So, you decided to make a move and need to choose a barn. Whether you are changing states, purchasing a horse, or seeking better care, finding a new stable is equally exciting and stressful.
The first step, finding potential barns, can take a while, because many advertise in places you wouldn’t normally look. Then add on time to make phone calls and tour barns and you are looking at a lengthy process. To help you save time and help you identify problem barns, this guide outlines where to search, what to ask, and what to inspect. Additionally, in-depth aids are available on each step. To see them, click on one of the images below.
Like any search, starting with a handful of constraints can help you stay focused. Because how much you are willing to pay, how far you are willing to commute, and how willing you are to board at a barn outside your riding discipline are not likely to change during your search, consider defining these requirements before jumping in.
How to find a barn
1) Call a veterinarian
This is, hands down, the best way to find a reputable barn (in my opinion). Vets travel to most barns in an area, making them an invaluable resource. They can tell how healthy the horses are, how nice the facilities are, and how knowledgeable the barn owner is by the type of calls they receive. Essentially, they have done all the heavy lifting and are worth consulting!
This tip helped me immensely during a recent move. I called a local vet, politely explained I was new to the area, and asked if they had a moment to give me a recommendation. The vet happily gave me a list of 4 stables!
Not only that, out of the 4 stables they recommended, only 1 had a website, so I could have searched for days and missed these barns. Note that it is common for competition barns or barns with a large lesson program have their own websites, while small barns may not.
2) Search newhorse.com and local associations
Newhorse.com is a horse listing site where you can search horse boarding facilities by state and city, making it an easy one stop shop. Many small facilities that do not want to maintain their own website chose to list here.
Listings are a single paragraph with tags for their discipline and services. All listings have a phone number, while others will also have a link to their website or a contact form. If it’s important to you to have a trainer on site, consider also browsing their riding instructor listings.
If there aren’t enough barns that peak your interest on newhorse.com, see if your area has a local horse association with classified listings for barns in the area. You can also search national organization websites to see where they hold clinics or compete. Notable discipline specific organizations include USEA, USDF, and USHJA; age specific organizations include USPC and 4-H; and breed specific organizations include AQHA, AHA, and APHA.
3) Join a Facebook group
If you want to network with the local horse community, try finding a Facebook group about horses in your area. Know that some have rules about the types of posts allowed and the administrators might require you to answer 2-3 questions before approving your membership.
Look for active groups with at least a post a day. You can spell out exactly what you want in a stable and ask for recommendations. This is great if you are hoping to find someone with barn in their backyard or a co-op type situation.
A word of caution. Be aware that when you ask a public forum, you often do not know the other people’s motives or credentials. It can be a great way to get linked into a network of like-minded people, but if you choose to find a barn this way, be extra diligent when you talk to the owner and tour the facilities.
What to ask on the phone
The phone call has two purposes, getting critical information you might not have been able to get online (many websites will not list the price of board or their exact address), and serving as an initial screening. Because you will have time to ask more questions on a barn tour, I recommend asking questions about the essentials like feed, turnout, contracts, and anything you have deemed a deal-breaker.
I have a specific question flow I like to follow, which I have outlined below. If you need some inspiration for other questions to ask, see this PDF.
1) Let them start the conversation
When you call a new barn, ask the owner to “tell you about the place”, before asking any specifics. During their spiel, pay close attention to what they emphasize as it will quickly tell you what they value. One owner may speak extensively on the quality of their feed while another on the quality of their riding arenas.
Also pay attention to how interested they are in getting to know you. Barns with a strong sense of community and a positive environment want to see if you are good fit for them. If the barn owner doesn’t ask about you, it may indicate they have a high turnover rate or simply are absent from the day to day workings of the barn.
2) Get a good idea of how the place operates
What is the schedule for the barn on a typical day? Is my favorite follow up question. In other words, if I did the barn work here, what time does feeding, turning out, and turning in, happen? From this you will easily be able to tell how long the horses go out each day, how many feedings occur, and how consistent the barn is.
Next clarify what board does and does not include. Some barns charge a flat rate with comprehensive care provided to all the horses, and, in general, everyone pays the same amount. Other barns have more of an a-la-carte service where they charge you extra for feeding grain, turnout, fly spray, etc.
Make sure to ask rather than assume. If every barn you have ever been to blankets during the winter as part of their service, you may think every barn will, which can bite you later on. To avoid this, consider the off season. If you are searching in the winter, visualize what your horse may need in the summer.
