The decision about whether to board a horse or keep it at home is usually dictated by circumstances for most horse owners. If you have the space and facility to keep your equines at home, it's more cost effective and offers a number of advantages that boarding does not.
If you are one of the lucky few, however, who has the option to either board or horsekeep yourself, the decision may be difficult. Each alternative offers its own perks, as well as drawbacks. It comes down to a question of priorities, and what suits your situation.
Keeping a horse on full board offers owners virtually hassle-free maintenance. Full board includes, at the very least, feeding, stall cleaning and turnout. Some barns offer even more, such as blanketing, clipping and tacking. Depending on where you live, board can cost as much as a monthly mortgage payment. In the northeastern United States where land is at a premium, board at a full-service barn runs from about $300 to $2,000 a month. If you live in a more rural area, though, board may be as inexpensive as $200 a month.
So, depending on your locale, you can save a lot of money by keeping your horse at home. Here are some potential pros and cons to consider:
Boarding Barn Advantages
Home Horsekeeping Advantages
Some Case Studies
"Caring for a horse yourself is overwhelming and physically demanding," says Leslie DeMerville of Waterbury, Conn., who boards her daughter's pony at a full-care facility. "A full-service barn offers the luxury of trained professionals taking care of the tasks that reduce riding time."
Moreover, Leslie notes that in New England serious riders need access to an indoor arena in the winter – a major advantage offered at most boarding barns.
Teresa Bender of Pasadena, Md., is a full time professional and a recreational eventer. She boards her horse, but she's making plans to have the land eventually to keep him at home. She cites the drive time involved in getting to a barn after work, as well as the lack of control over her horse's care, as reasons for making the change.
"No matter where you board, supplies disappear," Bender says. "You don't always know whether supplements are fed regularly or whether your horse is blanketed properly in cold weather or, conversely, unblanketed in hot weather. Some barns occasionally are closed and you aren't allowed on the premises. … And if your horse needs medication or special treatment, that's another problem."
Some barns also require boarders to use only their farrier, vet and instructors, notes Bender. "All in all, it's tough to control your horse's life in a boarding facility, no matter how good it is," she adds.
Emily Wigley of Vashon Island, Wash., owns three horses. She and her husband built a house and a barn on raw land. Wigley estimates that she can keep three horses at home for the cost of boarding one. Although it took plenty of planning to make home horsekeeping happen, Emily says it was worth it because of the difference it makes in her relationship with her equines. "I knew I'd like it, in spite of the work involved," she says. "I couldn't imagine how wonderful it would be to know our horses this well."
Vicki Roussel of Groton, Mass., agrees. A career woman with two young sons, it's not unusual for family to come before riding. "If I have to skip a day of riding, my horse can still walk around in his big paddock and graze, so he's happy. Having a walk in/walk out situation definitely makes it easier on both you and the horse," she says.
Turnout is one of the single most important factors for a healthy, happy horse. It is especially critical in home horsekeeping. More time outside equates to less time cleaning stalls – an added benefit. Most home horsekeepers set up a barn or stall arrangement where the horses can let themselves in or out. This is especially important when hot, cold or stormy weather strikes.
Dr. Mark Baus of Fairfield Equine Associates, Newtown, Conn., recommends at least one-half acre per horse for turnout. He adds that you'll also get more mileage from your pastures if you fence them to allow rotation.
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage to keeping your horse at home is not being able to leave the area for any significant length of time.
"It's difficult to find someone you really trust to take care of your horse when you want to go away," says Roussel. "You can't just pick up and leave for a day. Time away has to be planned for in advance." She, like others, has solved this problem by setting up a network of other horsepeople and large animal pet sitters. But she cautions: "You need to establish these relationships before you need the help."
A compromise between home horsekeeping and boarding is barn sharing. Shannon Hoyle of Bolton, Mass., describes her situation: a small, private barn where she and three other horse owners keep a total of five equines and share the work. It seems like the best of both worlds. "Board is a set amount reduced each month according to the hours each person has logged in chores," says Hoyle. Chores include basic care. Anything extra, such as providing lunch and blanket or paddock changes, is negotiated with another owner.
This type of co-op situation works well for many people because it provides individual horse care and reduced expenses. It works best, however, when the participants are mature, knowledgeable and responsible people who respect each other's time and needs.
Hoyle's horse also has all-day, individual self-turnout from stall to paddock, which was key in her stabling decision. Hoyle thinks it's the perfect set up. "I am around my horse so much more than I would be if I just came to ride him each day, which has really strengthened our bond. Each time he reaches a milestone in his growth, I know I have had a big part in bringing it about."