STABLE OWNER’S PERSPECTIVE
Understand the mission of your facility and what your expectations are for what you’re charging. It’s fair to be firm with how you manage your property and be properly and fairly compensated for the work you do. Consider how much flexibility you’re willing to allow with your program and your day-to-day care.
It’s a slim margin to keep a facility running; spreading yourself too thin can run you into some major problems and unsuccessful boarder relationships. Be clear about what you can manage, your knowledge, your capabilities, and be up front with your expectations of boarders. “The key to a successful relationship is managing expectations; communication is key,” notes Karen Weslowski of Vancouver, BC, a lawyer at Miller Thomson and a former EC coach and hunter/jumper competitor who has a special interest in equine law.
Whether you’re a hobby farm with just a few boarders or a full-service showing facility, consult a lawyer about all the legal considerations so that you’re best protected. Get it in writing! Have a lawyer draft up a contract that contains all of the legal requirements, as well as any terms that you feel are important to include. “Having a legally-drafted contract creates certainty,” says Weslowski. “Contracts clearly establish what’s going to happen if obligations aren’t met and contain the proper wording to protect the parties’ rights when that occurs. Moreover, by detailing the terms of board you’re encouraging compliance, as the parties will be aware, and have signed off on, their respective obligations.” Rooks agrees. “Contracts are really important to maintaining a professional relationship. It takes the grey areas out of everything.”
There are a number of important aspects that the contract should outline, including (but not limited to) the terms of notice (for the trial period when the horse first arrives and once the horse has resided for a month or longer), termination of the agreement, as well as agreement for acceptance of risk (or waiver). As well, be clear in your contract about what your boarding fees entail, payment timelines, and expectations. “No one should be surprised about extra costs on their board bill,” notes one Calgary-area horse owner. Include any additional service charges, notification of changes in board or service fees, as well as precise details of what your boarding package includes. The more explicit and clear your contract, the more likely that everyone will be on the same page.
It’s important to communicate with your staff and boarders. Set group or individual meetings where you can have face-to-face conversations to discuss issues. “Texts are great for quick, non-confrontational things, but not a concern over horse care – those need to be discussed in person,” notes one horse owner. “It’s important to be open to listening objectively and to always try to move forward in a positive way,” agrees Rook.
Avoid gossip and hearsay within your stable, or about other facilities. Demonstrate respect for the members of your team and others in the horse community. “Never be emotional and take things personally. It’s only business. Have sit-down meetings to outline any concerns and always maintain a good level of professionalism when dealing with your clientele,” emphasises Dee Walker of Forest Hill Training Centre in Caledon, ON.
Both the horse owner and the stable owner (or lessee on a property) should consult an insurance broker to ensure they have the appropriate coverage. The basics would include that the property owner have liability insurance. The amount will depend on a few factors, but the number of horses housed on the property is a top consideration. Liability insurance will cover the property owner if a rider falls and is injured, or if a horse runs onto the road and causes damage to a third party. Non-Owned Livestock Liability Endorsement, or Care, Custody and Control insurance will cover the property owner in the case where there is physical injury causing death of the horse, where neglect by the property owner is proven. The premium can start at as little as $50/year per horse where the value of the horse is $5,000 or less, and goes up as the value of the horse increases.
Horse owners who are members of their provincial federations are in most cases covered by a basic insurance policy, or have access to reduced-price policies. For example, a member of the Ontario Equestrian Federation is automatically insured for Personal Liability Insurance (for action brought against you as a result of injury or property damage caused by you and your horse), Non-Commercial Stableman’s Liability (for claims made against you for horses you do not own) and Accidental Death and Dismemberment Insurance (for horse-related injuries) for a cost of $70 per year.
Farm liability does not cover a boarder’s horse, property such as tack and other personal or horse-related items stored in the barn, or medical expenses, so it’s up to the horse owner to do their due diligence to ensure they are properly covered under their house insurance or horse mortality coverage.
