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Professional barn vs. small barn

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  • Professional barn vs. small barn

    I may be facing a dilemna in a few months. I board my horse, who is older, at a wonderful, fantastic full-service 30-stall barn, with excellent care, great facilities, experienced and attentive staff, and nice barnmates. I love it there and my horse and I have gotten so much out of being there, especially since this is my first horse.

    While the barn is very appropriately priced for its quality and facilities and for this area, it is expensive and board is rumored to be going up -- just a little, but still approaching that psychological breaking point.

    Frankly, I don't think there are any better professional barns within driving distance and they'd be close in price anyway. Other responsibilities don't allow me to work off board. That leaves me considering trying to find a stall in a nice private barn, which could very well be $400 less per month than where we are.

    What have others' experiences been with a small private barn vs. an excellently run professional boarding/training barn? How do I know if the BO really is as knowledgeable as they say? Are individual eccentricities likely to create drama, vs. in a professional facility where the rules are spelled out, contracts are well-thought-out and clear, and drama isn't allowed?

    I guess I am looking for whether there is a sense of one's horse being as well off in a quality private barn as in a quality professional barn. I've certainly heard that private barns can be more attentive, offer more individualized care, etc., but my current barn really is great, except for the price. It has been such a relief to have this barn, especially when I read others' boarding horror stories.I am afraid to leave such a wonderful environment! But the price may become a sticky point.

  • #2
    Tough dilemma because you are really happy where you are and have no concerns other than perhaps price. However for potentially $400 less per month, I would absolutely be at least looking and visiting the smaller places.

    Go visit some and try to go when other boarders are there. You will learn alot and can tell alot from their demeanor. I have found that at happy barns with happy boarders, many will absolutely say they love it there when introduced to me by the barn owner.

    Go armed with questions. Ask about experience, years boarding, what do they do when they are out of town? What if my horse needs extra care like soaking? How do you handle keeping supplies up like feed, hay? This was a biggie at my first barn. BO would always forget to order feed! My horse would have to go days on sweet feed or other horse's feed. UGH. Southern States was a few miles away and I could stop and get the feed vs. waiting for delivery, so why couldn't they? It may be hard to think of questions because you ARE so happy. What if there is a snowstorm? Who plows/clears the path to get in?

    You can also ask for references. Also, make sure the herd dynamic is one your horse would be happy in. My older horse prefers small barns and turnout. He didn't fare well with 15+ horses.

    You can absolutely find a lovely private barn. Every time I moved my horse (only twice!) I was so in angst but ended up finding a better place each time which I never thought would happen. Last move was due to sale of property and I loved it there.

    Good luck and start looking and visiting. I think you'll know if and when you find the right place for your horse.


    • #3
      Originally posted by VictorBlue View Post
      That leaves me considering trying to find a stall in a nice private barn, which could very well be $400 less per month than where we are.
      In general, you can find great "professional" and expert care at small, private barns. You usually will lose some bling in terms of the facilities. Most of that will be obvious to you just walking around the place. The one that may not is lack of maintenance for the footing they have in the rings. It takes time and money and equipment to do that. Many private barns just can't match the big ones here.

      But the thing would worry me is the $400 savings. Unless you are talking about moving from a full-training barn to a private one with no training or lessons, and unless you are in a very expensive part of the country, that $400 is too big to deliver the same standard of feed, deep bedding and care you are getting now.

      How to tell if the BO can do what you want and is professional about the operation? Those are two different questions. You answer them by knowing what you want for your horse and knowing what you want and expect from any business person. Really, you know more than you think you do!

      You look around the place, at the horses there, and talk to the other boarders. You ask questions about things that you think your horse might need that you don't see done. You assume "what you see is what you get"-- especially when the BO promises something better.

      You ask to see a boarding contract, but also look for other small clues about how he/she does business. Was your appointment kept? How long has the BO been boarding? How long do boarders tend to stay? Any barn rules or preferences you should know about?
      The armchair saddler
      Politically Pro-Cat


      • #4
        Wanted to add - make a list of absolute must-haves. If you are going to go through the trouble of moving, make sure the new barn meets your minimums. For me, in addition to excellent care and close to home, it was rideout. The ability to hop on and hack when my time is short - even if it's for 10-15 minutes. I found a lovely barn with what seemed to be excellent care, but there was zero rideout due to development. I mean zero. Rideout also makes my horse happy - he gets tired of ring work sometimes. I an so glad I didn't choose that barn.

