BY ANNA JONES
My horse’s happiness comes first.
It’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot from equestrians I respect. And, of course it is! Those of us who’ve entered this crazy sport usually end up devoting our lives to these animals. Our horses will get fancy shampoo while we buy $2 generics. I can’t tell you the last time I’ve had a massage, but my horse has had chiropractic and bodywork within the past 30 days. True equestrians won’t have it any other way.
But despite this, I think we often can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to some decisions. While our horses are extremely important, they are just one half of the equation. We want them to be happy, but also have to be happy ourselves. This can be forgotten when it comes to boarding.
If you ask what top priorities are for a boarding barn, you’ll often see a list like this (aside from budget):
- X numbers of turnout a day
- Excellent footing
- Quality feed
- Well constructed, safe stalls and fencing
- Extra Amenities
- Access to shows
I think that’s a very fair list. It prioritizes the horse first, and covers safety essentials like care and footing before any goal-oriented needs. Because let’s face it—our horses don’t give two flips about year-end points, but they do care about quality pasture and grain.
But what is less talked about are the situations where the barn is perfect for your horse. They’re happy there, thriving even, and the facility is great. But (you know there had to be a but), you’re not as thrilled.
Maybe it’s about training. Staying at an all-around barn isn’t always the best fit when you have upper level aspirations. Maybe it’s the size. A huge lesson barn with summer camp kids feels a lot different than a private, boutique type stable. Maybe it’s the clientele. Barn mean girls are a real thing.
There are a lot of scenarios where your horse is blissfully unaware that you are feeling stuck and unhappy with the situation. So what do you do? Horse first, right?
It’s much more complicated than that.
I don’t have to tell you that this is an expensive sport. As horse owners, we need to take responsibility for our animals and give them the best care we can afford. But that cost is not strictly monetary. Mental health and well-being is arguably more valuable than your dollars that go to board.
Sure, Muffin McStuddin might love his stall mattress, private grass turnout, and daily Theraplate sessions, but if you are unhappy showing up to be with him you need to evaluate that cost. If you’re miserable at the barn, regardless of the reason, your horse is going to feel that when you’re with them. Don’t forget how sensitive they are. They can sense when we’re having a bad day, or when our frustration is shorter than we’d like it to be. While they might not realize you feel stuck in the same lesson routine over and over and over, they will feel those emotions in your riding.
I am not saying abandon your horse’s needs in pursuit of your own. Oftentimes some of the best training is found at barns that aren’t ideal matches for you—whether it’s budget, turnout, or overall ideology. But I do believe you can find a happy medium, and test out some compromises.
Next time you make a list of wants for an ideal barn, make two columns. One for your horse, and one for you. Maybe it looks like this:
– 6 hours turnout
– Alfalfa offered
– Large stalls
– Premium footing
– Will feed supplements
– Access to schooling shows
– Group lessons
– Riders my own age
– Tack lockers
– Coverd arena
– Good social atmosphere
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely a barn exists that covers all the wants for both horse and rider (wouldn’t that be the dream?). But I bet there are some close options. If you really enjoy the vibe at a place, does it really matter if they have group turnout versus private? If they host their own show series on property (which means you can go to more shows!) could you hack in the field if the footing needs a drag?
I would never suggest anyone to sacrifice on wants that revolve around basic safety and care. After all, those are really needs… not wants. But don’t sign yourself up for an entire lifetime at a barn that makes you unhappy, just because your horse likes it there. Horses are highly adaptable animals. I’d venture to guess there are other places he might like just as much. Maybe even ones that fit your needs too!
Anna Jones lives in North Carolina, and has owned horses for over thirty years. She enjoys everything from trail riding to schooling shows with her Quarter Horse, Bucky, and is currently learning more about the hunters. When not at the barn, Anna can be found writing her first fiction book about horses or working in her garden.