Dear Jessica, thank you so much for HORSE-SENSE, it's kept me out of trouble more times than I like to admit. Because of you, after five years of subscribing to HORSE-SENSE and reading your books I finally had the courage to buy my own place and bring my horses home. I'm SO HAPPY NOW!!!! I just had to tell you that!
Now that I'm a farm-owner, and I still get chills when I think that I have my own place, even though it's only five acres, I have room for four horses. The place I bought had a little barn with two stalls that we thought were pretty much wrecked, and my husband added on to the barn and built two more stalls from kits. Then he decided to fool around with the wrecked stalls, and once he pulled all the junk out and replaced the stall door latches and a couple dozen boards, suddenly we had a barn with four stalls! You know what happens when you have empty stalls? EVERYBODY wants to keep their horses there. We always said NO we weren't going to run a boarding barn, but now I am thinking maybe I would like to keep a friend's horses for her. She's a really good friend and she's going through a divorce that looks like it is going to last a long time, she isn't too happy with her boarding stable (it's where I used to board before I got my own place) because the horses don't get turned out every day and she doesn't have time to ride right now because of all the divorce stuff going on, which seems like it's going to go on forever, plus it's a really expensive barn and she has to cut back. I think it could work to have her horses here because they are really sweet horses and before I moved my horses home, her horses and mine used to get turned out together at the boarding stable so I know they get along fine.
So here is my problem. I would like to do this for her but my husband says that it's a slippery slope and that the most likely results are that I will lose a friend or lose money or both! I know what he means, but this is a really good friend and I can't imagine us NOT being friends. Still, my husband is a very intelligent and perceptive guy, and he's been around horses and boarding stables as long as he's known me, which is about fifteen years now, so he knows what he's talking about. We talked about having boarders ages ago when we first realized that we could have four stalls after all. I thought that having two boarding horses might help me make enough money to pay for the outdoor arena I want to put in, but he said it wouldn't be worth the trouble. This time, after a lot of discussion, he agreed that Carol (not her real name) can keep her horses here since she is such a good friend but ONLY IF we can write up a good contract and if we don't actually lose money by keeping her horses. We don't want to make a profit off her, but we don't want to be out extra money. We couldn't charge very much over the basic costs because we don't have an arena to ride in, even outdoors, just a little field that we can ride in when the horses are up at the barn. So we would probably just charge her what it cost us to keep her horses. Does that make sense to you, and do you think that there is a way for us to do this? Since I've never had boarders before, I don't really know where to begin. Help, please!
Before you make a final decision about boarding your friend's horses, here are some things you should consider (I'm assuming that you have already considered any questions of zoning!).
First, whatever you decide to do, know that you should have a contract. People change, situations change, emotions change. Your friend is going through a divorce, you say - I'll bet that on her wedding day, she said "I do" and really believed it was forever. I'm sure that she didn't say "I will.... for a while... until I don't, or until he doesn't!" And yet.. there's a divorce in progress now.
Second, work out ALL the financial implications, and discuss them thoroughly with your husband, before you talk to your friend. Then, if you still want to make the offer to keep her horses, sit down with her and apprise HER of all the financial implications.
It's kind of you to want to help your friend, and I agree that you keeping her horses for her could definitely save her some money, but it won't necessarily save her much money or even any money at all. The good will between you won't last if either side feels that the other one is taking advantage. Your husband is right - you need to be sure that you aren't losing money. It's fine to help your friend by boarding her horses for the actual cost involved, but be sure that you AND your friend have an accurate idea of what that cost will be.
Do you know what it costs you to keep YOUR two horses at home? Have you figured in everything - the hay and grain and salt and supplements, the bedding, the electricity it takes to run the tank water heaters in winter? Do you budget for a certain amount of damage each year - a few boards chewed or broken, a cracked muck bucket, a replacement handle for the pitchfork? How about manure disposal? With four horses instead of two, you'll have twice as much manure. If you pay someone to remove it, you'll need to take the extra expense into account. If you spread it on your field, you'll need to figure that the cost of operating your tractor (gas, oil, etc.) will double, and take THAT into account. If you compost it, good for you - but you may need larger bins unless yours are already oversize, and you will need to figure in your time, as well.
There will be more wear and tear on your pasture if you have more horses. You may need to seed and/or fertilize more, or more often, or both. You'll spend more time - with four horses instead of two, twice as much time - picking manure out of the pastures and turnouts.
There will also be more wear and tear on your riding area - I know that you don't have an actual arena, but if you use your small field for riding, it's going to show the effects sooner or later, and the effects will be much greater if there are four horses being ridden on it instead of two.
TIME. Deworming four horses instead of two, holding four horses for the vet and farrier, putting halters on, taking halters off, blanketing, feeding... every single thing you do is going to take twice as long. Figure this in from the very beginning, because if you don't, you may come to feel that your friend is taking advantage of you.
