That’s Teamwork: Inside a Virginia co-op barn

Jennifer Ferrell says keeping a horse in a co-op situation is “a lot about communication and cooperation and a little about Ziploc freezer bags.”

From Jennifer:

For the past two years, I have boarded the Gem the Wonder Horse at a co-op barn. Life at Sunshire Farm in Fairfax Station, VA runs remarkably smooth thanks in large part to a small notebook that resides on the counter in the barn’s feed room. Boarders are asked to record observations made during their time at the barn to keep everyone apprised of what is happening with the horses. A passerby might be puzzled to read entries in THE BOOK most of which describe something along the lines of: “All fed. Out. Temps in 40s so left three naked and three with sheets. Brought down hay. Blew off aisle.” It all makes perfect sense to us.

It is the THE BOOK, the dry erase boards, the spreadsheet, and a few other notes spread around the barn that help to maintain a sense of working order and, in turn, has created a close-knit sense of horse community in this little six-stall barn in Fairfax County.

THE BOOK in all its glory

For many, co-op horse care might be too much of a hassle. The arrangement at Sunshire requires that each owner commit to feed the horses a minimum of twice weekly (some feed more) and ensure that their horse’s stall is cleaned daily. Depending on the time of day and time of year, feeding might be as simple as giving everyone their grain and putting them out in the field or as complicated as swapping out heavy blankets with lighter ones for six horses, breaking ice in water troughs, and possibly even adding medicine should one of the horses suffer from an injury or illness.

Each owner is responsible for buying their own feed and “Smart Pak-ing” it — measuring it out into individual plastic bags and adding any extra supplements. An important lesson I learned my first winter of co-op horse care: the zippered freezer bags work much better for hands wearing mittens and gloves. The plastic bags save time at feed time and horse owners know that their horse is getting the right feed and the right amount.

Ziploc baggie in action

Some of the boarders are incredibly organized and track the worming schedule (and take care of ordering the rotating types of wormer) and know when to call the vet for spring and fall shots. We’re each responsible for scheduling and meeting the farrier on our own but because we each use the same farrier, he’s at the farm often. A spreadsheet on the feed room wall tracks how much feed each horse gets, which blankets he/she wears and when and any other special notes.

Where the baggies live

Feeding swaps are easily accommodated thanks to group e-mails or calls to find a person willing to switch feeding times. It’s this willingness to swap a feeding, to meet the vet when it comes time for shots, and the general community around the barn that makes the co-op set-up so special. We’re a cohesive unit not only because we care about each other but because we also share a common commitment to our horses. Not only have I gotten to know a whole new group of people but I’ve gotten to know their horses, too. Like how I know that Sebastian will take any opportunity to graze as we walk to the field and that Lucky prefers to walk on the grass beside the driveway.

The upside of co-op boarding: I get to spend more time with my horse. The downside: I HAVE to spend more time with my horse. On those Monday mornings during the winter when it’s raining and cold and I have to feed, my full-care boarding brethren can turn over and go back to sleep. I have to drag myself out of bed and make the drive out to the barn, the entire time questioning whether this is worth it. As soon as I get there and flip the light on in the barn and see Sebastian making his blinky, “LIGHTS! TOO! BRIGHT!” face or see Coqui yawning and hear Gem out on his porch cribbing, I have no doubts that it’s completely worth it.

About Jennifer: I’m a native of North Carolina but currently reside in Alexandria, VA where I work as a marketing representative selling comic strips and other content to newspapers and media in the Southeast. Selling comics strips is serious business but it affords me the means to continue on with my greatest passion: horses.

When I was six years old, my mother gave my sister and me the choice of continuing on with ice skating lessons or switching to riding lessons as if that would be a hard decision to make (she should have seen it coming since our curly hair was never conducive to the Dorothy Hamil haircut).

I spent my formative years in the NC 4-H program where when I wasn’t riding, I spent many hours learning all kinds of minutia about horses. To this day, I could still tell you the life cycle of the bot and the 10 essential Amino acids. I also traveled and became a member of the 4-H horse judging team and am not only able to place a class of Stock Type Quarter Horse Geldings but can give you reasons why I did it.

A few years after college, I bought my first horse as an adult. Sand Dune was an 18-year old TB/Percheron cross who had evented up to prelim and was happy to cart me around novice courses. He was the first horse I ever rode that looked offended if I had the nerve to fall off since he was doing all the work anyway. It was with Sand Dune I began my entree into eventing.

As much as I love the sport, I realized I am missing two major components to take it much farther: money and guts. Not that both aren’t something that can be developed with time (and Powerball tickets) but for now, I’m happiest out on a trail ride or plodding around in the dressage ring.  Sand Dune has passed on and I’m now in charge of an OTTB who has taught me much about horsemanship and humility.

I board at a co-op barn which means I have a lot more insight to barn management than a regular old boarding stable and because I have to buy my own grain and try to keep weight on an aging ex-racehorse, I have become far more interested in equine nutrition than I ever thought possible. For now, I ride a few days each week and some days, am happy to just go out and brush the mud off the horse and stuff peppermints in his mouth.


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