Herd Stabling

Someone was telling me about their stabling arrangements earlier this week, and with the drastic changes in business rates I wonder if this is the way forward for riding schools.

The riding school I went to as a child was a converted dairy farm, so we had a similar arrangement for some of the horses.

Matt, as well as my previous pony, spent the first three winters in The Sheep Shed. Yes, it had previously housed sheep, but was a long, single storey barn with a five bar gate at one end. The barn was rectangular, with the back, long side against the hill, and right two-thirds of the front wall had the muckheap barn (yep, that’s right, our muckheap was under cover!) against it, and the gate on the left. To the left of the sheep shed were more barns which were converted from machinery storage to pairs of stables. Anyway, the gate had a piece of black plywood on to stop the horses getting their feet stuck in the bars.

So know you know how the sheep shed looked. Each winter four geldings (14.2hh sort of size) lived in there. They were all chilled out geldings, who naturally gravitated towards each other in the field anyway. None were particularly dominant, although I remember the first couple of days being quite noisy as they established the pecking order. One year I think we had an emergency swap because one pony was being a bit too boisterous. I can also remember doing a winter with five in there and that was hard work!

The four of us became very adept at working together to muck out, and became quite a team. The bonus of being one of four was that you had someone to fall back on if you were ill or overwhelmed by schoolwork, and you didn’t have to muck out every day!

My friend and I went to school together, so we did three weekdays and a weekend day, and the other two owners (who were mother and daughter) did the rest of the week.

Anyway, each horse was designated a corner, and when we arrived after school we would tie each pony into their corner. Then we’d ride, leaving the other two tied up. When we’d finished, we fed each horse their hard feed in their corner and tied up haynets for all of them. In later years a hay rack appeared, but mine always had haynets. We’d fill the two dustbins of water and take out four wheelbarrows of muck. It was a semi deep litter arrangement, with a good clean out on weekends and the whole shed emptied in the spring. Fresh straw was scattered over the top and then we’d let the horses go.

Yes, they moved around the haynets and you couldn’t monitor closely how much they were eating, but as soon as one was noticed to have dropped weight (usually Matt) they were taken out and fed an extra feed on the yard in the mornings. On weekends we used to leave them tied up most of the day because we were always there and always coming and going, so it was a good chance to pump forage into the slimmer ones.

I’m sure the horses didn’t get bored, despite no turnout December until February because they had so much social interaction. It was always lovely to come around the corner and see three or four heads looking over the gate, whinnying to you.

The riding school ponies had similar accommodation, in large rooms that used to be the cow stalls. Between three and five ponies were in each one. Usually the four dominant ones, and then the milder ones. Again, swaps were made if someone got a bit big for their boots, and the end stable, which you had to walk through to access the stalls, was often conscripted mid winter when someone started losing weight or being unhappy in the group. On days there were lessons the ponies just stayed tied up – out of the cold and wet – munching hay and easily brought out for lessons. We had to do the old fashioned thing of offering them water before tying them up, although they were pretty good at leading us to the water buckets when they were hungry!

In terms of riding schools, I think this is the only way to beat the increase in business rates because to house six ponies in six stables you need six 10ftx10ft stables. However, that equivalent space in an open barn would probably house seven ponies, perhaps more if they were small. Which would mean that the riding school barns are being used in a more cost effective way.

Obviously this situation wouldn’t work for liveries because of the risk of injury and argument, but for horses and ponies used to living in a herd environment it is a definite possibility. So long as enough feed stations are provided and the animals integrated carefully, and monitored through the winter in case they drop off weight, then this living arrangement is far more natural and you should end up with happier and healthier horses.

It’s food for thought though, if you are a small riding school facing business changes.

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