Summer is my favorite trail riding season. The long, hot days of summer seem to stretch out endlessly, and it’s difficult to find the motivation required for an intense dressage school or jumping session. Even when I’m saddling up to ride in the evening, when it’s theoretically cooler, I find myself dallying in the barn as my horse stands patiently in the crossties, neither of us really looking forward another sweaty ride in the humid evening air.
Trail riding is my summer activity of choice. Shady trails and cool lakes beckon; something about loading the horse in the trailer while the air is still morning-crisp and driving an hour seems less onerous than saddling up at home. My horse and I can relax on the trail, ambling along on a loose rein and occasionally trotting or cantering for a stretch. There are creeks and lakes in which to splash and swim. I can chat and laugh with friends who are along for the ride. There’s no pressure to get something just right or practice something again and again. Leave the hard work for cooler seasons. Summer is a time for fun.
Last week, my neighbor and I took several of her students on our first trail ride of the season. We drove down to Keystone Lake; while it’s not my favorite trail area, it does offer a sandy-bottomed area for the horses to get in the water. (The trails surrounding our usual swimming spot at Oologah Lake are a mess due to all the rain northeastern Oklahoma received this spring.) I took Candy to ride and brought Gina for one of the children.
Keystone’s trail area was much greener and more attractive than it was when I rode there in March. The lake itself was much higher, too, which meant that several areas we’d previously been able to cross were now totally underwater. Candy was a brave trail horse, though! At one point, she gamely scrambled up a steep levee embankment and jumped a downed tree atop the levee as we searched for a less exciting route for everyone else to take.
Our search for alternate routes to the swimming hole led us to a flat field with tree limbs scattered around it. After an intrepid rider dismounted and dragged a few limbs to more favorable positions, we took turns jumping the horses over the downed branches. I stuck to asking Candy to canter over the ground-pole parts of the branches, which she did without hesitation. She stuck to a very reasonable canter post-jump, too.
We eventually found our way to the swimming area, where the horses gladly waded in to cool off. Candy pawed and pawed, splashing herself and her neighbors with murky lake water. A couple of horses found the combination of water and sand irresistible and laid down and rolled as their riders squealed and jumped for safety.
We spent about two hours on the trail, which was the perfect length of ride on such a humid day. I was very happy with Candy’s performance on the ride. She didn’t attempt to kick anyone, even when a couple of horses were crowded around her. (She pinned her ears a couple of times, but that’s okay.) She was happy to lead or follow. She wasn’t glued to Gina’s side. She trotted with the group with no shenanigans. She was reasonably brave, too. Candy’s confidence continues to grow, and I’m cautiously optimistic she’ll make a good hunt horse.
Our next official outing will be at the Harvard Fox Hounds trivia trail ride on July 8. I’m eager to get Candy over some little cross country jumps at that ride!
There are a lot of arguments for keeping your horses at your own home instead of boarding them, but one that seems up come up regularly is that it’s less expensive to keep them at your own home.
I think this can be true, but it’s dependent on where you live, how you choose to keep your horses, and how many horses you have.
In this post, I’ll discuss how my costs have changed and compare boarding rates to my expenses.
First of all, let’s lay out what my current horse and living situations are: I own three horses who live with me on a 7-acre property just north of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The property includes a large pasture, small paddock, 4-stall Barnmaster barn with a bathroom, tack room, and wash stall with hot and cold water, trailer storage shed, hay barn, shop building, and house. My horses eat concentrates, supplements, and forage in addition to the grazing they have on the pasture. They are turned out in the large pasture for approximately 10 hours during the day and spend the evenings in the barn and attached sacrifice paddock. I am responsible for their care; I do not employ anyone to assist in their care.
I track horse-related expenses in a spreadsheet that’s very basic. I broadly categorize my expenditures into six groups: barn, competition, feed, health, tack/apparel, and training. Those groups are broken down into several subcategories. For example, “Competition” includes subcategories for membership dues, entry fees, and lodging. I document each expense, the amount, and put some basic notes on what the expenditure was for.