        I found a lovely place with wonderful rideout from fields, woods, dirt roads (lots) which is great when it snows, etc as an alternative. I compromised on a few minor conveniences. Have to park my trailer and car a bit from the barn and walk to barn a few minutes. Not a biggie and I can use the exercise. Not a huge amount of storage but it works, and no real tack room. But the care, setting and rideout options are great. It is also 5 minutes from my house - I could ride to my home if I wanted to! (once I figure out which fields, etc. to cross).

        I'll trailer to a ring, a show or lessons but I can't trailer for daily rideout - I will for longer trail rides. Hopping on for a quick hack is my bare minimum on days I want to ride and don't have time. Yesterday I had a short time to ride, so I hopped on and rode 15 minutes down driveway and dirt road which were plowed after our big snow. The rode winds through thick woods - It was awesome and beautiful with the fresh snow! I can't imagine not having that option. It's so relaxing and my zen.

        This barn also has a huge, lovely ring on site right next to barn that the owner drags almost weekly, and I am the ONLY boarder. (didn't have that at last barn so a nice improvement for me!) How nice is that? She is truly wonderful. It thaws quickly and is rideable even on days slightly below freezing if the sun is on it.

        So make your list and stick to it! Good luck!


        • #5
          Given this is your first horse, and have been in the "community" of a large, full-service barn, you'll need to think about support for your horse. By that I mean farrier and vet, who are willing to travel to you. But if you're close-in with lots of other horse facilities, that may not be an issue.

          I don't think drama runs amok at most barns. Keep in mind that you're reading the horror stories here, not the typical "my barn is quiet and reasonable" ones. Look for quiet horses in good weight, friendly people, a facility that's in reasonable repair. Your farrier may have a suggestion for you.

          Good luck.


          • #6
            It depends on what you want.

            For instance, I prefer a private barn to myself. While not all barns are full of drama, the one I was at was and the owners were not at all business like. The other place I boarded was on 4 acres behind the owner's house. The owner was an older lady with dementia and she would go out and feed the horses when she is not suppose to, would throw them corn, etc. Not her fault due to the dementia, but I couldn't keep them there due to safety issues.

            But I finally found a nice acre paddock, all to my self. Just my horses and I. However, I am 100% responsible for them. If I can't get out there to feed them for whatever reason, it is up to me to get someone out there to feed them. I have no barn owners or other boarders to fall back on- but that is fine with me, because I have always done self care boarding anyways. If I got hurt or something and couldn't make it out there, I have a few good friends that know what to do that I could count on.

            Do you want to take care of him yourself? Do you want to board him at another full care facility- just cheaper? There are cheaper barns out there- but keep in mind that a private barn probably won't have as many horses to take care of- therefore, their expenses could actually be HIGHER because they don't buy in bulk. I am sure the barn your at now buys in bulk and saves- whether they pass on the savings to you, I don't know.

            But you know where you live and you know the area. Since I am self care, I really don't have to worry about if my horse is getting fed correctly or not. But if you are going to a full care facility, you will want to check them out even more so.

            If you can save $400 a month and you can feel just as comfortable about care somewhere else, then I say go for it. That $400 a month could go into an investment account and you will be set for early retirement.


            • #7
              It depends on the private barn. I boarded my horse for 5 years at a private barn in the DC area, and while it was not cheap the care was so incredible that it was worth it. Downsides -- no indoor, no trainer, hard to get to lessons/shows/clinics. Upsides -- great outdoor, no annoying boarders, better care than my horse could have gotten at any pro barn, no matter how fancy. Well maybe Hunterdon. It was that good. I called it the Horse Spa. Now my horses are slumming it at home with me, getting their blankets changed a mere twice a day instead of the four times a day they sometimes would there. Oh well!

              So yes, a private barn can work if you get the right place. Do a lot of homework, ask a ton of questions and if it ends up not being a good fit -- make sure you leave the old place with your bridges intact so you can go back.

              Oh, and I don't think there is actually as much drama at small private barns. You get the most drama at barns with trainers and teenage riding programs. And riding programs with ammies who still act like teenagers.


