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Pets Large & Small

Selecting the right boarding barn

Dr. Kimberly Brokaw, DVM
Walkersville Vet Clinic

(4/2017) One of the more stressful things for horse owners is choosing a boarding barn. When picking a barn it is important to remember what is important for the safety and comfort of your horse, as opposed to things that humans tend to like. Your horse doesn't care if there is a heated tack room that is always stocked with candy and hot chocolate.

However, he does care (and your vet cares) if there are numerous hazards such as groundhog holes in the field, high-tensile wire fence rather than wood or woven wire, or they don't have a source of clean, not frozen water. Your horse’s welfare depends on whether the person in charge of his care is diligent and committed to good care. I have seen numerous owners get wowed by beautiful indoor arenas and not notice that there are 20 horses expected to share a 1 acre field. It is usually not until they've had to have the vet out to treat their horse's various injuries that they start to question if they picked the best boarding barn.

In addition to picking a facility that is appropriate for your horse, it is also important to make sure that the person caring for your horse is attentive and knowledgeable. Truthfully I'd choose a knowledgeable barn manager over a gorgeous facility for my horse every time. Even if you plan on visiting your horse every day, there is a lot that can go wrong. You want a barn manager who, at the very least, is going to be able to recognize that there is a problem. Even better is if they know what to do when they encounter a problem such as call the vet or just put wound ointment on the cut. A reputable barn will also have a good working relationship with a vet.

Even if you have your own vet and aren't planning on using the barn manager's vet, it is still a good idea to see if their vet can provide a good reference. If you call the vet and ask and they say they haven't been to that barn in years, that's a sign of a problem. While you may think "oh good that means they haven't had sick horses," what that really means is they haven't provided their horses with basic care such as coggins tests or rabies vaccinations, as those can only be done by a veterinarian.

I was called out one evening to treat a colicing horse. No one from our clinic had been to the barn in several years so I'd assumed that the barn was no longer boarding horses or was using a different veterinary practice. However, we were still their preferred veterinary practice and they were, in fact, boarding horses. Most of the horses only stayed at the barn for a few months before their owners took them to a better boarding barn. Therefore no one from our clinic had been to the barn for routine care. The manager called as one of the horses was laying in the snow and ice and he couldn't get him to stand up.

When I arrived at the farm, the manager told me that the horse hadn't eaten his breakfast and had seemed lethargic. Rather than checking his temperature, calling the owner, calling the vet, or even simply checking on the horse throughout the day, the manager just turned the horse back out in the field. When the barn owner came down to feed dinner, he couldn’t find the horse. Eventually, in the darkness, he found the horse recumbent in the snow and barely able to move.

By the time I saw the horse there was nothing that could be done aside from euthanasia. While I was able to get him onto his feet, he was too shocky and cold and immediately fell over again. The horse had gone down on the side of an icy hill so while the barn manager didn't own a trailer, even if he could borrow one, we wouldn't have been able to get the horse on it. I called the owner and explained the situation. She agreed that it was best to euthanize her horse rather than have him freeze to death on the side of the hill.

This was an older horse so most likely the cause of illness was a tumor strangulating the intestine which caused him to colic. However since the barn manager didn't recognize the colic early on and seek veterinary care, surgery or other treatments weren't possible. I wonder if I had been called out 13 hours earlier when it was first noticed that the horse was sick, if the horse would still be alive. So while this was a nice looking barn with brick walkways, planted flowerbeds and big grassy fields, the ignorance of the barn manager would be a deal breaker if I were ever looking at boarding my horse there.

I am always bothered when I see horses suffer or die because of something that is easily and inexpensively preventable. Accidents and illnesses happen to horses. However, owners should take precautions to avoid some of the more preventable injuries and illnesses. Owners need to scrutinize their boarding barn to see if the barn takes basic precautions to prevent problems.

It's frustrating when I see a horse get sick with a disease that could have been prevented by a simple vaccine, or die because no one had bothered to call the vet when the horses didn't eat for the last few days. I've had owners spend thousands of dollars treating a horse for a disease that could have been prevented by a $45 vaccine. Basic good animal care can lead to less expensive vet bills, healthier horses, and less stress for owners and their veterinarians.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw