Choosing a stable seems to be a pretty obvious endeavor but I’d like to give my two cents. No stable will be perfect. And no stable will fit all your needs. You’ll have to give up some things to get others and so it boils down to a personal choice as to what fits you best at this time with this horse. Most importantly – don’t get too attached, have a backup stable and be prepared to move if the situation changes.
Amount of turnout ~ the more turnout the better. Ideally, your horse would be turned out 24.7. I can settle for stabling at night with the rest of the time being turned out and a good compromise is a stall with attached paddock with daytime pasture turnout. For me this is the number one thing I look for.
Size of turnout ~ The larger the better. Ideally, it would provide grass but in my experience, the BO puts too many head on the land and the grass is nominal. I have boarded at only one place (over my 30 years of boarding) that kept the herd ratio proper to the acreage size. And only two places that fertilized and mowed on a regular basis.
If the grass is non-existent to little and the BO gives some BS answer that it will be plush come spring, etc… don’t believe them. What you see is what you get and come spring the BO will stick three more horses on the property to make more money.
Turnout Companions ~ If you want your horse to stay as injury-free as possible, you probably will want individual turnout or turnout with one trusted companion.
OTOH, if you want your horse to be “natural” and be a herd animal, turnout with multiple horses would suit you and is generally cheaper (i.e. billed as “Pasture board”) but also will result in more injuries. If going with a group turnout seek an even number of horses in the group and for turnout to be only mares, only geldings.
Horses should be SEPARATED AT FEEDING TIME. Ask how they do this and be prepared to be lied too if the facility is large with many horses and no stalls.
Fencing ~ I don’t like wire fencing but that is what is cheap and popular around here. Nowadays, I’m willing to settle as long as it is visible and has hot wire to warn a horse to stay off. If the fencing is falling over, not visible, not using hot wire, with t-posts not capped, and/or not being repaired, stay away.
Fencing is the first line of defense for protecting your horse from accidents (i.e. getting hit by a car), and it’s also expensive. If a property is not maintaining their fencing it hints of bigger issues.
Shelter ~ Should be big enough to house your horse safely and if for a group, big enough for all to get under, even the Omega. Poop in a stall is not a reason to shriek and run away! LOL! But extremely filthy bedding, no bedding, a strong overwhelming smell of ammonia (urine), or rutted out dirt floors is a reason for raised eyebrows.
The biggest problems I have seen here have been stalls with huge gaps under the walls to the floor. This is extremely dangerous because when the horse lays down he can become cast and not able to get up. A horse can even break a leg in the struggles to remove the leg from the trench.
Another problem is run-in sheds that are NOT plywood lined. I know one horse that had to be euthanized after kicking through the unprotected sheet metal and another which was lamed for life.
Water ~ While touring the farm, take a peek in water buckets and tanks. Are they topped up or close to it? Don’t believe their excuse that “oh we are about ready to do feeding and watering.”
Take a note of how far the water faucet is from your horse’s buckets/tanks and ask how they deal with freezing temps. Ideally, they will have electrical outlets nearby for tank warmers but I have seen this at TWO farms over my boarding lifetime.
Hay ~ Do they feed round or square or a combination? What type? and take a look at one of their opened bales. If horses are turned out to pasture, I like round bales during winter with 24/7 access while in pasture; and when stabled, I like square bales.
The problem I’m currently having is winter acreage (no grass) with square bale feeding that doesn’t provide the horses with continual nibbling through the day. This is going to lead to health issues, most likely colic.
Other questions about hay: do they have a regular supplier? When do they buy their winter hay? The first question should be answered yes, and the BO should then expound on how their supplier takes care of their grass and that you get first or second cut. The second question should be answered that they buy late summer or early fall and have a barn to store the entire supply. It’s a very well run barn if they can give you these replies.
Feed ~ Desirable is a self-contained, neat, labeled and organized feed room with a door. Feed should be stored in an area where horses cannot gain access (at one barn this was open to the aisle at a very expensive barn -horse got out, overate, and foundered) and that it is stored in rodent proof containers.
Generally, if they are “graining” they feed twice a day. That’s standard. I can’t stress how important it is that you ask HOW THEY SEPARATE HORSES DURING FEEDING. This is when the most fights break out between horses and when your horse may be shoved away from his feed and supplements by a more aggressive horse.
If you have a large horse or hard keeper, it’s only FAIR on your part to tell them that and ask if there will be an additional charge if your horse needs more then a standard weight of grain during a.m. and p.m. The less hay the more grain the horses will need to maintain weight. Unfortunately, some BO’s are too stupid to realize this and stint on hay as they see it as expensive and then heap on the “grain” at $20/a bag.
