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Cost of boarding a foal

From: Larry

Dear Jessica, my wife and I run a boarding stable with thirty stalls. Joyce is the one in charge, she's the horse person and most of what I know about horses I have learned from her. Ever since we opened this boarding stable we have been keeping a log book to keep track of our income and expenses etc. We are pretty well on top of things and usually if we don't agree on something we sit down and talk it out. I usually defer to Joyce because she's the expert. Right now I think we are about to work up to an argument about something and it's not a good time for that so I am hoping that you can set us straight before we even get to arguing. The reason it isn't a good time now is that Joyce is not here, her mother has Alzheimer's (her dad died about ten years ago) and Joyce is away for two months trying to get Lydia's house sold and her belongings into storage so she can bring Lydia back here with her and get her settled into a nursing home that's close enough for us to visit every day. Joyce and I talk every night but as long as she is out of state and under a lot of stress with Lydia I just want to be able to say "Everything here is fine" and give her only good news. So I don't want to bring this up to her yet which is why I want to hand it over to you. Sorry if that seems pushy but I want some good advice and I don't want to bother Joyce right now.

The situation here is that one of our boarders with two horses has been with us for almost five years. We have been open for seven years. Now she has a pregnant mare. She didn't know the mare was pregnant when she bought her, she bought her at auction to replace one of her two horses that died. (Nothing bad happened, the horse was almost 30 years old is why it died.) Linda bought this mare at auction and lo and behold we find out six months later that there's a foal coming. Linda is a good boarder and a friend, so I want this to work out okay for her, but we have to look after ourselves and our business too. So I need to know what would be fair to charge for boarding a foal. Joyce and I agreed when we opened this place that we were not going to pro-rate feed, we have one price for board so a boarder with a horse that's an easy keeper pays the same as a boarder with a horse that eats a lot, because it just makes all the bookkeeping one heck of a lot easier and we can feed the horses what they need and not have to worry about how much feed their owners paid for.

Linda is a friend and I would like to give her a break since she didn't know she was all of a sudden going to have three horses instead of two. I don't know anything about foals except that they are small and drink milk from their mothers, so would it be right to guess that a foal isn't going to eat a whole lot or take up a lot of room or be much trouble? Or is that wrong? If you can give me some advice, it would help me a lot. I would like to not have to bother Joyce with any of this but I don't want to make a bad decision, horses are complicated and sometimes I know just enough to be dangerous if you know what I mean! So what is the least I could charge for boarding the new foal, and is there anything special I should know about keeping a foal? If there's nothing involved except letting it follow its mother around, maybe we could just not charge anything for a while, or would that be a bad idea?

Thanks, Jessica. We rely on your advice a lot, so I know whatever you tell me will be fine with Joyce.


Hi Larry! Congratulations on your boarding stable - if you've made it to that seven-year mark and things are going well, you must be doing something right. You are kind to want to give Linda a break, but please don't make any decision that you may regret later. Before you decide how much (or whether) to charge to keep a foal, you need to understand a lot more about what would be involved in keeping a foal on your property.

You're right, foals DO drink milk from their mothers, and they don't eat very large amounts of feed until after they are weaned. However, there's more to the story than that. Foals have other requirements, and they really do take quite a lot of looking-after, and it all means extra work for someone (you?). I don't know how much of the foal's care Linda is planning to take on, but here are some of the things you will all need to consider:

STALL: Mares and foals shouldn't be KEPT in stalls - foals need to be brought up outdoors, where fresh air and constant movement will help them grow up healthy and sound - but they should have a large stall AVAILABLE to them for those occasions when a stall is actually needed. In good weather, the mare and foal can be turned out together; in bad weather, they will still need to be together, but if the weather is bad enough to endanger the horses or your pastures, you'll want to put the animals indoors, and that's where the stall comes into the picture. The mare's stall won't be big enough for two if it's just an ordinary 12x12 stall. If you don't have a foaling stall of a suitable size for the mare to foal in and the mare and foal to spend time in together, you may need to remove the partition between two 12x12 stalls to create a larger stall. Whether you charge extra for this will depend on several things - how much work you have to do to create the additional space and then "foal-proof" the stall, and whether you would have used the other stall for another boarded horse if you hadn't needed that space for the foal. If your barn has a foaling stall or a double-sized stall that normally stays empty, or if the stall next to the mare's is normally empty, and you can remove the partition and double the size of the stall without inconveniencing yourself or losing any actual or potential income, that's great. But if you have to rebuild a stall, or add a stall, and if each month that the mare and foal have access to that double-sized stall means a month of lost income for you, then you will probably need to charge for the extra space. This isn't about the size or age of the animal in the stall, and it's not about how much time the animal spends in the stall. At most barns, a stall is, well, a stall, and the horse's owner is expected to pay board (rent) for the stall whether the horse in it is a pony or a Percheron, and whether it is in the stall for one hour a week or twenty-three hours out of each twenty-four. Also, I have to say that a good boarding barn with empty stalls is a rare sight - as you undoubtedly know, at any given time, you're far more likely to have a long waiting list than an empty stall!

