Ah, rules. They’re everywhere. But when it comes to mixing humans with 1,000-pound animals, rules can mean everything. Throw in the nature of our litigious society, and that list of rules you post at your barn becomes even more vital.
While every facility owner and manager has his or her own set of rules, we found that most trainers and barn owners agree on the following 10:
Rule #1: Children under the age of 16 must be supervised by a responsible adult at all times.
Kids can get into trouble if they aren’t supervised, especially around horses. This is particularly true if the children are new to horses. Trainer Jessica Jahiel, author of “The Rider’s Problem Solver” (Storey Books, 2004), notes that these days, rules like this are particularly important because the more we get away from the days when horses were a fact of life for everyone, the more society at large is unfamiliar with them.
“Over several decades working with Pony Club, membership has gone from a group of kids with some knowledge of and some family connection to the horse world, to a group of kids who may know nothing about horses and whose families no longer include any members with any horse knowledge or experience whatsoever. This is happening everywhere today, not just in Pony Club.”
Rule #2: Guests must sign a release of liability form.
As just about every facility owner and manager knows, it’s easy to get sued these days. And because horses can be dangerous, it’s vital that everyone who enters the property sign a release of liability in the event they get hurt. Granted, state laws vary when it comes to upholding releases, but the release at least puts client on notice that they are willingly entering a risk situation. It is wise to have an attorney draft the best possible release for your operation.
Rule #3: Be considerate of other clients.
This rule can encompass specific behaviors that clients must follow. Christina Gokey-Smith, owner of Grassland Farms, a training facility in Alvord, Tex., specifies that there is a place for every item in the barn, and asks that clients do not leave any items, such as grooming boxes, tack, helmets and personal items, in the aisle ways. “I do not want things left out in the aisle way for others to possibly trip over, or simply be in the way,” she says. “I teach my riders that when they groom, they get their grooming box out, and when they are finished grooming, they put the grooming box back up. This not only helps me keep a clutter-free barn, but, in return teaches them to constantly be thinking of what they need to be doing.”
Rule #4: Riders under age 18 must wear an ASTM/SEI approved helmet with chinstrap properly attached while riding.
More and more show organizations and federations are requiring the use of certified head gear, so it makes sense to start at home. Children are particularly prone to head injuries when riding, so this rule is important. Gokey-Smith takes this regulation even further at her facility by insisting that kids under the age of 10 wear a helmet while working around horses as well as while riding.
Rule #5: No smoking is allowed in the barn, lounge or riding arenas at any time.
Not only is smoking dangerous around hay and shavings, but it is also inconsiderate of others. Enough said.
Rule #6: No dogs allowed on the premises.
It seems like just about every horse owner is also a dog owner, and having to leave the dog at home while they ride can be inconvenient. But the risks of allowing dogs on the premises are too great. Just ask your insurance agent. Dog claims are practically indefensible and even though it might not be your dog that created the problem or caused the accident, you will surely be dragged into the middle of any potential lawsuit.
Amanda Brown, owner of Ace-High Performance Horses in Hendersonville, Tenn., is a bit more lenient with this rule, permitting dogs on the property as long as they are controlled. “I do not mind boarders bringing their dogs out, but they are to be under control at all times,” she says. “They are not to be running loose at any time. The farm is not a big backyard for them to play in.”
Rule #7: No running, shouting, or throwing things.
Nothing is more unsettling or dangerous than rowdy behavior around horses. “Because of the number of small children that are at my farm, this is very important,” says Brown. “I do not want my farm to be a circus. The kids have to be under control. We have a long barn aisle that goes to the indoor arena, so the kids always want to run up and down it. This rule stopped that.”
Rule #8: All riders must wear safe footgear when working around horses.
Thousand-pound animals and open-toed shoes are never a good mix. “This rule helps with liability,” says Brown. “People do not need to be wearing sandals or other inappropriate footwear around the barn.”
Rule #9: Practice safe horse handling at all times.
Clients can get sloppy about how they handle their horses, sometimes with disastrous results. Managers with this rule often spell out exactly what must be done. Gokey-Smith states in her rules that halters must be on correctly while horses are tied, not looped around the horse’s neck.
Niki Maxfield, owner of Solo Acres Boarding Stable in Sebastopol, Calif., specifies in her rules that horses should not be turned out with halters on. Jahiel reminds clients that all horses being led to and from pastures, paddocks, wash stalls, etc., must be led with halters and lead ropes.
Rule #10: All riders and visitors must observe all posted safety rules and arena rules.
This rule encompasses other regulations that can be posted at specific areas within the facility. Different rules are necessary for the barn, for turnouts, for the arenas and for other common areas. Clients need to be reminded that they must be aware of and obey all these posted rules.
Making Rules Work
You can have all the rules you want, but if clients aren’t aware of them, you won’t get compliance. Barn managers have different ways of making sure clients know the rules, and of enforcing these rules.
Gokey-Smith posts her rules in the barn so the riders can see them. “With the kids, I ask them to read the rules, and I give out prizes to those who can recite them,” she says. “This works well. They get excited because they can easily memorize the rules. With my younger students, who may not be able to read, we demonstrate these rules in our horsemanship class, where safety is first. I do reenactments for visual demonstrations of the rules.”
To enforce the rules, Gokey-Smith came up with a unique plan. “I have an ‘Oink System,’” she says. “Students get an Oink Ticket if they do not follow a rule. They get one free Oink Ticket, which is a warning, but any other Oink Tickets must be worked off.”
Maxfield gives new boarders orientation sheets with all her rules. “I found this was much easier than posting the rules, and this way I don’t forget anything,” she says. For enforcement, Maxfield uses her demeanor to make the point to rule breakers. “I am 6 feet tall and taught physical education for 31 years, so I developed ‘The Look,’” she says. “If I see anything amiss, I use it. I do think boarders know I put the safety and well-being of the horses above all else, and they just seem to want to follow the guidelines.”
Lesa Stewart, owner of The Stables at Willow Oak, a boarding facility in Mayville, Ky., uses a positive approach to encourage clients to play by the rules. “A list of don’ts is boring and often times condescending,” she says. “People usually live up to the expectations you have of them. I believe in their goodness and ability to know and do what is right. I present my list in a positive way with a little food for thought.”
Stewart hangs her list inside the doorway of her barn so clients will see it. “There’s not much enforcing to them,” she says of her list, which includes statements such as, “If you are grumpy, go home and come back later,” and “Always protect the magnificent animal entrusted to your care; do no harm to its body or spirit.”
“If I have a problem with someone, I speak to the person privately,” she says. “If the problem isn’t resolved, I would think we don’t have a good fit. Since I can’t go, I ask them to find someplace where they will be better suited.”