This pie chart shows what percentage of my 2017 expenses each category accounts for. There are some caveats to this chart: “Health” is somewhat misleading, as over half of the money I’ve spent in that category is directly related to breeding Gina. “Feed” does not include a bulk hay purchase made last fall.
Let’s break down the “Feed” category, since equine healthcare is something I’d be spending money on even if the horses were boarded. (The same is true for the most of the other categories, too.) What’s my monthly feed cost per horse? From January 1 to today, I have spent a total of $1,669.75 on feed, supplements, and treats. My hay cost is more complicated to calculate, as the horses split a bale of hay between them in the winter, but only split half a bale a day in the summer (because the pasture provides adequate forage). I did not track the date I reduced their hay ration, but I would estimate it was probably around mid-April. That means I’ve spent about $767.25 providing hay for the horses this year. That’s about $420.19 per month in total feed costs (hay + grain), or $140.06 per horse.
As you can imagine, feed is not the only thing affecting the horses’ living situation. Fortunately, the barn and fencing did not require repair before we moved in, and my purchases for the barn have been minimal. (I bought a small shelf for the tack room, a set of cross ties for the aisle, and a few buckets.) I don’t keep shavings in the stalls unless I know the horses will be staying the night in there (which happens infrequently and only in severe weather). The barn doors are kept open so the horses can freely move between the paddock and the barn area- most of the time they choose to roam around the small paddock.
The move to a larger property also brought some expenses that aren’t directly horse-related, but wouldn’t be occurring if we hadn’t moved. Our mortgage payment is slightly higher than it was at our previous home, and I contribute a larger percentage of my income to that payment than I used to. We had to buy a lawnmower (because there’s no way we’re push-mowing an acre’s worth of yard). The house is larger, so our electric and propane bills are higher. I might as well invest in Monsanto stock what with all the Roundup I’m buying in a vain effort to control the weeds in the driveway, the gravel parking areas around the barns, and the lawn. It can sometimes be difficult to neatly delineate household and horse expenses when your household is so closely tied with the horses. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll ignore the Roundup and lawnmower, and only include my increased contribution to the mortgage and utility expenses; that’s $300 per month, or $100 per horse.
This means the cost per month of keeping my three horses at home is $720.19, or $240.06 per horse.
How does that compare to boarding in my area? The cost of horse boarding varies wildly in Tulsa (as I’m sure it does in many parts of the country); however, the median price for full-care board in the area is $475 per month. (At $300 per month per horse, I was paying well below the median price to board the horses, so I’m not realizing as significant a savings as I would be had I boarded elsewhere.)
One thing I haven’t addressed is the cost of my time. There’s a couple of reasons for this; the first is that I don’t actually spend that much time doing chores day-to-day. I spend about half an hour in the morning feeding the horses, waiting for them to eat, and turning them out front. My neighbor has her barn help take them back to my barn in the evening before I get home from work, and I spend about half an hour in the evening feeding them dinner, sweeping the barn, and cleaning their water tank if it’s dirty. Projects like spraying weeds, organizing the tack room, and leveling the stall floors are either worked in around other things I’m doing outside or have a weekend day dedicated to them. For example, if I’m waiting for a friend to arrive at the barn so we can ride together, I’ll grab the sprayer and try to kill some weeds. The other reason I don’t factor the cost of my time into the cost of keeping the horses at home is because I enjoy the work it requires. It doesn’t usually feel like work.
Moving to a property where the horses live with me has also affected other areas of my life. My work commute quadrupled; previously, I lived two miles from the tack store where I work. Now, it’s a 45-minute drive to the office. I was able to negotiate working from home two days a week. That means my fuel costs haven’t really changed- I’ve just switched from going to the barn three days a week to going to the office three days a week- but I spend more time with the horses and more time riding. Johnny’s commute decreased in cost, as he doesn’t need to take a toll road to get to his workplace any more (and his mileage is about the same).
