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Creating good boarding stable atmosphere

From: Christa

Dear Jessica, I will send an annual support by check. I value your articles so much. Thank you for what you do, it is so helpful.

I have a question and hope you might have a hint of advice. (although I know you are very thorough). My husband and I purchased 12 acres last year and are preparing it to start a small boarding facility (approx 25 horses). I also give lessons to kids and love how they are so open to considering the horses perspective. I strive to keep a very comfortable atmosphere mentally, emotionally and physically for the horse and rider. I am a little nervous about being able to keep this atmosphere as I start adding boarders. I wondered if you had any advice on presenting my ranch in a way that would attract boarders that have these same standard, and if I have some one that is creating stress with their horse and the environment what would be a good way of handling it.

I know this is kind of a general question but any good managing tips would be much appreciated so I can get off to a good start.

Enjoying the journey.........Christa


Hi Christa! Thanks for the kind words, and the support - I appreciate both. ;-)

The best way to create a positive atmosphere is to avoid the problems that invariably seem to create a negative atmosphere - prevention really is better than cure. Spend as much time as you need to plan what you want to do with land, buildings, horses, and people, and don't take on too much at once.

I think that the best thing you can do is to sit down with your husband and write down everything you can think of about the kind of place you want to run - and the kind of place you do NOT want to run. Pleasure/trailriding barn, competition barn, kid barn, adult barn - think about what you want boarders to do at your barn.

Then write down all the characteristics of your ideal boarder, and make another list of the characteristics you will not tolerate in anyone who boards at your barn.

Just putting everything down on paper will help you crystallize your thoughts. When you've determined exactly what kind of boarders you want, make a list of the sort of facilities and services that those boarders will want from YOU, and compare that to what you have to offer right now.

Don't be in a hurry to fill your barn. Maintaining a happy, comfortable facility is infinitely easier if it's quiet, peaceful, and uncrowded. Too many animals and humans in too small a space will always lead to problems. Twelve acres makes a lovely private farm for a few horses, and with a good design and an arena or two, it can be a nice small lesson facility, but adding 25 boarded horses to your personal and lesson horses will create a crowd that will force you to make drastic changes in your horse management style. I would strongly advise starting with just a few, carefully-chosen boarders, so that you can make a realistic assessment of the number of animals you'll be able to manage comfortably. The cross-fencing alone will be quite expensive, and if you try to maintain 25 horses on 12 acres, you'll find that you probably have to limit turnout time drastically, and that rotating that many horses through your paddocks and drylots will be a fairly labour-intensive enterprise. And don't forget that your own horses will need turnout, too.

I know that some people do put a great many horses on a small acreage, but it's bad for the horses and bad for the acreage - and if you do that, you'll need to let your prospective boarders know that their horses will be living in stalls with attached runs, and have little or no turnout time. This may attract the kind of boarders who don't care about their horses' mental and physical well-being - and those are probably not the boarders you'd like to have. Consider starting small, at least for the first few years until you have a better idea of how well your pastures, lanes, fences, arenas, etc. will stand up to hard use. It's much easier to start small and expand later than it is to take on too many horses at first, then have to ask people to take horses away.

If I seem to be harping on this theme, it's because I've watched too many people take on too much and either burn out or change for the worse, and I've seen too many nice small facilities become overcrowded, dusty, dirty, poorly-managed boarding barns and lesson mills. I'd hate to think of that happening to you.

When you decide it's time to bring in your first few boarders, don't advertise - just tell your best friends and your vet that you are ready, and what sort of people you want. This will help you start off with a preselected group that's more likely to be compatible. Before your first boarder arrives, be sure that you have a detailed contract - and a detailed set of rules. When you interview each prospective boarder, you'll want to go over that contract and those rules. If someone has a problem with either, they should know - and so should you - before they bring a horse onto your property, so that you can gently encourage them to go somewhere else instead. It's always much easier to turn down a prospective boarder than it is to ask a boarder to go away.

At that interview, remember that any prospective boarder should also be interviewing YOU, and if she is too timid to ask, you may need to prompt her - or even to ask the questions yourself, and then answer them. ;-) That's okay - what matters is to make yourself clear, to find out as much as you can about this person, and to explain as much as possible about your facility, and decide whether this boarder will work out. Your contract and list of rules should specify everything from hours to services to types of feed and amount/type of turnout to arena use. A lot of boarders don't read contracts carefully, though, which is one reason you'll go over the contract during the interview. If you bring in a boarder who is planning to let her family and friends come out to ride her horse, or one who likes to come out at midnight, or one who thinks that her dogs should be welcome, or one who just assumes that it would be fine to bring her own instructor, or one who will turn out her horses even when your grass paddocks are soggy and the "CLOSED" signs are on the fences...you'll be sorry.