3) Ask about boarding contracts
I have been to barns that do not require contracts and others that do. If they do have a boarding contract, typically you acknowledge the services provided, barn rules, and sign a release form.
Contracts may contain information that does not come up naturally in conversation or that you might not even know to ask about. For instance, I recently read a contract that required a one-time move in fee of $30, which the owner did not disclose on the tour. I have also seen other clauses where you needed approval to bring a trainer on site or that the owner could sell your horse after 14 days if you failed to pay board.
Needless to say, ask if they have a contract. If they do, ask them to provide hard copies for you to read when you come to take a tour.
4) Schedule a tour
If you like what you are hearing on the phone call, set up a time to stop by. Most facilities prefer you set up a time rather than drop in, but I have had both options offered to me. While dropping-in allows you to see the barn’s normal state (e.g. they can’t clean up before you get there), it’s important to meet the owner as any issues you have in the future will need to be addressed by them.
In order to have enough reference points, shoot to tour at least 3 facilities. Most tours will last 30 minutes to an hour depending on how many questions you ask. If you plan to do multiple tours in a day, try to add in at least 30 minutes of buffer time in case the owner is late or if you have trouble finding the place.
What to inspect on a tour
You’ve made it to the best part! Assuming the phone call addressed the basics and you are only touring a facility that meets your minimum requirements, the main goal of the tour is to see if you can picture yourself at the barn. The general impression you get is important as you’ll likely be spending many hours a week on the property.
1) Condition of the horses and quality of care
If nothing else, check to see the condition of the horses at the facility. Physical attributes to inspect include weight, grooming, and muscle tone. Horses with shiny coats, untangled manes and tails, and tidy feet indicate they are given regular care.
Also gage the attitude of the horses. When you approach a paddock or a stall, do the horses seem alert, curious, and relaxed? Although personalities vary from horse to horse, horses that are given adequate space to move around and social interaction will generally be calm and content.
2) Cleanliness and organization
The condition of the barn, the pastures and pathways leading around the stables, and the cleanliness of common areas like the tack room say a lot about a place.
If the paddocks are picked out, tools have a home, and the aisles seem clutter free, chances are that owner or staff care about the details. They have likely checked to see if their stalls and fences are safe and will notice if something seems wrong with your horse. If the tack room is messy and the place is disorganized, the care will likely be sporadic too.
If the barn owner already knows where they have an open spot on their property, ask to walk through it. While you walk ask yourself: is there anything that looks like my horse could get cut on, stuck in, or hurt themselves if they kicked it? If it’s a stall, is the floor level and the ceilings cobweb free? Is the water trough clean and look like it has been scrubbed out recently?
Pay attention to the details. If a facility is well maintained, and the common areas are cared for, chances are good that you have found a decent spot.
3) Barn atmosphere
A big part of the feel of a place is the people. Some people prefer to be at a quiet barn where they can enjoy the company of their horse without worrying about small talk and sharing the ring, while others thrive off of a bustling barn. Take note of how busy the barn is when you tour. I often ask the owner if this is level of activity is the “norm.”
If you are looking for more of a community feel, see if anyone greets you when you pull up to the barn. Are other boarders talking to one another or focused on the task at hand? The best barns, in my opinion, are the ones where people look out for one another.
Also, while in the barn, check if they have a bulletin board. Are there clinics posted that you could audit? If you are a first-time horse owner, you can benefit to being at a medium to large size barn with lot of activity and opportunities to learn from others.
If you want a 1-page list of questions to ask yourself when touring a barn; check out this PDF.
Choose a Barn
Once you have toured a few facilities, it’s time to choose a barn. If you have followed the process above and gotten recommendations from a vet or a local association, ensured you got along with the barn owner and could see yourself at the barn, and are confident in the quality of care after a tour, you’ve set yourself up for success.
Because you have asked all the questions, reviewed the boarding contracts, and inspected the facilities, you can confidently make a gut decision. If a winner isn’t immediately evident, I would go back to the constraints of cost and commute that you defined before your search.
Ultimately, choose a barn that makes it easiest to show up for your horse. If a lower cost means you can spend more on lessons and that will keep you motivated, do that! If a closer commute means you will have time to go out every day, perfect. Any way you can lower the barrier to spending time with your horse, the better.