The Golden Years

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Horses are living longer today, thanks to improvements in nutrition and veterinary care. At the same time, owners have come to see their horses as companions, and they’re increasingly willing to provide their aging pals with a comfortable retirement.

These trends are creating a growing demand for retirement board, both at farms dedicated to this niche and as a sideline at farms that pursue other income streams. If you’re considering jumping on the bandwagon, here are a few tips from successful retirement-farm owners and managers. Their advice will help you decide if this market is right for you.

Retirement operations cover a wide range, from deluxe barns to “back-to-nature” farms where horses are turned out 24/7 in big herds and more or less fend for themselves. Most operations fall somewhere between those extremes. There’s no one model, because horse needs and client expectations vary.

“Some people are happy leaving the horse turned out at a retirement farm and never seeing it again. Others want to visit the horse and remain part of his life,” says Dee Doolittle, who manages Mitchell Farm, an equine retirement facility in Salem, Conn. Regardless, owners still want to be sure their horses are getting good basic care.

WHAT YOU NEED

First and foremost, a retirement farm needs acreage. Full-time turnout is the situation horse owners usually seek when they look for a retirement farm, and if necessary many are willing to send their horses far away to areas where big spreads haven’t been eaten up by development. With room to roam, old horses can move around at will, which helps keep their joints loose; and the fresh air is excellent for those with heaves.

Pasture. The amount and quality of your pasture are factors in determining how many retirees you can board. Bill and Lynne Betts of Siler City, N.C., set a limit of 12 horses on 22 acres for their Sunset Promise Farm. A two-acre-per-horse ratio and good pasture management—dragging, mowing, rotation, and so on—provides enough grass to meet the horses’ basic nutritional needs, so hay is necessary only in the winter months, says Lynne Betts. Higher stocking rates are possible; but if pastures are grazed down you’ll have to rely more on hay, increasing your costs.

Cross-fencing. Four pastures and several smaller paddocks make up the 22 acres at Sunset Promise, allowing horses to graze in compatible groups. Cross-fencing also allows horses that are sick, injured, or disabled to be separated from the larger group, and it eases the introduction of new horses.

“There has to be allowance for a horse with special needs—one that’s blind or lame,” says Annette Massey-Shaw, who takes a limited number of retirees at her Saxon Vale Farm outside Martinsville, Va. “And the compatibility of the group is important.” She puts new arrivals in a paddock where they can meet the others over the fence. After they join the herd, she watches closely to make sure the newbies are getting along. “A horse’s personality often changes in a new turnout group,” she observes.

Shelter. All horses need shelter—protection from rain, winter wind, and summer sun—but it’s especially important for older horses, who often are more susceptible to extremes of heat and cold. In hot weather, they need natural shade or open access to a well-ventilated barn or run-in shed. Run-in sheds are fine year-round in areas with mild or moderate winters; where winters are severe most retirees will do better in stalls at night, Dee Doolittle says.

Water. Like all horses, retirees need free access to clean water at all times. If your property has a stream that flows year-round (and isn’t polluted) you’re in luck; otherwise, you’ll need to provide and maintain stock tanks or automatic waterers in each field and paddock.

WHAT TO OFFER

Since owners of retired horses may live out of town or out of state, they’ll rely on you to oversee all aspects of their horses’ care. Basic care doesn’t differ from that of other horses, but retirees often have special needs brought on by dental wear, metabolic conditions such as Cushing’s syndrome, and other age-related problems. We’ll touch on some highlights here; the American Association of Equine Practitioners has detailed guidelines on their website at www.aaep.org/info_dbs.htm.

Nutrition. While well-managed pasture can meet most of the retirees’ nutritional needs during the growing season, it’s especially important to introduce older horses to pasture gradually, to avoid risks of colic or laminitis, notes Annette Massey-Shaw. And many older horses need a concentrate in addition to forage to maintain weight. Senior feeds are easily digested and formulated with extra fat for energy. Supplementing with rice bran or oil adds calories without the risks of laminitis and colic associated with grain. This is especially important for older horses with Cushing’s, who are prone to those disorders.