The fact that you have a small place, with only two horses of your own, actually works against you.
At a large barn, with mobile feed carts, manure wagons, and such, adding another horse or two doesn't increase the costs so dramatically. Since it takes incrementally less time and money - the difference between feeding and cleaning up after thirty horses instead of twenty-eight, say, won't be enormous. But at a small barn, where you probably buy your hay 100 bales at a time and move it by hand, one bale at a time, and where the manure buckets are filled and dumped by hand (YOUR hand), and where YOU are probably 100% of "the staff", the addition of "just two" horses will double your work and the time it takes to complete it. And before you say "Oh, that's just TIME", take a moment to think about what that means.
TIME is something that people often forget to consider when keeping horses for friends. TIME is also one of the few things that you may - notice that I say "may", because it isn't true for everyone - have the luxury of giving to your friend. But without even figuring in your time, let's look at the cash expenses.
IN THE SHORT TERM, you'll be dealing with the additional expenses associated with the two new horses: the extra amount you will now be paying for feed, bedding, water, and electricity.
FEED and BEDDING cost you twice - once when you buy them, and once when you dispose of the manure. You'll be making more trips to the feed store (more time, and more oil and gas for your car or truck), and spending more time stacking hay bales. Removing manure from stalls, runs, paddocks, and pastures takes twice as long when there's twice as much of it. Even if you can spread it on your own land, it's going to take twice as long to do that - and you'll need twice as much gas for your tractor.
WATER may not cost you extra, if you have a good well or wells on your property, but you need to keep your well's capacity in mind when you think about adding more water-consumers to the property, whether they are new trees or additional horses. It's possible that you may not be able to have both. And water, even from your own well, isn't entirely free - filling water tanks means running the water, which means running the pump, which uses... electricity. Is there a time factor here? Yes - someone has to scrub the water tanks when they are dirty, and fill them when they are empty. Two tanks instead of one, or four tanks instead of two, means twice as much time.
ELECTRICITY may not seem like a big problem - after all, you turn on the barn lights to clean your own horses' stalls and to feed them, so it's not a big deal to have them on a little bit longer... or is it? The problem, again, is that it's not a small incremental "longer", it's twice as long - and it's not just the lights. A lot of other things use electricity - clippers, for instance. In the cold winter, you are probably paying a higher electricity bill because of the need for tank- or bucket- water heaters; in the hot summer, you can also have a higher bill if you put fans in the stalls. The water pump will be running twice as long whenever you need to water your horses. Whatever the cost has been for your own two horses, figure on doubling it when you have four horses to look after. Who will pay the difference?
IN THE LONG TERM, you'll need to consider the impact of twice as many horses on your property - the physical property, that is. Every additional horse has an impact on the barn, on the pasture, on the arena, on the paddocks, on the footing AND the fencing, everywhere. If you buy grass seed, you'll need more of it - those extra eight hooves will destroy a lot of roots. You may need to add to your arena footing at regular intervals, especially if it's an outdoor arena. Footing has an annoying way of drifting out of arenas - and twice as much of it drifts away when there are four horses being worked in that arena instead of two. If you don't have an arena, or if you use part of a field as an arena, be aware that riding on that ground, which already destroys grass and compacts the soil, will destroy the grass and compact the soil at a faster rate. Four horses, walking down the gravel path between the barn and the paddock, or the barn and the arena, or the barn and the pasture, will make more holes than two horses - twice as many, in fact. A few tons of gravel here or there may not make or break you, but you need to be aware of the extra expense involved. Who will pay the difference? There's a time factor here, too. Unless you are a professional dog-walker or groom for a polo player, you will probably not be comfortable trying to lead four horses at once - so if it takes you ten minutes to complete the task of taking one pair of horses from the barn to the paddock, realize that this will now take you... yes, you knew this was coming.... twice as long.
WITH ANY HORSES, you need a bit of extra money for those times when something has to be replaced - a board gets chewed and split, or is kicked and breaks in half; a metal-tubing panel or gate gets bent in half when someone's horse slides in the mud and sits on it suddenly. A blanket is demolished, by its wearer or by another horse, and has to be replaced. Stall, gate, fence, or blanket hardware needs replacing. A water bucket cracks because someone slapped it against the wall to remove the ice... a manure bucket cracks on a very cold day, and has to be replaced - and so on, and so forth. This is all normal, everyday, to-be-expected wear and tear, but you'll need money to do the necessary patching, fixing, and replacing, and you'll need more money than you did with just your two horses on the place.
We won't mention profit, because there won't be any. Profit comes with a much larger facility - if you board eight or ten horses AND keep none of your own, there might be a profit - or, if you factor in a payment for your time (even at fast-food counter rates), there may be no profit at all. If there IS a profit, even then, it's going to be very, very small - small-change small. In fact, if you dropped your entire monthly profit from your change purse on a cold, rainy day, you might not even bother to pick up such a small coin. Very few horse boarding facilities can support themselves; very few even come close. The ones that DO tend to be either very large, or charge a high price for board and a high price for (required) lessons, or both.
