I spent over a decade as a working student at some of the most well-known and fastidiously-managed barns in the country. While I worked those 10- to 12-hour days, I cleaned stalls, groomed horses, soaked feed, groomed, wrapped more polo wraps than I can count and did all manners of back-breaking labor.
As a barn girl and a nature lover, I appreciated the amazing landscaping, the smell of the flowers in bloom and the green of the grass. I used the paddocks and the stalls for my horses, but I never fully understood all that the facility itself did for me.
In fact, like many boarders, at times I wondered what I really got in exchange for what I paid in boarding fees. At times in my life those fees ranged from $600 to $1,500 per month! That didn't include training fees—just a stall and basic care. Boarding costs tend to be higher at the most competitive training barns, so as the board increased, so did the training fees. In fact, these increasing costs are what can be a large factor in what keeps many good riders from becoming great ones.
Wellington is an impossible dream for many people, as is training with the best. I know because this happened to me. After winning back-to-back Junior and Young Rider National and North American Championships, doing well at Intermediaire 1 and my first attempt at the U-25 Grand Prix, I hit a wall.
I realized that I was entering a new stage in my career and I was at a huge crossroads. I had turned 21 and knew my parental funding—which had been unable to keep pace with increasing costs associated with my increasing level—was soon going to end. However, I wanted a life in the equine world. So I sold my Grand Prix horse and used the money as a down payment on a facility.
At 21, no one would give me a loan but Sandi Carlton, the former facility owner, took a huge risk on me and I got a 6-year land contract on her beautiful facility which is now mine—well, if I pay it off in three years. It includes 43 acres of fenced pasture, two outdoor arenas and an oversized indoor, plus two barns with 33 stalls. Lendon Gray recently called it, and I quote, “the perfect place for TEAM clinics.”
I never thought I would ever be able to have a dream anywhere near this. But, halfway into my 6-year opportunity, I have learned some very serious lessons about what really goes in to owning and managing a training facility. I want to share those with you so that you can take a moment to reflect on all that your facility really does and perhaps also gain a deeper understanding of where their costs come from.
1. The amount of work on the facility side of the table far exceeds that on the horse-care side! I kid you not. I thought I worked hard before! Now I not only haul the manure and mow the grass and cut the branches and repair the fences and figure out electrical problems, I worry about the grass and the rain and the hay. Every minute of every day there is something that needs tending. There is no rest. Land management and facility management takes 24 hours a day.
2. The level of work needed to manage health issues for horses is astronomical. By “manage your horse’s health” I mean I never before realized the efforts the facility makes that directly affect your horse’s daily health. For example, dust is a huge problem and can influence—and even cause—respiratory issues. Air flow, particularly in the extreme temperatures is also a concern. Flies create numerous annoyances, as well as medical issues for our horses. All of these are daily battles that require not only reaction, but long-term planning, execution and strategy. Don’t even get me started on the endless battle with spiders and spider webs and other pests that invade the facility and are not only a nuisance, but are also health and safety issues.
3. Don’t take your footing anywhere for granted ever again. I have had to spend hundreds of hours on the tractor (which is, by the way, more bouncy than riding in the saddle) dragging arenas for levelness, raking corners and picking up any bit of anything carelessly left in the dirt. I have been so blessed that the drainage at my facility is phenomenal because of the well-thought-out original construction. But I know that while the rain is a friend to grass, it is often not a friend to footing. Grating drives and ramps and icing paths is a regular concern. I have shoveled dirt, brought in and leveled rock and learned to plow snow. I spend my time dreaming of new attachments for my John Deere. I salivate at the thought of attachments or a bigger mower blade width!
I spend more time on my tractor than my horses these days. I remember walking around at Albert Park in Rancho Santa Fe where I trained with Christine Traurig, and never once thinking about my footing. I only now understand how hard it is for the facility to create that level of surety in their riders. I have had more sleepless nights in the last three years than I remember ever having as a rider. Those butterflies before competition are a whole different type of worry.
4. Grass is a living thing that is precious. Maintaining pastures of lovely green grass that keep our babies happy and healthy is literally a perpetual battle. You aerate, seed, water, fertilize, rotate and watch the blades more than any other aspect of life. I have become a true guardian of the green!
5. Hosting clinics, camps, parades, hay rides and any other manner of events is an expensive distraction. Everything gets put in hyper drive and disrupted. Schedules go out the door and something always breaks. When you attend events like this at someone’s facility, they support you with sound systems, chairs, lunches and just about anything else you need at a moment’s notice and with a smile. And most of this goes completely unnoticed if it’s done well.
Like the very best in our sport, where the riders look as if they aren’t really working, top facilities run like a smooth watch with all the gears in perfect motion. Yet the reality is the energy, time and money that is spent behind the scene is a key to our success, imperative for the health and happiness of our horses and it is done for the love our partners—definitely not for profit! There are a dozen other ways the land could be used for more money than boarding!
I want to say thank you to all the people of all the barns at which I have ever worked and/or boarded because I never fully understood your role in my life until now. Thank you!
Ayden Uhlir is an FEI gold medalist and runs Flyaway Stables in Battle Creek, Michigan. Her mission is to provide quality dressage training, round-the-clock care and a comfortable environment for riders of all ages. She is also committed to growing equestrian sports by hosting youth camps and other programs to benefit the community and increase access to the benefits of equine interaction. Visit flyawaystables.com.