Sunday, September 14, 2008

Co-op barns: Why aren't there more of' them?

When I lived in North Carolina, I boarded Harvey at a co-op barn. In a co-op barn -- at least the one I was at -- there is no one profiting (or losing money) by operating the barn. Members ran things by consensus, pitching in on barn chores and in looking after each others' horses. The informal management (no one in charge!) was crazy at times, but for the most part it worked. The horses there were the most closely watched and cared for of anywhere I've boarded. Here is how it worked...

The property was rented from an 80 year old man (Mr. T) with a sixty acre farm. He had bought the farm for his young daughter to keep horses, but she had long since married and moved away. Mr T. remained in the farmhouse and rented the facility. The farms was run cooperatively by fourteen boarders who agreed to help with feeding and turnout one day a week. One of the boarders, who was a friend of Mr. T's daughter, was the spokesperson for boarders on the rare occasions where we needed to speak with him. He was your basic old codger who didn't want to be disturbed -- frankly, that was a blessing, since one more opinion may have sunk us. He left us alone, and we left him alone for the most part.

The farm included the main barn (an old dairy barn with ten stalls), another eight stall barn, an oudoor ring, an "indoor" that was really just an empty barn, and about 50 or so acres of pasture divided into two fields. It was run down, but it was a lovely rural setting and the pastures were nice. The farm was only eight miles from where I lived.

How we managed
All the boarders were women, ranging in age from teens to over 50. Most of us responded to ads in the paper for a co-op barn arrangement. When we joined there was no written agreement, boarding contract, or proper "vetting." If you agreed to the verbal terms and your horse checked out healthwise, you were in. It happened that the boarders included an equine vet and two vet techs that worked at a local university's equine facility. The general rules were...

  • Each boarder was responsible for mucking your her horse's stall.
  • Each of the fourteen boarders was responsible for am or pm chores on an appointed day. This was basically bringing in, feeding/watering, and turning back out. The horses were on 24 hour turnout in good weather.
  • Each boarder provided turnout and feeding instructions for their horse. Boarders depended on one another to follow instructions closely. I personally was very aware that the boarders who left hard-to-follow instructions were the folks taking care of Harvey and following the sometimes complicated instructions that I left.
  • Each boarder paid $80 a month to rent the facility and paid for all food, hay, and shavings individually.

What worked and didn't work
The volunteer spirit was alive and well. One boarder lived in trailer on the premises (she was the vet tech!) and she checked the horses before work and at night. Another boarder whose horse was navicular dragged the ring regularly to keep the footing soft. There was a boarder who liked to work on landscaping and drainage, and one who addressed safety issues. I set up appointments with the farrier and organized some group hay purchases.

Debate is healthy and consensus building is a learning experience. There was regular, usually friendly discussion over the best management practices--feeding, turnout, blanketing, vaccinations, etc. And with a barn full of experienced horse people, I learned a great deal as a first time horse owner. C is for cooperation. Most of us were middle aged women on a budget. This co-op arrangement made horses affordable, and the facility itself was a great value. Everyone at that barn brought something to the table -- added something, through expertise, labor, or spirit de corps, that made the barn special.

Sometimes you do need someone in charge. For example, one of the new boarders brought a mare that kicked. The mare had been abused, so everyone was sympathetic at first -- but after the mare kicked the crap out of a pony clubber's pony, and the parents went into debt to pay the vet bills, sympathy dwindled. After a few months the mare did calm down, but with no one "in charge" it's hard to see how this would have resolved otherwise.

I miss it...
I was a brand-spanking new first time horse owner then, elated to have my dream horse and great digs, surrounded by helpful, involved horse people. The barn was so near where I lived, I used to go out early before work (right at sunrise) just share my breakfast with Harvey. I gave him his hay in the paddock, sat at a nearby picnic table in my work clothes, and ate my yogurt and apple. We munched together. I seldom encountered anyone, but if I did, there was no scolding (breach of barn protocol!), and no one thought it was weird. I miss that barn.


  1. I was wondering about these. Sounds like an arrangement that might work for me. But I've never heard of one of these anywhere near me. The part that would worry me is if there's any personality "drama"? Sounds like there wasn't really?

  2. Hmmm, that's actually a really interesting idea! If the stars aligned for me, I could really see something like that working in my area...definitely something to think about.

  3. I have been part of a co-op barn for nearly 8 years. I moved my horse there because it's 5 minutes from my house and because I like taking care of my horses myself. While I think the overall experience has been wonderful, it can be difficult -- some people are not good at communication (or co-operating) with others and they can make the experience trying! We have one right now who brings "personality drama" to a new level, which saddens me because up until now, it's been far less political. However, people feel strongly about how others care for their horse, and it is a big responsibility. When something goes wrong (and horses are good at getting themselves into trouble) sparks can fly.

  4. I can imagine it could be nightmarish with the wrong people. Somehow we just ended up with a pretty decent mix. I think for most people there, the biggest concern was money, and without the co-op owning a horse was doubtful. There were differences of opinion about everything, and the usual amount of complaining. But it was mostly about the horses -- what was the best turnout, how to improve drainage, was our manure dispersal method adequate. That sort of thing...

  5. There's a co-op barn near here. It seems to work pretty well.

  6. This concept sounds like DIY Livery here in the UK. It's very popular and a lot of people prefer to keep their horses there. In fact, many can only afford to keep a horse thanks to those!
    I think that if you have a good bunch of people and they can work around themselves without too much problems then the DIY livery is great. However, the controversy arises when DIY horse owners know very little about horse management and there is either no one to deal with their inadequacies or other liveries end up taking care of the poor animal.

  7. I wish I could board at a place like that. The barn I'm at now is great, but I miss doing self-care. My horse is on 24-7 turnout with a run, and it still costs me $150 a month and I buy all her feed.

  8. I would love, love, love a co-op barn with a small number of like-minded women like myself! I've actually been thinking about it for a long time, but I only know of a couple of people I would want to co-op with. Maybe someday I'll meet more and that opportunity will come up.

  9. I have been a part of and have run several coop barns. There are good points and bad points. I have been at coop's where boarders don't show up to do their feedings, leave junk all over the common areas, run out of feed for days (and never pay back if you loan), Swap horses around in pastures without permission, etc etc. Of course there was no clear person in charge of these barns. If you have a person in charge, who is knowledgeable, and assertive, it can really be great. No one takes care of your horse like you do, and there is nothing like your horse running to the gate when they see your car because Yay! their human is here! Because you will spend more time at the barn, not just riding. When all you do is show up and ride your horse, they very quickly lose enthusiasm for you. But if you come every day, or at lease several times a week and feed, brush, clean, etc. then it's a relationship not just you jumping on their back to work them.

    Right now I rent my own barn, and just have my horses, but if I ever do board again, it will be a coop. (as long as its MY place and I'm in charge, LOL!)

  10. The ranch where my horses are boarded was just sold. THe new owner is looking to rent the place out to someone who would make money. This could be an alternative option to his plans. I'll have to let the other people know.

  11. As I was shovelling my 4th wheelbarrow full of manure yesterday, I thought of this post. My back is killing me; I haven't had to clean up large amounts of poop in years. But as of this week, I'm in a co-op situation in Germany. There are three women who share all the work, one of them being the property owner/person-in-charge, another who is "paid help", and me.

    It's true - it's good to come out there for reasons other than riding, and I'm getting a good feel for what my horse is really like, as I arrive mornings or evenings or both. I watched all five horses fall asleep today as I spent over an hour cleaning manure from the field.

    If we can all get along, it will be really nice until I can get my own place.

    It's so wonderful to have my horse finally here in Germany. We flew together on Wednesday from Seattle to Luxemburg. Now I get to take care of him myself half the time, and when my poor back starts to get used to this work, it'll be perfect!



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