Shopping for Horse Farm Property

By Alayne Blickle

Consider these pointers for selecting horse-friendly land, facilities, and communities.

My husband and I recently completed a several-year property search that led us to the perfect plot of land for our planned horse operation. I’ve always been fascinated with other horse-keeping operations, so I found it exhilarating to “reinvent” my horsey life, thinking and rethinking about how I’d like to set up my new place–all, of course, based on what my husband and I could afford and what we could compromise on.

As soon as we pulled up at a potential site, I would jump out to check the horse facilities; if they weren’t up to par, there was no sense in going further. I wasn’t just looking at the amenities; realistically, having a nice barn or big arena is actually secondary to many other basics that can either make or break your horse property.

Let’s review some of the points I pondered, as well as others to consider when shopping for horse property.

The List

Begin your search with a list of every feature you’d like your dream horse property to possess. Horse owner Pam Anderson and her husband moved to southwestern Idaho recently and created such a 22-point wish list before starting their farm hunt. This included everything from the view out their windows to the types of horsey services they hoped to have available locally. “That gives you some parameters to start with,” says Anderson. “When we found this place we knew it was right because it had just about everything on my list!”

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As a horse farm owner, you might not be growing crops per se, but if you want quality pasture, existing soil type greatly impacts the types and quality of grasses that will grow and how you’ll manage your horses.

Location

Remember the old adage about how “location, location, location” sells real estate? As a buyer, keep that saying in mind because property location affects almost everything. Coldwell Banker realtor Herb Callaham, in Nampa, Idaho, has been in the real estate business for 13 years. “One of the things I like to do (with a prospective client) is to tour the valley first to get the big picture.” This gives a person a chance to get a feel for the entire area, see the types of rural activities going on, and get a taste of life there.

“Location is the most important point, be it for schools, access to land for trail riding, or close proximity to town,”says Callaham. “It’s critical to learn what the area offers and what you want to get from it.”

Property Size

Property size is another thought, and bigger is not necessarily better. Horses can be kept on pieces of land as small as one or two acres. However, the smaller the acreage the more intensively you’d need to manage it to avoid a mud and manure mess. If you want enough land to provide adequate pasture time for your horses, you’ll probably want at least an acre per horse. Smaller pastures of one acre or less can be managed successfully if you follow good management techniques: Don’t allow your horses on pasture during the winter when grasses are dormant and soils are soggy, and never graze grasses below three inches.

Soils

When considering a potential horse property’s natural features, start from the ground up. Soil type is one of the most important, but often overlooked, considerations. As a horse farm owner, you might not be growing crops per se, but if you want quality pasture, existing soil type greatly impacts the types and quality of grasses that will grow and how you’ll manage your horses.

Loamy, organic soils are best for pasture growth, but just a little precipitation can turn paddocks into a mucky mess. Well-drained soils containing gravel are excellent for buildings and confinement areas because they create the least amount of mud problems, but they aren’t nutrient-rich enough for optimal pasture growth.

Check with your USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), your local conservation district, or extension office for soil type advice. If you will be building, use this information to help determine where to build barns, paddocks, pastures, your home, or other structures. If there are existing buildings and enclosures on the property, assess whether the current locations are suitable by looking at the state of the soil. For example, you might learn that the paddock areas will always present a mud problem because the soil there is wet and mucky, or you might discover that pastures will never be very productive because their soil is too rocky. Having the right soil in the right places makes horse management easier down the road.

Vegetation

Vegetation can also provide important clues about a prospective property. Certain plants tend to grow in specific areas. For example, sedges, rushes, and hardhack growing in pastures indicate these areas are wet–maybe even too wet for horses. Skunk cabbage and cattails definitively indicate a wetland area, which is no place for a pasture or livestock. See if your local library, extension office, or conservation district offers a listing of plants, trees, and shrubs native to your area and the types of soils and conditions these plants prefer. Using this as a guideline, assess the existing vegetation to determine whether the property can become a useful, manageable horse farm.

Water and Terrain

Topography and drainage are two additional natural features to consider, as water running off hillsides can collect in horse paddocks below. “We were looking specifically for something flat,” reflects Anderson. “Where we (lived formerly) there were hills and a lot of trees. I wanted the topography in our next place to be flat so it’d be easier to manage.”

If possible, visit your prospective place in the region’s rainy season or when there’s inclement weather. See how and where surface water runs. Does it all roll off a hill behind the barn into the confinement areas, or does it drain gently into the pastures and paddocks away from buildings? Is there a muddy depression in a low-lying paddock, or have paddocks been located in high, well-drained areas? How water flows across a property can tell you a lot about how to set up and manage it year-round.

Inventory all water features, such as creeks, wetlands, and ponds, as well as irrigation ditches. “Knowing water and irrigation is a key thing,” says Callaham. “The various types of irrigation processes are completely different with distinct operating procedures. Being on a river is a wonderful aesthetic but you get the bugs and mosquitoes that come with wet ground. With West Nile virus I always try to point that out to horse owners to be sure that being by water is what they want.”

Laws also protect natural bodies of water. In some parts of the country you might be required to fence off creeks, wetlands, and ponds/lakes creating a buffer as wide as 150 feet. Check with the county’s building and development departments, as well as code enforcement, before you buy.

Existing Structures

After you’ve gotten a feel for the land comes the fun part: It’s time to look at buildings, arenas, fences, and any other existing structures on the property.