TURNOUT: Foals need exercise - as do their mothers. If Linda's mare has been in a field by herself, adding a foal to her field shouldn't be a problem (unless the fencing is unsafe for foals - more about this in a minute). If she's been sharing a field with a group of other horses, will you be able to turn her out in another field with her baby for a few months? Will doing this cut down on the amount of time your other boarders' horses spend in turnout? How many fields do you have, and are they used for riding as well as turnout? What happens when weather conditions make it necessary to close the fields for a day or a week or two weeks or a month? Where do your boarders ride their horses, and where do they turn them out? If you have thirty horses and (say) five turnout fields, what happens when you have to take one field off the list of turnouts because you're using it as a designated mare-and-foal full-time turnout? Will you be turning out horses in larger groups, or turning the same groups out for shorter times? Either way, your boarders may be unhappy.

FENCING: If you live in a warm climate and Linda's mare is already outdoors, living in a field with a three-sided shelter for protection against wind and weather, leaving the mare and foal in the field together may be an option. But not all fences that work well for adult horses are safe for foals, and foal-proofing a fence can be expensive and a lot of work. If your fence is V-mesh or no-climb, good for you, but if it's, say, a wooden fence and the lowest board is more than a foot off the ground, foal-proofing will probably mean adding a bottom board all the way around. If it's "field fence" - wire with 4"x4" gaps - then even adult horses with large feet will be at risk, and foals shouldn't be allowed anywhere near it. If the only field with foal-safe fencing also happens to double as your outdoor arena, what happens when it's suddenly off-limits to your boarders because it's housing a mare and foal?

FEED and SUPPLEMENTS: Foals drink milk, yes. They also nibble at their mothers' feed and hay. A foal won't eat much at first, just a few mouthfuls of hay and grain here and there, since the mare's milk will be its main source of nourishment, but for a lactating mare to maintain her condition, she'll need to be given quite a lot of feed, especially for the first few months. One of my own mares - normally a very easy keeper who maintains her weight well on pasture in summer and hay in winter - delights in motherhood because for the last month of pregnancy and the first few months of lactation, she actually does get to eat twice as much as usual. I realize that you have a "one charge fits all" policy when it comes to feed, but this IS something you should think about. Boarding is not usually a very profitable operation, and it doesn't take much to tip a small boarding stable from the black into the red.

Sometimes vets recommend a particular type of feed, or a particular feed supplement, or both, for a foal - that all costs money, too. So does the "foal feeder" or creep feed area that allows the foal to eat whilst preventing the mare from getting access to the foal's feed. Who will pay for the foal's feed and/or supplements? Who will buy and install the foal feeder, or build the creep-feed area?

MEDICAL CARE AND HOOF CARE: Foals get visits from the vet. Foals get visits from the farrier - and should actually get them more often than do the adult horses. Even if the other horses at the barn are on an eight-week hoofcare schedule, the foal should be on a three- or four- or, at most, five-week hoof-trimming schedule. All of this costs money.

OWNER RESPONSIBILITIES: You'll need to talk with Linda and be sure that you and she are "on the same page" regarding who is expected to do what for the foal. If the fence needs to be "foal-proofed," if you need to build a creep feed area in the pasture and/or install a special foal feeder in the stall, who will pay for the materials and labour? If the farrier has to be bribed to come out between regularly-scheduled visits to meet the needs of one small foal, who will pay the extra? What about the vet care? It's generally best if the boarder pays the vet and farrier herself, even if you are the one who schedules their visits. In the case of a foal, the boarder should probably plan to be there for each vet and farrier visit, to hold her own foal and discuss its needs with the vet and farrier. This brings up yet another area of owner responsibility: foals need to learn how to behave around humans, how to wear halters, be held, move forward and backward and sideways, and stand quietly and allow their feet to be picked up and other body parts to be handled. This requires regular personal time and effort on the part of SOMEONE - barn owner, trainer, or horse owner. Be clear about whose responsibility this is, because you do NOT want the farrier or vet to ask you to come out and hold a leaping, hopping three-month old foal that hasn't seen a halter or a lead rope, or indeed been handled or even brushed, since the last time the farrier or vet was out...