Whether you’re the boarder or the stable owner, protect your reputation, your integrity, and most importantly, the best interests of the horse(s) by doing thorough research, being reasonable with your expectations, and being honest, fair, and open to effective communication.
Staff and General Barn Protocol
- Ask to have a tour. See as much as you can, from trails, to jumps, to hay storage. The more you see, the better you can assess if you are comfortable with the practices of the stable.
- Is this a leased facility? If so, is the lessee or lessor responsible for upkeep and major repairs?
- What is the mission and general philosophy of the facility? Does it match up to your goals and your horse’s needs?
- What are the long-term plans for the facility? Are they growing, down-sizing, going to retire, sell?
- Do your research: what are other boarding facilities charging in the area?
- Be ready to supply references – both work and from your previous barn.
- Be willing to sign a waiver and/or contract. Consult a lawyer if you’re unclear about certain terms or conditions written in the document before you sign.
- Understand what type of insurance you require.
- Bring a trusted horse person with you that can help you assess a new location.
- Meet the team: the owner, staff, coaches, and trainers. See how they interact with each other.
- Who are the primary decision makers? Is this a barn where you surrender all decisions to the manager/barn owner, or is there an open dialogue where communication regarding the care of your horse is acceptable?
- Understand the hierarchy of command. Who do you go to with problems, concerns, or for general information?
- How does everyone prefer to communicate? Texts, emails, over the phone, or in person?
- See how they all interact with the horses, and how the horses respond to them and to their environment.
- Meet the horses. See what condition they are in. Are they too fat? Too skinny? Do the conditions they are living in seem adequate, safe, and appropriate?
- How do they manage discipline or training with your horse?
- Is there a qualified person(s) on the premises at all times?
- What do they do in the event of an emergency? Is there barn security?
- Do they smoke in or near the stable area?
- Will they be handling your tack (cleaning, tacking up) and have access to your personal belongings?
- What are the barn hours and how flexible are they to meet your needs?
- Trust your gut; it’s never wrong. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
- How many flakes per day will your horse receive?
- Is it first- or second-cut hay?
- Do they do hay analyses?
- If outside, is hay fed in a raised feeder or thrown on the ground?
- Do they move the feeder around so that waste and mud build-up is minimal?
- Ask to see where they store the hay. Check the quality as well as the volume. Does it seem like enough to supply the number of horses they have?
- Do they soak the hay if required?
- How often do they feed grain?
- Do they separate the horses at feed time?
- Is the feed supplied by the barn or you? If by the barn, what are the choices?
- Who supplies supplements or meds (when required)? Are there additional fees for this?
- Do they (or will they) soak their feed? This is an important consideration for older horses.
- Do they monitor the weight of your horse with respect to grain?
- Do they have the expertise (or a nutritionist) to know if your horse is on the right feeding program?
- What is the water system at the facility? How is it maintained, particularly in the winter?
Stalls and Outdoor Shelters
- Do they supply adequate bedding? What type do they use?
- How often are the stalls cleaned?
- Is there sufficient ventilation?
- Do the stalls have rubber matting for extra comfort and protection?
- If your horse will be outdoors, are the shelters large and cleaned out regularly?
- Is it group or individual turn-out?
- What do the paddocks look like: type of grasses (vs. weeds), drainage, fencing?
- Do they get hay when grass is limited or unavailable?
- What happens when it’s muddy, icy, too cold, or too hot?
- How do they introduce new horses?
- Do they separate mares and geldings?
- Do any of the horses have back shoes?
- Are there options if your horse isn’t fitting in?
- Will they apply boots/wraps if needed? Is that an additional charge?
- How often do they remove manure?
- Do they harrow the fields, are they over-grazed, do they replant in the spring?
- Are the paddock sizes adequate for the number of horses?
Blanketing and Fly Masks
- What is the daily blanket protocol? Is this extra?
- What are your own expectations for each season?
- Does the barn supply fly spray? Is this an additional cost? How often will they apply?
- What is the protocol for cleaning and repairing blankets? Is there an additional administrative cost to have the barn take care of this for you?
