Who’s to blame when boarding situations go bad?

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Friday’s Opinion

Twenty three years ago, I lived in a city without the land to house my horse, let alone those of clients. I found an affordable and pleasant place that was a fifteen minute drive, well-equipped and owned by a kind, older couple. They weren’t riders, or horse owners, but had invested in the land and business to provide additional income and a retirement nest egg. The stable owners were willing to rent stalls at a reasonable rate while I provided full care for the horses (where I split up morning and evening feeding duties with another in the barn with a similar arrangement). Fortunately, I was there on a daily basis.

Founder fears

One morning when I arrived, a client horse was starting to founder. This was puzzling as the culprit was a young horse being started under saddle, feed and turn-out was supplied and controlled by me and this gal had never exhibited any signs of health issues or discomfort. As I’m panicked trying to get this horse to stand in a tub of ice, waiting too long for the vet’s arrival and worrying about how I’m going to explain this to the owner, the wife was ever-present declaring she was ‘in flounder.’ Bit my tongue on sniping at her with a correction in the frenzy. Turns out, she had been secretly sneaking huge quantities of alfalfa hay to this gal without my knowledge. There was no malice involved, but a good deal of stupidity in the mix. Fortunately, the horse was treated quickly enough to recover fully.

Who takes care of your riding horse?

It’s always puzzling for me to hear self-proclaimed horse lovers produce a myriad of excuses as to why they haven’t seen their horse in days, weeks and sometimes even months. Even if you assume the boarding facility is providing excellent care (which isn’t always a given), domesticated horses need attention and engagement. That’s something most stables don’t have the time or the budget (unless you’re paying them for this too) to do. Sure, most expect the barn to see and address health issues immediately, but it’s better to be informed and present to help address concerns they may miss because sometimes, they just don’t know.

I hear a lot of complaints online about what a boarding stable isn’t doing, followed by a bevy responses condemning the facility and absolving the horse owner. Of course, my first reaction is – why do you stay there? Usually it’s about money. My second is, what are you doing to fix this? Most shudder at the idea of picking up a pitchfork when they visit if the stall isn’t clean enough. Others claim their horse must have been mistreated in their absence because he’s weary of an owner he sees only on sunny weekends when the kids don’t have a soccer game. Still more cite that their horse has picked up bad habits and it must be the staff that created this problem, never considering that a horse locked in a stall with no attention for weeks might be a bit frustrated and bored and prone to pick up behaviors to help him deal.

Shipping out-of-state

Sometimes you simply can’t see your horse daily because he’s hundreds or thousands of miles away at a breeding, training or sales facility.

I’m still learning. Last year I sent a beautiful mare to points south for a live breed. I did it all wrong. I was too busy to make the long drive to visit the facility prior to shipping. Those recommending the breeder to me had never actually sent one of their horses there (which I discovered later). It didn’t occur to me to stipulate I expected e-mails and phone calls to be returned and/or to be contacted in the event of injury to the horse. From the condition of the horse’s feet on her return, I realized I also should have asked if they remove manure and urine from the stalls and run-in sheds.

When an e-mail arrived indicating the mare had been dead lame for a week, but they had finally determined it was an abscess, I was scared. The next e-mail, lambasting me for offering ideas on how to doctor her, put me in a panic. I spent hours on the phone and dug deep into my pocket for the emergency shipping request, but managed to get her back here within 48 hours.

It wasn’t an abscess, it was a puncture wound that had gone untreated for at least a week. She’s still not sound. All four frogs were practically gone. What was left was peeling off like an onion skin. She had lost weight and the sheen to her coat. Her eyes were empty and it took me a good four months to begin to get her spirit back. She brought lice (something we’ve never had here) back to the barn. Mostly, though, I’m sick about what I put this mare through. It served as a wake-up call that sadly had horrible resulting affects on this poor mare, but it’s a mistake I will not make again. This wasn’t a malicious breeder, just an arrogant, dumb one. Rarely will you find a situation that hurts your horse where it is intentional.

There’s a lot you can do to lessen the likelihood of an issue. Visit the stables (preferably without a lot of notice) prior to sending your horse. Talk to others to gain from their experience. Do a Google search on the farm. Opt for chilled semen instead of live cover (not possible with TBs yet, but give it time). Get a signed contract in advance and be clear on emergency procedures and associated fees, how often and easily they will communicate with you and stabling and other standard care issues.

Own your horse’s well-being

If you truly value your horse as a partner and friend, don’t relegate care and handling to another, even if you pay for board. When shipping is necessary, do your homework. When things go wrong because you’ve abdicated responsibility for your horse (and they will eventually), it’s you and your horse that suffer the most.

Today’s horses need our attentiveness, attention and contact to ensure a happy, healthy, safe and appreciated life. Weekends only doesn’t work well with most equines. They have been domesticated for too many years to enjoy unfettered freedom that feels like neglect and carry too many of the old instincts to be comfortable enclosed by four walls with no outlet or stimulation for energy and mind. A pretty place or slick talker doesn’t ensure your horse is getting the right care. Sometimes, seeing a horse you know so well in the early stages of a problem can mean the difference between quick and appropriate care and euthanasia. Plus, your horse will likely be a much more willing, eager and impressive performer for you if you show you care by being there – or ensuring someone else can and will if you are absent or must send him away.

Please share your ideas for best practices – or horror stories – in the comments below.

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