In my work as a freelance clinician, coach, and judge, I have had the opportunity to visit facilities of all shapes and sizes, all across the country. And increasingly, I am hearing a common refrain among the managers at nearly every barn—boarding horses is a money-losing business, and they don’t know how much longer they can go on.
Now, anyone who has been involved in the equine industry for more than five minutes knows that “equestrian” is a costly sport. Long gone are the days when horses were an essential commodity and even urban homes included space for the family’s horse. Today, horses are a luxury, and nearly every resource required to keep horses well comes at a premium price. Correctly zoned, open land is also attractive to developers, driving up rental or purchase price; feeds including hay and grain are grown and shipped from a distance at great expense; essential farm structures, from run-in sheds to barns to covered or indoor arenas, are taxed per unit. Trucks, trailers, and tractors can all cost more than a down payment on an average home. Add in a dose of worldwide pandemic with its associated shutdowns, and the rippling effects of climate change—perhaps never before have horse keepers seen the costs of so many essential equine expenditures skyrocket.
Frankly, the physical resources required to keep horses are just the beginning. Caring for horses well also requires educated caregivers willing to show up reliably and do hard, unrelenting physical tasks in all weather conditions. It requires skilled professionals like farriers, veterinarians, body workers, trainers and more to advocate for the animals’ best interests.
Professional equestrians are often motivated to dedicate their lives to this industry because they are passionate about horses. They genuinely want to see horses happy and well-cared for, and to play a role in their clients’ success. To stay in the equine industry long term requires that these myriad professionals are treated fairly and make enough money to live more than just a marginal existence. Long, grueling hours, demanding clients, and constant money woes lead to burnout and worse.
Over the past three years here in northern New England, facilities that used to charge $600 per month for full-care have needed to increase their rates to $1000 or more—and despite this, some are still not breaking even. Some have had to adopt new fee structures, adding surcharges for what many owners consider essential services—blanketing, fly spray, even soaking grain or storing a trailer. Others are scheduling additional time-and-labor intensive activities—things like schooling shows, clinics, or camps—in an attempt to simply cover expenses. No one seems to be fully staffed, and right now, hiring workers with prior equine experience is a true luxury that comes at a premium cost.
Simply put, the path we are on is not sustainable. Not for facility managers, who are essentially barely treading water, and not for horse owners, particularly those who have already made some significant adjustments in their budgets to make their (or their child’s) involvement in the sport possible. For many horse owners of average means, the traditional boarding stable model is going to price them out of the sport. And if this happens, we all lose—the professionals, the client, and the horses themselves.
So what, if anything, can be done?
It is my opinion that we need to re-think the model upon which the traditional boarding stable is based. By “traditional boarding stable”, I am talking about the sort of place where there is one owner/lessee/manager, who accepts horses for boarding at a set price per month in exchange for a stated list of services. That manager is responsible for acquiring all of the required resources necessary for these animals’ well-being, maintaining the facility, and facilitating the day-to-day care. At such facilities, it is typically assumed by the paying client that their fee includes all of the above, as well as access to the amenities of the farm. The client usually expects to be able to arrive, visit and engage with their horse, and leave without assuming any duties beyond cleaning up after themselves (and frankly, sometimes they even fail to do that).
As I have visited programs around the country, the ones that seem to be doing the best job at keeping costs down, maintaining healthy horses, and preventing burn out among the caretakers are those based upon a cooperative boarding model. In a cooperative boarding situation, “members” (called boarders or clients at a traditional stable) commit to not only caring for their own horse, but to contribute to the overall care of everyone’s animals on a routine, coordinated schedule.
There are many models of successful cooperative boarding stables. Most seem to be coordinated by an elected or volunteer committee, who are collectively responsible for ensuring bills are paid, applications reviewed, insurance secured and shifts staffed. Others operate under the direction of one individual whose role is similar to the manager of a traditional stable—the critical difference being that this person is not personally responsible for being on-site full time, or providing all of the care. Yet another model is one where the members join a co-op overseen by a trainer, who uses the co-op design to keep costs down for her students and to ease the burden for herself. I’m sure there are other co-op models I have not yet encountered.
Members at a boarding co-op typically must commit more time to their equestrian habit than someone paying for full-care at a traditional facility. They are usually personally responsible for daily tasks like cleaning their own horse’s stall or paddock, cleaning and refilling their water, and setting up their horse’s feed, or for coordinating with another member to do so on their behalf. They also typically cover a certain number of “shifts” per week, during which they attend to routine duties for everyone’s horses such as feeding, turn in/turn out, or night check, depending on the set up. And co-op members must be of a mindset that even if it isn’t “their turn” to provide care to the rest of the herd, if they see a problem—a horse’s blanket has come undone, or they passed manure in their water, or a horse seems “off”—it is still their responsibility to address it.
For many horse owners—especially folks who have never been responsible for their horse’s daily care—transitioning to a cooperative boarding situation likely will be a big shock. Taking care of horses is a lot of work, and there is no way to sugar coat that. But unlike keeping your horses at home or renting a dry stall somewhere, at a co-op, that work is shared by the group, meaning it is actually possible to take a day off or even coordinate a vacation. And the rewards are significant—first, the financial costs of keeping your horse will almost certainly reduce, and when expenses are incurred, you will have a better understanding of where they are coming from. But even more importantly, through providing your horse’s daily care, you will acquire a deeper connection with your horse, and it will (force) you to become a better horse person.
I appreciate that a cooperative boarding model isn’t for everyone, and they aren’t without their challenges. In particular, most successful co-ops have some type of screening process, and ask members to adhere to a written code of ethics or list of expectations. Members of a co-op need to be on the same page, philosophically, about how they will care for their herd. There need to be clear procedures in place for members who don’t follow the rules. But none of this is truly that different than at a traditional boarding stable—it is just that the members become responsible for policing themselves, instead of running to a beleaguered manager with every little complaint or irritation. As in so many things, good communication is critical for success.
There will always be a place in our industry for the traditional boarding model, but it is my opinion that cooperative boarding may help keep horse ownership within reach for a wider swath of our equestrian community. Additionally, I frequently hear professionals bemoan a reduction in basic horsemanship skills, across disciplines. With cooperative boarding, instead of further distancing ourselves from a past that put true horsemanship front and center, we would embrace it as the most fundamental core value of our equestrian practice.