BY LYNN HAMILTON
A few years ago, a property came up for sale in the Foothills of Alberta. The land is rolling, covered in a thick blanket of spruce trees, and the snow-capped mountains in the west glisten like rough diamonds on clear blue days. The little creek running through it is frequently visited by deer, moose, and in the spring, a fox and her kits. Best of all? It has a small barn, large riding arena, and acres of grass paddocks for horses. While I had no intention of ever moving from the big city, the property met my lifelong dream of someday owning a horse property and looking after my own horses.
With the deal closed, the moving truck packed, and the horses loaded, I arrived on a snowy March day to begin my new adventure. While I should have been overwhelmed with excitement driving into the property with my horses in tow, instead I felt an overwhelming sense of terror. While I had owned horses my whole life, I had always boarded them at local boarding facilities. I had never actually cared for a horse all on my own. After all, I was a city girl!
Now I had to worry about veterinary and farrier care, manure management, shelters, fresh water during the heat of summer and the dead of winter, and most importantly, feeding them! Oddly, my dream had failed to include all the practicalities. Instead, I just imagined my horses grazing lazily in a lush green meadow.
Within the first few days of living my dream, I realized that I needed to quickly learn the ropes or things were going to go downhill fast. Fortunately, the local vet was great, starting me with an emergency kit and lots of practical advice to keep my horses safe and healthy. I found a farrier (who I am sure saw me as a complete newbie), and with his understanding and patience, he taught me all I need to know to ensure my horses’ feet are properly cared for. I found an excellent hay supplier who makes sure my horses have the best quality hay I can buy and, when I run low, even delivers on a Sunday so no one goes hungry. I am sure the staff at the local feed and tack store would roll their eyes whenever I would walk in the door as they knew they would need to put up with my endless stream of questions about how and what to feed my herd, plus any additional advice on stable management they could offer. I also connected with other horse men and women in the community who, having lived their whole lives with horses, made it all seem so easy. Most of all, I read everything – books, magazines, blogs, facebook postings, and internet articles that had both good and downright dangerous advice on horse care.
Around the time I started to feel confident that my horses were happy and healthy, I started to receive calls from potential boarders looking for a facility for their horses. Apparently, the staff at the feed store had recommended my place. At first, I felt unsure that I had the skills to care for someone else’s horse. After all, if something happened to one of mine, it was my responsibility alone. However, looking out at my herd, I saw that they were all a good weight, seemed really happy. Most of all, the place looked pretty well cared for.
While I didn’t need boarders to pay the hay bills, and I had no intention of running a horse boarding business, I started to realize what my dream was missing – friends. Sure, it was nice to go for a peaceful ride by myself on a forest trail, but what I really missed was someone to enjoy the trail with. Having always been a boarder at a competition hunter/jumper barn, I also missed the camaraderie associated with the barn environment.
With this in mind, I decided to take the leap and invite my first boarder to share the property with me. Her mare was easy to look after, and immediately fit in with my group of mares. The owner was equally easy to be around. We planned our rides together, and even brought in a trainer to prepare us for the show season. Sometimes we talked for hours in the barn while we groomed our horses and cleaned up, hardly riding at all. Before too long, another lady contacted me looking for a place to board. She brought her mare and gelding over and they also fit in as though they had always been part of the group. She was also a jumper, which led to the three of us not just riding together, but competing at shows together. More than friends, our own little team.
Over time the mix has changed. My first boarder got married and moved her horse to a place to lease it as she no longer had the time to ride. The second lady moved to a barn where her horses could be in full-time training with a professional. Over time, others have come and gone for their own reasons. Sure, some of my boarders have been more high-needs than others, requiring daily, or even hourly texts and photos to ensure all is well. Others have had the confidence that I knew what I was doing and their horse was well-cared for, even in subzero weather and 3 feet of blowing snow.
While I now know that owning a horse property is back-breaking work and an around-the-clock commitment, the work feels more worthwhile when I am doing it for the friends who have trusted me to look after their horse. I take this vote of confidence seriously, as it has taken years of learning from not just the people who support me, but my commitment to do the best I can to ensure the safety and health of the animals I care for. Most of all, however, I do it because it is important for me to have friends who also enjoy the pleasure of horses. After all, what’s the point of looking out of my window to see my horses grazing lazily without friends to share my dream with?
Lynn Hamilton is a lawyer and owns an aerial wildfire control company operating in Canada and the US. She is also pursuing a doctoral degree in business while keeping her and her daughters’ seven horses fit for the show season.