Friday, December 27, 2013

When is it time to change barns?

One of the hardest things we go through as beginner horse moms is understanding if and when to change something - barns, trainers, ponies, sports (there are many sports within the equine genre), vets, farriers.  

There were two pieces of advice more experienced horse people shared with me a year ago when my daughter wasn't as happy as a girl with her first pony should be and I wondered if it was time to change barns.  The first is that if you are thinking about it, and thinking about it seriously enough to call strangers for advice, then it is time to make the change.  The second is that once you’ve decided to make a move, the sooner the better.  They were absolutely right and I’m surprised I couldn’t see it then. 

In life, it is usually best to look forward, not back.  The time we spent in limbo was awkward.  Even if no one else knows you plan to move, you will feel strange every day until you do it!  Change is hard.  We don’t want to hurt people we’ve grown close to.  In some cases you may be afraid of the trainer you are leaving or concerned about backlash down the road.  Thank God those were not on my list of issues.  But whatever your situation, if it isn’t working for you, find one that will.  We spend a crazy amount of time and money on this sport and we have to feel good about the services we receive.

BUT before you jump the gun and decide your feelings of frustration require a drastic change of barn, trainer, pony, whatever, talk to your people.  I don’t know why we are shy about speaking up and voicing our concerns!  When my daughter looked as though she wasn’t thriving, I sat down with the two instructors at our barn and talked about how Elizabeth was feeling.  They were awesome and jumped right in to help us make some changes.   I have other friends who feared the conversation only to find their trainer could totally solve the problem and go with them to the more competitive barn they were interested in.  Remember, it never hurts to ask.

Looking back I realize something pretty obvious.  Though we are grateful to the people who teach our children to ride and we often feel some strong sense of loyalty, there will be few who stay in one place from the day they ride their first pony until the time they leave for college.  The instructors all know this.  Some are more sensitive about it, some more mature and understanding.  Some barns really specialize in teaching little kids to ride and I often wish these barns would embrace that role and initiate the conversation about a rider’s goals and future, helping the parents choose a path to the next step even if it takes them to another barn.

So, if you have decided to make the change, how do you go about it?  That’s probably a whole other post but here are a few suggestions.

  • If you know ANYONE, no matter how distant the relation or friendship, who has had a child go through the sport you are interested in, call them up and ask questions.  I cannot stress enough how wonderful and willing to share most parents of horse kids are.  Of course there are exceptions but I’ve always shared what I know and I got most of it from other moms! My first call was to the sister-in-law of an acquaintance.  She had raised two hunter daughters and gave us a long list of hunter barns and IEA teams.  Just before we hung up I mentioned my daughter’s interest in eventing and she thought there was an eventing barn very close by and gave us the name.  I will be forever grateful to her.  
  • Go to your local tack shop and ask the manager about local barns.  They may have a list.  Also ask about what magazines cover equestrian sports in your area.  Now that I read Equine Journal and Massachusetts Horse regularly I’m wondering where these wonderful publications were during my time of need.  They have listings for barns by discipline, including our beloved barn!
  • Contact the DC (District Commissioner) of your local pony club.  There is a national pony club website that lets you search for clubs by zip code.  Whether you have any interest in joining pony club or not (though I strongly encourage you to do so if you can fit it in and will go into great detail as to why in another post), these people are extremely well connected in the horse world within your geographical area.  If they can’t tell you what you need to know they will know someone who can.  And on average, pony club people are very generous with their knowledge.
  • If all else fails, google for barns in your area and start dialing!  This was probably the least productive of all the things I did but it was kind of fun and I learned a few things including the fact that the biggest and most stunning new barn I’ve ever seen, and which was only a few miles from my house, was for the private use of the family that built it!  The woman was very nice but they were not taking any boarders though their barn had at least 20 stalls and their facility boasted a huge indoor and fabulous outdoor arenas.  And so that set me to daydreaming…
I know for many of you riding began as something your child wanted to try.  They were little, maybe a friend was taking lessons and they tagged along.  Maybe it was something you did with a neighbor.  The first barn was less a choice and more a happy accident.  We are forever indebted to those wonderful people who introduced our children to the love of horses.  If you were as lucky as we were, your child learned to care for a horse, to work hard around the barn and picked up some valuable horse knowledge along the way.  

If you are making a move, it could be for one of many reasons.  Your child may have big goals they cannot attain at the current barn.  Maybe there are no stalls available for you to bring in your own horse.  In our case it was a change of discipline as well as a desire for a different program where we had more control and more choices.  Too often it is because a trainer is excessively harsh or shows too high a degree of favoritism.  Sometimes these are things we have to live with.  Then again, when we are talking about little girls with a fragile sense of themselves, these can be very damaging.  Whatever your reason, you are the parent and you make the choice.  Don't be bullied by your experts.  There are plenty of other people out there willing to take you under their wing and give you a different experience.  Remember, you are paying these people a significant amount of money!

And as for how you'll know when you've found the right place, you'll just know.  Like looking for a house or choosing a school, the right place feels right.  The people are people like you.  The trainers share your values.  Your child wants to be there every minute of every day and you don't mind being there either.

Best of luck and happy barn hunting!


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Our Journey Begins or My Daughter Wants a Pony. What Should I Do?

It's hard to know where to begin with a new blog.  When I think back to what questions I had a year ago I'm completely overwhelmed.  What is the difference between eventing, hunters, jumpers, equitation and dressage?  How do I find a new barn?  What is pony club?  What does our pony eat?  How do I buy a trailer?  How do I drive a trailer?  The list goes on.  So I thought I'd start at the the first major sign of trouble - the decision to have a pony.

There are a million things to consider before deciding to buy or lease a pony but in the interest of not boring you to death I'm just going to focus on the basics of buying or leasing.  My first piece of advice - be patient!  One does not simply go buy a pony.  It's a process so take a deep breath and take it one step at a time.

A Budget: So in the interest of full disclosure, I never came up with a budget.  I had a purchase budget but not a budget for maintenance and honestly maintenance is the bigger issue.  My approach is to ignore the enormity of the problem and hope my husband keeps paying the bills.  However, I'm aware this isn't an entirely practical or responsible approach.  Your costs depend on where you live, what discipline your child rides in and whether you lease or own.  For people new to the game, the concept of leasing a horse is confusing.  Is it like leasing a car?  Well, kind of, yes.

