Monday, Mar. 4, 2024

Ask The Right Questions When Planning A Horse Property

Our columnist confers with two friends and develops “hints for horsekeepers” for those who are acquiring or building an equestrian property.

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Our columnist confers with two friends and develops “hints for horsekeepers” for those who are acquiring or building an equestrian property.

Anyone who has ever flown across the United States knows that there are endless miles of sparsely inhabited land within our borders. Why, then, do we seem to be dealing with so many of the pressures of rampant development, and why are we running out of land on which to ride? Clogged highways, suburban sprawl and the transformation of farmland into shopping centers all seem to be the new reality for the 21st century rider.

The simple answer to these questions is that most people need to live in places where they can find jobs, and most jobs are available in places where people live. Yes, riders could pack up en masse and move to rural Kansas or Wyoming, and theoretically ride to the far horizons, but realistically, that isn’t going to happen.

As real estate prices rise, an inevitable result is that horse farms are getting smaller. The 100-acre farm of 1969 is perhaps the 5- to 10-acre farm of 2009 in some areas, the 15- to 25-acre farm in more rural areas. This means that the horse farm owner of today needs to be a highly analytical land planner, almost an equine landscape architect, oriented toward maximum efficiency and utilization of available space.

In many semi-rural areas where horse farms still exist, there appear to be two somewhat contradictory concepts about the meaning of the phrase “horse farm.” For the real horse lover, the farm is primarily laid out for horses. For others, the house is the centerpiece of the property, and the farm layout for horses is subordinate to the placement of the residence. At some of these latter properties, a salient feature of the prominently displayed jumping arenas is the absence of any hoof prints, leading to and away from the jumps! But that’s another story.

But, let’s assume that owning, keeping and riding horses is the high priority. How does this theoretical farm “work?” Is it functional or dysfunctional?

Two Experts

To get more ideas for this article, I talked with two of my Southern Pines (N.C.) neighbors who run first-class eventing programs on two lovely adjacent properties: Bobby Costello, who runs Leila Clay’s 11-acre Tanglewood Farm, and Mark Weissbecker, who designed, built and manages the 25-acre Winter Book Farm for Edward Linde.

The following “hints for horsekeepers” are a compendium of our various ideas, the things we’ve learned that work, and the pitfalls to avoid.

A farm is first of all a piece of land. It has terrain, vegetation, and kinds of soil, perhaps a pond or wetlands. It lies adjacent to other land. It will have prevailing winds, and it will have exposure to the traveling sun.

Upon and underneath that land will be placed roads, fencing, power lines, water lines, paddocks or pastures, riding surfaces (grass or all-weather), one or more barns, sheds, and one or more residences. So we need a plan.

Bobby Costello: “Place the buildings toward the perimeter so you keep the middle open for riding.”
Mark Weissbecker: “Place the buildings toward the perimeter so you keep the middle open for riding.”

All-weather surfaces for much of that riding are usually sand-based or sand mixed with rubber or wood fibers. The surface can be re-leveled with a chain harrow, and, unlike grass fields, it doesn’t get ruts. “All-weather” is a misnomer. The only way to bypass heavy rain, snow and cold wind is some sort of indoor arena.

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A good-sized jumping arena of 150′ x 200′, plus a large dressage arena of 70′ x 200′, takes up slightly more than 1 acre of surface. This plan leaves whatever other land you have for paddocks (with sheds, especially if the horses will live outdoors), and perhaps a small cross-country schooling area with a ditch complex, a bank complex, and perhaps some type of water jump.

Mark has a galloping track around the entire perimeter of his farm, yet another possible option.

Planning for traffic is key. Don’t underestimate the size of the trucks and trailers that will need to get in and out of your farm!

You don’t want to be awoken by the Nation-Wide 15-horse tractor-trailer driver at 3 a.m. because he’s stuck in your narrow driveway, trying to deliver a horse hauled in from Seattle. Horse vans, shoeing trucks, hay trucks, UPS, FedEx—they’re all headed your way, so plan ahead!

More planning questions: What about traffic noise? Can you place shrubs and buildings to mitigate its effects? Can you harness the prevailing winds to miss you in the chill of winter and cool you in summer’s heat?

Can you avoid offending your neighbors? Even if you were there first, and they moved “to the country,” that doesn’t mean they appreciate country things. Like whinnying. Like dust. Or manure with its attendant flies and odor. Will you have security needs? Some farms use electric gates to keep loose horses in and random traffic out.

Fire protection? Extinguishers, alarms, smoke detectors, even a farm pond are important emergency features. Where are we going to store hay? Bedding? Grain? A tractor? Lawnmowers? Jumps? Building and repair materials? Horse trailers? What about manure removal? What about parking for residents, employees and visitors? What about toilet facilities for those three groups?

Plan Ahead

Mark told me that before he built a single road or placed a single fence post, he just wandered about the property trying to think through all these kinds of questions. Because once you choose some building options you shut down others, so the big, big key is to not paint yourself into those proverbial corners.

Because they’re invisible, it’s easy to overlook the importance of determining where underground water lines and power lines should go. Unless you enjoy lugging 30-pound buckets of water across ice and snow with the water sloshing and freezing to your pant legs, consider installing water lines with frost-free hydrants. Better yet, install electrical outlets so you can plug in tank heaters. This is also the time to consider outdoor lighting, either the kind that stays on all night, or flicks on from conveniently located switches.

Everything breaks on a farm, so have you planned for a repair area, which usually doubles as a repository for all the junk that’s too good to throw away but too broken to use? Have you planned to hide this, and other unsightly areas, either behind buildings, plantings or fencing?

Where will the farrier and the veterinarian park and work? Is this area warm in winter and cool in summer? Is there plenty of light? Will their presence disrupt the normal flow of traffic in your barn?

If you teach, or have boarders, where will they store all of their saddles, bridles and equipment? Is there a place for them to get warm in the winter? Maybe a pot of coffee or hot chocolate? Where can their parents, spouses or children hang out during lessons? Do you need a separate barn office?

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What about stalls? “Having 12′ x 12′ stalls are ideal, 10′ x 12′ stalls are adequate and 10′ x 10′ work for small horses. Use rubber stall mats to save bedding and labor,” advised both Bobby and Mark.

Other barn questions:

Will you need a washer and dryer? What about a medicine cabinet? Storage for wheelbarrows, forks and shovels?

Where will you store horse blankets?

What about tools, light bulbs, toilet paper, Band-Aids, horse grooming items, boots (for horses and humans), bandages and sheet cotton? Do you worry about theft? Do you need lockable rooms or lockable cabinets?

And, finally, is your house a refuge from the farm activity, or do you live in a “fish bowl?”

There are 1,001 questions, and the more of them that you can anticipate and answer before you build or buy that dream farm, the better off you’ll be.

I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on two other topics.

One, quite obviously, is budget. If the sky’s the limit, you can stroll on rose-strewn paths through landscaped acres to climb aboard your well-groomed beastie! But even if the budget is tighter, the farm need not be messy!

The moment I drove onto both of my neighbors’ farms, I knew I was entering domains overseen by individuals possessed of “manager’s eye.”

Farm owners with a manager’s eye notice broken fence boards, chewed stall doors, dirty wash stalls and general litter. You don’t go to farms like Tanglewood and Winter Book and see hay strings in the paddocks, cobwebs in the windows or candy wrappers in the parking areas.

Good horse farms begin with good land and creative planning, but they thrive and prosper because of excellent management. They don’t just happen. 

Denny Emerson


Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championship gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to eventing. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders and stands stallions. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.

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