Horse care always presents a quandary to trainers and their clients are, one for which there is no one-size-fits-all answer. That quandary is: Which is better, a barn that offers full-care for horses or a barn that requires all owners to care for their horses themselves?
I’m going to examine this question of full-care vs. self-care from the viewpoint of the trainer (which I am now) and of the client (which I used to be).
To start with, I can tell you this: From a trainer’s perspective, it’s so much easier and so much more efficient to have your staff take care of the horses, rather than the clients. But yet you can feel as if you're not really doing your job of teaching your students if they don't learn how to groom, feed, bandage, clean tack, clean stalls, and more.
The training/care model of a full-service barn is partly cultural (it's simply the way it’s done in South America and much of continental Europe, where you’re either a rider or a groom, but not both) and partly a discipline thing (you most often find it in hunter/jumper barns, where you tend to find those cultural influences more often than in other disciplines).
Full-care is certainly more efficient—as a trainer you know the horses are getting groomed and tacked up properly, equipment is being used properly and put away properly, and that hay, grain and bedding are being efficiently used. You can also give directions or orders to your staff that you can't—at least not awkwardly—give to the people who are paying you. Full-care is simply a lot less hassle.
But it also means you have to charge your clients fees that are large enough for you to be able to hire enough staff to accomplish it. That could be an amount that's double or triple what your potential clientele is willing to pay. The clients’ willingness to pay depends on where you are, your level of expertise and accomplishment, and the level and financial ability of the clients you're serving. It also depends on your personality and your goals.
A big problem with not letting the students care for their horses is that they never learn, or understand, the requirements of horse care and all the things that can go wrong with or to them. Sometimes they can even come to believe that riding, training and caring for horses is easy.
So the near-term result can often be that they're surprised, horrified and even discouraged when they discover that it's not at all easy, when they discover that horses really do get hurt or sick or that they do get old and can no longer do their job. In the long term, you're not preparing them for the next horse, or for a life with horses, which means you're not really teaching them.
Full-care often means that you’re not teaching them anything about horsemanship, that you’re only teaching them about riding. And there’s a big difference.
I don’t have a great answer to this quandary, from either the trainer's or the student's perspective. For both, it's a case of finding what works best for you (and your horse too).
Some owners like being highly involved with their horses; they like being fully responsible for that care. That's how I was as an amateur rider, and it's why I kept my horses at home for the 24 years between when I got out of college and when we moved to California to establish Phoenix Farm. I would have found leaving my horses' care to someone else distinctly unsatisfying, at the very least, and even annoying at worst. It wasn't how I was brought up, at all.
To me, their care was an intrinsic part of the deal with my horses—I got the hay and feed and gave it to them, I cleaned their stalls and groomed them before and after I rode them. I really enjoyed taking care of one, two or even three horses, as well as riding them.
But many owners and riders don’t feel that way. I grew up knowing nothing different, while other riders grow up knowing nothing but showing up at the barn, with the horse groomed and tacked and ready to go.
For some people, that's the only way they can get to ride—women or men with a demanding career and/or a family, or teenagers who have school and other sports that demand a great deal of their time and effort. These are usually people for whom horses are an avocation or like other activities, not a true passion, and they’re willing to pay for the service; sometimes they even expect it.
We're somewhere in the middle at Phoenix Farm. We tried to be almost full-service for a while, but we found it too costly and not what we believe in. We take the basic care of the horses--we feed, muck, turn out or bring in, arrange for shoeing and vet. But owners or students staking lessons on our horses have to groom, tack and bathe their horses before or after they ride. We believe that’s the best way for everyone.