  • The Half Lease: How do you half lease what you hope is a full animal?  A half lease usually costs about 1/3 - 1/2 the monthly board and entitles your child to ride that pony 2 -3 times per week.  So if the board is $1000 a month you will pay about $350 for 2 rides per week or $500 for 3 rides per week.  This is over and above the cost of lessons.  So if your child takes 2 lessons per week the fact that you lease means they will now take those lessons on the leased animal and have one extra "practice" ride per week.  After taking lessons on school horses this sounds a bit expensive but the upside is that your child rides the same pony in lessons each week and gets to ride a bit on their own.  It's a way to get a small taste of the commitment of full horse ownership.  It's often enough to demonstrate to the highly social 7th grade horse loving girl that 6 days a week at the barn is a bit too much for her.  For other girls it just makes them want more.  Either way, you've gathered some useful information.  Finding a half lease can be a bit of a challenge.  It is usually something your trainer or the owner of your barn finds for you.  Sometimes there just isn't the opportunity for a half lease which means you begin to consider...
  • The Full Lease!!!!  A full lease feels very much like owning a horse but the good news is that when you are done with the pony you can give it back rather than having to sell it.  Don't underestimate the value of this difference, especially when thinking about ponies.  Children outgrow ponies.  If you can lease a pony for a year or two while your child is growing and save ownership for later on you may be better off.  Depending on what kind of pony/horse you need, the costs vary drastically.  Many leases come with tack and blankets which is a huge savings.  Every situation is different.  
    • The "free lease" is one which has no annual fee for the use of the animal but remember that nothing is ever free.  During the term of the lease you will be responsible for the costs of all board, feed, shoeing, veterinary care and anything else that takes place.  Different people make different arrangements but a full free lease is the same as horse ownership except for the fact that you give the pony back at the end.
    • Not all leases are free.  In some disciplines leasing a pony for a year can be quite expensive.  This is common in the hunter/equitation world where a well trained pony can cost anywhere from $5000 - $15,000 just for a one year lease fee.  You pay board, vet and farrier costs on top of that.  In theory the more expensive the pony (and this goes for purchasing as well) the better the pony will fare in the show ring, giving you auto lead changes and better jumping form.  Sometimes you get what you pay for.  Then again, sometimes in life, the best things are free!
  • Buying a Pony: Ideally when it comes time to buy a pony your child will be riding in a facility they enjoy with a trainer you trust.  I know this is often not the case.  We were luckier than most. My daughter's trainers have never had a financial interest in our leases or purchases which made me feel much better about taking their advice.  Even so, it was an adventure!  Our trainer was willing to participate but I had to do all the leg work.  I became familiar with every pony listed on, eventing nation and the CNER pony club site.  I emailed, called and collected videos on more animals than I can remember.  For the most part it was pretty clear which ones were worth our time though I was often swept off my feet even going so far as to rush to Pennsylvania one night to try a pony I was sure was the one (though out of my price range) only to find my daughter, able to stick its huge buck, was unable to make it canter.  In the end we found a pony pretty close to home and just barely within our purchase budget.  But by the time we were looking we had already leased or borrowed 2 different ponies so we had a pretty good idea what we were looking for and a trainer we knew and trusted who had absolute veto power on our choice.  If you expect someone to train your pony and help your daughter ride it then they should have some say in the choice.  At the end of the day Elizabeth and her trainer are the ones that chose the pony and I just wrote the check.
  • The costs of buying a pony vary wildly and depend on the age, condition, conformation (God given gifts of athleticism and good looks) and skill set / prior training.  A 4 year old is considered "green" and while often cheap to acquire will be expensive to train.  An 8 - 10 year old with good training is in its prime and may cost more.  A pony over the age of 12 is entering middle age and its dollar value may begin to fall but its value as a teacher for your child is just beginning to rise.  Then again, so is the cost of maintenance.  We ended up with a 13 year old, 13.2hh, bay, welsh/TB gelding (doesn't that make me sound all smart and horsey?  You'll get the lingo down in no time).  Elizabeth will have him for at least two years and then will likely outgrow him.  In the mean time he is teaching her so much and takes excellent care of her.  So, what does it cost to buy a pony?  There really is no definitive answer.  Anywhere from $5,000 - $20,000 and more.  But as you peruse ads, try out a few ponies, talk to some people, you'll get a feel for what the kind of pony you need will cost.
    • Vetting.  When you buy a pony you have a vet come out and do a pre-purchase exam.  Again, depending on where you live, what you plan to do with your pony and what kind of pony you are buying, the costs can vary dramatically.  It is fair to expect to spend between $500 and $2500 for a pre-purchase exam.  At the higher end you are paying for x-rays, blood work and other tests.  I know in our case concerns came up during the exam.  The vet would stop, discuss what she was seeing and ask if we wanted to proceed.  I chose to keep going and she ended up doing quite a few X-rays of his front hooves and hocks.  We got some good information from the exam.  You can think of it as being similar to a home inspection.  There are certain discoveries that will cause you to walk away from a house but most of the time you just find things that might affect the price you are willing to pay or your maintenance plan once you assume ownership.
    • Once you've vetted the pony and decided to buy it, be sure you left a little money in your budget for tack.  At a minimum you will need a saddle, a bridle, brushes, a saddle pad and a blanket or two.  You may be able to buy these with the pony.  Before you buy the pony, be sure to spend a little time looking at tack and make a list of what you will need and get an idea of how much money you plan to spend.  An inexpensive brand new saddle is about $1000 and while it will be your most expensive piece of tack, it is far from being the only piece. 
    • Resale.  One last thing about buying a pony.  When you are buying, ponies are somewhat like houses.  Each one is different.  You have to find one that has issues you are willing to live with yet gives you all the things on your must have list.  Not an easy task.  When you sell a pony, it's more like a car.  The minute you bought the pony it was worth less money.  Trust me.  Some people will tell you that if you train the pony, improve its show record, etc., it will be worth more in a year or two.  That is rarely the case and you shouldn't count on it.  When we bought a pony I set our budget based partially on what I could stand to lose in two years when we sell him to buy another pony or horse.  If we don't lose money it will be a total bonus but don't ever buy a pony for your daughter - at lease not at the stage of the game where you're green enough to be taking advice from me - if you need to make money on the transaction.  The point isn't to make money.  The point is to give you and your child the best experience possible and for both of you to enjoy learning about horse ownership.
  • The Maintenance Costs of Ownership: So in trying to come up with a final budget I suppose you need more information.  Again, where you live plays a big part in how much things cost.  Where we live, full board is generally around $1000 a month.  That includes a stall which is cleaned by someone else once a day, turnout, hay, grain, some blanket changes and the use of some truly wonderful facilities including an indoor arena, 4 outdoor arenas and a cross country course as well as access to local trails.  In addition we pay for our farrier which can run from $50 for a trim to $300 for 4 winter shoes every 6 weeks.  Our current pony has 2 shoes so we spend $125 to $150 every 6 weeks.  Vet bills depend very much on the health of your pony.  At a minimum you pay for a call out fee, vaccinations and deworming.  From there you get into joint supplements, treatment of injuries, allergies, chiropractors, you name it.  The more we get into it the more it seems pretty much like human medicine and it can get expensive.  You can buy insurance to cover some costs but it is worth talking to your vet about likely costs of ownership before you get in too deep.  Annual costs for a totally healthy animal with no joint issues should be about $500 - $1000.  During our pre-purchase exam we talked about the cost of maintenance due to some things our vet found.  I took that into account when determining what to pay for the pony and expect to spend an additional $1000 on veterinary care as a result.  Transportation can be another big cost if you don't have your own trailer.  You can pay $75 - $150 per ride around here.  Then again, sometimes a friend is willing to help you out for less.  Even so, it should be considered in your list of anticipated costs.  
There are some other things you want to be sure you have in place before you take on full responsibility for a pony.  