Your facility isn't in that category, so let's take a closer look at the amount you will need to charge per horse - and why. Let's say that you live in one of the less expensive areas of the country, and that you don't have an indoor arena - or even an outdoor arena, just a driveway or a field or a reasonably quiet country road. Let's say that you keep the horses outside as much of the time as you possibly can. You won't be sending out the $1,000-plus monthly board bill that you might if you owned a fancier facility elsewhere - let's say that you're charging a modest $250 per horse per month. Before you shake your head and say that you would NEVER charge your friend that much just to keep her horses on your property, read the rest of this letter.
$250 per month, per horse. Where does the money go?
Right off the top, at least $100 and possibly $150 or more will go for feed. Here again, you're at a disadvantage if you don't have a LOT of horses on the place. When you order hay by the thousands of bales, and grain by the many tons, you spend much less per horse, per feeding, than when you order your hay a few hundred bales at a time and buy four or five bags of oats from the feedstore each week. You don't have a chance to get a bulk discount on anything, and if you feed good hay and oats, it won't be cheap. Your hay may cost you $4 or more for a small bale, and even if it costs you considerably less, say $3.50/bale., when it's being consumed at the rate of half a bale per horse per day, you're approaching $100 a month just for the hay - that's $1200 a year. Salt may cost no more than a dollar or so per month, so that's not a large expense, but don't forget to figure it in. Grain is costly. There was a time when oats cost a good deal less, but in many areas today, you will pay between $9 and $14 for a 50-pound bag of good oats. If you pay $12, and a horse gets even 6 pounds of oats each day (and many horses get much more), that's going to cost $1.60 a day per horse. It doesn't sound like much... but at the end of a week, that's $11 and a bit, and at the end of a YEAR, it's close to $600. And that's assuming that the price doesn't go up again, which is never a safe assumption.
Right, then, it's costing you $1800 per year, per horse, to feed good hay and good oats. Divide that by 12, and you'll know what you should charge for FEED: $150. That's your COST for feed for one horse for one month. The rest is profit, right? Not exactly.
Bedding costs will vary according to what you use, where you are located, and how much bedding a given horse needs, but if you use shavings, it will probably cost you another $30-$60 a month per horse. The difference will be determined by the quality of the shavings, and by whether you have a storage area that will allow you to have the shavings delivered in bulk, whether loose from the sawmill or baled and on pallets. If you buy your shavings at the feed store, ten or twenty or fifty bales at a time, you'll be paying top price for them, and that's what you will need to charge just to get back your COST.
So - $150 for feed, say $45 for bedding. You're already up to $195 per horse. Do you think that you're left with $55 profit? Would you care to bet on that?
Think about your time, and be aware of how much you put in, even if you don't charge for it. Even if you're an ace stall cleaner and have a cooperative, relatively tidy horse, it will take 15 or 20 minutes each day to clean out ONE stall, sprinkle Sweet PDZ (figure that into the accounts, by the way - you pay for that too) on the damp spots, add fresh bedding, remove cobwebs, and put away the cleaning tools. 20 minutes a day x 2 horses is 40 minutes a day. 40 minutes a day x 7 days is 4.66 hours... multiply that times 52 weeks and you get roughly 243 hours. If you charge even $5 an hour (you'd have to pay someone a lot more than that to do the work for you), that's another $23.30 per week... which, IF you were charging for your time at the not-particularly-princely rate of $5 per hour, would come to $1,212 per year for the two horses ($606 each, or $50.50 per month). If you don't want to charge your friend for your work, fine - but both of you should be aware that your labour, even paid at the extremely low rate of $5 per hour, would come to $50.50 a month per horse.
For our own purposes here - very basic math - let's add that amount to the total so far. Up to now, it's all cost - no profit.
$195 plus $50.50 = $245.50 At this point, you're looking at a possible profit of 50 cents - or are you?
Remember the discussion of electricity and general wear and tear? This is where you figure those costs and add them to your total. The electricity DOES run anyway - but not as much for two horses as for four. Your two horses DO put some wear on the grass, the paths, the fences, etc. - but only half as much as four horses. And depending on the size and condition of your pastures and paddocks, the difference between keeping two horses and keeping four horses may mean the difference between maintaining grass fields and maintaining drylots/mudlots. If your grass areas become dirt, you will still need to remove the manure, but your horses will be entirely dependent on hay for their forage, all year round, and if there is no grazing, you may need to provide more hay.
Let's go back to the question of time - your time. When the farrier, vet, and dentist come to call, someone has to hold the horses for them. If fly masks or blankets are required, someone has to put them on the horses and take them off again. Even halters need to be put on and removed, sometimes several times each day - and that, too, takes time.