“When Roger and I saw the house our jaws dropped,” Anderson recounts, describing its picture perfection. “However, when we saw the barn it was a bit trashed. But we could see beyond that. I think it’s important to have a vision of what you want. Then if you have to compromise some, you’ll know what it’ll take to make that up.”

When considering what modifications will be necessary to make a property suitable for you and your horses, ask these questions:

Are existing shelters adequate and in good shape?
Are barns free of rough edges or metal corners that could seriously injure a horse?
Are buildings large enough with high ceilings?
Is there appropriate flooring and footing?
Is there horse-safe fencing that is in good shape?

If you also plan to log and clear for pastures or building structures, estimate how much time and money this will take.

Finally, think about chore efficiency in terms of how existing structures are sited. As Anderson states, “We wanted the barn close to the house so that we didn’t have to hike to get to it.”

Will it be easy for you to clean stalls, get the stall waste to the compost, and haul the finished compost to the fields? It helps when all the horse chores fit together in a workable order.

Accessibility

Horse properties should allow for large vehicle access. Are gates and corners wide enough for delivery trucks or, more importantly, emergency vehicles? Would these vehicles be able to access the farm in the first place? How close is the nearest fire department, and what’s their water supply? Sometimes rural properties must supply their own water in case of a fire. This requires access to a farm pond or another backup emergency water supply. Investigating these points now rather than later will make life easier and operations safer.

Wells and Septic

In a rural setting chances are you’ll have your own well and septic system. Look at where these features have been placed in relationship to other structures. Wellheads should have a vegetated 100-foot-diameter buffer around them to protect the water from potential sources of contamination (e.g., manure piles, confinement areas, chemical or fuel storage areas, and garages should be situated away from wells).

Determine the location of the septic and drain field (which is typically made of perforated pipes buried in gravel-filled trenches) as well as the reserve drain field (the area to be used as a backup in case of drain field failure). Septic drain fields should not be located in high-traffic areas such as roads, driveways, arenas, confinement areas, and even pastures and gardens. Such locations put them at high risk for failure, and no one wants to purchase a new property only to install a new drain field to the tune of $10,000 or more. Contact your county’s health department for more information on locating and protecting your wellhead and septic system.

Community

Take a good look around your potential new neighborhood. As Anderson explains, “we had looked at other places but they just weren’t equestrian communities. Here everyone has horses and they understand your needs. It’s nice to have common interests with neighbors, horsey events available, and services and products locally.”

To investigate a community, talk with a knowledgeable realtor or other professional. “Knowing the future plans of a community is important,” Callaham adds. A well-researched realtor can tell you about growth and development plans that might be important to you. If the community isn’t an equestrian one, as Anderson describes, is it horse-friendly? In other words, is it accepting of new horse neighbors or are the condo owners next door going to worry about the placement of your manure pile? Non-horse-owning neighbors might not be as tolerant of things such as odors and flies as we think they should be. Consider what the neighbors would think before you buy (and they have a chance to complain).

Riding Opportunities

How easy will it be to ride at the prospective location? Does it offer an arena or a round pen? If you plan to build an arena, have you researched costs? Building a suitable outdoor arena with good footing and drainage can be costly and requires space and building permits. Accessibility to nearby indoor arenas (for winter riding) or public land for trail riding might be key.

“Every horse person here wants Bureau of Land Management land out the back door,” says Callaham. “If that’s your priority figure it into your plans.” Are suitable equestrian trails nearby? Be sure they are public trails that allow horse use–don’t just take a well-meaning neighbor’s word for it. Often so-called “community trails” are on private property that will eventually be developed. Other trails might be limited to certain recreational uses, such as hiking and biking.

Many wonderful horse properties exist that are surrounded by housing communities or busy highways. In these cases you’d need a truck and trailer to transport your horse to riding areas (though it’s good to have a rig, regardless, that’s handy for veterinary or evacuation emergencies). Remember, finding time to ride is most likely one of your main reasons for buying horse property, so be sure your dream place allows you to accomplish your goal.

Zoning

Zoning ordinances and community covenants are a final consideration. Take responsibility for knowing the full extent of the laws affecting horses and livestock in your potential new area. Research county, city, and local regulations. Check with zoning and building codes if your plans include building structures. Lastly, check on ordinances that might limit horse-keeping in your area, such as manure storage. Doing this homework up front saves time, money, and frustration down the road.

Take-Home Message

The more thoroughly you “vet” a prospective property, the easier your transition to living and managing horses there; you will be well-prepared and aware of the land’s assets as well as its limitations. With these tips in mind you are ready to embark on your search for the perfect horse place. Good luck and happy horse-keeping!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alayne Blicklealayne-blickle-2014

Alayne Renée Blickle, a lifelong equestrian and reining competitor, is the creator/director of Horses for Clean Water, an award-winning, nationally acclaimed environmental education program for horse owners. Well known for her enthusiastic, down-to-earth approaches, Alayne is an educator and photojournalist who has worked with horse and livestock owners since 1990 teaching manure composting, pasture management, mud and dust control, water conservation, chemical use reduction, firewise controls and wildlife enhancement. She teaches and travels North America and writes for horse publications. Alayne and her husband raise and train their reining horses at their eco-sensitive guest ranch, Sweet Pepper Ranch, in sunny Nampa, Idaho. She also authors the Smart Horse Keeping blog.