They Did It: Created a Barn-Leasing Program to Grow Their Own Horse Adopters
This Old Horse (TOH) in Hastings, MN, started as a sanctuary program for unrideable horses and has morphed into a horse community that grows its own adopters. Nancy Turner, president and founder of TOH, says, "Our horses charmed and inspired our volunteers—many of whom had little or no experience with horses— so much that volunteers wanted to adopt them. The problem was most volunteers had nowhere to keep a horse in our metropolitan area where nearly 70% of horse owners board their horses." TOH's solution is an innovative barn-leasing program that allows new adopters a place to board their horses and maintain the sense of community they've built with like-minded horse lovers.
Read on to learn how you can create a similar program in your community.
ASPCApro: Why did This Old Horse begin boarding adopters' horses?
Nancy Turner: I had adopters right there in front of me in the form of committed volunteers. They needed a place to board where they and their horses fit in. In my own experience, I knew what it was like to feel excluded from a barn. After a lifetime of western riding on stock horses, I bought an OTTB, and I wanted to try hunt seat lessons. As a beginner hunt seat rider, I tried three different barns where I never fit in: I was older, did not board my own horse at the lesson barn, and wasn't interested in showing. I felt like a fish out of water. It was this sense of being discounted and excluded that drove a deep desire to create spaces for horses and humans that made them feel welcome: a place to love horses and learn from them and about them.
ASPCApro: That's wonderful! Does boarding adopted horses limit your capacity?
Turner: Like all rescues, our capacity is severely limited by space. If we had 43 acres and 28 stalls, we could fill it up with our own boarders in a minute. All the cost of care plus a contribution to overhead would be covered, but then we would be out of business. Maybe a good thing, right? But the need to help horses in transition was not abating. In fact, the better job we did of serving and supporting, the more referrals we were getting!
If we see This Old Horse as a place at 19025 Coates Boulevard, our capacity is finite. If we see This Old Horse as a community, it is infinite. So, we set our sights on finding people with horse property that they were not using or underutilizing (in our opinion) and asked them to join us.
Here's how it works. We know how much the cost of care is for our average horse—both direct and indirect costs. So, each farm has its own price for boarding. Most of the sites offer us a free lease, and some of them cover the cost of utilities too. Some of them we lease at a discounted market rate.
ASPCApro: That's a clever way to find space for your adopters' horses! Can you give us an example of how boarding works at one of the farms?
Turner: Our latest program for our mini horses works out like this: Lease and utilities average $2000 a month. We have a capacity for 20 horses (so, $100 per stall). The average feed, bedding, and hay cost $100 a month per horse—they are all little horses there and are turned out except for feeding, inclement weather, or other stall rest. This variable has a huge impact on bedding costs. The adopters cover vet and farrier and incidentals. Almost all the feed crew are volunteers, but there are a few paid shifts, so that's a little more overhead. When you factor all that in, we charge $250 per month per horse for that location. People with multiple horses get a 10% discount on the second horse.
ASPCApro: What does the business end of the boarding look like in terms of lease agreements and payments?
Turner: This Old Horse is the leaseholder on the property and carries the insurance (not on the individual horses or personal belongings). The boarders sign a standard generic boarding agreement and pay their board on PayPal or leave a check in the lockbox every month. We have barn rules for each location with the hours and restrictions. Some of the farms are private homes with more restrictive access as a courtesy to the property owners.
Within a few months of leasing the mini horse property, every horse was adopted. Some on the same day they arrived. We don't allow outside horses to be boarded, all the spots are for horses we admit—mostly in hardship circumstances and mostly unhandled, not halter broke or anything. We offer our Soul Train program at the location, and every horse is participating.
ASPCApro: How do the new adopters stay connected at the leased barn?
Turner: There is an indoor arena (shared space with the property owners who have their own separate barn). We turned the tack room into a lobby where people gather (in normal times), which helps create a sense of community and camaraderie. We also periodically open an online store with branded apparel so people can order items with their horse's name on it. They all look like NASCAR drivers, as you can see from the photo above.
We have also created some private Facebook groups for the horse owners at specific barns to connect and share personal information and photos. We don't share personal information on our official sites, but they are welcome to share their own stories on the private pages moderated by a TOH-designated page administrator.