Johnny and I have found ourselves dining out less frequently than we used to. Our previous house was within a short drive to lots of fast food places and a few sit-down restaurants. Now we’re at least 15-minutes from any sort of restaurant except the gas station/convenience store/bait shop/diner a quarter mile down the road. (They do a mean breakfast sandwich and a delicious hot ham and cheese, but it’s pretty easy to resist the impulse to go there.)
In general, I haven’t found there’s much of a financial difference between keeping the horses at home and boarding them. The differences are intangible in nature: how do you quantify happiness and satisfaction?
Johnny and I have been living on our small farm for nearly a year now, and it’s been a learning experience for both of us. Poor old Johnny is a thoroughly urban guy; he grew up living in a city, and I know he fantasizes about living in a cool downtown apartment with zero animals. While I grew up in a rural area, caring for my horses at home, there’s quite a difference between being a kid with farm chores and an adult with real responsibilities! Here are five things I’ve learned so far on this small-farm adventure:
Yard/pasture maintenance is unending.
I’d sort of learned this living on a quarter acre in a subdivision, but living on several acres only exacerbates the problem. The yard needs to be mowed. The pastures need to be dragged. The weeds springing up in the gravel by the barn need to be sprayed (or burned, at this point). The trees need to be pruned. Where did those dandelions come from?
The barn is never as clean as you’d like it to be. My inner Pony Clubber cringes every time I see wisps of wind-blown hay in the corners of the barn or manure clinging stubbornly to the concrete. The reality is that I only have so many hours in the day, and some of them have to be spent driving, working, and sleeping. I usually choose to spend my free time riding, which means that sometimes my barn looks grubby.
A good weather app is your new best friend.
What direction is the wind going to be coming out of tonight? Better shut the appropriate barn door, or those saddle pads drying on the wash rack will get blown away. Are tornadoes in the forecast? Time to lock the horses in their stalls so they don’t get struck by flying debris. Is it going to be super cold? Turn off the water so the pipes don’t burst (again). It’s a little easier now that it’s just hot 100% of the time, but I still check my weather app every day, just in case I need to prepare for a freak storm or 60 mile-an-hour wind gusts.
There’s no shortage of ‘projects’. New fencing for the sacrifice paddock. Doing…anything with the barn porch. Building jumps. Replacing the sink in the barn bathroom. Adding gravel screenings to level out the stall floors. These are all on my “to do” list, which gets longer every day. Sometimes, I get overwhelmed by all the things I need to do, but most of the time it’s exciting to think about making improvements (and it feels gratifying when things are checked off the list)!
Good neighbors are invaluable. One of the reasons such a small property works for Johnny and me is my neighbor. We live next door to the boarding barn where Moe and Gina have lived for the last few years. I have access to the barn’s arenas, which is a huge plus- I didn’t have to build my own, which would have been expensive and taken up valuable space. But more importantly, my neighbor and I help each other out. She’s willing to feed for me when I’m out of town or hold the horses for the farrier. She lets me know if they’re acting strangely, or if there’s a problem with my fence or barn. I’ll feed her horses and boarders when she’s on vacation or needs to be somewhere early in the morning. We encourage one another in our riding goals and hack together often. It’s such a good feeling to know I have a friend I can count on right next door!
One of the major things I’m working on with Candy is two-point position. Candy’s default response to it is to increase her speed. My guess is that her response is the result of a couple of factors. Two-point shifts my weight forward, and Candy must adjust her balance accordingly. Two-point may also remind her of a jockey’s position. My leg pushes against her more firmly in two-point, too.
We worked on two-point for about half an hour on Sunday. I would get into position at the trot, and every time Candy would zoom off, I’d make a large circle, half-halt, and encourage her to slow down with my voice. I also practiced upward and downward transitions between the walk and trot as well as trotting over a few ground poles. For the most part, she listens pretty well, but I’m hoping that with time and repetition, her initial reaction won’t be dramatically changing her pace.
Have you ever dealt with a horse who interpreted two-point as “GO FAST NOW”? Are there any exercises I should be incorporating to help with this issue?
