For the majority of my life, I have bartered some type of labor in exchange for lessons, a lease, or board. Doing so has enabled me to spend invaluable time at the barn learning how to manage a stable. I quickly learned that horses are fragile animals that seem to have a daily agenda of self-harm. Because of those years spent as a barn rat, stall mucker, feeder, etc., I have extensive experience doing more than just riding, which has prepared me for having horses at home.
As a teenager, I experienced trips to the New Holland Auction in Pennsylvania to see that not all horse owners gave the same quality of care. I experienced hand-walking a colicky horse until a vet could arrive. I learned the importance of deworming as the vet discovered the cause for the colic was a hole in the stomach due to an infestation of worms (from a previous owner). I learned to cope with losing the horse I showed all summer as the humane choice was euthanization.
I learned that having boarders meant that the barn manager takes on responsibility for the daily care of another person’s horse. When those horses are injured, you are responsible for their immediate care and possibly follow up care. When a tragedy strikes, you are the one to make that heartbreaking phone call in the middle of the night to the owner.
I was taught that the horse’s care came first. Feeding, cleaning stalls, scrubbing buckets all came before the luxury of riding. The horses were to be cooled out properly after their work, hosed, bathed with liniment, and given fresh hay before I had my lunch.
In college, my knowledge of stable management continued as I learned to wrap legs, check vitals, watch a euthanasia, experience an outbreak and a quarantine.
When I got the opportunity to work as an assistant barn manager after college in exchange for board, I thought I was the luckiest girl alive. The position afforded me free board which was the only way I was able to own a horse. The majority of the staff at the riding center were volunteers. We didn’t get paid time off nor accumulate any vacation. If you needed a day off, you could trade your shift with someone else. If you were sick, that meant an early morning call to try to find a body that could fill in for you and promise that you would swap a day for them in return.
If a horse got sick, we all pitched in to get them the care that they needed, whether it was walking a colicky horse, daily bandaging and wound care, injections, or soaking a hoof to encourage an abscess to pop.
Rain, snow, wind, frigid PA temperatures, 5 mornings a week, I fed grain, turned out/brought in, fed hay, blanketed, and cared for any injuries. Then, I would go to my real job. If I wanted to ride, I would get there extra early so I could get everything done before work. After my divorce, I got a third job at an additional barn for a few mornings during the week and some weekend shifts. I was young and ambitious. I wanted a horse and was willing to put in the time to keep the privilege.
One of the worst injuries (and I hope it stays that way) that I cared for was a horrific chest wound. I almost passed out holding the horse for the vet and had to fight nausea when changing the dressing. It was a long road to recovery.
As I’ve been writing this, the memories of injuries, the loss of older horses, and the humane euthanization of others make me realize the variety of skills that I have gathered. The knowledge I gained working for an equine feed manufacturer for 16 years paired with hands-on daily barn experience gives me a well-rounded education on how to manage horses. And even with all of that, I’m still learning every day.
I now have 2 of my own horses and one retired boarder. My previous experiences taught me to always have a great relationship with my vet as I will need one, maybe two. Those experiences have taught me to have a plentiful supply of vet wrap and a fully stocked cabinet of first aid supplies. Having horses at home means there is no barn buddy to ask in a time of need if they have bandaging supplies. There is no one to ask if you should or shouldn’t call the vet.
I thought I was prepared to have horses at home. Even with so much experience, the first year was tough. Our barn wasn’t finished when it came time for me to move. It was basically a slab with a frame. There was no water or electricity. Let me repeat. IT. WAS. TOUGH. I cried in frustration when trying to care for injuries out in the open, in the cold, and missed the luxuries (aka running water, shelter, lights) of my old barn.
Our barn is now finished with sides, hot and cold water, and lights! I look out my window each morning and breathe a sigh of relief to see all 3 horses standing and appearing well. My list of horsey contacts have grown since I’ve moved to Kentucky and I have a good support team to help me in times of trouble. It takes a village!
See below for the status of our barn when we moved the horses and then the finished product!