Boarding at a “bad” barn can be devastating to your horse, your mental state and your bond with your horse. However, there are lessons to be learned from it. Here’s what my experience taught me.
For many of us, boarding our horses is a necessary part of horse ownership. We may not have the land, infrastructure, time or inclination to keep our horses at home. There are a number of benefits to boarding for instance, “5 Things I Took For Granted At the Boarding Barn”), but being in a bad boarding situation can wreak havoc on you and your horse in many different ways, from your horse’s health to your mental state.
I’ve been that person who has kept her horse in a bad boarding situation for too long. Although I still grapple with the guilt over having stayed when I shouldn’t have, now that I am removed from the situation – by a number of years, a few horses and a couple of kids – I can look back and realize that, despite the many, many negatives that resulted from the situation, there were valuable learning opportunities that came from my experience as well.
So that you don’t repeat my mistakes, here are eight lessons I learned from boarding at a “bad” barn:
1. Trust your gut. If something feels wrong – whether it’s with your horse, the pasture, the hay, the safety of the barn or anything – it probably is. At the very least, the barn owner or manager should be able to explain to you, in a reasonable, easy-to-understand way, why it isn’t wrong.
2. Don’t hesitate to ask questions. If you are wondering why certain procedures are in place at your barn or why horses are fed a certain amount or quality of feed and hay, ask about it. Clearly, approaching your barn manager in a respectful, non-confrontational manner is key, but expecting those in charge of the care of your horse to be forthcoming is more than reasonable.
3. Double check the information you receive. If you think something seems off, you ask about it and receive an answer, but you still feel that something isn’t quite right, triangulate your data. Look it up, talk to a vet, talk to a farrier, ask an expert, ask an experienced friend, ask someone outside of your current barn, but utilize the many tools at your disposal to help yourself and help your horse.
4. Pay attention to your horse. If your horse’s behavior or demeanor changes for no discernable (to you) reason or its body condition changes (whether it loses weight or gains too much), these are warning signs. To be fair, some horses are more sensitive than others, so be sure to rule out ulcers, body soreness or other issues that may not be attributed to the horse’s boarding situation.
When moving to a new barn, really take notice of your horse’s body condition. Many horses will lose weight with a move due to stress, but this should not be a long-term issue. Looking back at pictures from those first months at the barn where I boarded, I can see the weight loss that I didn’t notice right away because I saw my horse daily. So, take pictures weekly and compare them to see the body changes that you may miss when seeing your horse regularly.
5. Educate yourself on your horse’s care. I am amazed by the number of people who have no idea what and how much their horses are being fed on a daily basis. Or how much time the horses have in their stalls versus being outside. Or where they fall in the pecking order of the herd (if they are turned out regularly).
Even if your horse is thriving at its current location, knowing these things is incredibly beneficial so that you can take an active role in your horse’s care plan or, if you do have to move you horse, giving your new barn manager a baseline for your horse’s care. If your horse has always been fed a low-starch, low-sugar feed and suddenly it’s getting sweet feed, or if your horse is used to 24/7 turnout and now it’s in a stall 16 hours a day, those things could affect its behavior, demeanor and weight (just sayin’). Further, the more you know, the more likely you are to know if something is wrong.
6. Have a plan. If you get an inkling that something isn’t right at your current barn, start talking to other barns immediately. Discuss availability. Discuss care. Discuss turn out. Discuss feeding programs. Discuss paperwork requirements (health certificates, coggins, etc.). Doing so not only will give you an “out” if you need to get your horse away from a bad situation, but also it will let you know if the situation you are in is the cause for your horse’s distress or if there is another issue with your horse that you’re missing.
7. Move your horse sooner rather than later. One of my biggest regrets is that I did not move my horse to a new barn immediately once I figured out she was not thriving in the barn where she was boarded. I listened to the barn manager when she told me my horse was simply a hard keeper and I trusted that my barn manager knew what was best for the horses in her care. In retrospect, there were so many warning signs I should have heeded (but that’s a topic for another day) and, knowing what I know now, I would have had her out of the barn within 24 hours of noticing a problem.
8. Give yourself a break. As I mentioned at the start of this article, I still harbor a lot of guilt about having my horse in a bad situation when I should have known better. I feel guilty for not seeing that my horse was losing weight right away, for not noticing the change in her facial expressions and eyes, for missing the dullness of her coat and a number of other signs that should have told me I was not doing right by my horse.
But here’s the thing. I was a new horse owner. I trusted what I was being told. And, the fact is, I did the best I could with the information I had at the time. I’ll always feel badly, but I need to remember that when all the warning signs finally added up and made me take action, I did. If you find yourself in a situation in which your horse is not thriving, take action, do what’s best for your horse and allow yourself the space to realize what you’ve done right while learning from what went wrong.
I hope you never have to learn these lessons yourself. At least now I can look back and realize that having received my education from the school of hard knocks has made me a better horse owner.