              • #8
                Listen to your intuition and ask questions that give your intuition something to work with

                The biggest issues I've seen in any boarding situation, regardless of how little or much they charge:

                1. Not delivering on promises. If you want your horse to have 24/7 access to hay...put it in the contract. Twice a day blanket changes? Put in the contract. Daily stall cleaning and a foot of shavings. Put it in the contract. Special food? Put it in the contract. Turnout with only 3 other horses or gender based turnout. Put it in the contract. Seriously. Many places do whatever is easiest for them and not the best for your horse.

                2. Using anyone and everybody to handle the horses. Many places allow people to work off board. Make sure those people are people you want handling your horse. Sometimes these are the only people who even LOOK at your horse for the whole day.

                3. Crappy hay. 'nuff said

                4. Changing feeds all the time

                5. Being stupid about horse management. Ask how they manage a horse that is on stall rest. Do they just leave him in the barn, alone? what do they do if he gets upset? Will they manage him themselves or will it take you coming out and looking at your horse and saying "My horse looks like he's had a nervous breakdown. He's chewing wood, running in circles and kicking the walls" Similarly, how do manage changes in paddocks or stalls. GOOD horse management helps to keep your horse healthy.

                6. How do they manage lost shoes? Keep horse in until farrier comes? Leave out? Maybe you won't even KNOW he lost a shoe until you come out to ride....

                7. Will they hold for vet and farrier other than the barn vet or farrier? Are outside farriers or vets even allowed? Who is the barn vet? Who do they call in an emergency? Will they transport horse in an emergency? If you are not comfortable with the BM making the decision over whether you horse needs to be euthanised, then maybe that's not the place to board.

                8. Are the arenas used for anything other than boarders' riding? Like lessons, trainers or single horse turnout. How often are they unusable due to be frozen or flooded.

                9. How do they manage hay in the wintertime. Is it a surcharge? Do the horses have roundbales 24/7?

                10. What if the horse needs meds. Who is responsible for giving them? (the correct answer is the BM. Only). Is the BM capable of managing a horse that needs wrapping or injections.

                11. How may colics or serious accidents has the facility had in the past 2 years. Some horses try to kill themselves no matter what and some are colic prone BUT some places manage their horses poorly and this contributes to accidents and colics.

                Sometimes people start small private barns because they themselves are nuts and were unable to stay anywhere else. So, if the BO or BM says anything where you're first thought is "Huh? Where did that come from?" BE AFRAID.

                That said, there are some really nice places out there that don't cost an arm and a leg.
                "The mighty oak is a nut who stood its ground"

                "'ll never win Olympic gold by shaking a carrot stick at a warmblood..." see u at x


                • #9
                  I have found that the small private barn I'm at now actually provides more of what I'm looking for - and I have boarded at quite a few large professional barns in the past.

                  The main things I've found at the private barn that I have NEVER found at the professional barns, mainly b/c the large barn has too many horses for the acreage and is trying to save money:

                  Free choice high quality hay
                  Only 2 horses per pasture, which are HUGE with excellent grass
                  Horses go out rain or shine b/c of the size and quality of the pastures and well designed run-ins
                  Private turnout available
                  Top quality feed
                  Very personalized care

                  The owner cares for my horse as much as she cares for her own. She notices any little issues and contacts me immediately. She is the one doing all the work so I know he's getting his supplements and his water bucket is full.

                  The drawbacks:
                  Since the owner doesn't blanket her own horses, she's not willing to do multiple blanket changes for me, either
                  No indoor
                  No trainer
                  Hardly ever anyone to ride with (no biggie)
                  No trailer parking
                  I have to hold my horse for vet and farrier

                  I have found that I am much more involved in my horse's day to day care now that a pro isn't there to make all the decisions for me. I've gotten well-acquainted with the vet and farrier now that I'm there every time.

                  My horse is very happy where he is and has held his weight so much better now that he has so much hay and grass. He has less injuries due to only one pasture buddy and better fencing and footing. Plus, since he is out so much more (no more days on end inside while its raining so they don't tear up the pastures)

                  Its a whole 2 miles from my house, so if I want to stop by just to give him a carrot, I can

                  I LOVE the small private barn. Its like having your own place, but still being able to go on vacation!


                  • #10
                    would current barn allow haul ins?as if you find a private barn you like,but want the more pro barn atmosphere..maybe consider hauling in for lessons/training etc.
                    i have strong opinions on the to avoid annoying everyone i have kept it short and sweet.


                    • #11
                      You tossed out the fact your horse is "older" in your original post.