Don't forget that this is your life - and your home. Don't be afraid to be selective when you're interviewing, and don't be afraid to come right out and say "Our barn atmosphere is very important to us, THIS is the kind of place we run, THESE are the qualities that we want to see in our boarders." Think of the process as a sort of pre-purchase exam - it's not infallible, but it's much better than bringing the horse home and then calling the vet for a post-purchase exam. ;-)

If you can find nice boarders who fit in at your barn and can work into your routine, that will be wonderful. If you need to change your routine or the way you run your barn, then that decision should be one that you and your husband come to of your own volition, not one that's forced on you by unhappy boarders. Get everything out in the open, be as clear as you can be, and you'll be far more likely to end up with the kind of boarders you want. When something happens that you don't like and/or didn't expect, TALK about it and solve it before it becomes a serious problem. When something happens that one of your boarders doesn't like or didn't expect, TALK about it, etc. Problems and conflicts rarely solve themselves; they usually get much worse if they aren't brought into the open and discussed. Don't expect anyone to guess what you're thinking - TELL them. Don't expect to be able to guess what your boarders are thinking, either - when in doubt, ASK them.

When you've got the boarders you want - even just a small group of them - you'll find that you still need to work at keeping the communication channels open. Be clear, be direct, be definite, and things will go much more smoothly. Then you'll be able to say to your boarders, a year or two down the line, "I'm going to open up the other side of the barn, that's another five/ten/twelve stalls, so if you know anyone who would really fit in well with us and is looking for a boarding stable, go ahead and tell them about us." That kind of word-of-mouth advertising can work amazingly well - it's the reason that you'll almost never see in-print advertising for the best boarding barns.

If you're having trouble with an individual boarder, your resources are the usual ones - first, talk to the boarder about the problem, be very clear about what you expect her to do, and give her feedback about whether she's changed her behaviour in accordance with your wishes. If she doesn't or can't or won't change, then you'll need to ask her to leave. It's true what they say about one bad apple spoiling the whole barrel - not in the sense that one obnoxious or abusive boarder will make all of your nice boarders become obnoxious or abusive, but in the sense that nice boarders are often willing to go to great extremes to avoid being in the presence of someone obnoxious or abusive, and those extremes often include leaving the barn where the "bad apple" is apparently welcome. At that point, you'll find yourself losing the boarders you like and collecting more and more of the ones you don't like, so.... don't let it happen. It's not your job to tell other people how they can train or ride their horses or how they should deal with other humans, EXCEPT in the context of your boarding barn. There, it's your property, your home, your insurance - your barn, your rules. If you close the barn on Mondays, want everyone to wear pink on Thursdays, and want to see all the horses' forelocks braided, that's up to you - just make the rules clear from the outset, and then nobody will be surprised or upset when you enforce them.

It's probably best if you and your husband try to maintain a professional relationship with your boarders at all times. This doesn't mean being unfriendly, it just means being professional. Being too personal, too friendly, and too close can backfire - be nice, be the ideal barn owner if you can, but do try to maintain a little distance between you and the boarders. Some boarding barn owners become "pals" that the boarders feel free to gossip in front of - or with! Others become people in front of whom the gossip stops, because the boarders know that it isn't really acceptable behaviour. Given a choice between those two types of owners, I'd always prefer to know - or board with - the ones who don't tolerate and don't involve themselves in gossip.

The horse world is full of changes and temporary arrangements. You may find yourself saying goodbye to a boarder you like who wants to go elsewhere - and then saying hello to her again a year or two or five from now, when she wants to come back. The calmer, cooler, and more professional you are, the better off you'll be, whether you choose to welcome that boarder back again, or not.

Overall, the best way to create the atmosphere you want is to decide what you want that atmosphere to be, long before your first boarder arrives. Then make it your daily responsibility to keep right on creating the atmosphere you want. Some days, this will be easier than others, but it's always going to be your job. If you do it well, it will be a lot of fun.

Live your standards and make them clear - not only in writing (contract and barn rules) but in person (interview) and in the way you run your barn and handle your horses and teach your lessons. No matter how well you do, you will probably have to ask a boarder to leave someday, and when that happens, you'll sleep much better if you can say, without any personal animosity and before things get really unbearable, "You don't seem happy here, but this is the way we run this place and this is the way we're going to continue running this place, and I'd like you to spend this month looking for a boarding stable that will suit you better. If you need us to trailer your horse there, we'll be glad to do that for you."

Good luck with your boarding barn, and I hope that you'll write to me in a few years and say "We have just as many boarders and horses as we can handle safely and comfortably, and they're all great, we're so glad we opened our barn to boarders."

Jessica

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