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Managing Difficult Horses at Boarding Barns

Handling difficult horses as a boarding barn manager can be a challenge. Two boarding barn managers share how they navigate these situations while keeping the best interest of the horse and their business in mind.

Many stable managers strive to make their farms sanctuaries for all their boarders. However, at some point they might encounter horses with past traumas, training issues, or other problems that result in undesirable behaviors such as stereotypies or aggression towards animals or humans. Stable managers who encounter an ill-mannered horse should learn more about the animal, communicate openly with the owner, and develop a solution to the problem.

Learn and Observe

When a horse owner first inquires about boarding, it’s the perfect time for the barn manager to ask questions about their horse.

Tamara Barrett, of Oasis Equestrian, in Mesa, Arizona, is a stable owner and trainer who specializes in horses with behavioral problems. “I think the best approach is to ask the owner to describe in detail the horse’s current living situation and their day-to-day routine, as well as any preferences or habits the horse may have,” she says.

In addition to helping a stable manager get to know a prospective boarder better, asking general questions about the horse before inquiring about bad behaviors can make the owner feel more comfortable discussing any challenges their horse might have, she explains.

Shari Patterson, stable manager, owner, and trainer of Patterson Training LLC, in Payson, Arizona, also encourages barn managers to ask questions that provide background about new horses coming to their barn. Specifically, Patterson inquires about a horse’s gender, breed, and age before they arrive.

She explains that learning these basic facts helps her determine if she has a place available at her barn that can safely accommodate the new horse and watch for related behaviors as the horse settles in.

As a horse is acclimating to the new barn, Barrett recommends stable managers make time to learn more about them. She believes this practice helps stable managers pick up on early signs of developing or existing problems because it establishes a baseline for each horse in their care.

Have a Conversation

If a barn manager notices a horse acting out repeatedly, it might be time to talk to the owner. Knowing the best way to approach the conversation, however, is another matter.

If Barrett notices one of the horses at her barn displaying problematic behaviors, she immediately works on identifying the cause and presenting a plan for resolution to the owner.

She encourages stable managers to search for the why behind a horse’s behavior so they can help the owner understand what’s going on with their horse. If the cause of the behavior isn’t obvious, Barrett still advises stable managers to speak with the owner right away about finding a solution. 

When approaching an owner about their horse’s behavior, Barrett has found success by keeping the conversation centered on a shared goal of helping the horse. It’s important to make sure the owner does not feel blamed for the situation so they will be more likely to help solve the problem, says Barrett.

Patterson adds that she’s found it helpful during these difficult conversations to remind owners she’s looking out for the best interest of their horse. She also encourages stable managers to communicate kindly, but also be clear about what needs to happen going forward.

In addition to talking to the owner of the horse with the problematic behavior, Patterson says stable managers might need to talk to other boarders, especially if they or their horses have been affected.

She adds that stable managers should consider putting together several plans to present to owners and see what will work best for all parties involved. 

Find a Solution

Once a stable manager has observed a problematic behavior in one of their boarded horses and spoken to the owner, it’s time to move toward a solution.

If the solution requires training for the horse, Barrett encourages stable managers to bring in an expert. She feels a stable manager’s job is to notice the behavior, communicate with an owner, and set up a plan to resolve it. Once they’ve done that, she advises asking a trusted trainer to work on the behavior with the horse. Even if a stable manager has training experience, sometimes pulling in a third party can help alleviate tension in these situations, she explains. 

Patterson adds that stable managers should consider a variety of horse people to help a horse, depending on the problem. In addition to trainers, professionals such as farriers and veterinarians can help determine if the behavior is rooted in a physical problem and take steps to resolve it, she says.

When looking for solutions, Patterson reminds stable managers to consider the opinion of one very important individual — the horse.

Patterson explains that a horse’s behavior is a good indicator of whether he feels comfortable, safe, and happy. Horses forced to stay in a stressful situation often become exasperated and develop bad behaviors.

If a stable manager notices an owner prioritizing their preferences over their horse’s comfort, Patterson says they should be ready to talk to them about it. The owner might not realize what they want for their horse and what their horse wants are two different things.

Asking a horse and owner to leave a barn isn’t a conversation any manager wants to have, but if a barn is unable to manage a horse with behaviors that endanger others, Patterson says stable managers should recommend the owner take the horse to a facility where it can receive help.

If an owner is unwilling to work with a stable manager to find a solution to help their horse, Barrett says don’t be afraid to part ways. Initially, it might be a hard discussion to have, but in the end, everyone will be happier.

Help the Horse

Horses, like humans, are unique. No matter the obstacles horses face, they all deserve good-quality care. Stable managers who spend time learning about the horses at their barn, communicate openly with the owners, and make a plan to find a solution for problematic behaviors can work to preserve the peace at their barn while doing their best to help an ill-mannered horse.

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