Check a barn electrical panel to make sure it's in good order and inspected.

Photo: Rebecca Gimenez

In a recent online "Horse Behavior and Safety" course with University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada) I asked my students to contribute their ideas as to what concerns they should look for in selecting a new stable for their horse.

At this point, they had participated for two weeks in an intense online course that focuses on handler and horse safety in numerous situations, and facility safety concerns from barn fire prevention to trailer safety. Their answers and tips were quite insightful--and I would like to share them with you. Out of the hundreds of students and comments, I have trimmed them down for this blog post.

First, numerous students noted that it's nice to visit by appointment, but that you might want to consider "just stopping by" a couple days after your appointment unannounced. What goes on when people are expecting you to visit is sometimes different that what happens day-to-day. Several noted that they like to talk to other boarders and working students about any issues with how the facility is run to get a feel for the daily ins and outs of maintenance and attitudes towards safety. Others said they like to watch some lessons being given and just observe for a couple of hours at feeding time and while the barn is being cleaned so they can see if the management and staff are doing safe practices with horses (especially leading them back and forth to pastures, etc.).

Some of my concerns reach into environmental care, such as whether the farm fences off the ponds and water sources so that a) horses don't destroy the riparian environment, and b) no horse falls into the ice in winter. Others branch into asking if they keep the horses out on pasture as much as possible (considering the weather), so they get to be a herd and simulate mother nature's environmental effects (exercise, grazing, grooming, etc.).  Yes,that's a medical concern too, because frantic bored horses in stalls for too long get themselves in trouble (cast, colic, kicking, stereotypic behaviors, etc.). These resonated with many students who shared similar issues with current and past barns where they've boarded.

I like to look at where they keep trailers and vehicles away--preferably away from the barn so that the fire department (or veterinarian) has room to reach the facility in an emergency, but also so that there's room to load and unload horses safely and preferably not on asphalt.

One of my very accomplished students, Jo, actually owns a large barn and contributed:

  • Check the fences. All of them. Yourself. (Boarding barns don't always put your horse in the paddock you were told he'd would go in).
  • Check the feeding routine. Be there at feeding time if possible to see how it is done and if the procedures they say they follow are actually followed, especially if they are letting in large numbers of horses without individually leading them.
  • And lastly, do they have stable safety rules posted in a prominent place?  Are these rules enforced and do the other boarders know what they are?

Sharon, another student echoed her sentiments: "I would like to see good 'horse-proof' fencing (if there is such a thing). I would even be satisfied with 24/7 turnout. If they were stabled, I'd want it to be light and airy and ventilated--I have seen so many stuffy barns with humidity and lung problems."

New horse owner Verena said, "I would want to see some fire extinguishers--especially the big ones--and make sure they are in the green zone." She went on to agree about checking stalls, fencing, and feeders/hay feeders for nails, broken, boards and wire.

Felicia agreed with the above observations and then noted, "Whether it is my trailer or the owners of the facility allow boarders to use theirs, it should be in an area easily accessible to retrieve and load my horse in an emergency--like taking it to the vet. I look for 'No Smoking' signs and keeping an eye out for anyone smoking near the barn (if visiting to check out the place for the first time I would look on the ground for cigarette butts). It would be a bonus if there were stall doors on the outside of the barn that led to a paddock(s) in case of emergencies like a barn fire. Sprinklers would be the grand prize winner! Finally, one of the major things I would like to see is that the hay and bedding is stored in a separate building away from the barn."

Nancy was particularly concerned about maintaining a rotation schedule for grazed paddocks so that the horses had a chance to eat grass, and the paddocks get a chance to rest in between, and provide a more natural environment for the horses. Although this might not seem like a safety issue, we know from research that horses that have room and time to socialize with a herd and spend time exercising tend not to get themselves in as much stress and do dumb things to get themselves hurt.

A Canadian, Sharon's concerns harked back to this past winter. "I would like to find some way to open outside doors easier," she said. "The main doors are often sliding doors at many facilities and the snow/ice build up so much that it makes it nearly impossible to open them. If you can't get your horse out, that is a major safety concern."

In response Jo said, "I designed my barn with overhead garage doors at each end of the aisle...I don't have to move any snow to open them.".

Monica is very detailed and says she likes to ask, “How many people are trained in first aid and equine first aid? Who is the specific vet and farrier for emergencies? Do they conduct safety audits on a regular basis, for example, check gates, secure latches? What about perimeter fencing around the property in case a horse gets out of the paddock?"

Then she really hit on a good one: "What experience/training do the stable owners and management have, and are they present to oversee people that work there who may not be as experienced?"

Other items that she mentioned were, "Halters on or off in the stalls? Other animals on the property (dogs) that have access to the horses? Check the feed room for signs of rodent infestation."

Ann is another list maker, and after agreeing with many others above, she noted that she wants to see “run-ins in the field providing shelter from heat, wind, rain, and snow. Most importantly, a certificate of a fire safety inspection, which is annually updated.”

Lastly, Colleen asked, "Is a responsible person on the premises 24/7/365? What safety procedures are in place (emergency telephone numbers, first-aid kit, fire extinguishers, mandatory use of helmets)? And, Is the local fire department trained to handle horses in emergencies?"

What are your thoughts?  How would you contribute to a similar checklist?  Did you go though a good check of your current facility when you moved in, or did you rely on the good name of the facility or a friend’s recommendation?  How do you communicate your concerns to the barn management when you find a broken item or safety concern?