Choosing the Right Yard


Renee Swanepoel

Well, you've done it! Finally saved up your pennies, survived an exhausting horse - hunt and now 'Prince Charming' is finally yours! All that's left is, of course, finding that perfect home for him. With hundreds of yards to choose from, how do you know you are picking the right one? Is it possible to tell what your experience will be once you 'join the club' and how can you know whether or not you are unknowingly subjecting yourself to a possible disaster later on?
There are a few good indicators of a quality yard, and believe me, the paint against the walls is not one of them! The principles of good stable management apply in all cases, and very often horse owners can be fooled by the exterior appearances of a yard. Poor management something that is all too easy to cover up with expensive buildings, nice arenas and good excuses. So, what do you look for when deciding where to go?

Firstly, decide what it is you want to do. By this I mean, decide where your interests lie. If you are very competitive, it is no good joining a yard where no-one competes! If you are interested in a particular discipline, try to join a yard that specialises in that specific discipline - be it eventing, endurance, showing, showjumping or whatever. In that way, you will be sure that most of the people around you are also trying to achieve similar goals to yours. If you are only interested in hacking out a few times a week, then be sure that there is ample space and safe trails around the yard. A smaller, private yard may be best for you if you are not too keen on masses of children carreering around on naughty ponies! If 'social life' is a big word in your vocabulary, make sure that there are plenty of people your age and of course, a coffee shop on the premises is a must!

A good instructor is also vital. By good, I am talking qualifications here! Any person who is serious about their career as an instructor or a stable manager will ensure that they make the time and effort to qualify themselves properly. Although experience goes a long way, I am unfortunately very suspicious of anyone who does not have anything on paper. Keeping horses is an expensive business, and I would not want to pay someone that much money, knowing they might just not know what they are doing. There are many good courses being offered by institutions such as Damelin, Technikon Pretoria and of course SANEF qualifications too, so I am not sure that anyone has an excuse not to have some form of qualification. That said, a qualification is not always a guarantee of expertise either!

Another 'must' that is often overlooked is a First-aid certificate of some sort. This is especially important when teaching children and youngsters. Accidents do happen, and I have seen too many riders suffer horrible injuries because the person in charge did not follow good first-aid procedure. I once witnessed a pupil being forced back up onto her horse's back after a nasty fall because, (as the instructor put it) "When you fall off you must get back on, otherwise you'll lose your nerve!" She had, in fact, cracked several vertebrae in her back and neck, and the damage done to her body after the fall nearly cost her her life. As it was, she spent several years in a brace following the accident. Her doctor told her that she did more damage to her neck and back because she got back onto the horse than the actual fall!

When deciding on an instructor, it is best to watch one or two lessons as well. Observe the class - is it conducted safely and professionally? Are the horses wearing the correct tack and are they being ridden humanely? Are the riders all wearing safety helmets - no excuses here guys! Riding a horse without a safety helmet is like playing Russian roulette - very, very stupid! A lady once commented that she thought her helmet was so horrid, as it messed up her hair and made her sweat - I say, my dear, you should see what your head looks like with a neurosurgeon digging around in it! Is there some sort of structure to the lesson, or do the riders simply trot around and around in a circle? Are the riders being corrected and complimented? Most importantly - is everyone having fun?! Are the arenas and the training equipment sufficient for your needs. No one likes to queue half an hour for access to a lunge ring!

When it comes to the facilities being offered at the yard, be very careful not to let bright, new, shiny buildings fool you. One test I like to use when evaluating the level of professionalism in a yard, is to notice where and how the halters are kept! Are they lying all over the floor? Hanging by the nosebands with the lead rope trailing on the ground? Are they clean? In good repair? Halters give you a great indication of how important attention to detail is, and as far as I am concerned, God is found in the details!

What does the tack room look like? Does it have enough space and storage facilities for everyone's things? Are there saddles lying on the ground? (heaven forbid!) Broken saddle racks? What is the security like? How easy is it for someone to walk in and out with your things? Is the tack clean and neatly packed away?

Another important detail when it comes to the stable yard, is fire control. Ask the manager what their fire drill is. They don't know? I would hate to be your horse when a fire breaks out! Are there 'no smoking' signs up? Fire extinguishers? Take a look at the paddocks. There must be shade of some sort, as well as access to clean, fresh water and grazing or teff. One of the most dangerous things to see in a paddock, is an empty teff net hanging loosely on the paddock fence. An accident waiting to happen. Do horses go out together, or are they housed separately. You might not want your R 30 000 show horse turned out with the local bully! Is everything held together by orange baling twine? (MY PET HATE!!!)

Have a look at the horses. Are they healthy? Fat or thin? What do their hooves look like - often a very good indicator of health and past veterinary problems. Do any of the horses have thrush? How many horses in the yard are bad tempered or headshy? Often grooms are seen walking along leading horses in and out, only, the horse is always two or three paces behind the groom, being dragged along. Are the grooming kits clean?

Find out whether the horses get dipped for ticks at all. Discuss their veterinary and health policy. What preventative measures are in place to prevent African Horse Sickness. (By the way, vaccination alone is no good at preventing AHS!) How many colics have they had in the last few months? Any horses had biliary (tick bite fever) lately? How well qualified is the manger to handle minor situations? Would they be able to recognise a serious problem if one arose? Are they simply sterilising needles and using them over and over and over - by the way, are you sure that they are actually sterilising the needles correctly?

There are so many things to consider when choosing a good yard. The most important thing to remember is that you should be sure that your horse will get the very best care possible, and that the money you are spending is being put to good use and your property well taken care of. You should enjoy being at the yard, and achieving all your riding goals you have set for yourself!

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