At First Sight

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It may be unfair to judge by appearances, but everyone does it. And fair or not, people are certain to judge your stable by its looks. Whether you run a big lesson barn or a modest retirement farm, a facility that’s attractive, well maintained, and welcoming earns top marks from prospective clients.

You don’t need the fanciest barn in the territory to draw and keep clients, however. Here, gleaned from stable owners around the country, are ten simple ways to instantly make your facility look better. None is expensive, and several are free—if you don’t count your labor, that is. We’ll start with the simplest.

BANISH CLUTTER

Keeping aisles clear and equipment neatly stowed not only makes your barn look good, it also promotes safety and saves time that might otherwise be spent searching for misplaced items. Boarders and lesson clients don’t always cooperate when it comes to putting stuff away—but it’s up to you to solve the problem, says Char-Ann Ireland, whose facility, the Dressage Center at Hepzibah Hill, is in East Fallowfield, Pennsylvania.

“You can’t just yell at people for leaving equipment around if you haven’t provided a spot for it,” Ireland says. “You need a put-away place for everyone’s stuff, and you need to designate the place.” That means installing (and labeling) enough racks for saddles and bridles in the tack room, putting up designated hooks for halters and leads, and creating specific spaces for trunks, boots, blankets, fly masks, and other gear. “When you’ve done that, you can ask people to follow the rules,” Ireland says.

CLEAN IT UP

You probably notice the grunge in someone else’s barn right away, but “when it’s your own place, you can stop noticing little things,” says Jim Hagman of Elvenstar Farm in Moorpark, California. You may think you have everything under control, but look at your facility with an outsider’s eyes, he suggests. Then get after those cobwebs, clear out the broken jumps piled at the end of the ring, wash the walls, whack the weeds—you know.

“This is a labor-intensive business,” acknowledges Hagman, whose facility houses 170 horses and is home to a busy riding school as well as a hunter-jumper show operation. “You just have to prioritize these things and get them done.”

FRESHEN THE ENTRANCE

The front doorways of your barn and the entry to your arena are among the first things that clients see, so be sure that they send out good vibes. A few window boxes and planters at the barn door are a simple and effective way to spruce up the entrance, says Kim Bisson of Cedar Ridge Farm, an all-breed, multi-discipline training and boarding facility in Barre, Vermont. The plantings don’t need to be elaborate, as long as they provide a splash of color at the door. “We also make sure that the area in front of the barn is raked clean and the grass is neatly mowed,” she adds.

More tips for a good first impression: Put the manure pile out of sight, so it’s not the first thing clients see. And if farm trucks and trailers are parked out front, make sure they’re presentable.

GRAB A PAINTBRUSH

With clients in and out—not to mention thousand-pound animals that wear steel shoes—dings and scrapes are inevitable. Touch up the paint regularly to keep barns and fences looking sharp, says Carole St. Mark, who owns Far Meadow Farm, a hunter-jumper boarding and training stable in Morris, Connecticut. (In the long run, this may also save you money, by staving off the need for a full paint job.) While you’re at it, grab your tools, too. Fix wonky stall doors, tipsy gates, and wobbly fence rails as soon as you notice them—they all send the wrong message about your facility.

LIGHTEN UP

Ample lighting in the barn creates a great, cheerful impression; it also contributes to safety and can make grooming, stall cleaning, and other chores faster and easier. You can install new light fixtures or use higher-watt bulbs in the fixtures you have, but there are some simpler ways to get more bang for your lighting buck. At Cedar Ridge, for example, Bisson has painted the aisle and stall interiors white. (Stall doors are green, a snappy contrast.) Besides brightening the inside of her barn, the painted surfaces are easier to scrub down than bare wood.

To further increase light in the barn, Bisson makes sure that windows and light fixtures are washed regularly. Between washings she uses a shop vac to get after cobwebs and dust on window sills.

MAKE IT MATCH

At Dynamite Dressage Stables in Scottsdale, Arizona, stall fronts display the stable logo and carry matching nameplates in the stable colors. “The point is to make the barn look more organized, attractive, and appealing,” says owner Tracy Roenick. “Along with the wide, clean aisle, the look tells people that we’re serious about what we do here.” The same effect can be achieved without the expense of custom stall fronts; for example, by doing something as simple as laminating stall cards for a uniform look.

PLANT A TREE

Elvenstar Farm is graced by hundreds of trees, all put in by owner Hagman. This was not a major expense, says Hagman, because he planted the trees as tiny seedlings soon after founding the farm, about 25 years ago. Now, besides providing welcome shade, the mature trees make the farm stand out from its largely barren surroundings.

Most farms and stables don’t need plantings as extensive as Elvenstar’s—a few well placed trees or shrubs might do it for yours. Choose native varieties that need little maintenance, Hagman suggests. He picked eucalyptus, native pines, and other trees that are drought- and disease-resistant and thus thrive with little care in the hot southern California climate.

PULL UP A CHAIR

“Provide a comfortable place to sit for those who are not riding,” suggests St. Mark. Her Connecticut farm has a viewing lounge overlooking its indoor arena, a gazebo by the outdoor ring, and (in summer) some inviting chairs and picnic tables by the main barn. The seating areas provide places for parents to watch kids’ lessons and for boarders to chat after riding, and they add an inviting touch to the facility.

It’s not necessary to build a gazebo to create the same welcoming effect, of course; a few strategically placed chairs or benches might be all your stable needs. Outdoor seating should stand up to your climate and be secured (or sheltered) from storm winds.

PUT UP A SIGN

A sign out front helps create awareness of your business, and it should make a good impression. Tracy Roenick says she wanted her entrance sign (on Scottsdale’s Dynamite Boulevard, for which the training and sales facility is named) to look ���as clean as the barn.” She put a lot of thought into the design, which features bold lettering and clean lines to reflect the sport of dressage, and had it painted on rustic wood that suits the desert surroundings. Native landscaping around the sign adds to the effect. “It’s simple and easy to read, and it draws attention without looking out of place,” says Roenick.

SIMPLIFY

Brass fixtures, clipped hedges, a chandelier over the main entrance—there’s no question that elegant touches like these add panache to a barn. But Ireland notes that people often add glamorous features without considering the man-hours that will be required in upkeep. If someone doesn’t polish the brass, trim the hedge, and wash the chandelier, those once-attractive positives can turn into negatives.

So Ireland strives for a look that’s neat and crisp at her Pennsylvania barn, which she describes as “simple and built for a purpose.” Whether you’re fixing up an old barn or planning a new one, she advises, “Include only features you know you can maintain.” If you don’t need something and can’t keep it looking good, get rid of it.

These ten steps may be straightforward and simple, but each one can help you broadcast the message that you know and care about your business—and about the horses that are in your care. Clients who see that will want to ride and board with you.