Room and Board

Arizona BarnThe past few weeks there’s been a second blog about horses around these parts. If you haven’t been reading Julianne Lee’s “I Was a Middle-Aged Barn Rat” series, you’re in for a treat. We’re up to installment 9 of 10, as of today, with the last to appear on Wednesday. The first installment is here.

In Part 9, Julianne talks about her dream of having a horse at home, and how it may have evolved into the prospect of boarding a horse elsewhere. That made me think about the pros and cons of both.

I had the dream, too, when I was a much younger horse kid. First to ride, and I took lessons. Then to own a horse, and my grandfather bought me my first horse and boarded her at a barn in his town. Then to have a horse at my own house, and that was a long time coming. Between my first horse and my second, I leased horses at boarding barns for years and years. But I never stopped dreaming about having my own farm.

Now I have the farm, and most of the horses on it have here since birth or foalhood–it was a breeding farm until the economy went bust. I boarded horses for a while, but my stallion took exception to entertaining strangers; last year the boarders left and now it’s just the equine extended family. Which makes the farm all mine. And my dream? To be able to go away even for a day without major logistics.

It’s always something.

Every option has its pros and cons. Boarders can go away without having to hire a sitter at great expense (that expense is already built into the board payment). They can leave their horse in the care of someone else, hopefully an experienced person whom they can trust to watch over the horse and keep it safe and healthy. They might have to be responsible for some of its feeding–any special feeds or supplements–but in general the barn takes care of it.

The barn will often also have a vet and a farrier who come in regularly; these will do whatever’s needed, and the boarder writes the check (often with a bit of a discount for the trip charge, since she’s sharing it with multiple other boarders). There may be a trainer or trainers in residence, who offer lessons right there, in facilities that may far outshine what the individual can afford on her own.

I dream of a covered arena. The cost is prohibitive, but a large barn can swing it. In snow country, the “indoor” can mean the difference between keeping up the training schedule year-round, and only riding on those sometimes rare occasions when the weather or footing allow it.

The social aspect of a boarding barn can be a serious lure. If the barn has a common focus–hunters, Western, dressage, whatever–the barn may host shows and educational clinics, and the boarders may get together to travel to similar events elsewhere. Plus there are barn parties and casual gatherings, or just plain hanging out together during and after rides.

That’s wonderful, isn’t it?

Of course there are down sides. Especially in urban areas, the barn can be a not insignificant drive away from the boarder’s work or home. If there’s weather or traffic, she may not be able to get there when she wants to ride. Even when she can get there, she has to carve out commute time, with concomitant wear and tear on her vehicle, and when she gets to the barn, she may only have time to work the horse and leave. She may not be able to just enjoy the partnership.

Then if anything happens to the horse, if he needs medication multiple times a day, or if he has to be monitored for long periods, the barn may not be set up for this, or may charge a considerable premium to have it done–and that’s if the staff have the expertise or the motivation to do it. Then the owner may find herself driving to the barn morning, noon, and half the night.

That social side can turn into Barn Drama. Or the staff may turn over or the farm change hands or the owners decide to close down the operation. What used to be a great setup can go bad fast. A new trainer can come in or a cadre of new boarders who change the dynamic–the ongoing battle between dressage riders (who want a completely open arena with no obstacles) and the hunter-jumpers (who will fill the arena with jumps) has led to many a turf war. The board may go up suddenly for reasons that may or may not make sense (jump in the price of hay or feed, change of management, owner decides he wants to make more money off the operation).

That’s when boarders start to have serious own-their-own-farm dreams. Making their own rules. Setting their own price. Being able to walk out the back door into the horse’s space. Knowing what the horse is doing all day long, and being able to share in it.

I have to say, that part doesn’t get old. I look out the window and I see one of my horses standing in his paddock. If I want to visit him, I walk down the path and I’m there. No commute. Weather’s been iffy but suddenly clears up? Time for an impromptu ride.

When you have your horse at home, you get to know him really well. You see him at all hours, you develop a feel for his daily routine, his quirks and his preferences. You’re in charge of his diet, his exercise, his health and welfare. You decide what he eats and how much and when. When he needs the farrier or the vet, it’s your call.

There’s a distinct learning curve. Even the boarder who oversees the horse’s grain and supplements will usually feed whatever hay the barn provides. Once she has her own farm, she has to find a hay supplier, monitor its quality, haul it or get it delivered–it’s all on her. If the horse is ill or injured, she makes the decision: call the vet or handle it herself. And she may have no backup when that happens–no one else who can provide advice or help her handle a possibly panicked or dangerous horse.

Even those off-the-cuff rides–maybe there’s time, or maybe there are stalls to clean, grain and hay to haul, horses to groom or medicate. By the time that’s all done, there may be no time or energy left for the perks.

And then there’s the vacation aspect. I went away for a week last September. That was the last night I spent away from the farm. I came back to find my farmsitter had quit and the backup had lost her day job and evaporated. By the time, months later, I had found a sitter willing or able to handle a place of this size, my house decided it needed to undergo a four-month siege of renovations, and every break I tried to take got canceled or postponed indefinitely by the contractor’s ever-shifting schedule.

If I boarded, I’d  have been able to get away before HouseMageddon took me over. But I’m keeping eight horses for the price of two at a local boarding barn (which is another perk of the home horsekeeper: if you’re the labor, the feed and maintenance costs are relatively minimal). And one is a stallion, which can be a dealbreaker for many boarding situations. So, well…no.

It is something I think about, if I significantly reduced the population. At this point, I still lean toward the side of running my own barn. The isolation and the responsibility can be overwhelming, but the freedom to make my own decisions about my own horses has a powerful appeal.

Still. There’s a lot to be said for letting someone else take on the job, especially for a single horse–since they’re herd animals; if you have just one, you may have to either take in a boarder or find a companion animal, for the sake of the horse’s mental health. I do dream of it. Sometimes. And maybe someday.





Room and Board — 8 Comments

  1. And I bet it depends a lot on where you are in life — what other commitments you have, how your health (or the health of your parents or children or relatives) goes. I wonder if similar calculations are not made by people who own planes, or yachts.

  2. I got my first equine when I was ten, and he spent the first three weeks tied in the garage. Dad built a stall, tack room and paddock, which was occupied by Pony 1, then Pony 2, for the next 30 years. My parents liked those lawn ornaments, feeding them through New England winters for decades after I left home.

    After 30 years with no horses, my husband made me buy one, so again we’ve had a backyard boy for ten years. The whole family hangs out with the mustang, although only two of us ride. The character of a horse and the rhythm of his life is a great thing to share. I think you are a better horseman if you spend as much time on the ground caring for him as you do riding him. Makes for better understanding & communication. And just hanging out is very nurturing. On a bad day, I can always get a cheerful greeting and an invitation to play.

    Barns can be great comfort zones or nasty dramas. I would love a good arena in hacking distance (hitching the trailer uses many spoons from the riding jar). But I like having nobody mess with my stuff, nobody else’s primadonna brat beast, nobody else’s marital woes. So I will never run a boarding barn. Nor hire anybody to do it for me. I’m very fortunate to have a great friend who runs a great barn, so I can get my happy-place fix as needed, board my horse when traveling, then go back home.

    Given the money some people put into their horses, one could probably write a grand opera about the crises and furies and fates.

    I might have time this winter when I could head south, get a change of climate in return for horse duty. Let me know if you’re interested.