I have to confess that I haven’t had much motivation to write lately! Nothing interesting is going on- Candy is learning that two point does not equal galloping time, Moe is dressaging with the lesson children (that superstar scored a 64% on his Training 2 test with his young rider this weekend), and Gina is growing the embryo and being ridden by my friend Holly. Johnny and I made some progress in the barn over the weekend, and I’m excited to share the revamped tack room with y’all soon!
My earliest horse memory that I know is a memory and not something my mind fabricated from hearing stories about it is riding a docile chestnut lesson pony named Red at the barn where I took riding lessons when I was a small child. I remember Red’s bright, shaggy coat, the tiny western saddle I rode in, and concentrating very hard on keeping Red trotting. I was probably about 4 years old at this time.
2. Describe the perfect summer day.
It’s a slightly overcast day with a pleasant breeze (instead of the gale-force winds my part of Oklahoma’s been experiencing for the last week), and I’m going trail riding on Gina at Oologah Lake with a group of friends. It’s hot enough to go swimming, but not hot enough to make me consider moving to the northeast. I don’t get sunburned. After riding and swimming, I head home and take a luxurious nap before grilling dinner and watching the sunset from the front porch. No animals poop or throw up in the house, the horses don’t try to kill each other at dinner time, and someone else cleans the litter boxes.
3. Are you reading anything right now? Tell me about it!
I just finished reading The Delmarva Conspiracy , a children’s book that was laying around work. This is the weirdest fucking book I’ve ever read. It has everything: a plucky young farm boy, some horses, a band of truckers, recurring nightmares, and a neo-Nazi conspiracy that’s infiltrated the government. You know, normal kids stuff.
4.Do you follow a celebrity (horsey or non) that you’re embarrassed to say fascinates you? Tell me. NOW.
Not really? I follow a lot of food-related people (like Ina Garten and Kevin Belton), a handful of sports-related people (mostly NBA players), and a couple of music-related (okay, so just Killer Mike and El-P) people on social media, but I wouldn’t say any of them are particularly fascinating to me. Well. Tony Allen of the Memphis Grizzlies is kind of fascinating, but he doesn’t tweet much any more, so my interest level has decreased.
5. What is your single most biggest horsey dream or goal?
My ultimate dream is to compete (and complete!) at Rolex. As you can tell, I’m making lots of progress to that end, what with my elderly horses and lack of lessons and living in Oklahoma.
6. If you were at Starbucks right now, what would you order?
Right this minute? Trenta iced green tea, no sweetener. I pass a Starbucks every time I drive to work, and my usual morning order is a grande americano with an extra shot of espresso. But I try not to drink coffee after 11 AM.
7. What is your biggest equine pet peeve?
When sweat marks are left on my horses. Or when my tack is put away in some weird way. I don’t mind loaning Gina and Moe and their equipment to the lesson kids, but it drives me insane when I can see girth marks or the imprint of a saddle pad on one of the horses. I go equally nuclear when my bridles are hung up by the browbands or my girth is laying on the floor.
8. With everything going on politically and in the media, tell me, do you follow it religiously? Tune it out? Or something in between?
I’ve been writing strongly worded letters to my elected representatives for years; Oklahoma legislators have heard from me on topics ranging from midwifery to toll roads to teacher pay to how if someone suggests putting the Ten Commandments at the State Capitol one more fucking time, I am going to personally fund a Flying Spaghetti Monster statue. I try to stay up-to-date on current issues via NPR and other reliable news sources. I’ve had to take a break, though, because when NPR begins to sound like The Onion, I can feel my blood pressure rise.
9. If you had to show your horse to a song, what would you choose?
Timely question! My dressage club created recently a year end award specifically to promote musical freestyle performances, so I’ve been toying with the idea of putting together something to do on Moe. (Hey, there’s a cash prize!) Because First Level freestyles are ultra-boring, the music would have to be at least kind of exciting. For trot work, maybe Killer Mike’s “R.A.P. Music” or “Blockbuster Night Part 1” by Run The Jewels, and “Da Rockwilder” by Method Man & Redman and/or “Bring ‘Em Out” by T.I. for canter work.
10. What are you most looking forward to this summer?
Trail riding! That’s easily my favorite part of summer!