And You Thought It Was All About the Horses

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Whether you run a 10-horse barn or a 100-plus horse multi-barn complex, dealing with boarders can be a time-consuming, frustrating task. To keep mental and physical exhaustion at bay, apply strategic planning and effective management to your relations with clients.

Starting when a new boarder moves in, you will save a lot of time and impress a new client by presenting him or her with an introductory packet of information.

In the packet, include:

1) Rider release forms/boarding agreements.

2) Rate sheet with information on lessons training, turn-outs, grooming rates and hauling fees.

3) A sheet with the barn’s vaccination and worming schedule.

4) Barn rules (see box on page 30).

5) Membership information for the local associations, such as hunter/jumper, reining, polo, etc.

6) Calendar of events at the barn and at other locations.

No Question Too Trivial

Ask boarders to bring all problems to you. If boarders feel that their questions and problems are of interest to you, they’ll be less likely to take them up with other boarders. In extreme situations, boarders can band together and deliver ultimatums to management, all at the urging of one disgruntled client with good persuasive powers over the others. When boarders do ask questions or bring up a complaint, what are the choices? First and foremost, stay calm and never lose your temper. No question should be dismissed lightly. Even if the query seems trivial, your cheerful explanation will show your clients that your establishment operates on the basis of well thought-out policies. For example, if a boarder arrives at your barn from a stable where bedding might have been cheap and the horses were bedded up to their knees, perhaps they might feel that your three to five inches of sawdust isn’t sufficient. Take them aside to a stall and explain your reasons for bedding—it is more sanitary, the ground is more even, whatever the reason. Be firm and patient and never talk down to a client.

On the other hand, if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t answer the question or complaint satisfactorily, perhaps your boarder may have a valid point. Be open and don’t be afraid to admit, at least to yourself, that you don’t know something.

A Frustration-Fighting Phone System

At any barn, dealing with calls and requests is time consuming at best and can often take up a large portion of your day. Answering machines can help save time and frustration, as well as give you some downtime in the evenings. Phone companies that inundate your mailbox with the latest information on equipment and pricing can be pressed into tailor-made special programs designed to suit your individual needs—often at lower prices than they advertise, if you are persistent.

That said, check your machine faithfully. A client on out-of-town business might get frustrated if he/she gets the answering system over and over. As well, a potential customer—and your current clients—might be put off if they are under the impression that no one is at the barn. Be sure to leave a message that states what the hours of operation are and that if the caller has reached the machine during those hours, it probably means that the barn manager, owner or trainer is teaching a lesson, riding a horse or tending to some chores outside.

Dividing Longeing and Lessons

Two of the biggest complaints at boarding facilities are longeing and lesson schedules. If your barn only has one area for riding, especially barns in the north who go indoors for the winter season, longeing can create all sorts of havoc and be extremely dangerous. You can get some control over the problem by permitting it only during morning hours or the first 15 minutes of each hour during peak periods of activity. Whatever the system, a sign posted in the barn and at the arena will help remind clients. If your barn runs a lesson program, boarders might be annoyed by the constant crowding of “outsiders.” Here again, set up firm policies and schedules. Perhaps no lessons after 4 p.m. or set aside specific blocks of time for “boarders-only” riding. It will have the added benefit of keeping your nervous lesson clientele out of the way.

If You’re Leaving Town, Plan Ahead

When a trainer or barn owner/manager goes on the road to horse shows or congresses, the boarders left behind need some consideration. At larger barns where several trainers conduct their business, trainers may be able to take over the lessons or training. At a small barn where a single trainer wants to attend shows or go on vacation, the problem is more difficult.

By planning ahead, maybe you can turn your absence into a great learning experience for your clients. Try finding a trainer with a different focus. Perhaps a reining barn could bring in a dressage instructor or vice versa. Maybe a hunter/jumper barn could bring in an event coach. Whatever the disciplines, it can be a fun way for clients to pass the time in your absence without feeling neglected.

Introducing the substitute trainer to your clients before you leave increases the chances that the temporary training will be successful. If needed, leave a list of names, ability levels and what each boarder has been working on with the substitute. Upon return, take time to review the accomplishments made in your absence.

In addition, put the more experienced boarders in the barn in charge of less-experienced riders while you are away—a sort of buddy or big sister/brother system. Make sure there are at least two people who have a rudi­mentary knowledge of horse illnesses and injuries. Left on their own, inexperienced horsepeople will be calling the vet for every scratch or, worse yet, may let a more serious injury go untreated.

Create a Super Bulletin Board

You can’t have too many bulletin or chalk boards. They can contain a wealth of information. For example, messages, farrier lists, grain lists, turnout instructions, calendars, vaccination schedules and general barn announcements. Use a board to advertise extra barn services, promote your trainers, introduce new boarders and post emergency numbers. Bulletin boards are another means of organizing ads and information coming through the mail. Information about a horse for sale, a clinic, a schooling show, a trailer for sale can all be tacked up. Give each announcement 30 days on the board, then send the dated materials to the circular file.

Another great idea is a message board in the tack area for boarders to communicate with each other. One client may want to leave a “go get ‘em” message to a friend who is departing at four in the morning the next day for a big horse show. Or, a client with a trailer may want to invite others at the barn on a trail ride over the weekend. It’s also a great place for boarders to advertise equipment and clothes to each other, especially for kids who outgrow tack so quickly.

Include News With Your Invoices

When it’s time to send out the bills, take advantage of the 33-cent stamp and include an extra sheet with news about the horses and riders in your barn. Tout the accomplishments of riders who have achieved personal goals or congratulate someone on the purchase of a new horse. Reminders to turn out lights, explanations of a needed board increase or information on a barn outing can also be included. Choose a brightly-colored paper to call attention to your in-stable newsletter.

If writing a newsletter isn’t your cup of tea, perhaps there is a boarder in your barn who would like to do it.

Social

Sometimes it seems that boarders spend more time chatting to each other than riding their horses. Take advantage of the situation and host a pizza party the first week of every month. Celebrate boarders’ and employees’ birthdays with a cake. If you enjoy grilling, a barbecue in the spring or summer is something boarders enjoy. A party like this can become an annual, much-anticipated event. Or, arrange a dinner at a local restaurant once a month, but make sure arrangements for paying are made up front with your clients.

Dealing with clients can be the most frustrating or the most rewarding part of your job. By taking a few extra steps, you can have a group of satisfied boarders and that will lead to a more relaxed and congenial atmosphere. Their good word of mouth will ensure that your barn will never be empty.