I never intended to build a barn. I was too busy creating books and DVDs to focus on anything like that. My original plan was to move the horses to an indoor one of my long time clients was building, but the property she eventually found was just too far away to drive to on a daily basis. So for the past way too many years I've been keeping my horses at a local boarding stable. The care was good. I knew I could leave town without worrying about the horses, but since I moved there, the resident population has more than doubled to over fifty horses. With so many horses there were always limitations and restrictions on what could be done. As I became increasingly involved with clicker training, it became clear that I was outgrowing what the stable had to offer. So when the riding book was published, I began looking for property.
The plan was to find a property that would suit both myself and Ann Edie and her family. We'd move our five horses, and Ann and her husband would be the full time residents on the property leaving me still able to travel for clinics.
I looked at well over a hundred properties both here in my home town area and also across the United States. Wherever I traveled, I always had my antennae out. Would this be a good place for the horses? I could have moved anywhere, but at the end of the day, I discovered that I really do like my own backyard. Upstate New York is very beautiful. A good many people flee the Northeast because of our tough winters. Perversely, I really enjoy them. So I narrowed my search to remain within a reasonable driving distance of the Albany airport and kept the local realtors busy looking at potential horse properties.
I saw some beautiful houses. And I saw some gorgeous land, but nothing that would suit for a horse farm. Often there simply wasn't anywhere flat enough to build an indoor, or the winter access would have been just too hard, or the asking price was too high. Surprisingly I saw only a couple of horse farms. Most of the properties were just a house and land. Or if they had a barn, it was a hundred year old cow barn in need of major repairs.
I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the property search. It was such a roller coaster ride of emotions. I'd find a listing that looked possible. I'd study the photos, and all the property details. I'd find it on google maps, so I could see a satellite view of the surrounding area. I'd get excited that this was going to be "the One", the property that met our needs and our budget. Then I'd go out to see the property. The easy ones were the ones that were clearly not right. I didn't even need to get out of the car to know I had just wasted an afternoon. I could have been working on a DVD. Instead I was looking at a run-down farm with the noise from a nearby highway roaring in the background.
The harder ones were the ones that were almost, but not quite. Could we make things work? Was there enough land for the horses? Was this just too far from anywhere? Was the house in need of too many repairs? The questions would mount up, and I'd cross another hopeful candidate off the list.
Going into the winter of 2010 I had a couple of properties on my list to go see, but I was waiting for the snow to melt enough to make the trip worthwhile. That's when Mary Arena let me know that she was going to be moving. It made sense to team up. I knew of one property that was just outside of the town where I lived. Ann and I had looked at it the previous summer, but turned it down. Now with the housing market continuing to tighten and no buyers in sight, the asking price had dropped by $100,000. That brought it more in line with our collective budget.
We looked at it late April, liked it and put a bid in, only to learn that someone else had beaten us to it. But then that deal fell through when the buyer couldn't get financing for it, so the property bounced back to us. Our offer was accepted on Peregrine's birthday, a very good sign!
What followed were all the building inspections. That is definitely not a fun process. The purpose of a building inspection is to find things that are wrong. And what a list it was! By the time all the inspections were done, it was a wonder the house was still standing! But really there was nothing wrong that a little routine maintenance and updating would not take care of.
I headed off for my annual trip to the UK leaving Mary to sort out all the closing details. I returned just in time for the final closing. The three of us celebrated with a picnic lunch overlooking one of two ponds on the property.
So we had the land. Now we had to get the horses moved. Mary took the first great leap. She moved into the house in August, and set her horses up in a run-in shed and small paddock area made out of round pen panels. It was far from ideal, but we were planning on getting the barn build as quickly as possible.
We drew up plans, staked out potential areas for an indoor, and started interviewing builders. The first builders who looked at the site convinced us to move the indoor. We were originally going to put it behind the house just past the pond. This would give us access to turnout, and it would tuck the indoor in to a low spot so it would not be quite as imposing a structure in the landscape. But it was going to be a tight fit and when the builders looked at it, they hemmed and hawed and thought we'd be better off moving it to the front of the property.
