Power Play

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If you see a boarder mistreating her horse, do you have the right to tell her to stop? If a horse in your care severely injures itself and you can’t reach the owner, is it in your authority to call for veterinary care? If a rider’s behavior sets a bad example for other boarders, can you correct it?

As a barn manager, your answer should be yes to all of these questions. But having the power to protect the horses in your care and maintain a positive atmosphere on the farm can be different than learning to wisely and effectively use that power. So we asked three veteran barn managers to share their thoughts on taking control without losing good customers.

Set the Ground Rules

Establish the parameters of your power—and the boarder’s responsibilities—right from the start, recommends Michelle Johnson, barn manager for Stony Creek Farm in Oxford, Ohio. Her boarders sign a contract that clarifies the rules and roles, and makes it harder for boarders to dispute actions Johnson may have to take down the road.

Jan Bernards, barn manager for Summerhill Equestrian Center in Saugus, Calif., has a list of barn rules and a contract. But even before boarders sign on the dotted line, Bernards conducts an entry interview to make sure that she and the boarder are on the same page.

“The most important thing is to have a lot of dialogue with potential customers so they can align what you do with their expectations,” she says. “That prevents a raft of problems later on.”

An interview can also help you decide if the customer will make a good fit for your establishment, she says. “Every facility has its own personality, and you can’t be everything to everyone,” explains Bernards. “We have a very relaxing environment, and we want it to be that way for everyone who uses it. If I sense someone is going to fight me at every step, I tell them this probably isn’t the place for them.”

Put It in Writing

In short, your contract and barn rules are your chance to specify how much control you have, and what you have control over. Have certain expectations of how horses will be treated and cared for on your farm? Put them into the contract. Want your boarders to follow a specific standard of conduct? Write it into the rules. Want the power to ask boarders to leave if the arrangement isn’t working? Add it to the contract.

For example, it’s common for contracts to give the barn manager permission to request emergency veterinary care if a horse’s owner can’t be reached. Some contracts, like Bernards’, outline the boarders’ horse-care responsibilities. At Summerhill, that means near-daily involvement in the horse’s life—or putting the animal into the farm’s daycare program. “We have a pretty high bar,” says Bernards. “We are adamant that the horse must be turned out, groomed, checked on a regular basis.”

Regulations don’t apply just to horses, but can also encompass boarder behavior. For over 30 years, Doris Distel, who owns Distel Farms in Barnesville, Ga., managed a variety of boarding facilities, including an inner-city barn. She had trouble with parents dropping their young children off at the barn, where the youngsters would often be underfoot and causing trouble. So she created a rule requiring parent or guardian supervision for any child under age 13.

Education Is the Answer

Even with solid guidelines and up-front dialogue, things do go wrong. In Distel’s experience, though, boarders often don’t intend to break the rules or mistreat their horses.

“Most of the time, people do it out of ignorance,” she says. Therefore, the first step to pulling them back into line is explaining why what they’re doing is wrong. “You have to make them aware,” she explains. “I would tell people, ‘Do you realize what’s going to happen if you do this? Do you know what kind of vet bills you’re going to have?’”

While you can’t be afraid to step on people’s toes, she says, “It’s better to try and educate them, because otherwise they’ll just take the same behavior to someone else’s barn.”

Johnson credits a similar approach for maintaining friendly relations even when she’s correcting a boarder. “I don’t have hostility from boarders because I try to explain things in a way they understand,” she says. “For instance, if they’re doing something in a manner that I disagree with, I’ll politely recommend a different approach or I’ll ask if they want any help.”

Experienced horse people may respond that they know what they’re doing. In those cases, Distel hasn’t been afraid to tell them, “Well, act like it!” But, she also appeals to them by pointing out that their actions set an example for the young riders and less experienced equestrians on the farm.

Along those lines, Bernards sometimes deals with people whose actions might be safe with their particular horse, but not with other horses. “My favorite was the woman who cross-tied her horse to the bridle,” she recalls. Bernards asked the woman to drop the habit, explaining that boarders with less-than-sedate horses were copying her. The boarder complied without a fuss.

Stand Firm

Unfortunately, you can’t resolve all problems so quietly and quickly. If Bernards has already mentioned a behavior to a boarder a couple of times, she’ll ask the person into her office for a more private and more serious discussion. Sometimes, she adds, reactions can be heated.

In one instance, a boarder decided to do her own blanketing, assuring Bernards she’d be responsible in watching the weather. When boarders began complaining that the horse was staying blanketed on warm days, Bernards confronted the owner. “She started screaming at me, and I said, ‘It’s time for you to leave,’” recalls Bernards. “She said I couldn’t kick her out, but my contract states that if for any reason things are not working, I can ask you to leave.” Bernards sent a certified letter instructing the woman to remove her horse in two weeks.

Like Bernards, Johnson has a sort of three-strikes policy. When a problem occurs—for instance, a boarder on partial-care not properly feeding her horse—she’ll call and ask them to attend to it. “If they don’t, we will leave another message,” she says. “After that, we will take care of it ourselves and bill the client. We give them ample opportunity to take care of it themselves, but we never let the horse suffer because of what the owner does.”

Distel has even been known to tell youth riders to dismount if they’re mishandling their horses. And, in at least one instance, she called a young boarder’s parents to discuss a neglect issue. The parents took the reprimands into their own hands, and the girl straightened out her act, says Distel.

In more extreme cases, Distel has had to call in the authorities (in her area, the department of agriculture). The bottom line, she says, is that “you can be friendly with your boarders, but you cannot be their friend. You can’t be afraid of having them leave the barn. Your job is to take care of the horse.”

Consider Customer Requests

The flip side to the uninformed horse owner are the boarders who thinks they know it all and constantly question your methods. For instance, they may read about a new diet discovery and wonder why you’re not trying it. Or they may think a different bedding would be better for their horse. Or perhaps they don’t like the way you match horses for turnout and want to make a switch.

When it comes to dealing with these boarders, Johnson, Distel and Bernards do what they can to accommodate special needs and special requests. Johnson, for example, will usually give different turnout requests a trial run. And Distel has had feed flown in from Montana for an HYPP-positive horse that couldn’t eat locally available hay and grain. Similarly, Bernards consults with boarders to design feeding programs for their horses and offers a choice of two stall bedding materials.

Still, Johnson and Bernards agree with Distel when she says that the best you can do is “try to make most of the people happy most of the time.” And if you can’t accommodate their wishes, the best way to smooth any ruffled feathers is again to communicate and explain why their idea won’t work in this situation.

The Horses Come First

When all is said and done, your power as a barn manager comes down to one overriding rule, says Johnson: “The horse comes first. You have to make sure they get the best possible care and treat them like your own.” Distel agrees, noting that it’s good to be nice, but when trouble arises, she says, “You need to stand firm and tell people, ‘Let me do my job—taking care of your horse.’”