And now, just when you were hoping that by NOT factoring in ANY of your time, you could still charge your friend $200 or less per month without incurring your husband's wrath, I have one word to say to you:
Are you insured? HOW are you insured, and for how much, and by whom? Your homeowner's insurance would proabably cover you if your friend came to visit and slipped on the sidewalk and hurt herself, but the minute you factor horses into the equation, you need more, bigger, better, and above all, DIFFERENT insurance.
Managing horses is risky in a lot of ways, and you've just added another one. The second you board someone else's horses, you're operating on a commercial level. I know that you don't feel like a business-owner, keeping a couple of extra horses doesn't FEEL commercial - you want to do a favour for a friend, you're going to charge her nothing beyond the actual cost of keeping her horses on your property, and you have no desire to make a profit. That's all well and good, but even you do everything on a barter basis, even if she pays you in hours of babysitting or by cooking all your meals or painting your house, even if not one penny of actual money ever changes hands, you're still, legally speaking, operating a horse business (and as far as taxes are concerned, you'll owe tax on the "income" that you receive, whether you get it as money or as barter). If you have someone else's horses on your property, you're involved in a business activity. Insurance companies see it this way, and so do lawyers, and if your friend gets hurt, or if one of her friends gets hurt, or if her horse gets out and someone - anyone - gets hurt, YOU will be on the receiving end of a lawsuit. According to one of my insurance-specialist acquaintances, even accepting a retired horse as a "companion animal" for your own horse counts as a commercial activity.
So - before you take on your friend's horses, talk to your insurance agent, talk to your lawyer, and if possible, talk to an insurance agent who specializes in commercial equine liability policies, and to a lawyer who specializes in equine law. If your good friend and insurance agent, the same person who has insured your house for years, says "Oh, you're probably fine", don't relax. You may NOT be fine. Ask your agent to CHECK and BE SURE.
There are some ways to minimize the cost of your insurance - if your facility and its management, including electrical wiring, fences, signage, etc. AND your stable rules, enforcement, safety policies and procedures, are up to the standards of the insurance company, if you hold a certificate in stable management or riding instruction or both, you may get a break on your insurance costs. But a break may mean a discount of 15% on a largeish bill, and that isn't much help if you weren't expecting a largeish bill in the first place.
Can you get by without insurance? For a while, maybe, but you'll be putting your personal finances at risk. Your homeowner's insurance may not be enough - you may still be exposed to potential liability.
We live in a country that seems to be the homeland of silly lawsuits, and even a VERY silly lawsuit can be very costly. To avoid the financial risks associated with lawsuits (legitimate or otherwise), you'll need insurance. Talk to your insurance provider about a Commercial Equine Liability policy. There are other types of policies that you may need as well, or that may be more suitable - Farm & Ranch for your property and equipment, Care, Custody, and Control for your friend's horses as long as they are living on your farm. You can get most horse-related policies together or separately, for varying amounts of coverage - talk to a professional, and be sure that you understand exactly what you need and exactly what your coverage will be.
Even if you don't sign up immediately, at least fill out the forms and find out what the necessary insurance will cost you. Then take the total amount of that premium - say $1200 a year (it might be considerably more). That's another hundred dollars a month that you will need, EVERY month, as a direct result of keeping your friend's horses on your farm. Where will it come from? If you pay it, your husband is going to be very unhappy. If your friend pays it, at the rate of an additional $50 for EACH of her two horses, she may find that board at YOUR farm is going to cost her at least as much as, and possibly more than, board at the more expensive facility where her horses live now.
Having your own farm and keeping your horses there is a wonderful experience, and I'm so pleased for you. Keeping horses for a friend - or friends - can also be a wonderful experience - or it can mean the end of a friendship. If the divorce is unpleasant but not financially crippling, it's quite possible that your friend will be happy to pay whatever it costs to have her horses kept safely, by people she can trust. It's also entirely possible that a monthly board bill of $300 per horse is substantially less than she is paying now, in which case you WILL be helping her to economize. But it wouldn't be realistic for any of you to imagine that you could, safely and responsibly, keep your friend's horses for LESS than the actual cost to you, and it's important for you, your husband, and your friend to realize what your cost IS.
Whatever you decide to do, I hope you enjoy your horses and your farm for many years - and, again, congratulations!
Back to top.
Jessica Jahiel's HORSE-SENSE is a free, subscriber-supported electronic Q&A email newsletter which deals with all aspects of horses, their management, riding, and training. For more information, please visit www.horse-sense.org
Please visit Jessica Jahiel: Holistic Horsemanship® [www.jessicajahiel.com] for more information on Jessica Jahiel's clinics, video lessons, phone consultations, books, articles, columns, and expert witness and litigation consultant services.