Finding the right boarding situation is imperative to your horse’s well-being and your peace of mind. Know how to recognize the tell-tale signs that a situation is not the right one for your horse.
As a horse owner who, for the time being, has no choice but to board her horses, I am fortunate to be in a great situation with a knowledgeable barn manager who works to make sure the horses in her charge receive excellent care. However, this hasn’t always been the case. When I bought my first horse and began boarding, I was in a situation that, to put it lightly, was less than ideal. Although I learned quite a bit from that experience (8 Lessons From a ‘Bad’ Boarding Barn), it’s one I hope never to repeat.
Being in the wrong boarding situation can be stressful for you and your horse. In some situations, it can be more than stressful – it can be downright dangerous and a huge detriment to your horse’s health. Fortunately, there are warning signs that can help you know that you need to move your horse.
Here are eight red flags that you should not ignore:
1. Your horse’s body condition deteriorates. Being aware of your horse’s body condition is one of the best things you can do to help you make the right decisions about your horse’s health. Be aware of your horse loses weight or gains too much. Although many horses lose weight due to the stress of a move, this should not be a permanent state. If your horse continues to lose weight, has a dull coat and/or seems subdued, these are warning signs. Your horse may have a health issue that has nothing to do with the boarding situation, but you need to consult a vet and talk to the barn manager about what can be done. If there is not a health concern that justifies the weight loss, a different boarding situation may be in order.
The same can be said if your horse gains too much weight and becomes obese. Myriad health problems can occur in obese horses. Your barn manager should be willing to work with you to develop a care plan that best suits your horse.
The take away is to monitor your horse carefully and be aware of its nutritional requirements.
2. Not enough feed. On average, horses should consume 1.5 – 2% of their ideal body weight. So, if a horse should be 1,000 pounds, it should be eating at least 15 pounds a day, most of which should be high quality forage. Horses that are underweight, pregnant or in regular workloads will need more.
What this means to you, as a horse owner, is that you need to be aware of how much your horse is getting and whether or not that amount meets the horse’s daily requirements. For horses that are turned out in lush pastures, grass and a small amount of ration balancer may be enough. However, if pastures are over-grazed, the horses will need to be given enough hay to make up the deficit.
3. Poor quality feed. Not all hay is created equally, and not all grain is created equally. Even if your horse is receiving the right amount of feed, it may not be getting the right quality of feed. For example, all stock sweet feed does not provide the same amount or type of nutrients as high quality pelleted or textured feed. It’s comparable to a human eating only fast food as opposed to well-rounded meals.
Similarly, coarse, stemmy, lightweight bales won’t provide the same nutrients as soft, leafy, heavier bales. As someone who likes to know what my horse is eating and be involved in its care, I’m usually present to help unload and stack hay when it arrives. At my first barn – the one I left – the bales were light… very light. I have a fair amount of upper body strength, but if I can grab a bale by its loosely wrapped baling twine and fling it onto the stack with one arm and very little exertion, there’s a good chance the hay does not have what the horses need.
4. Different quality of feed/hay for the owner’s horses. If the owner or manager of the barn has one stack of hay for his/her horses and a different stack of hay for the boarders, this is a huge red flag. The same goes for the grain – if the manager’s horses are getting Tribute feeds and the boarders’ horses are getting sweet feed, this is an issue. To be fair, some horses cannot tolerate or should not be fed second cut or alfalfa and other horses have specific grain requirements, but if there are no metabolic or behavioral issues that justify different feeds, be wary of how your horse is being fed and the reasons behind it.
5. You may not use your own vet/farrier. It’s perfectly fair for a boarding barn to have a preferred vet or farrier, but as a horse owner, you should also be allowed to use the vet, farrier or other equine professional of your choice. This may mean that you have to be present to hold your horse instead of having the barn staff do it for you, but you should still have the option. Barns that won’t allow outside vets on their premises should be regarded with extreme caution.
6. Overcrowded pastures. On average, a well-managed pasture should allow for one-and-a-half to two acres per horse. If you are boarding at a barn with regular turnout, be sure that there is enough acreage for the number of horses at the facility. If space is at a premium, the lack of grass to graze should be compensated by adequate (and fairly constant) access to hay.
7. Your horse’s demeanor changes. Be aware of your horse’s behavior and how it can change. Again, some horses will take a while to settle into a new situation, but this settling period should be relatively short-lived. If your horse seems skittish or aggressive when he never was before, or if he looks worried or harassed, these are warning signs that something is making him uneasy or uncomfortable.
8. Your horse is repeatedly injured. With horses, accidents happen. This is true no matter how well-managed an environment is. However, if you notice that your horse continuously comes in with mystery injuries, you may need to re-evaluate where you are keeping it. Whether the injuries seem to be from unsafe pasture or barn conditions or aggressive herd mates, these are factors that contribute to your horse’s well-being.
This list is by no means all-inclusive, but it can serve to help you consider whether or not you are boarding your horse at the right barn. Sometimes seeing negative changes in your horse can be difficult because they happen over an extended period of time. Because of that, it’s important to monitor your horse’s condition and behavior carefully. Take notes. Take pictures. Compare them from week-to-week and month-to-month. Most importantly, make sure you have your horse at a facility where its care comes first and where you feel comfortable.