You and Joyce need to discuss this at some length, then discuss your conclusions and decisions with Linda. Much will depend on your facility, fences, capacity, and climate, and on your willingness to become involved in foal care. It may just be too much work for everyone involved, or too much expense for everyone involved, and it's possible that the solution would be to have Linda take her pregnant mare elsewhere, perhaps to a farm that routinely does breeding and brings up foals - someplace that is set up to meet her needs. If you decide to keep the foal at your facility, be sure that you all understand what changes and adjustments will be involved and who will be responsible.

HOW MUCH TO CHARGE? I CAN'T TELL YOU... If your barn is already set up for mares and foals, then it will be easy, and you can charge Linda whatever amount seems fair to you. I know of barns that will keep a foal at no charge for six months or until it is weaned, whichever comes first, but at the point it requires a stall of its own, it becomes just another boarded horse, and the owner pays full board. I also know of barns in warm climates where there are no stalls at all - foals live with their mothers in one field, and share a shelter in bad weather; after weaning, the mares are in a separate field and the foals are all together in their familiar field, but with a couple of old geldings as babysitters.

If the barn owners are the ones who handle and groom the foals, teach them to lead, hold them for the farrier and the vet, etc., then it's entirely possible that the charge for a suckling and then a weanling foal could be higher than the charge for an adult horse - remember, the farrier comes more often, foal feed is often more expensive than feed for adult horses, and the training time must be taken into account. I can't give you a dollar amount - I can just tell you that "reasonable" boarding fees for a four-month-old foal might be $150 or $350 depending on the individual farm and its facilities and services.

If Linda is a wise horse-owner, she probably already knows that "cheap" or even "free" does NOT necessarily mean saving money in the long run. Foals are great fun, but they are also quite labour-intensive little creatures, and when you add the cost of your time and effort to the extra costs involved in feeding a growing youngster appropriately and maintaining its hooves in balance... it can add up to quite a lot. Let me put if this way: IF your farm is already set up for foals (foaling stalls, oversized stalls, creep feed areas, foal feeders, foal-safe fencing, etc.), and IF a foal's owner takes full responsibility for keeping you supplied with any and all special foods or supplements the foal may need, AND is there in person to conduct the early training and socializing of the foal, AND is there in person at each vet and farrier visit to hold the foal for (and pay!) the vet and farrier, a suckling foal might cost you very little to keep - you might be able to afford to keep it for nothing until it's weaned. But if some or all of those conditions aren't met, keeping a suckling foal might easily cost you as much as keeping a weanling foal - that is to say, it might cost as much as OR MORE THAN keeping an adult horse.

YOU DIDN'T MENTION INSURANCE, BUT... Whilst you're talking with Joyce - and later, with Linda - you may also want to develop a barn policy about horse insurance. Some farms require that owners insure their foals (mortality and major medical), which adds (typically) several hundred dollars a year to the cost of ownership. I realize that Linda's mare is having a surprise foal by an unknown(?) stallion, so she's not in the same position as someone who invested a large sum of money in a broodmare and another large sum of money in stud fees and breeding expenses, but just in case you ever have to keep another foal on the property, it's something you might want to think about.

This "answer" probably created more questions than it answered, but there it is - it's a complicated situation.

I completely understand your wish to spare Joyce any extra stress or worry, but it would be best if you discussed this with her. It can be a pleasant discussion - why not just tell her about Linda's situation, give her an idea of when the mare is due, and then discuss my suggestions? For one thing, Joyce knows the farm and the facilities, and she may very well have other, better ideas. For another, she's going to be involved with this foal anyway, and it's quite possible that she'll be home with you again before the foal is even born, so she may be involved with that foal from Day One of its life. ;-) Finally, as long as no one is worried or upset about the impending arrival of a foal, Joyce may actually find this topic to be a cheerful break from her current concerns - new life is certainly a happier subject than moving a parent out of her own home and into a nursing home.

DO have a word with Linda, even before you talk with Joyce. Tell her that you and Joyce will discuss the situation and try to come up with a workable solution, but also tell her that on principle, it would be a good idea for her to look into alternative local boarding arrangements for the mare and foal in case there is no practical way to enable a young foal to live comfortably, happily, and SAFELY on your property without alienating your boarders and/or making many expensive changes. Show stables, racing stables, training stables, lesson barns, and, yes, boarding stables are examples of venues that are usually not set up to accomodate foals. Many have little or no turnout, and turnout is essential for a foal - raising a foal in a stall is truly inhumane and should be unthinkable. It's possible that Linda may need to take her mare elsewhere - preferably to a breeding farm where mares and foals are the rule, not the exception - and bring her back when the foal is ready to wean, leaving the foal to spend his first couple of years with other foals, "babysitter" horses, and people for whom handling foals IS the everyday routine, in an environment that is purpose-designed to help foals grow up healthy and strong, in maximum safety.


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