Back in September, Stacey at Behind the Bit posed the question, “Co-op barns: why aren’t there more of them?” I’ve been thinking about a response ever since.
I’ve been at a co-op barn for the past eight years. For the most part, it’s been an incredibly good experience. Before moving there, I drove 25 minutes each way to the full service barn where I kept Kroni. The commute seriously cut into my riding time, limiting the number of days that I could even get there. The cost was high and the care was good but not exceptional. The real benefits to me were the indoor arena, the outdoor arena and jumps, the accessibility of trainers, and the companionship of other riders.
My move to the co-op was driven by cost: when barn raised the board and decided to charge me $50/month to park my trailer (a benefit that had been free), that brought the total cost of boarding to $775 per month before any additional charges had been factored in. I started looking around and found a small co-op barn just minutes from my house. I had little interest in being in a “backyard barn” but when I went to look at it, I was struck by the beauty of the property. I thought it worth a try and they offered to let me try it for two weeks with no long-term commitment.
I wasn’t sure that I’d like it. Despite the fact that I’d owned horses and ridden horses for 25 years, I’d never been completely responsible for my horse’s care. I had always let the barn handle decisions about what and how much to feed, when to worm, and had the barn owner meet with the farrier and the vet. I thought I’d miss my riding friends.
It was certainly different from anything I’d experienced before, but my horse and I loved it right from the start. I loved the convenience. I could pop over to the barn, ride and be home in less than an hour and a half. I loved having more control over my horse’s diet: some research into equine nutrition helped me design a regime that was healthier for him. I enjoyed riding on the trails and in the fields rather than making circles in a ring. My barn is right on the town’s trail system, which makes it easy to explore. During the winter months I rediscovered the joy of riding in snow and only missed the indoor when it was really icy. I liked my barnmates and didn’t suffer from riding friend withdrawal. Not having a resident trainer saved me money and made me more independent.
Most importantly, my horse thrived. He loved having more turn out. When I first moved him there, the horses went out from 8 a.m. to about 6 p.m.; over time we moved to 24/7 turnout with access to stalls. I was able to purchase better quality hay and feed him more of it. And I felt a closer bond with him than I’d ever had when he was boarded out.
The co-op arrangement is easier than keeping your horses at home because you get to share the work (and there’s plenty of it!). At my barn, each owner is responsible for feeding the horses (bringing them in and turning them back out) about three times a week. Everyone is responsible for mucking stalls and pasture clean up, but depending on each person’s schedule, they generally have a day or two when they don’t need to be at the barn. After taking care of my own horse I do have more respect for the amount of work that goes into a boarding facility: there is an endless quantity of manure that must be moved, hay bales to stack and floors and cobwebs to sweep. You need to order feed, schedule the vet and farrier and be at the barn to meet them. I also understand why commercial facilities limit hay: it’s expensive!
So why don’t more people do it? I think for many people the amount of work involved makes it a non-starter. I work at home and have the luxury of setting my own hours. I feed the horses after I drop my daughter off at school and can spend the next hour doing barn chores and enjoying the peace of the mornings. It’s a great way to start the day.
Another issue is the tremendous responsibility that you take on by caring for other people’s horses. In a co-op barn, you are the barn manager and when something happens on your watch, you sometimes need to make decisions about the care of other people’s horses. Inevitably, issues arise: horses escape from their pastures, horses colic, horses come up lame, etc. You need to trust that the people who are part of your co-op will make good decisions, even if they are not always the same decisions you would make.
People make mistakes, too. So a sense of proportion is critical. Several times I’ve had people feed my horses incorrectly, even though their grain was in pre-mixed and in bags. Once, someone fed them two pounds of Purina Athlete, a high-fat, high protein supplement instead of grain, which put me on founder watch for 48 hours. Other times I found the grain room door open, gates left unlatched, or come in the morning to discover that someone forgot to feed the night before. I once sat bolt upright in bed at 11:45 p.m. suddenly remembering that I was supposed to feed and drove over in my nightgown and bathrobe! Sometimes it’s difficult not to overreact to a situation, but if no one is hurt, you have to choose your battles.
Co-op barns are also not immune to barn drama. Think about it. People who own horses are often passionate about their care; but they may not be rational. At a commercial barn, you live by their rules. At a co-op barn sometimes everyone wants to live by their own rules! It’s important to find a group of people who are like-minded in their approach to horse care. If you have some people who feed free choice hay and others who only want their horse to have a flake or two at a meal, it’s difficult to reconcile the cost sharing and the turnout. Some co-ops do have rules to make it simpler. One that I know of has a no blanket rule: if you want your horse blanketed, it’s your responsibility.
Achieving consistency takes some planning. Some horses do fine when they are handled by different people; others need a routine. If you want/need your horse to be handled in a certain way, you need to communicate it clearly to other boarders. My pet peeve is that I want my horse to be led using a lead rope, not by the halter.
Plan ahead on how you will deal with special needs — say a horse that’s been injured or sick. Sometimes that means that people might need to change stalls or adjust their turnout schedule. You might state up front that in certain cases the barn isn’t equipped to offer enough support. One friend moved her horse to a barn that could provide the extra care needed when her horse was on stall rest. You can only ask so much from your barn mates.
Have a plan for vacations. Very few people are always available. Make some back up plans for who will do your chores when you are away. Sometimes your barn mates can cover for you, but I’ve found that it’s also helpful to have a horse sitter or two lined up in case you need them.
So, when entering into a co-op here are my tips:
- Communication is key. Make sure you clearly discuss your expectations and let people know what is most important to you. Hint: pick your top two or three, if your list is longer, you may find yourself labeled as difficult. If you are on a different schedule from some others in your barn, meet regularly to discuss issues before they become big deals.
- Make it as easy as possible. Pre-bag your horse’s rations so there is no confusion about what others should feed him. Print out special instructions and leave them posted by your horse’s stall. And try to keep it simple: for example, don’t ask for multiple blanket changes!
- Be prepared to compromise. Co-op barns only work well when everyone co-operates. Having horses is like raising kids; there are many ways to raise them successfully, so don’t try to dictate every last thing.
- Do your share. The times when I’ve seen problems is when someone doesn’t do (or is perceived as not doing) their share of the work. Perversely, it also doesn’t work when someone does more than their share. Often times that person then feels like they should be “owed” while others feel that doing more than what was asked was either unnecessary, or that person’s choice. The resentment cuts both ways.
- Trust your barn mates. If you don’t, then there’s something wrong with the co-op. If you choose people who have common sense, courtesy and a strong sense of responsibility you are most of the way there.
- Enjoy having a closer relationship with your horse and learning a lot about horse care. It definitely adds to the experience and, in my opinion, makes you a better horseperson.