A wise horse trainer once told me that horses are the easy part in managing a horse farm. After owning horses, caring for others’ horses, keeping horses on my own farm and boarding horses on multiple other farms for more than 20 years, I know this to be true. Managing a horse farm requires managing their needs, their owners’ needs, the needs of the land and the needs of the infrastructure. There’s a lot going on here, but this is a hobby and a career that many find rewarding.
How Horses Differ From Other Livestock
There are many things that set horses apart from other livestock.
To start, there’s the human-horse bond that many people develop. More people are apt to make their horses their pets than with, say, cow. This could be because of the closer interaction that people have with their horses. If a horse is kept for riding, driving or other sports, their caretakers interact with them just about every day, learn their personalities, and pay attention to their physical well-being—from muscle soreness to scrapes and bruises. It’s easier to become bonded to an animal when you have this type of relationship versus simply feeding and opening a gate for it.
Physiologically, horses differ from other animals, too. In terms of digestion, cattle, sheep and goats are ruminants; pigs, dogs and humans are nonruminants; and horses are somewhere in between, classified as nonruminant herbivores. According to the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, horses’ digestive systems feature enzymatic digestion that occurs in the foregut, plus fermentive microbial digestion in the hind gut, making them able to breakdown forages.
This single-stomach digestion system makes horses more susceptible to digestive issues. Colic is the name for general abdominal discomfort, and it can be caused by any number of things ranging from having eaten something moldy or toxic to having a heavy parasite load. Unlike ruminants, horses cannot regurgitate or burp, so they’re often unable to relieve the pressure built up from intestinal issues. For all of these reasons, special care needs to be given to the pasture management, nutrition plan and water intake of horses.
Horses’ physical structure is different than other livestock, too, because we ask them to use their bodies for their everyday work. Unlike a pig bound for market, whose job it is to gain weight and wallow in the mud, horses are athletes that have a lot of moving parts that are susceptible to sprain, strain and injury.
Duties Of A Horse Farm Manager
A stable-management job can vary based on the type of farm you want to operate. For example, if you have a breeding farm, you’ll have all of the regular farm-management duties plus stallion management, care of foals and assisting in foaling. If you manage a small-acreage horse farm where boarders take on “self care”—daily care of their own horses—you might primarily be responsible for farm and facility maintenance but little feeding or stall cleaning. There are also performance-horse facilities that have indoor riding arenas to be cared for, clients paying thousands of dollars each month for their horses’ care and multiple horse trainers working in the barn, so stable management here will require a lot of people skills in addition to basic farm-management know-how.
Whatever type of equine facility you are interested in, there are some basic tasks that will pretty much be a given:
Create Productive Pasture
Horse farms—and small-acreage horse farms, in particular—easily become overpopulated with horses, making it hard to maintain pastures. In nature, horses spend 13 to 18 hours per day grazing, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s “Missouri Pasture Management Guide for Horse Owners” publication, and this can quickly knock out a quality stand of forage.
Horses’ large, unforgiving hooves can quickly turn a pasture into mud, making wet-season turnout a problem. Their grazing habits involve selective eating, meaning they eat what they like first and then will eat other, less-desirable plants. They also select a few areas as bathroom areas, depositing their manure in the same general area and not grazing that area, which can waste valuable grasses.
Advantages to keeping a pasture in good shape include the ability for horses to get much of their nutritional need from pasture—sometimes all, depending on the horse, the weather, and the forage quality and density. From a land-stewardship perspective, productive pasture is good for the environment, acting as a filter for nutrients, providing a habitat for microbes and insects, and preventing erosion.
Grass doesn’t grow in mud, of course, so if an area is turned to mud, it has to be rehabilitated, replanted and given time to rest before it can be used as productive pasture again. The moisture in mud also softens horses’ skin and breaks down the skin’s defenses, allowing bacteria to easily enter. Thrush and scratches are common mud-related issues seen in horses. The uneven surface and suction action of mud can injure horses and pull their shoes, too.
Tools to manage mud differ based on facilities available, your climate and your budget. These might include adding gutters to the barn, having a sacrifice lot, turning out horses in the indoor arena when outdoor grazing isn’t an option, and complete pasture renovation.
Monitor Horse Health
Healthy horses are, of course, the main goal for a horse-farm manager. You may be the person in charge of scheduling veterinarian and farrier visits and ensuring horses are on a regular farrier, vaccination and deworming schedule. When horses get sick or injured, it’s often the farm manager who notices and cares for the animal until the owner and veterinary help arrive. Basic equine first-aid skills are a must for anyone involved in equine management.
If horses are good at one thing, it’s making manure—approximately 50 pounds per day, according to the Virginia Cooperative Extension. Manure management should be taken seriously, as the nutrients leeching from manure can contaminate waterways, manure attracts flies, and no one wants to smell your horse farm’s mountain of manure.
Your manure-management options depend on your horse farm’s size, location and overall goals. Horse manure is a valuable crop amendment and could be composted or sold as-is to local farmers or used on your gardens. Some areas with large horse populations have manure-removal services, too.
Offer Additional Services
In addition to horse and pasture care, horse-farm managers can offer other services to boost the horse farm’s business. These might include:
- agritourism (think leading trail rides or offering summer camps)
- therapeutic-riding instruction
- equine or human massage
- riding lessons from various trainers on the farm
Working with horse owners is vital if you want to have a job. It’s not the horses that pay you (monetarily, anyway) but the people. Having excellent people-relations skills will make your barn a popular place.
Making a Career of It
Equine management is a legitimate career option for the truly dedicated. It’s so much of an option that there are college degrees and certificate programs catering specifically to this subject. Career options span the world. You could be working as a broodmare manager who cares for 300 acres and 50 mares at a Thoroughbred farm in Ireland or as the owner of a small-acreage horse farm who watches after 10 horses in your hometown.
The training needed depends on the exact job angle you’re going for. You need as much hands-on experience as you can get before going into horse-farm management, especially if you want to open your own horse farm. There are college degrees and certificate programs, as well as apprenticeships with other equine-management professionals, that can lend you this experience, but getting a job at a horse farm and working your way through the ranks may be the best training you can get.
Expect to get paid less as a horse-farm manager than you would in a corporate job that requires these dedicated hours, passion and skill set. Horses are expensive to maintain and farms are expensive to maintain, therefore, there tends to be little money left over for the people managing it all.
There’s no standard pay rate for a horse-farm manager, as the position varies so much in scope. The online equine-business magazine StableManagement.com conducted a survey of its readers to learn what horse farms charge their customers. This can give you some idea of what you can expect to make if you were to open your own horse farm.
What Farm-Management Software Can Offer
Computer programs once designed to manage mainstream businesses are being adapted for equine management, offering horse-farm managers a way to organize record keeping for the business and for individual horses. Even for small-acreage horse farms, there are a lot of details to keep track of—horse vaccination schedules, pasture-seeding records, horse-owner information, breeding records, training schedules—and you might prefer using farm-management software more than having heaps of binders and folders.
Some of the horse-farm-management software available today includes:
- Stable Secretary
- The Jockey Club Information Systems’ Horse Farm ManagementSystem
- Paddock Pro
- Equine Genie
There are many more, too, each with its own layout and features, so talk to others who’ve used the software and try it out yourself before deciding on a farm-management software for you. You might even find you prefer the binder-and-folder system or that you’d rather set up your own program.
Horse-farm management is a popular hobby and career among horse lovers. It’s not just about the horses, though. You have to be able to balance horses, people, land stewardship and business matters. There are many niches within equine management, and you might find one for yourself.