So we took another look at our options and chose a rounded knoll to the side of the house, overlooking the main pond. It was a very pretty building site and much more practical than the first. It would give us better access to the front turnout. It would tie in well to the existing driveway and give us easy access to utilities. But again it was a tight fit. On paper it looked as though we could easily site the indoor and an attached barn, but when we staked it out, nothing fit.
We got more builders out to give us estimates. The numbers that came back were scary. The site prep alone was a budget breaker. I began redrawing the building plans. What if we split the indoor and the barn into two separate structures? We could level one area for the barn, have a short ramp down to the next level and place the indoor there. Would that work? We got more estimates. The numbers kept going up not down. And we were running out of time. If we were going to build anything before winter we had to make a decision - now. Only we couldn't decide. Nothing was right. The location wasn't working, the barn wasn't working.
In November we changed plans again and decided that if we couldn't fit a full size arena into the space, we'd build a covered round pen instead. We'd gone up to New Hampshire to look at the Merry Go Round arenas and liked them very much. Was that the answer? They are certainly very appealing structures, but when we paced out the area yet again, we just weren't convinced that it would fit into the space along with the needed barn.
The building season was closing down and we were no closer to an answer. It was looking more and more as though we'd be able to build a barn for Mary's horses, but finding a location that would work for an indoor and that would stay within our budget was looking more and more like a pipe dream. As Christmas and the first snowfall of the season approached Mary was left caring for her three horses in just their run-in shed. And it left my horses in their boarding situation for another winter.
I kept drawing barn plans, but basically when the New Year came our building plans had ground to a halt. But shortly after the Holidays, Mary sent me an email. Her neighbor across the street was building a barn!
We were literally knee deep in snow and there was a pole barn going up! We walked across to look at it. It was in size very much what Mary wanted for her horses. It was well built, but it clearly wasn't costing the astronomically high prices that we had been quoted for barns. We called the builder and arranged a meeting.
We spread our barn plans out over Mary's kitchen table and explained what we wanted. That's all doable, the builder assured us, and for a price that he was sure would surprise us.
We went for a walk outside to look at the building site. Yes, he agreed, it would be an expensive area to develop. Why did we want to build there when the flat land was in the front of the property by the road?
I didn't want to sound like a toddler throwing a fit because she couldn't have vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate cake. But if the only alternative was to build the indoor down by the road, quite frankly I didn't want to build it at all. The property is fronted by a busy highway. The house is set far enough back to be somewhat buffered by the traffic. But if we built near the road we'd be right next to it. Apart from the noise, there were safety concerns. This was not the location I had dreamed of for The Clicker Center. Thankfully there was an ATT cable right of way that cut through the front of the property. It ran directly down the middle of the area he was proposing for the building site.
I redirected his attention by saying that the area I had always thought would work well for an indoor was behind the house on the hill side of the pasture, only there wasn't enough room. That's when Mary reminded us that the property extended beyond the hedgerow that bordered the pasture. We had another acre of land beyond what looked line the logical property line. We waded up through two feet of snow to have a look. The builder loved the site. He could take out the hedgerow and create a level pad here. As long as there wasn't a rock ledge to contend with, this would work. He'd have to dig test holes first, but he thought we could easily build here, and it would be using an area of the property that would otherwise go undeveloped.
I looked up the hill beyond the hedgerow to the house that was nestled into a horseshoe of hedgerows. The neighbors I was sure would have a very different view of his proposal.
But it all sounded like forward movement. We'd been stuck and now things were starting to unlock again. We had to wait for the weather to warm up enough for the builder to get his equipment back on the site to dig test holes. He went down four or five feet and hit nothing but dirt. We could build here!
He got his excavator out to get an estimate on the site prep and the following week we were looking at a set of plans for an indoor. That was the end of February. We'd gone from zero to sixty in what seemed like about four seconds. He had a major building project starting in the spring, but if we could get started in the next week or two, he could fit us in.
If we'd had more time to think about it we might have found a hundred good reasons not to build on this site, but we didn't have time, and anyway we'd already done all our hemming and hawing over the project. It was time to move forward.
Two weeks later on Wednesday March 16, 2011 I flew out to Chicago for the Clicker Expo, and the same day the excavators arrived on site to begin the barn. Through the weekend I got reports from Mary. On the first day they got her run-in shed moved and her horses relocated to temporary quarters on the driveway in front of the garage. They starting bringing in lumber for Mary's barn. On day two they leveled the area for her barn, and they began clearing the hedgerow for the arena. Mary reported that the whole back was opened up and it looked quite nice.
On day three the email said: exterior posts for my barn are up!
Progress was progressing fast!
When I got home from the Expo and saw the building site for the first time the following Tuesday I was both astounded and appalled by what I saw.
Mary did indeed have a barn! It was almost completely framed. And what a pretty structure. I do like looking at the bones of a building, especially barns. There's something very pleasing in the lines of a barn. It's almost a pity we have to close them in with siding.
I could see all this from the road, but I couldn't actually get up the drive. A huge tractor trailer was blocking access as they unloaded a load of lumber. I had to drive on, turn around further up the road, and by the time I got back, they had gone and I could get up the drive. I drove in past what looked like a wrecking yard. There were piles of steel, stacks of lumber lining what is a very long driveway. The trucks had made huge ruts in the soft spring grass. I found what looked like a solid piece of ground to park on and walked up past the house to the future site of the indoor. I felt as though I had just stepped into a disaster zone. It looked like those terrible pictures you see after a tornado or a hurricane has gone through an area. There were huge brush piles of uprooted trees, and mud everywhere. What a mess!
The excavators had scraped all the vegetation and top soil off the hillside behind the house leaving a huge scar of mud.
They had begun their cut half way down the hill. So picture a long hill sloping down to merge gradually into the field that was to be my horse's future pasture. Now imagine you are a giant sculptor, and you can take a knife to make a vertical cut straight down into this hill and push all the dirt beyond that cut forward towards the pasture. You cut and push, cut and push to create a broad flat pad, but what you leave behind is a straight vertical bank at the back of the pad. And what you create is a sharp ten foot plus drop into what is supposed to be horse pasture. And sitting at the foot of this drop off are huge piles of brush and mud.
I was horrified. What had we done! And how do we make it stop! Of course we couldn't make it stop. The steel had been ordered. The process was moving forward. I had to keep repeating to myself: "Don't take score too soon. Don't take score too soon."
When the work crews left for the night, I paced out the pad. It was too small. "Don't take score too soon." It wasn't long enough. There was just barely room for the building itself, but there was nothing left over for outside turnout for the horses. And there wasn't enough room along the sides. It felt as though the building would be in a straight jacket caught between the uphill side of the hill and the drop off down to the pasture. "Don't take score too soon."
The next day I walked the site with the project foreman, Chris. Wayne was out of town working on another project, so Chris was in charge. We paced out the pad, went over the plans, and talked not just about the physical size of the building, but also how it had to function for the horses and for vehicles coming in. We needed access for hay wagons, and for horse trailers. We couldn't be squeezed in tight on the pad.
The following day the excavator began another cut down into the pad. They went down another four feet, digging a deep trench with the back hoe and then pushing it out over the edge with the bull dozer. I brought my lap top out and sat in the house working. Periodically I would walk out with my camera and take photos of the huge piles of earth that were being rearranged. I've never spent any time in a construction zone. To these men, and I'm sure to any builders who are reading this, my descriptions will seem incredibly naive. And indeed they are. This is the one and only time I am going to be building anything of this size. Twenty plus years of planning and preparation have gone into this building, and I intended to enjoy the construction process - hiccups, major glitches and all.
As I watched the men work and saw how much they got done in the course of a day, I thought about how much work they were putting into this building. But then I also thought about the twenty plus years of work that this really represented, and not just on my part, but on Ann's as well.
