Balancing the Sweet Spot: labor

After managing a deluxe 40 stall barn for a year, I can tell you what is going to be the demise of the large, premium stables – labor. The amount of labor involved in managing the Hell Barn was substantial and this caused the most arguments between me and the Stupid Owners.

In the Olden Days, family was the workers at your farm. That’s why farm families wanted lots of boys – they needed the man-muscle to lift hay bales, plow the north forty with a team and milk cows for two hours. That life is pretty much at an end though you still see dairy farms overworking their children in order to survive as a business.

In the not-so Olden Days, a barn could always rely upon some desperate teenager or stay-at-home mom who wanted to return to horses as extra labor (for info on hiring barn staff see this series). However, hiring teenagers has it’s own liability – in my experience they often do a crappy job that you have to re-do and they are notorious about not being accurate on feed or checking water. They would also rather play, then work.

While this is still a valuable asset for barns that offer lesson programs, I would only give the most basic chores (not feeding), keep track of hours worked for lessons exchanged on a time sheet, and supervise all work. In the long run, the bigger the facility the harder it will be to gain any sort of real work though from this type of labor force.

The other choice of large training barns is illegal immigrants and despite the heavy penalties that are now in place in Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona, horse barns still employ Hispanic labor. Yet, all it takes is someone wanting revenge (typical in the horse world) and you will hear a knock on your door from immigration – and considering the fall out of life post 9-11, I personally would never want to deal with immigration in any form.

Without cheap labor, larger facilities will eventually have to increase prices by so much that they will not be able to make a profit and your average horse family will not be able to afford it. I have already seen this happening with the business that leased half of the barn I managed – their rates have become so high, that their students all come from rich families.

Like feed, you must manage and design your stable to allow for the least amount of labor (even if it is your own labor – it takes time). These are the common faults I see people making and it comes back to the very design of their stable:

1.) Moving horses costs you much in labor. The more times a halter has to be put on a horse and it has to be led into a paddock, pasture or stall, the more it is costing you. For example, the Hell Barn had 40 horses that had be moved from stall down the hill into their paddocks. This happened twice a day. Compare that to a barn that has stalls with paddocks that open into a pasture so all you do is open a gate and shoo a horse out.

2.) Stalls and paddocks must be cleared of manure. Let’s compare a 10 stall barn to 4 loafing sheds. The first uses a muck bucket and rake, the second could use a dump trailer hooked to a lawn mower.

3.) Horses must be watered and fed. Location of water pumps, moving of hoses, cracking ice (because you don’t have electricity for a tank heater), opening gates vs. pass throughs, separating horses so they don’t fight over feed, opening stall doors to put in feed vs. a swingout bucket on the stall front all impact the time it takes to do chores. The longer it takes to do something, the more money it costs you. And never under estimate how much time = money even if you are doing it yourself.

4.) Arenas, fencing, gates and physical structures must be maintained. Horses damage things. Also people want an arena that has a nice footing. I think of all the costs these are the ones, barn managers/owners do not calculate: they expect never to have to replenish the dirt in the arena, never to fix a fence that a horse broke, or put down more gravel in the parking area.

Personally, in all the barns I’ve boarded or worked at, what strikes me the most about the amount of labor involved is that it is proportional to how the farm is designed. Poor design choices such as not enough water faucets, bad fencing, lack of gates etc… truly ups labor more then any other factor. So put your time in thinking out your farm’s design before breaking ground for that barn you’ve always dreamed about.


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6 Responses to Balancing the Sweet Spot: labor

  1. Andrea says:

    Wow, this is great advice. I think a lot of people don’t consider the labor costs involved when planning a boarding facility. I worked at one place where all of the stalls opened into pasture, and all of the horses were trained to come into their own stall for dinner — I thought that was genius. A little extra training work ahead of time with each new horse that came in saved that facility tons of work down the road with catching/haltering/etc.

    It’ll be many years before I open up a boarding barn of my own, but you seem really knowledgeable about all this. Got any other tips for the layout and labor-saving ideas?


  2. You’re absolutely right – good design makes the work a lot easier. My old barn kept the horses as a herd and there were alleys set out for moving them together. They’d also go into the stable and wait in their places, more or less. It was also set up that all the loose horses could find their own way to water. Having hay stored next to where it was fed reduced labour. So did stables where a vehicle could get in for muck cleaning. Electric fence reduces damage to the post and rail too.

    The worst time was winter when it was impossible to keep the water supply from freezing. Breaking ice on a stream that has frozen several inches thick overnight is no fun.

    Now I’m boarding at a barn where the owner didn’t bother to bury water pipes so a fearful amount of labour has been spent hauling water in drums – all to ‘save’ a few days work with a digger. The pipes are still out on the surface getting damaged – but ornamental tree planting has started so that the place ‘looks pretty’. Meanwhile fences are disintegrating after a year because the cheapest components were used. It’s easy to make costly mistakes.

    • horseideology says:

      Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it is way too common for the lack of plumbing and electricity in barn layouts. It costs money to dig the trench and to lay the lines – of course – but they don’t understand that in the long run they will be paying more in time and aggravation.

  3. Pingback: tracking horse expenses « Horse Ideology

  4. Pingback: Choosing a stable for you and your horse « Horse Ideology

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