Come and get it!

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While many horse barn builders construct only the shell of the building, with a little more effort — and by cultivating relationships with knowledgeable suppliers — builders can boost profits and customer satisfaction by providing basic equipment and accessories.

Among these are stall fronts and dividers, flooring and fencing, feeders and waterers. Each requires at least a basic appreciation of equine physiognomy and psychology, along with knowledge of how to integrate the equipment into a safe and well-run operation.

For example, fresh water is essential to a horse’s health. “So installing automatic waterers can be a good option,” notes Rocky Gilreath, owner of Rockin J Horse Stalls in Mannford, Okla. “But you must follow the applicable electrical codes. And you should provide a way to monitor water consumption since you don’t want the horse to get too much water too fast.”

Similarly, numerous equipment options are available for feeding horses. But no matter what system is chosen, relates Dan Fehringer, co-owner of HayDay LLC in Hayden, Idaho, “When you position the feeders, be aware that horses are designed to eat with their heads down. With hayracks that force horses to eat with their heads up, dust and particles can more easily get into eyes and cause respiratory issues. And dental problems can result because teeth wear will be crooked.”

After talking with horse owners to identify their needs, builders can enhance customers’ satisfaction by ensuring the right equipment is chosen. In turn, that translates into more referrals and more business.

“Familiarizing your customers with equipment options is essential and allows you to show them why quality products aren’t necessarily the fanciest,” advises Debbie Disbrow, president of RAMM Fencing in Swanton, Ohio, which makes a full line of equine products.

Gilreath agrees that taking time to educate customers is profitable for both parties. By encouraging clients not to cut corners, builders can avoid costly call-backs and lost referrals.

“And the owners will realize,” he says, “that shortcuts on quality and safety may save some money initially, but they’ll lose it once they’ve paid the vet.”

Horse barn builders who also offer to provide equipment can benefit from a win-win proposition. Customers are better served, Fehringer believes, “because they end up with a good system, while at the same time builders increase their profit. You get a discount on the products and can also charge for installation, thus helping your bottom line.”

Plenty of water

According to Gilreath, water for a horse is just as important— if not more important — than feed. “Under no circumstance should a horse be allowed to run out of water,” he points out, “but neither should a horse take on too much water all at once.”

Automatic waterers have become a popular equipment option, especially as the equine market comes to be dominated by hobbyists. Owners who at last decide to board their own horses want to maximize time for riding and minimize the time required for maintenance. But, cautions Gilreath, not all automatic waterers are alike.

“There are a lot of products that perform well,” he observes, “but it might be smart to recommend one with a meter, so the owner can see how the horse has been drinking. If the horse isn’t drinking then you know it’s sick.”

Disbrow agrees that “a horse’s water is as important as its feed — and sometimes more important in the hot season.” But she explains that customers may have different equipment preferences, depending on their needs.

Establishing priorities

“Do the customers want water in front of the horse at all times? Do they need to see how much the horse drinks? If they want to use buckets, where in the stall should the buckets be mounted? And do they want a door for the water bucket?” are some of the concerns Disbrow raises.

Even as hot weather needs must be considered, so can frozen water be an issue for customers in cold climates. “In the winter, heated equipment makes watering easier and saves the owners time and energy,” Disbrow explains. “An insulated bucket is strong and durable and will keep water from freezing.”

If automatic waterers are installed, she adds, “Follow manufacturer instructions to the letter, especially in frost-prone areas. If the lines aren’t insulated properly, it’s a big headache for the owners. And any lines to the waterers must be completely covered so that the horse can’t get to anything electrical.”

Another tip is to provide individual controls in each stall. “It costs a little extra, but customers will be really upset if all the waterers go down at once,” Disbrow says.

Even when customers like to water their horses outside, automatic waterers are still an option. “Make sure there’s at least a spigot for watering horses out in the pasture,” she states, “and depending on the size of the pasture, you can install faucets or automatic waterers.”

In choosing among automatic waterers, Disbrow continues, “Ask the manufacturer if the bowl can be removed and therefore easily cleaned. Do your homework. Major brands are good. But there are other quality brands that offer excellent products, without having to pay for a big name.”

‘Feed little, feed often’

Watering and feeding do not occur in isolation. Instead, the two are related. Horses are grazing animals. Drinking and eating in moderation, a little at a time, is better for their health.

 “The best advice I’ve heard came from a book written around 1898: ‘Feed little; feed often,’” says Fehringer. “And when horses are frequently fed, they’re encouraged to drink more water.”

The advice is based on the horse’s digestive system. “They have very small stomachs in proportion to their bodies, so that their stomachs aren’t designed to hold a lot of food,” explains Fehringer. “And unlike humans who have gallbladders, horses have digestive juices constantly flowing into their stomachs.”

