Get a referral. Begin your barn search by consulting someone you respect and trust, such as a professional horse owner, farrier, veterinarian, or fellow horse enthusiast. Friends may give you a sense of the way people get along in the barn, whereas professional opinions often focus on the way the barn operates on a business level. Farriers and vets can provide insight to the general well-being of the horses in the barn under consideration.
Check compatibility. Using your list of referrals, narrow the field of prospects by evaluating the types of horse interests the barns cater to and selecting those that are compatible with your goals. (For instance, if you are an active competitor, a barn full of trail-riding enthusiasts might not be compatible with your needs.) Also, keep in mind the amount of travel time to the barn from your home or workplace. This directly affects the amount of time that you'll be able to spend with your horse.
Assess peak barn activity. Find out what days and hours the barn and its facilities are available for use and when the peak times are. Then compare them with your schedule to see if your horse activity will mesh well with that of the rest of the boarders.
Get a first impression. Once you've found a barn compatible with your interests, schedule a visit to get a visual impression. Look at the condition of the horses, and the quality of the hay and bedding. Check stall/building cleanliness and condition, fencing/equipment condition, footing quality in exercise areas, turnout-arena size, and other amenities that will contribute to you and your horse's safety and well-being. Ask permission to take a few pictures, which you can later refer to when you have time to sort out your thoughts.
Interview the owner or manager. If a barn passes the above criteria, schedule an interview with the barn owner or manager to review general barn policies, fees, and conditions. Written guidelines are best, because they reflect a systematic, professional approach to the barn's clients and their goals. Also, ask for a copy of the barn's boarding contract. Take time to review these written materials, and prepare a list of unanswered concerns. (Any reluctance on the part of the owner or manager to provide these to a prospective boarder should be a point of concern.) The interview should cover such topics as feeding schedules, health-records maintenance, vaccination and de-worming schedules, natural disaster preparation/procedures, first-aid/emergency procedures, and other issues that relate to your horse's health and well-being.
Evaluate barn staff. Does the barn have a reasonable staff-to-horse ratio? If it exceeds 10 horses per staff member, quality problems could develop. Evaluate staff competency by assessing horses' general appearances, how well they're treated, and barn organization in general. While education and accomplishments add to a staff member's qualifications, in the horse business, good instincts, good attitude, and experience-based abilities are highly valued.
Evaluate existing amenities. Don't base your evaluation on an owner's promises for physical improvements, such as new arenas, safer turnouts, or comfort amenities. Owner predictions don't always materialize, or they may take longer than expected to complete. Therefore, base your evaluations on what you see. If you get a good feel for a barn based on the people and the existing conditions, then improvements will be just that: improvements.
Determine complete cost. Compare the cost of board with the level of care you desire. Find out what is included in basic full care and what's extra, and compare these fees with your horses's needs and your own schedule. Some barns define full care as 24/7/365, whereas some rely on the boarder for some do-it-yourself work. Some charge extra fees for blanketing horses, turning them out, holding them for the farrier, checking them at night, caring for them when they are sick or injured, feeding owner-supplied nutritional supplements or extra hay, parking a trailer on site, and other services you might assume are included in the basic monthly fee. If a security deposit is required for stall or fence damage, document the condition of the items concerned with dated photographs, and make them a condition of your contract before entering an agreement. Finally, find out how often board increases occur. Barns should generally comply with area custom in all these matters. Those that don't should provide a reasonable explanation of their fee structures.
David J. Wyatt is a lifetime horse owner, rider, and trainer. He and his wife, dressage trainer/competitor Connie LaSalle Wyatt, own and operate a horse farm in Hinckley, Ohio. A professional freelance writer, David has published articles in literary, professional, and sporting journals for more than 20 years.
This article first appeared in the May 2001 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.