Routine care. Retirement farms typically don’t leave basics like shots, deworming, hoof care, and dental care up to owners, who may live far away. Expect to set up deworming and vaccination programs for all horses on the property and arrange for regular visits from the farrier and dentist. “That way you can be sure it gets done,” says Lynne Betts. It’s important to keep scrupulous records of all treatments, she adds.

Many older horses have special health-care needs; get instructions for these from the owner. You should also have written permission authorizing veterinary care if the owner can’t be reached in an emergency.

Personal touch. Every retiree should be checked daily for signs of illness and injury, the farm owners and managers we talked to agree. “You need knowledge of senior horses and their problems and peculiarities, so you can recognize the fine line between what’s normal and what’s not,” says Betts. Until health and other concerns led her to curtail her operation earlier this year, she also made sure each horse was groomed every week to 10 days. While this isn’t done at every farm, “regular grooming gives you a chance to take a closer look,” she notes.

Updates. Absentee owners appreciate getting news and photos of their retirees by e-mail or regular mail. Massey-Shaw takes pictures when a horse arrives and again at three- to six-month intervals. “I document the horse’s condition for myself as well as for the owner,” she says. Photos help allay the worry and mistrust that can develop when clients are distant. Massey-Shaw recalls one owner who asked to see a picture of the farrier working on her horse as proof that his hooves were actually being trimmed.

Euthanasia. You’ll likely handle this for your clients, too. When Massey-Shaw feels that a horse needs to be put down, she contacts the vet and the owner. “I won’t put a horse down just because the owner doesn’t want to take care of it anymore,” she says. But if the vet and the owner agree that it’s time, she arranges the euthanasia and bills the client.

WHAT TO CHARGE

Cost is often an issue when people retire their horses, Dee Doolittle says. The owner may want to keep riding, for example, but can’t afford to pay full board for two horses. Typically people expect to pay less for retirement board than for full board at a stable with riding privileges, training, and other amenities. Still, location and the level of services you offer are the big factors in determining rates. In the rural South, where pastures are ample, rates range from $150 to $300 a month. In areas where land is at a premium or the climate forces you to depend more on hay than on pasture, rates may be double that.

Saxon Vale charges $200 for basic field board, which includes rotational deworming, and $250 with a stall. Owners provide extras such as daily dewormers and vitamin supplements, or Massey-Shaw does so at cost. Her vet and blacksmith bill clients directly, but she notifies clients in advance that work is to be done and does not charge for arranging the service.

Pay attention to your operating costs in setting your rates, says Lynne Betts. After researching what similar farms in North Carolina and other areas charged, she set her field board rate at $200 when the first horses arrived in 2004.

“We made a guesstimate on what our costs would be, but we didn’t really crunch the numbers at first,” she says. “Hay and grain and shavings were easy to price, but there’s so much more to it—tractor fuel for mowing, and so on. We misjudged the costs of labor, which ran $9 to $12 an hour. Even without putting a value on our own time, it was hard to break even.” After a year, she bumped the rate to $275; stall board went to $350. “You can’t anticipate everything, but prepare for the ‘what ifs’—they will happen,” she advises.

Charges and services should be set out in a written boarding agreement. “If the owner doesn’t pay or checks bounce, the horse goes,” says Massey-Shaw. She’s prepared to apply a stableman’s lien to take possession of a horse for nonpayment, but so far she hasn’t had to do this.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The farms we contacted all filled up without advertising, evidence not just of the need for this service but also of their quality care.

“Reputation is important,” says Lynne Betts. “All our clients found us by word of mouth.”

Caring for equine retirees requires a big-time commitment, she says. “Basically, your life revolves around the horses and their schedule.” But there are advantages to the business, she adds. “You don’t have the day-in, day-out traffic of boarders coming to ride, or the potential for accidents. And there’s a kind of serenity—you get close to the horses, and they become family.”