Because equine digestion is geared to grazing, Fehringer notes, horses’ stomachs are typically empty about two hours after eating. Thus if horses are fed just twice a day, they tend to quickly consume large quantities of food. But then their systems cannot properly utilize the nutrients.

“That’s one reasons why 70 to 90 percent of horses have stomach ulcers,” he observes, “and why horses will pace, wheeze and chew on their stalls.”

The need for horses to feed frequently, and the desire of many owners to minimize maintenance, can put animals at risk. For that reason, HayDay co-owners Dan and Ed Fehringer developed the Stable Grazer automatic hay feeder. The two men came up with the idea in 1999, applied for a patent in 2003, and introduced the product two years later.

The battery-powered unit can feed grain or hay to a horse up to six times daily on a timed schedule, and must be refilled about every other day. An optional attachment can dispense feeding supplements. Although the feeder is designed to be part of a stall system, the unit can also be installed on outdoor fences.

“We came up with the idea out of necessity,” admits Dan Fehringer. “Ed and I had another business at the time. But we have horses of our own and were spending a lot of time to properly feed them.” As it turned out, Stable Grazer was well received by other horse enthusiasts who shared the same problem. The Fehringers sold their other business in 2003 and plunged full-time into the new venture.

“When feed is knocked out of a conventional container, the horse will eat off the floor and ingest sand along with the feed. That’s a common cause of colic,” Fehringer points out. Thus he argues that, although an automatic feeder costs more upfront than conventional feeders, the unit will “more than pay for itself the first time you avoid having to treat your horse for colic.”

Putting feeders in their place

While Fehringer recommends that feeders be positioned so that horses can eat naturally with their heads down, Rockin J’s Gilreath adds, “Keep feeders separate, at least 12 feet apart in most cases. And to avoid injury to a horse, the feeders shouldn’t be too high or too low.”

For her part, Disbrow adds, “Feeders not only need to be mounted at the correct height, but should also be the right size for the given situation.”

Water and feed “both need to be hung on the wall in such a way as to ensure the horse can’t get its foot or head caught between the feeder and the wall. There should be plenty of room on either side of it. And be sure no nails or screws protrude. If horses can find anything, it’s bound to be something sharp.”

A good procedure, Disbrow continues, is to “check the height of the stall when it’s complete, and then adjust the feeder according to height of the horse when it’s in the stall. Make sure the horse isn’t leaning up to try to eat. Ask owners about the heights of each horse because they may have ponies, miniature horses or even just small horses.” Professional trainers, she adds, are often willing to provide individual advice to builders and owners about feeding options.

Though it may cost the customer extra, there is another placement option. “The feeder can be mounted to a door, instead of a wall, so that the owner can feed the horse from outside the stall,” Disbrow says. “Because they never have to walk into the stall, it saves time. But if you’re installing a bucket door, make sure the holder is secure so the horse can’t knock off the bucket.”

In many — if not most — cases the best course may be putting a feed room in the facility. Owners can then avoid the risk of overfeeding, Disbrow explains, by keeping feed locked behind closed doors and inaccessible to horses.

Gilreath points out that proper storage is as important as disposing of old feed. “Rodents, such as possums, can carry different diseases. So the feed must be kept as clean as possible,” he says. Feed in the feed room should be covered and kept in sealed containers to keep out pests.

“And if there’s no door to keep out possums,” adds Disbrow, “they can get into the hay and create major problems. The horse can get EPM (equine protozoal myeloencephalitis), a dangerous disease that affects the immune system.”

Another option a builder can suggest to the customer, says Disbrow, “is to place grain bins at an angle, with handles and lids.” If a hay room is built, she continues, “Make sure there is proper ventilation, so there’s no risk of fire and mold.”

Safety considerations extend to the design of the feeders themselves. “You don’t want sharp edges and corners, or hangers that horses can get hung up in,” says Gilreath. Plastic and steel can be durable materials for feeders, he suggests. And their safety is further enhanced when feeders are taken off the wall once a week to be inspected, cleaned and disinfected.

In the end, Disbrow cautions, “The biggest mistakes happen when a builder doesn’t talk with the customers to find exactly what they need. You can’t return a product that is installed and used if, by chance, you purchased the wrong one. So talk to customers before you install anything. It shows the owners how conscientious you are.”

Feeding and watering are so important, says Disbrow, these functions should be incorporated into the barn design rather than added later after the shell is constructed. “It’s much easier for the customer,” she asserts, “and often more profitable for the builder, when you complete the whole job.”

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