On any given day, Dawn Lanning’s ranch just outside of Hastings is active with horse riding lessons, day camps, Special Olympics training. But even with the wide range of services, Lanning struggles to make good money.
Lanning isn’t unique. Many horse ranches and stables across the south metro face similar hurdles. Some owners say major issues — from rising hay prices to new housing developments popping up around their once middle-of-nowhere land — are putting the future of small horse stables in question.
Just over a decade ago, Lanning started HHH Ranch as a simple boarding stable. But she had to begin thinking about other ways to make money and keep her ranch profitable when the recession hit in 2008.
Some boarders began leaving their horses to Lanning, unable to afford them anymore. Although she took them in, the cost of caring for 19 horses is steep. Just feeding a horse for one year costs about $1,800.
The year 2008 “was a really, really tough year,” she said, watching over a small group of Special Olympics athletes practicing their routine on her horses. “I was trying to make it just on board and I couldn’t do it.”
Keeping up with costs
Tracy Orr, owner of Sunnyside Stables in Rosemount, started adding extra services like a horse camp and public trail rides in the past seven years to keep up with the rising cost of hay.
“Hay prices keep climbing,” Orr said, “so it’s hard.”
Krishona Martinson, equine extension specialist for the University of Minnesota, said it’s typically more profitable for farmers to grow corn and soybeans rather than hay. Nor has climate change helped with the growth of hay crops.
But the national hay market could be stabilizing in the near future. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is predicting one of the largest crops on record in 2014, Martinson said.
Hay is just one of the high-priced necessities needed to care for horses. New owners generally don’t understand the cost of caring for horses, Martinson said, which can include boarding and housing, training, fencing, hoof care, vet visits and more.
“The expense is so great that people probably have sticker shock when they go to a barn or go to buy a 5-acre little farm,” she said. “It’s that daily cost of maintaining and keeping that animal on the farm.”
Year after year, the price of caring for 40 horses continued to rise for Doug Oehrlein, the previous owner of Lone Rock Stable in Rosemount. To stay in the boarding business, Oehrlein had to downsize his stock to just 10 horses and move to a new space a few miles outside of Farmington.
He’s not making any more money at the new ranch than he did at Lone Rock Stable, Oehrlein said, but the smaller size makes it easier to give the horses better care, which he said can be difficult to do at times.
“It’s like having ten kids,” he said. “You can’t just take the day off.”
Boarders at HHH Ranch can take a quiet horseback trot through the forest behind the stables and ride past a cornfield with stalks as high as a horse, trotting up small hills to catch a picturesque sunset.
While the serene setting may feel like it’s in the middle of nowhere, neighbors live just down the gravel road, and a handful of houses are set to be built just across the street from the ranch.
Though Lanning isn’t worried about developers buying her land, sprawl in the area could cause some issues for her ranch, she said.
Children are more prevalent in the area with houses sprouting up nearby, she said, which causes some concern about trespassing. But Lanning said she doesn’t mind having more people around her land “if we all get along.”
Other stable owners and riders in the south metro say housing developments have put many small stables out of business, as they’re unable to dole out the dollars needed to stay.
Martinson said urban sprawl and rising land values are likely the largest factors reducing stables in the metropolitan area.
In Dakota County, several places have been bought out for use as farms or developments, Oehrlein said. And that could lead to fewer people in the area owning stables or getting involved in riding, he said.
Despite the obstacles, the chance to work with horses and do what they love every day usually outweighs the downside for stable owners.
“It’s rewarding work. It’s not digging ditches, it’s not meaningless,” Oehrlein said. “It’s definitely hard work … but at the end of the day, it’s still fairly rewarding.”
Meghan Holden is a Twin Cities freelance journalist.