The uncertain fate of the Columbia Horse Center is causing upheaval at the facility and, some say, taking a toll on the health of its animals.
The number of horses boarded at the barn has fallen by more than half since January, resulting in a loss of about $10,000 a month in revenue. Workers say lameness and illness among the remaining animals have increased - including an outbreak of life-threatening colic that required surgery for one horse. Staff members attribute the problems to poor maintenance and a sudden switch to a cheaper feed.
Funds to make capital improvements are frozen. Staff members are leaving in droves and not being replaced. Columbia Association officials with other full-time responsibilities and no background in equine management are in charge at the center.
And the day-to-day responsibilities of barn management have largely fallen to someone who became interested in horses two years ago, when her daughter started taking riding lessons. Her only training has been the on-the-job variety.
"We need a knowledgeable barn manager in here to run it," said Christine Miller, a custom-home seller who took the job as assistant barn manager a few months ago as "a summer kind of thing" and has wound up more or less in charge of the barn.
"There's got to be someone who's capable of giving shots and knows the right way to wrap a leg and just be able to identify an illness," she said. "I've been here till midnight with sick horses and the barn manager's nowhere to be found."
On 88 acres off Gorman Road, the horse center is the most hotly debated of the Columbia Association's recreational facilities.
It has attracted critics in recent years because it loses money - nearly $300,000 in the fiscal year that ended April 30 - and is used by less than 1 percent of Columbia residents. Nearly all of the association's facilities are subsidized, but most have a higher usage level.
The Columbia Council is looking into selling or leasing the facility, possibilities also raised by the previous council. Last week, the council asked association staff members to look into both options, but also stressed to horse center patrons that any change would not take effect for months.
In April, the council froze more than $100,000 in capital funds for the current fiscal year.
The council released about $20,000 for the purchase of eight horses in the past two months, which will bring in revenue from lessons. But other improvements - such as a $35,000 outdoor lighting system that would allow the facility to offer lessons after dark - remain on hold.
Since January, the barn has lost its facility manager, barn manager and several trainers. Bob Bellamy, director of operations for all Columbia Association sport and fitness facilities, has been serving as acting facility manager. Burl Post, a supervisor in the association's open-space division, has been acting barn manager.
Neither has expertise in horses, though Post grew up on a farm and has a degree in livestock management, said Rob Goldman, the association's vice president for sport and fitness. Goldman said that both men, despite being busy with their regular responsibilities, are spending some portion of each day at the horse center.
"It's not the same kind of care a full-time barn manager can give," Goldman acknowledged.
Bellamy said the center is a safe, sound place to ride and board a horse.
"As frustrating as it is for the people, they can only imagine how frustrating it is for Burl and myself, who also feel we're torn in many, many ways," Bellamy said. "The only thing we can do is the best job we can. ... I like to think we are able to take care of the most important things."
The number of horses boarded at the barn has fallen sharply, from about 49 in January to 16 today, said Robin Daugherty, the horse center's office manager. Income from boarding has fallen during that time from $17,000 a month to about $7,000 a month, she said.
The barn is home to 33 other horses, some of them owned by the Columbia Association, others kept there at no charge in exchange for their use in lessons. About 300 lessons are given at the center each week.
Many of the horses still at the barn have become lame or sick in recent months, Daugherty and Miller said, attributing the problems in part to poor maintenance of the riding rings.
The dirt rings where the horses are ridden are not being "dragged" - loosened up with a rake-like machine - often enough, they said. The ring used to be dragged three times a day. Now, Daugherty said, it goes as long as three days without a grooming.
"If it gets done every day it's a surprise," Daugherty said.
The resulting harder surface has taken a toll on the animals, particularly the more delicately boned thoroughbreds, which can cost upwards of $50,000, said Bill Ruiz of Wilde Lake, whose family boards two horses at the barn.
"That ground is like concrete," Ruiz said.
The veterinarian bills for Daugherty's bay thoroughbred, Saturn, have jumped from $60 a month to about $450 a month, she said. The harder surface also requires her to buy special horseshoes, which increases her farrier bill from $75 every six weeks to $160.
Bellamy questioned whether there really has been an increase in lameness, and whether any health problems should be attributed to the condition of the ring.
"The ring should be dragged every day. ... It doesn't always happen. It never always happened," he said. "It's a farm down there. ... As anybody who ever lived on a farm knows, you can't get everything done."
Some boarders also complain about a sudden switch to a cheaper feed this summer. The new feed - lower in protein and fiber, higher in fat - caused six horses to suffer from colic, a potentially lethal stomach ailment, Miller said. One of the six had to undergo surgery, at a cost of $6,000, Miller said. The horse center has switched back to the original feed.
Goldman said the feed was changed on the recommendation of an independent team of equine experts, who evaluated the horse center in a report issued in June.
As problems at the center have grown, some observers say that the Columbia Association should never have been in the horse business in the first place.
But others see intentional neglect, a way of wiggling out of Columbia's commitment to a wide range of athletic programs.
"I don't think they ever tried hard enough to manage it," said Cynthia Coyle of Columbia, whose two daughters ride at the center. "We have been a stepchild."