Horses in Suburbia

"So it must have been after the birth of the simple light in the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm out of the whinnying green stable on to the fields of praise."

This famous line from Dylan Thomas's poem Fern Hill evokes an age of peaceful bucolic equine life, an age that is rapidly disappearing for horse owners in growing metropolitan areas of the U.S. The country's longest period of economic expansion has led to urban sprawl and a sustained boom in suburban development. As rural property in many areas of the nation is supplanted by housing and commercial development, professional and amateur horse owners have experienced several problems:

1. the rapid reduction of open, ride-able land;

2. more disposable income among the middle class, resulting in more horses and horse owners;

3. a correspondingly higher demand for stall, pasture, and exercise space.

Thus, for the first time, owning horses in many parts of the country has slipped the grasp of the less affluent. What was once a peaceful outdoor activity enjoyed by a broad economic spectrum is becoming a hard-fought luxury forced into tighter quarters.

One result is that horse farm owners are suddenly surrounded by suburban home owners with idealized notions about rural life and who object to the realities of adjacent farms and stables. Their concerns include personal health, safety, and aesthetic breakdown. In many cases it forces an adjustment of lifestyle for everyone involved.

One homeowner expresses some common objections:

"When my wife and I planned our new house, we were delighted to hear that the place next door is a horse farm. We looked forward to seeing horses grazing within view of our yard. We expected to see white fences and green pasture. We did not expect the electric tape fence, the muddy turnouts in fall and spring, the sight of tractors, manure piles, and un-weeded fence rows."

The farm owner, on the other hand, expresses some of his concerns:

"I've lived in the country my whole life and all of a sudden we're surrounded by homeowners with city expectations and city hobbies. The kids next door race dirtbikes around here and think my place is a park. The owner expects my pasture to look like a golf course. I'm working on some of his objections just so we can get along, but they take time and money to achieve."

Some ways to improve relationships:

* Most suburban homeowners respond to appearances, especially of lawns, fields, and outbuildings. Therefore, keeping fields mowed on a regular basis and keeping up with painting are two activities that will improve relations immediately. My neighbor, who is a fanatic about his own place accepts the less-than-perfect look of mine as long as he knows I am working on his concerns.

* Staying in touch. Good communication is often tough to achieve, but a little diplomacy goes a long way. When you have a chance to talk, listen to what your neighbors have to say and let them know that you are doing whatever is reasonable to address their concerns. Failure to communicate and ignoring attempts to work things out can make small matters escalate into real problems.

* Keep up with your fences. Loose horses raise a lot of safety concerns. Many suburban dwellers don't understand horses and can be fearful of them. Depending on the size of turnouts and the energy levels of the horses you are trying to contain, electrified tape or vinyl fences should be supplemented with true physical barriers.

* Conceal manure piles with trees, fences, or neatly stacked bales of last year's hay, and keep them maintained. Try to position them away from the sightlines of adjacent houses. If it's out of sight, most of the time it will be out of mind. Diligence in this matter can prevent professional manure removal ordinances in your township.

* Keep tools, materials, unfinished projects and junk picked up and equipment put away. These items cause significant aesthetic breakdown, but often take little time to correct.

* Keep dogs licensed and under control. Many times country dogs are allowed to wander, which is an affront to those brought up in urban and suburban culture. Therefore, when that new development goes in next door, a common objection will be unrestrained, unlicensed dogs.