Sunday, October 16, 2016

Finding THE Perfect Boarding Barn

There have been lots of articles and blogs lately that talk about what makes the perfect boarder or what makes the perfect barn manager. But none of them have addressed what I have felt makes for THE perfect boarding barn.
I have been on both sides of the fence. I had my own farm that I leased and ran as both a boarding farm and non-profit rescue facility for 6 years. I also have managed farms and I have been a boarder. So I know what it is to be both a boarder and a barn manager.
When I leased the barn, I was probably the happiest I have ever been as a horse owner, because the barn was run exactly as I wanted it run. And you know what? My boarders must have been pretty happy as well, because the only time they left was if they were moving from the area. I did kick one boarder out, she was my first boarder. It was very frustrating that she would haul her horse 3 hours to her barrel racing trainers facility and when she returned a few days later, it was apparent that she had loaded her sweaty horse directly onto the trailer and hauled him home without rinsing him off. He would step off the trailer with dried sweat and utterly exhausted. She would tell me how her trainer would spend 2-3 hours running the horse in circles in hopes of improving his time. And then, Monday morning, he would colic. Without fail. I was unable to make her see the connection between what I regarded as abuse at the trainers and the Monday morning colics. I finally had enough and asked her to leave.
Her replacement was with me almost 6 years. She left twice. A college student, she took her horse home one summer and then she tried to find a barn closer to her home. I told her I would see her in a few months. And I did. Two barns and 6 months later, she returned.
When I ran the barn, I like to think that I was pretty easy going. I would feed whatever the owner wanted. The horses always had clean, good quality hay and the water buckets were dumped and cleaned daily and refilled with fresh, cool water. Water troughs were dumped daily and scrubbed of algae. The fencing was safe and kept in good repair, I always had grass and good footing. Stalls were mucked daily and bedded deeply. I blanketed in the winter and horses were hosed off in the summer. I really had no rules, other than keep the barn clean and leave things as you found it.
And isn't that really what we all want as horse owners? Good feed, safe facilities, fresh water, clean stalls and ample turnout with grass?  I don't think that the services I provided were above and beyond what every horse deserves. I think that is what every horse and its owner pays for and should receive.
So why is it so hard to find a barn that cheerfully offers these basic services?
When I gave up the lease on my barn and became a boarder again, I admit, it was hard going from having total control of your place to placing the care of your beloved horse in someone else's hands.
I found I had to make a list of what was most important for me. Besides the obvious, which I mentioned already. Because I have a "special needs" horse, it was important to find a barn that would adhere to his diet (Tucker has EPSM. His diet was planned by a vet and is crucial to his well-being) and due to his extreme allergies to bugs, he could not ever be turned out at night. That was hard, as most barns in Florida turn out at night during the hot summer months, and finding a barn that would bring him in by noon and not leave him out all day in the heat and storms, was hard to come by. It seemed that I had to choose either option A or option B and there was no wiggle room.
Finding those 2 criteria meant that perhaps some of my "basic" requirements" may have to take a back seat. The trick is to find what you can live with and what you can't.
After a few moves (one barn quickly went down the tubes as the manager decided that running a barn was hard work, another barn decided not to be flexible with turnout), I found a setting that was a bit of a drive for me, but allowed Tucker to eat what he wanted and go out during the daytime. But fencing sucked (they did have hot wire, so I was able to live with the unsafe fencing) and I had to understand that I would have to clean my buckets (and eventually dump them daily when that stopped happening), that the stall was not going to be immaculately cleaned (just add some additional time to the barn visit, and go over the stall yourself) and dump and clean the troughs yourself. This worked fine until the care unexplicably and utterly deteriorated. Then it became a situation where boarders were teaming up to cover for one another if one of us had to be out of town. We knew horses would not have buckets topped off during the heat of the day, they might be forgotten and left out in the heat or a storm, hay might be forgotten and god knows what else. For months, we covered for one another, until one by one, we were able to find new barns. During that time, manure and fly management ceased to exist, grass turned into sand and weeds (and some toxic weeds for some fields), and the suddenly quiet and happy barn turned into nightmare with boarders complaining nonstop and weekly arguments between boarder and barn management. My happy place was no longer a fun and happy place. Some boarders were lucky and found great barns, others were not so lucky and went from one hell hole to another. I stuck it out longer than some other boarders because I had to stick to my list and I did not want to trade one set of problems for another.
I finally found THE perfect boarding barn and moved Tucker there last May. And it hit me. I finally realized what THE perfect boarding barn was all about!
You see, at the barn I am at now, there are boarders who have been there for TWENTY years! One doesn't have to be a genius to know what the secret is.
It is all about giving the paying customer what they are paying for! Just as I used to give my paying customer  what they were paying for, so does this barn. There was no question about what I was feeding Tucker. When I was looking into new barns, I actually had a barn owner tell me that Tucker would be just fine eating what the other 19 horses in her barn ate, never mind his EPSM or what the vet said. The arrogance on the other end of the line was mind boggling and I quickly ended our conversation. Not only could Tucker eat what he wanted, but EVERYTHING on my list was being checked off: morning turnout, check. water buckets cleaned daily and replenished with cool water, check. Good quality hay, check. Stalls cleaned daily, check. Pasture, manure and fly management, check, check, check. Lots of grass, safe turnout and no weedy fields? Three more checks.
And because the barn owner was giving her paying customers what they wanted, I noticed something amazing. There is so much respect and love and admiration for this barn owner, that when something happens (dog sick, gotta run to the vet; sick/injured horse, hurricane approaching), boarders appear almost from thin air to help! With the approaching hurricane last week, numerous boarders showed up to help finish barn chores and get the barn safe. The son of one boarder appeared first thing the following morning and picked up the tree branches that were blocking the driveway and disappeared before anyone knew he was there.  I have never once heard a boarder complain, and there is no barn drama whatsoever.
When I travel, I get text messages letting me know Tucker is fine. I get cute photos of my barn cat Hobbs, whom everyone has fallen in love with! We meet up for lunch and breakfast and when a boarders horse died recently, there was a collection taken up for a donation to the Morris Animal Foundation to help find a cure for cushings, the disease responsible for this horses death.
So what are clues to finding THE perfect boarding barn?
Well for starters, ask how long other boarders have been there. Is there a trend of longevity or is it a revolving door policy? If the barn is advertising every month for stalls available, that could be a clue. The barn I am at does not need to advertise. My farrier, vet and a local tack store owner all recommended this place. I just had to wait 6 months for an opening. I had never even heard of this barn, yet one of the local dressage judges boards here, so I knew that is must be a good place. So just because you have never heard of a place or seen it advertised, don't think that THE perfect place doesn't exist!
It goes without saying that you need to visit the barn and I suggest making a few visits. One barn I moved to looked great when I first checked it out, but when I moved my horses there 2 months later, the weeds were overgrown, there was trash everywhere and the tack room was a disaster.
When you visit, speak to boarders and listen carefully! They may be reluctant to tell you that they are unhappy, but you may be able to pick up clues from what they are telling you.
And of course, look at the horses. Are they in good health? Happy? Stalls clean, pastures in good condition? If a potential barn owner cannot accommodate you to stop in and visit within a timely manner, or they keep rescheduling or giving excuses, then something is wrong, especially if they are advertising for boarders.
If you are unhappy at your current farm, be sure to do your homework and evaluate a new barn very carefully. You do not want to go from a bad situation to one worse. I have many horror stories to relate of both myself and friends who ended up in worse situations. And be sure to ask friends, your farrier, your vet and even the local tack store what they have to say about a potential barn. And ask them if they can recommend a place if you are having a hard time finding one on your own.
If every barn owner and manager gave their paying customer what they are entitled to, there would be a lot more perfect barns and a lot less grumbling and barn drama!
The perfect barn will have clean and safe aisleways, which besides looking nice, help keep flies away.

The perfect barn will have ample grass, no weeds, and safe fencing. The horses should be fat and shiny and happy!

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