You need a great place to stable your pony.  Make sure there is a stall available somewhere close to home.  If your child is riding at a barn that takes in boarders, talk to the manager.  Ask about the cost of board, barn rules, feed and feed schedules (I'll go over that in another post so you can sound like you know what you're talking about!).  Ask who the barn vet, farrier and dentist are and whether you are allowed to bring in your own people if you choose to do so.  If it looks like a change of barn will need to take place try to do it well in advance of the pony purchase or lease.  I meant what I said about the person responsible for training the pony and helping the child be successful having a say in choosing the pony (We brought a pony with us to the barn we are currently at and it didn't go well.  That, too, is another post.).  

You need a trainer, farrier, vet and dentist.  Sometimes these all come with your barn.  Sometimes it takes awhile to build a team.  But at least get an idea of who they are and how your barn handles contacting them.  The first barn we were at did it all for us.  Now we are on our own.  Just make sure you are comfortable and that you know what you need to do. 

You need one or more parents or another responsible adult willing to sacrifice their time in a big way.  There are some exceptions to this rule but generally speaking, until your child is 16, the fact that they have a pony implies you are, at a minimum, schlepping them to the barn 5 days a week.  We only go to the barn 4 - 5 days a week in the winter but spring through fall Elizabeth and I spend 3 hours, 6 days per week with the pony, sometimes more if she has a show or a pony club meeting.  She's too young to be left at the barn on her own so if she's there, I'm there, or I'm paying one of the older girls to be her babysitter.  There are riding programs out there that allow you to drop your child off.  I have friends who have chosen private schools with riding programs to limit the stress on their time though they have clearly traded it for stress on their wallet.  Buying a pony for your child is a lifestyle choice for the whole family.

You need a child who is happiest mucking stalls and working hard, on and off the horse.  I suppose this one is optional.  Our family has dedicated a significant portion of our resources to Elizabeth's riding because at the end of the day responsible horse ownership builds character and it has brought her confidence and pure joy.  She has never once balked at her duties.  She goes to the barn in all weather, listens to and respects her trainer, works hard to improve her riding, cleans her tack weekly, grooms her pony, organizes her tack room, sweeps the aisle, cleans our trailer.  She tells me she far prefers going to shows now that we have our own trailer.  The process of loading the trailer and being in full control of her pony calms her nerves before a show.  Well, not completely, but at least she thinks it helps.  I read a great blog post today on this topic if you care to read it Crabby Horse Mom - Life Lessons  For us the riding is just one tiny portion of having a pony.  If you aren't interested in the rest of it, why bother?

I'll leave you with a list of links and resources that might be helpful and I'll post again next week.  If I ever have any readers and there are ever any topics you have questions about, let me know and I'll see what I can do!  I plan to have some of my friends who know more than me help me out with posts from time to time.  I hope this was helpful and am grateful for any feedback you care to share.

Best -

Horse Shopping Web Sites: (this one is very local to New England but try your local pony club) (a good deal of overlap with (this one is geared toward eventing)

Magazines Worth a Read:
Equine Journal (A Regional New England Magazine but if there is something similar in your area find it.  There are numerous ads for barns, trainers, horses,camps, etc.)