Personally, a lot of commercial feeds are the same slop. BO’s will throw out namebrands to impress but there isn’t a lot of difference between Purina and Nutrena IMO. However, there IS a lot of difference in namebrands vs. no brand name.
The most important thing to look for is the physical condition of current boarding horses. If they are shiny with no ribs showing but not obese with a slung down hay belly, that is the BEST testament to the barn management.
Supplements ~ Most barns just ask you to provide SmartPaks. I personally wouldn’t trust any barn to “mix” my own supplements. Barn staff are too rushed and too stupid to be left with this important task. It’s also unfair of you to ask them to mix all that stuff together so just do it yourself or buy it in commercial packs for easier dumping into feed.
Farrier ~ Standard is that they hold the horse if you use their farrier. You have to leave a check for the farrier beforehand. This is fine for those who work a 9-5 job but JMO I don’t leave my horses’ hooves to the farrier-of-the-week anymore.
Farriers are full of bullshit, even more so then equine vets. They talk a good line and 80 percent or more is pure unadulterated crap. The easiest way to get up to speed is to be there when the farrier/trimmer does your horse. Ask polite questions and take his talk with a huge grain of salt. Talk to your vet and ask his/her opinion about the job. If you have a great relationship with your vet ask them for a recommendation on who to use.
It’s really really important that you get up to speed about hoof health care. I cannot stress this enough. Especially if you have a special needs horse, have a horse who stumbles or trips, comes up lame a lot, or loses shoes a lot. If this is happening with your horse the first line of inquiry should be what type of job the farrier is doing.
I have used my own handpicked one for the last 10 years and now husband does it.
Vet ~ Standard is the barn calls their own vet in an emergency. My request has been call my vet first, and if she can’t make it out fast enough, call the barn vet.
Because of my past with my special needs horse, Dear One, I am extremely picky about what vet I will have look at my horse. For example, I have one vet in mind who I wouldn’t use if my horse neeeded to euthanized let alone have their life saved! That vet’s name is on a Do Not Call list in my boarding paperwork.
You will be expected to pay the cost so have it in your boarding contract how much $$ the bill can be before you will not pay. For example, I write a note that I will pay up to $500 in emergency vet care before they need to get my approval. I also have it written on the boarding contract that I will not pay for colic surgery for Pandora or Big Guy. These are senior horses and it would be doubtful they could survive such a surgery and the expense far outweighs their value.
Worming ~ Sometimes included in the price, sometimes you have to do yourself. Personally, I prefer the barn to put all the horses on the same worming program. Ask so there are no surprises. This price should be nominal – like $15 per worming for horses easy to worm as bulk packaging prices would further lower the price and I have no problem with a small bit extra for the inconvenience of doing it.
Be wary of barns that have no program or laugh it off with: “oh do what you want! We are easy going around here.” No worming program means higher colics.
Arenas ~ Roundpen if you need to train a very young horse; larger rectangle arena suitable to your sport; riding trails or open areas to ride if this is important to you. If you routinely ride in the evenings you may want it lighted. The longer your winter, the more important an indoor will be to you.
The biggest thing to look for is if the arena has been harrowed recently and the type of footing and it’s condition. Only THREE barns over 30 years took care of their arenas. It’s incredibly important but also incredibly expensive for the BO to do it. Ask how often they harrow it (confirm visually they have the equipment to do it), and how often they add sand/dirt etc…
Often the arena will be cluttered with stuff due to a lesson program and the instructor, due to laziness and selfishness, won’t move their clutter. You need space to lunge, work a horse at liberty as well as just simply ride figures (across the diagonal, circles, etc…). Ask about their policy on this and when you use equipment yourself PUT IT BACK!
But the biggest issue is the availability of the arena. If the barn has a heavy lesson schedule and is a big barn there is nothing more irritating then rushing out to the barn to ride, only to find out that a lesson prevents the use of the only arena. Big barns should have more then one to use; if not, expect to have some down time due to lessons. Ask if there is a posted lesson schedule so you can work around it.
Trainers/Instructors ~ Again, this is a personal preference of what you need for your situation. Selecting a trainer or instructor is a whole ‘nother post.
Depending on how important they are too you these could make or break a deal: washrack, tying rack (how many? the bigger the barn, the more that are needed), tack room (should lock), front gate entrance (prefer locking with an auto opener), lighting to work in the winter evenings, parking of your trailer (sometimes this incurs an additional fee), access to the barn (do they have hours? closed on certain days?) and distance to travel to get to the barn from your home or work.
Personally, the biggest factor in choosing any barn is the trustworthiness of those running it. I will take a barn with fewer facilities, farther away, and not as “pretty” over a big barn run by uncaring and insolent barn staff any day of the week.
Other blog posts about the running of a commerical stable – both from my viewpoint of managing a stable (40 stall, show barn) and from boarding horses over 30 years: