Tuesday, July 8, 2008

How to Be a Good Barn Owner

Barn Owners Handbook

In order to be a good barn owner who runs a quality establishment, you will need to be many things to many people. Perhaps most importantly, you will have horses in your care that will depend on you for their well-being. In order to do this well, and handle the challenges presented by catering to the needs of both horses and their owners, there are a few simple guidelines that can make your job easier.

Firstly, you need to determine whether you are capable of dealing, not only with the day-to-day concerns of the farm, but also in dealing with many different problems, you may encounter with horses. Whether you are constrained by time, are physically unable to do the work or simply lack the knowledge and experience to do everything yourself, there are many reasons why it will be practical to hire the appropriate staff for your facility to maintain the property and stalls, manage the horses and train horse and rider. This is something you owe to both your boarders and the horses. No one is an expert in everything, and it pays to hire individuals who are proficient in these fields.

Besides the day-to-day responsibilities of running the farm, a good manager should be responsible for: selection of quality hay, feed, bedding and supplies; developing and adjusting an appropriate nutritional program for each horse; a de-worming and vaccination schedule; and basic care like blanketing, wrapping legs, soaking and bandaging feet, etc.. In addition, a barn manager should be able to perform a basic twice daily inspection and spot signs of lameness, injury and illness; know when to call the vet and farrier; A good barn manager is comparable to an amateur veterinarian and should know how to treat minor injuries as well as take care of more serious injuries until the vet gets there; administer medications including giving injections; pull or tighten a sprung shoe; understand basic pasture maintenance and paddock rotation, and be able to determine suitable turnout for the horses, etc.. The manager also needs to be able to assist the vet or farrier, and should be able to handle a variety of horses, including difficult, aggressive or nervous horses safely.

If your manager can do all of this, consider yourself lucky. Owners have a tendency to want to micromanage every aspect of their farm, even when this contradicts with the program the manager has developed. While it is your barn, and all final decisions are your responsibility, it is important that, once you have a knowledgeable and trustworthy manager, you let him/her do the job without too much interference.

Barn owners should make available to all clients the list of services they were promised when they interviewed for your barn. Additional services not included in the basic board fee should be explicitly outlined and the fees for these services listed as well, so there can be no disputes or surprises later. If you charge an extra $10 to change a blanket, that’s your business, but don’t just tack the fees onto the board bill without making it clear that this service in NOT included in the board from the start.

If you are not a trainer yourself, hire qualified trainers to coach clients. Check out their resumes and reputations; insist on references and follow through on them. Ask them to give a demo lesson, or observe them teaching other students. Don’t just hire the first kid that comes along and claims to be a trainer, just because she won a ribbon at a show or trained with someone famous. Finding a good trainer is harder than you may think, and when you’ve got one of the not-so-good ones, your stable’s reputation will suffer – and so will you and your boarders. If you see your trainers abusing or belittling students and or horses, put an end to it immediately and if it doesn’t stop, fire that trainer. Knowledgeable, conscientious and professional trainers are unfortunately rare, but, if your facility offers training or instruction, they are an important factor in keeping your clients and horses happy and safe.

Make sure all the horses in your care are well looked after, have clean stalls with adequate bedding, fresh water, quality hay and feed, safe and adequate turnout, etc… Make sure they are blanketed according to the weather and the owners’ preferences. Have your staff be courteous and helpful to all boarders.

If there is dissention in the ranks between some boarders you must try to diffuse it calmly and fairly before it gets out of hand. Disruption even between two people puts the whole barn on edge.

Listen to boarders’ complaints and don’t lose your cool; try to be objective, if they are really way out of line, try to address the issue fairly. Even in the most extreme circumstances, a suitable compromise can usually be reached. Remember, these are paying customers whom you are providing with a service, and they have a right to their opinions. If it cannot be worked out to the client’s satisfaction, you may both have to accept that this is not the right facility and move on without any hard feelings.

The barn owner, manager, and trainers should dress and act appropriately for a business situation. If you or any of your staff walk around the farm with a cigarette butt hanging out of your mouth and a can of beer in your hand, or wearing a halter top/hip hugger pants you poured yourself into, you will be setting the tone for the behavior at the barn, and setting a bad example for the younger riders at the farm who often look up to and emulate their trainers. If you do choose to allow this kind of thing, don’t complain later that the barn is not a classy operation and doesn’t attract the right sort of clientele if you and your staff aren’t setting a good example of what you expect from your clients. Just because your farm is in your backyard, you don’t have to act as if it is your backyard; remember – it’s a place of business too.

Give the people what they were promised. Don’t show favoritism to anyone, it doesn’t make other boarders feel good if there is a ‘teachers pet’ in the barn who can do no wrong. Even if there is a client who pays more each month, goes to more shows, etc., doesn’t entitle them to better treatment than any of your other boarders. They are only paying for more of your time and services, not buying your favoritism.

If it comes to your attention that someone is stealing and you know who it is, ask him or her to leave. In my experience, horse people tend to be very generous and don’t mind sharing or may think nothing of leaving their tack trunks unlocked while they’re not around. However, apart from the ethical and legal considerations, horse equipment is expensive, and a thief in the barn makes normally generous and relaxed boarders very uncomfortable, and can ruin the atmosphere at a barn.

Give proper turnout. There is no excuse, no matter how valuable a client’s horse might be, why it cannot be turned out for at least a few hours a day. If your facility lacks the appropriate space to turn horses out, you don’t belong in the boarding business, and giving clients a series of excuses why their horses should not be turned out (they’re too valuable, they might get hurt, they’ll ruin the grass, etc.) is not only dishonest, it’s cruelty to animals. All horses, unless they are recovering from an injury, require daily turnout, not just for the essential free exercise, fresh air or grazing, but for their psychological health. Confining a horse to a cell for 23-24 hours per day is not “protecting” them from harm, it’s torturing them. In addition, if a potential client comes to you and tells you they don’t want their horse turned out, you can either try to educate them about why the horse needs turnout or tell them to find another facility.

Let everyone have a chance at the indoor in inclement weather. Don’t rent out the indoor to other barns that don’t have their own. These trainers and students come in and disrupt the boarders’ time and lessons, and generally monopolize the arena. And, no, not everyone gets along under these circumstances. So while you are making more money for yourself, you are creating bad feelings among your clients and may lose them come Spring. If you absolutely must allow outside trainers to use your indoor, set aside designated time slots during slower business hours, outside of your clients’ prime riding and lesson times, and make sure everyone is aware of the schedule in advance so they can plan their riding around the disruption.

Do what you say you will do. Don’t promise things you can’t deliver, be it all-day turnout or professional lessons. Creating false expectations in order to get clients only leads to disappointment when eventually you fail to deliver as promised.

Horses are hard on their equipment, but if by chance it’s your fault or your staffs’ fault a boarder’s equipment is broken or lost, fix it or buy them new to replace it. Likewise, if you borrow something from a boarder, have permission first (unless it’s an emergency) and either replace it or return it in the same or better condition than you found it.

Assign everyone their own space in the tack room for their saddles and bridles and have a policy of not switching it around with other boarders’ equipment.

Don’t raise the board without at least a month’s notice to everyone so that they have time to find a new barn if need be.

In conclusion, there are a lot of basic things you can do to improve your relationship with your clients. Best of all, they don’t cost anything. Sometimes it’s just a matter of good planning, good manners and a willingness to follow through on your promises and responsibilities. If you operate your barn fairly and efficiently, there is no guarantee that you will be successful and make loads of money, but at least you will have the reputation of being professional and conscientious toward your clients. And, with any luck, they’ll return the favor. And, who knows? It might just get you more clients in the long run….

Until next time

Quote for Today

Horses are the most agreeable friends. They ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.

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