                      What is "older"? What does that mean for his medical/feed maintence? What does that mean for his riding needs? His turn out needs?

                      How long until you think you'll be aiming for retirement?

                      If I knew I only had a year or two left on a horse I was planning to retire, I'd keep paying the $$ (if I could afford it) and then do one move to the retirement facility. Supplements, shots, better than average footing, the need for more than less turnout to keep joints loose, etc, can be trickier at a non-pro barn. Not impossible. But trickier.

                      I made a similar move recently. I would actually say there is more drama in my smaller barn, but part of that is because people are at different levels of care (full, partial, or self)... and not all of them are really up to standards. And, since it is more laid-back, people feel like they can whoosh in and be a "big deal".

                      Something I will be considering next time I move (job/school will make that a reality in a year or two) is the percentage of people who ride in the same/similar genre I do. It can be hard to be the only hunter in a barn full of barrel racers. It can be hard to have the only TBs in a barn full of QHs and Arabians. Certainly not a Big Deal, but it does bring it's daily minor frustrations. Those daily minor frustrations led me to leave the barn I was at in the fall.


                      • #12
                        I think the key question is not "private" vs. "professional." But "well run" vs. "poorly run." I've seen all the various combinations. There is no substitute for the peace of mind you get when you know you can trust your facility to take care of your horse.

                        I generally look for a private barn situation--if I can find a good one. I like being in a lower-key facility where each horse gets noticed more and there is less foot traffic and fewer rules. The (usually) smaller bill is also a plus.

                        But the most important thing to me is whether the facility and management are going to work for my needs. Are the footing and turnout suitable? Are the hours and other restrictions reasonable? Is the care exceptional? Are the horses provided with adequate hay/shavings/feed? I would rather pay more for these things in a "professional" barn than save money to go "private" and give them up.


                        • Original Poster

                          Thanks, all!

                          I appreciate everyone's insight, thank you!

                          I guess the concern is not much over whether the facility meets your "must have" and "want to have" list, because that's usually clear enough; it's maybe a matter of my figuring out how much advice I think I might need, and how I know whether I can trust the quality of the advice.

                          Knock on wood, my horse has been relatively low maintenance (an oldie but goodie; no plans to retire until horse says so), but most of the horses at my present barn are ridden at competition levels, and my horse and I benefit from the level of care and attention that the athletes require.


                          • #14
                            It is really a matter of what you want and what is non-negotiable to you and the vibe you get from the owner when you visit and whether their general approach to horse care and management is the same as yours. You can figure that out and whether you think they are knowledgeable by talking to them. They do not have to be running a huge barn to know what they are doing and make smart care decisions for your horse.

                            My 2 best boarding experiences by far have been at smaller barns. One was literally the barn in someone's backyard where they kept their 2 horses and mine (and eventually one other person's). Care was great and my horse was happy and I was confident that they would see and report any issues on days I was not there. That being said, there were not that many extra amentities, but that was fine by me.
                            My current boarding barn is a real boarding barn but there are only 6 boarders and 20 horses total. For me this had been boarding nirvana. They have more amenities than the backyard place (indoor, trainer, etc) but more important their care philosophy is consistent with mine and I trust them 100% to care for my horses well.
                            But then I found both these places through recommendations from friends and so the chances were better that they would not be run by whackjobs or no-nothings.
                            There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.(Churchill)


                            • #15
                              JMHO but I wouldn't go anywhere based on a 'rumor' the board is going up.


                              • #16
                                I've always boarded at smaller, private farms. The trade off for boarding there vs at a big 'pro' run barn is that you're often in someones back yard and the facilities are not as fancy. As in, they may not have an indoor, don't do blanketing, or hold for the vet or farrier, and other 'niceties' that you can get at a bigger barn with more staff. But the basic care should still be pretty good. You need to make a list of things you absolutely need, and find out if the barns offer these things. Meaning, if you have a hard time getting out to the barn to meet the vet or change blankets, don't move to a barn that doesn't offer this kind of thing and expect them to take care of it for you.
                                You're asking for trouble right there (and you'd be really surprised how many people do this !!)

                                Personally, I'd rather do without an indoor or a wash stall to save some $$ as long as my horse is happy and gets good care. I'm close enough to the farm that I can meet the farrier or vet, and I don't have a problem running out to swap blankets. I'm the only boarder, so there is no drama, I get along great with the BO, and I know that my horse is safe and happy where she lives.