- Can you bring in your own farrier, or do you have to use their’s? What can be done if you’re unhappy with the quality of care or service you’re getting with their farrier?
- Understand what the costs may be with a new farrier.
- Who is in charge of scheduling and keeping track of farrier visits?
- Does your horse require special attention to hoof care and if so, are there additional charges/billing?
- Be ready to provide your horse’s vaccination or other health records.
- Can you bring in your own vet or do you have to use theirs?
- Understand what the costs may be with a new vet.
- What are the vaccination and deworming protocols?
- Be up front with your horse’s health – current and past. The more the stable owner knows, the better care your horse will get.
- Be clear on what the conduct of care will be for your horse in the case of an emergency, injury or illness. Have it in writing so there is no misunderstanding.
- Is there trailering available in the case of emergency?
- Have up-to-date emergency numbers so that the stable owner knows who to call.
- Let the appropriate person(s) know when you will be away and what they should do in the event of an emergency.
- Do you want to be notified when your horse has minor scratches, bumps, etc.?
- What is included in first-aid, or do you supply your own? Do they charge you extra for supplies or extra services needed?
- Understand what your short and long-term riding goals are. Be realistic about your horse’s capabilities, your time, and your riding needs.
- Understand the culture of the facility. If it’s a highly competitive showing facility, then understand what that means and the cost requirements.
- Are lessons included with your board?
- Can you bring in your own coach?
- Does your riding discipline match that of the facility?
- What are the lesson schedules?
- Can you ride while lessons are going on? Can others ride during your lesson?
- What are the times available to you to use the rings, indoor and outdoor?
- What are the rules and restrictions in the arena?
- Is supervision required when jumping? Can you ride alone?
- Understand the demographics of the barn – kids vs. teens vs. adults. It may not be a good fit if you’re a kid at a primarily adult barn, and vice versa.
- Are you allowed third-party riders? A trainer? A friend? A child?
- Are the barn staff and owners allowed to ride your horse?
- If their trainer will be riding your horse, check his or her qualifications and ask to see them in action.
- If you’re not showing during a season, what does the riding program look like for you? Are there billing changes? Do you pay for a stall both at home as well as on the road? Is there assistant training for the ones that stay at home?
- Who is responsible for harrowing the riding ring, fixing fences, etc.?
- What condition is the equipment in?
- What overall condition is the facility in? Look for anything that may pose a safety risk.
- Know the age, gender and breed of the horse.
- Know the emergency care and contact information.
- Know in detail any health concerns, vices, and other behavioural issues that the horse may have – past and present.
- Ask for reference(s). Keep in mind that the previous farm owner may really want to get rid of the boarder and not be completely honest with you. Ask for a work reference if you’re not sure.
- Ask why they are looking for alternative boarding arrangements.
- Trust your gut! Conflicting information, vague or uneducated answers may be red flags.
- Are they willing to vaccinate? Ask to see their horse’s vaccination records if required.
- Who is their vet? Farrier? Do they understand your stable’s protocol – the billing requirements, the costs, and all the other information they should know?
- Get in writing how the client wants you to handle and execute a plan if their horse is sick, injured or requires emergency care.
- Know what their riding schedule will be – frequency and time of day.
- Do they want to bring their own coach?
- Can they bring guests? Make it clear what your facility rules and regulations are and if others are welcome to visit.
- Understand what their expectations are for blanketing. Does it fit with your program? Do they have the proper blankets for the horse’s living conditions?
- Are you willing to provide additional grains or supplements if needed?
- How much notice do they need if they are supplying the food or supplements?
- Do they have insurance?
- Do you expect them to use your farrier? If so, provide the name of the person and the costs.
- Are there any special instructions while the horse is under the farrier’s care? Will you charge extra for this?
- Does the horse have any behavioural issues and how are they handled?
- What are their riding goals, short- and long-term, their riding discipline, their experience, and their skill level? Is this their forever horse or are they just looking for a short-term/interim stabling?
- Make it clear what the rules and regulations are, the program scheduling, and where they can find notices if anything should change.