Having your horses at home is a dream of many equestrians for comfort, security and peace of mind — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of things to miss about the boarding barn too.
Disclaimer: when I say “my own barn,” I’m really referring to a very unique situation in which my very generous, open-hearted and welcoming grandfather-in-law and sister-in-law who operate the family farm allowed me to establish myself and add a few horses to their small herd when I moved here a few years ago. I don’t actually own the facility, but I’ve taken most of the responsibility for caring for and maintaining the horses on the farm. Thanks, Allen and Kaitlyn, for giving me a horsey home to call “my own.”
I grew up in a lesson/boarding barn — the kind of place where, to this day when I come back and visit, always has teenage “barn rats” hanging around in the tackroom, the hayloft, the main barn floor and the riding arena. There was always a ready population of fellow horse lovers around my own age, spanning several academic years and school districts in the area. I furthered that particular branch of my education at a small university that included an equestrian facility, team and program of study, where I learned alongside and from riders from all over the world from varying backgrounds. I started my professional life in that program as well, transitioning from student to teacher among the same crowd of horse-loving students. I made lifelong friends in all of these places.
And then I made a career shift, changing towns and suddenly downsizing my equestrian life from a 70+ stall barn with a hundred or more students cycling in and out in a given week to a little red-painted barn with a few fat if well-loved semi-retiree horses nodding at me over the fence, a tackroom full of very dusty odds and ends and plenty of quiet and solitude. With some elbow grease, ruthless sorting of the tack room and a lot of sweeping (not to mention the accumulation of a few more horses — how does this keep happening?), I’ve got things pretty much the way I like them now in my tiny equestrian kingdom: I know where everything is, I can keep my horses exactly the way I want to and I never have to worry about interrupting someone else’s ride to go lunge.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few things I miss from my days as part of a bigger barn.
1. Checks and double-checks. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked all the way back to the barn from the pasture, second-guessed myself on whether or not I chained the gate properly or turned the electric fence back on, and walked all the way back — or even better, turned myself around on the road to drive back to the barn and then walk all the way back to the pasture to check.
While of course I believe personal responsibility is an important skill to foster as an equestrian, life was also certainly much easier when I had a co-worker or fellow student to ask to double-check things like that for me, or someone I knew was at the facility that I could call from the road to make sure I had actually closed the stall door like I meant to.
2. Favors. Especially when I was a (admittedly way overscheduled) busy undergrad student and had to run from equestrian team practice to another class, I could ask a teammate to finish picking my stall or blanketing my horse after he had cooled down a bit further. In exchange, I would get to the barn early and saddle my teammate’s horse for them if they had a class that ran right up to practice time. The concept of “teamwork” took on multiple meanings in those days!
These days, if a project takes more time than I expected or another conflict forces me to change my plans, I can’t text a buddy to bring my horse in from the pasture for me to save me a few minutes — I’ve simply had to learn to be more flexible and sacrifice saddle time on the really busy days. Such is adult life, after all.
3. Another set of eyes/hands/experience. Does my horse feel off? Does this wound require different treatment? Why does he grab the bit like that? Did all of the horses just escape out onto the road? When it’s just you at the barn, you’d either better have a lot of good people on speed-dial or get much more confident about your skills and abilities. Since I no longer have a trainer, teammates or coworkers to bounce ideas off of, I’ve learned to act with more conviction than I used to, which can be a double-edged sword when I make the wrong call.
Even the simple moments, like asking someone to take a look at your horse as he goes and let you know their thoughts or even just to take a quick video of you riding, are few and far between.
4. Division of labor. This is an extremely privileged thing to even put on this list, but in my first job in a large equestrian center it was such a luxury to have a day or two off where I didn’t have to drive to the barn, even if only for a small task like feeding. I was happy on those days off to be able to sleep in and know that someone else was taking care of the barn that day.
Now that I’m managing my own horses in my own barn, it’s my duty and responsibility to get there every day to make sure they’re happy, healthy and well-fed, let alone exercised. The farm staff takes care of the big basics, like ensuring the hay feeders are full, the water is running and no one’s loose or in apparent distress, but the daily details are on me. Yes, I can always beg a farmhand or family member who all live closer than I do to go feed on the truly poor weather days when it would be unsafe to try driving, but they have jobs, responsibilities and cares of their own, and it’s not fair to expect someone else to do my job for me all the time.
5. Camaraderie. I do have a great riding buddy in my sister-in-law and we’ve spent many hours in the saddle or on the driver’s bench chatting, gossiping and laughing. It’s rare that there’s not at least one farmhand at work somewhere on the farm if I stop by in the middle of the day, and we usually stop for a few moments to chat about the farm or the latest news. But there are many times when my sister’s busy with her own business and the farmhands are working far from the barnyard and it’s just me and the horses.
I do cherish those lovely moments of peace and quiet, when the only sounds are the barn swallows in the rafters and the soft sounds of horses chewing their feed. But I also admit that there are lonely times when I miss the constant flow of teammates or students moving back and forth, chattering about their days, swapping stories and being there for each other, both in and out of the barn.
Having my own little barn set up just the way I like it has certainly always been an equestrian dream of mine, and it’s a dream I’m sure many readers share. If you’re lucky enough to have your own place, enjoy the freedom and independence of your farmstead. If you’re lucky enough to board in a great facility, enjoy your community of horses and horse people. Both have their place in the horse world.