Watching the bulldozer move back and forth across the pad was oddly mesmerizing. I could have watched for hours, but I had work to do. So I would watch for a bit, go back inside, and then several hours later I would go back out and see what transformations they had created.
Bit by bit the pad grew and took on dimensions that came closer to our needs, but there was still that deep cut at the back of the site. And there was still the substantial drop off into the field. And the brush piles seemed to be growing ever larger - not shrinking and going away.
Mary's barn by now was fully framed and the steel was on it. The day they put the roof I arrived early at around eight thirty, and they already had the back side completely finished and had started on the front. Her barn looked almost ready - so near and yet so far. The work had gone so fast on her barn, but now it slowed down to a snail's pace as the work crew shifted over to the arena.
The first major next step was the building of a driveway. The quarry truck arrived mid-morning and dumped the first load of stone. By the end of the day there was a driveway curving up past Mary's barn to the arena. It was going to take a lot of heavy trucks pounding over that surface before my little car was going to be able to make it up the drive, but those trucks were coming.
They brought gravel for the pad first, truck load after truck load of gravel. I saw the first couple of trucks arrive before I had to head out of town once again.
When I returned the pad had been transformed yet again. When I left it was mud, ten-pound mud the builders called it, meaning as you walked across it, that's how much stuck to your boots and more. Now it was an ocean of gravel.
Next came the trucks from the lumber yard. They brought in the posts for the arena and stacks of lumber for the bracing and the arena walls. The first line of posts went in while I was again out of town. I got home to see the line, like perfect soldiers all standing at attention, planted down the back side of the arena. Each post was braced. I snapped lots of photos, marveling at the images I was seeing through the camera lens.
The following day the second line of posts went in. The holes had all been dug for them. At the far end the holes went down almost ten feet before they hit untouched ground. I tried taking pictures, but the camera couldn't do justice to the depth of the holes.
Getting the posts up was an exercise in perseverance. They leap-frogged the posts into the holes. Three men would get under the post. To push it up they swapped places, moving closer and closer to the base of the post until it was standing upright in the hole.
That was actually the easy part. Then each pole had to be lined up and leveled. This was string day meaning the posts had to be aligned to a string that ran the length of the building. You want to set posts on still days, days when there is at most just a puff of a breeze. That's not what we got. We got a strong spring wind blowing in the change of seasons. You could see the posts that were already set swaying at the top from the strength of the wind. That played havoc with their ability to set posts. You had to have a few moments of stillness in which the string wasn't moving in order to align the posts. And they had to line up. You needed to be able to stand at one end of the line, look down the row of posts and see them as only one post. There couldn't be any sticking out. The builders explained that getting this part right made the rest of the building go smoothly, everything would line up. (Sounds like horse training.) But if you let the building get out of square here, you'd have problems with every other step in the building process, especially getting the steel on later because things wouldn't be lining up.
So I watched them struggle with every pole. They'd check the string again and again. Check the level, check the string. It's a hair off, I'd hear one of them say. A hair off wasn't good enough. It meant the pole had to be shifted. And that meant wrestling with a pole that was ten feet in the ground and swaying in the wind at the top. Not fun.
They'd wrestle the pole into a slight shift, check the string, check the level, check the string, shift it again, check again, until finally they were satisfied that it wasn't just good enough, it was exactly where it needed to be. At that point they would empty a bag of cement down into the hole and then backfill around the post with the dirt that had come out of the auger hole.
This process was repeated for every post they put in. They were hoping to get all the posts done that day, and normally that would have been very doable, but the wind finally defeated them. They had to call a halt with about a third of the posts still to go.
A heavy rain overnight was in the forecast which would have created another hardship for them to work with. At my house I heard the rain pounding on the roof through much of the night, but it missed the building site. So the following day the rest of the posts went in. Each post was braced, creating a dramatic line of triangles marching down both sides of the arena. In just three days the building had sprung out of the ground. All the time the bulldozers had been working, you couldn't see the arena from the road, but now suddenly it was there!
Building goes in fits and spurts. Setting the poles was a dramatic couple of days. We went from a sea of flat gravel to the ribs of a building springing out of the ground. The work didn't slow down, it just shifted gears as the headers were set out and marked, and each post was marked for the height of the side bracing. I listened to the beeping of the laser as they checked the level for the lines they were marking.
With that work well in hand, the posts for the gable end at the far end of the building were set. This was an easier process. The wind had died down, and the holes were not as deep. Near the back side they were only about four feet as compared to the ten feet they had had to go down to get past the fill on the bank side.
The same diligent care was given these posts checking for level. Again off a hair was off, and they didn't set the post until things were exactly right. When I left at the end of the day the building had three sides. The posts were all braced, and the headers were set in place at the base of the posts.
The following day they brought in their very ancient lift so they could mark the top of the posts to know the exact height for the headers. When that was done, they brought in a crane to lift the headers into place. Again I heard "off a hair" as they checked the header against the marks on the pole. Wayne was operating the crane. He would adjust the boom up or down, ever so slightly to bring the headers into perfect alignment. I'm glad I was there to eavesdrop on the care they gave to getting everything right. And I know this wasn't just a show for my benefit. I could see the result of this attention to detail in the work that was done on the days when I was out of town.
As I watched the headers go up, I was again impressed by the flexibility and athleticism of the crew, not to mention their seeming lack of concern for heights. They balanced at all sorts of impossible angles to nail in the headers. I was especially impressed by the foreman, Chris. I'd watched him through the spring take on any job that was needed. When we needed to cut further back into the hill to reduce the erosion concerns, he'd been up on the hill with a chain saw clearing brush. What a hard job that was! We had to make the very difficult decision to take out four or five mature trees that were just too near the edge of the hill. The trees were all leaning the wrong way. They needed them to fall across the pad so they could cut them up and remove them more easily. But they were all threatening to fall back into the woods, so Chris shimmed up the trees to tie ropes into the upper branches. With a couple of them, the men could wrestle the tree into falling in the right direction, but with the last of them, they had to bring in their mini digger to add a bit more pulling power.
I've cleared a lot of brush in the woods surrounding my house, but it has always been by hand, never with power tools. Watching how fast three men can cut up and remove a felled tree was indeed impressive.
And now with the headers going up, I was watching that same lack of concern over heights as they hung from the edge of the lift or walked along the headers to get to the next section going up. They were part way down the second side when they were interrupted by the arrival of the truck bringing the roof trusses.
The truck was 85 feet long. I especially wanted to see how something that long was going to maneuver its way up the drive way. If it could get up, then we would certainly be in the clear bringing the horse trailers up. The first challenge was turning off the road into the driveway itself. I thought they were going to take out the stone pillars of the neighbor's driveway, but the driver managed to get in off the road without doing any damage.
However he did need a little assistance getting around the first curve of our new driveway. Wayne went down with his forklift and tied chains to the front of the truck. The added pull gave them just enough power to get the truck past the culvert ditch and onto the straighter part of the driveway. But now they faced an even bigger challenge. The driveway curved past Mary's barn. It was a pretty line to look at, but a hard one for something that long and heavy to manage. The driver said this was the heaviest load of trusses he'd ever carried. When the trusses were finally unloaded the men kept commenting on the size of the lumber that was used in them. The engineers who had approved the plan gave us trusses that hopefully will more that hold up in the snow loads we get here in the Northeast.
But before we could worry about snow, the driver first had to get the truck over the still settling curve of the driveway. He ended up having to make a choice. He could keep his back wheels or his front wheels on the roadbed, but he couldn't do both. He opted to keep the flatbed tires on the driveway. His cab rolled off the side of the drive, down the ditch and across to the other side where it became mired down in spring mud. It was well and truly stuck. No amount of rocking back and forth was going to dislodge it's tires from the grip of the mud.
Now this is the kind of situation where you'd like to say, "oh well, better luck next time" and walk away. Except you can't. You can't just leave the truck stuck there. Nor did anyone want to have to unload the trusses at this point and carry them one by one up to the building site. They had to get the truck out. This is also where I watched some great horse training characteristics. People become great horse trainers not because they are born with some special talent. Talent will get you just so far with horses. It certainly helps to be athletic, but I've seen lots of athletic riders who never really developed into great horsemen. No matter how good you are as a rider, there's always a horse out there who requires more from you. So great horsemen develop because they are persistent. They don't give up. If one approach doesn't work, they try another. They are creative. They look at tools and see not just the standard way in which that tool can be used, but the new ingenious way that cracks the puzzle.
I saw these same characteristics in the work crew. The truck was stuck. There was no possibility of failure. They had to get the truck out. So Wayne brought his forklift back. Watching it lumbering towards us out of the gravel of the building site, I couldn't help but think that whoever had designed these giant machines must have played with model dinosaurs as a child. It looked for all the world like a Stegosaurus with it's spiky front end. They attached chains to the fronts of both trucks and pulled. The mud pulled back, holding the truck ever more firmly in its grasp. It was like watching two giant dinosaurs fighting over a bone. The little stegosaur fought and pulled, but the bigger dinosaur wasn't going to let go.
So the little stegosaur was sent away and the truck that dug the bore holes was brought in to have a go. At first it looked looked as though the mud it was going to defeat that truck as well. The chains broke. The front bumper on the bore hole truck bent. They retired the chains, changed the angel they were pulling from, and tried again. The wheels of the big truck began to inch forward. And then finally the mud released its grip, and the truck regained the solid ground of the driveway. The drama was over for the moment.
The truck pulled up onto the building site and slid the trusses off its back end. There was the roof, stacked in a pile in the middle of the building site. They were sixty feet long, the width of the arena. The truck was built like an accordion. The flat bed had been sixty feet to carry the length of the trusses. Now it rolled itself together and became a normal length truck. Turning around in the cramped quarters of the pad was just a minor inconvenience. He was soon back down the driveway, and the work resumed on setting the headers.
Finding your way home to clicker training.
The Clicker Center has a Home
In March 2011 construction began on The Clicker Center's home barn. Throughout my horse owning career I have never been able to keep my horses at home. I have always had to board them out. Boarding has allowed me to travel and to share clicker training through the many clinics, workshops and conferences. But as good as a boarding stable may be, there's no place like home! So we are building!
So who is the "we" in this project?
Mary Arena, a long time friend and client owns the farm where we are building the indoor. She will be the full time resident on the property, making sure all the horses are well cared for when I am traveling. Mary has three Icelandics who are already in residence on the farm. A new barn for them began construction in March 2011.
Ann Edie, another long time friend and client, is also a major investor in this project. Ann's three horses, Magnat, our most senior horse at 33, and our two Icelandics, Sindri and Fengur, will be joining my own two horses, Peregrine and Robin, in their new home. Ann's guide horse, Panda, will be a visiting resident, traveling with Ann to the barn for their daily visits.
Alexandra Kurland: When I finished the riding book in 2005 I began looking for property for the Clicker Center. It was time to move on to the next phase of developing clicker training. I needed a home for clicker training, a site where we could hold longer trainings, develop an instructor's program and explore in greater depth details in the training. When I began the search, I had no idea how long it would take! In the spring of 2010 Mary joined Ann and myself in the hunt for the perfect property and a short time later we found exactly what we had been looking for.
The future home of the Clicker Center is located just outside of Albany NY. It's the perfect location. It's not far from the NY Thruway so it provides easy access for people trailering in with horses. For people flying in for a visit, it's only about half an hour from the Albany International Airport. And most important it is only a short drive from my house. It's a beautiful property, thirty-six acres with two ponds, plenty of pasture for the horses and access to great riding trails. We have literally carved out the side of a hill to create a site for the indoor arena. We're going to leave one long side of the arena open so we'll be able to see the beautiful views of the surrounding countryside while we work horses.
As we become settled in our new location, we'll be planning many events there. I hope to welcome many of you to the new Clicker Center home barn.