A warm bathroom in the middle of winter. A bowl of candy. Someone to schedule those routine farrier appointments. A parking spot for your trailer. They’re just little things, but to a student or boarder, such small perks can mean a lot. They show you care about your customers—that you’ll go the extra mile to ensure their happiness. And let’s face it, when your customers are happy, they’re loyal. And that means good things for your business.
Theresa Foote and Teresa Childs are two barn owners who offer a variety of little extras that have added up to big customer satisfaction at their facilities. Aside from providing these extras, the two owners have little in common. Foote owns a striking new state-of-the-art equestrian facility, Shoeman Road Family Farm, in Haslett, Mich. She brings in high-level pros to hold clinics for her boarders, most of whom pursue combined training. Childs owns a small, intimate, traditional barn, Childs Play Farm, in Telford, Tenn., where she specializes in working with new riders and also runs a quaint bed-and-breakfast.
Despite the disparities, Foote and Childs share a common viewpoint: their customers’ comfort and happiness are vital to their farm’s success.
“Boarding can often be a bad experience where the horses and clients are just numbers,” says Childs. “We wanted more than that. So I try to go the extra mile and cater to what people really need and want for their horses. I know that’s what keeps my clients here.”
Adds Foote, “What’s most important is that when people come in, I want them to feel very comfortable and welcome, and that their horses will be well cared for.” The results show: “We just got a letter from a boarder,” notes Foote, “saying that she has never been happier, her horse has never been healthier. She said people refer to the farm as a country club for horses!”
What extras make a difference to boarders? “It’s simple things that make people happy,” says Foote. Foote and Childs agree that you don’t have to get fancy to make a positive impression.
The basic perks include free, on-farm trailer parking for boarders, which both Foote and Childs provide. They have the space, and there are no costs involved to them as owners.
Similarly, helping to schedule routine farrier and vet appointments costs you nothing but a little time, yet earns you much customer gratitude. Childs arranges “Coggins days” at her farm, where all horses get tested. “The cost is reduced for the client, and that has been very appreciated,” she says. She also will make vet and farrier appointments if clients ask, and she’ll even hold the horse if an owner can’t be there for an appointment. Similarly, Foote routinely posts sign-up sheets to schedule appointments with the barn’s primary farrier.
Extended barn hours are another extra you can offer at little hassle to yourself. Foote, for instance, closes her farm at 10 p.m. However, one student regularly comes out to ride later, and Foote doesn’t object. Childs, meanwhile, allows 24-hour access at her barn, although “we do request quiet times late at night,” she says.
Such hours can be important to boarders with odd schedules of their own. Julie West, a Concord, Calif., resident, notes that she appreciated the 24-hour accessibility at her old boarding barn. “A lot of times I couldn’t get out to the barn during ‘normal’ hours,” she says, “but I could still check on my horse and even ride, because there was no curfew and the lights could be switched on in the barns and covered arena, since they weren’t on timers.”
Last but not least, never underestimate the importance of having a clean, comfortable bathroom for boarders, students and parents, says Foote. “You don’t want them coming to the farm and having to use an outhouse,” she notes.
While you don’t have to get extravagant, you’ll certainly earn bonus points with your clients by providing more than the usual round-up of extras. For instance, prospective customers may be pleasantly surprised—and won over—if you offer free services that other barns often charge for. That might include providing turnout services at no cost, as do Foote and Childs. Childs also offers free blanketing, another perk for which many barns charge. And make no mistake: Boarders appreciate these two benefits. Says horse owner Sharon Biggs of one favored barn, “I never had to worry about going on vacation, because they offered a turnout service and, in the winter, a blanketing service.”
Special diets are another chance for you to give boarders something extra. Foote and Childs will add supplements or medications at feeding time, even if the boarder’s horse lives at pasture. Many barns either charge for this task or require owners to handle it, especially if the horse isn’t stalled.
Many barns also charge to trailer boarders’ and students’ horses. But Childs often hauls her clients’ horses to local shows, events and trail rides for free. “That gives them the ability to compete and enjoy real ‘hands-on’ experience that they cannot get in just a round pen or home arena,” she says.
When space is available, Childs Play Farm allows boarders to keep stallions on the farm, something many places don’t permit. The farm also has a locked storage area for tack, giving boarders extra peace of mind. Childs will even find additional room when people need it for items that don’t fit in the standard space.
A big bonus at Shoeman Road Family Farm is the heated/air-conditioned observation room, complete with large viewing windows, gas fireplace, microwave oven and coffee pot. There’s even a photo album of the barn’s horses and events to help visitors and boarders pass the time. When building the farm, Foote knew such a spot was a must.
“I’ve watched my kids have lessons, and I would sit there and freeze during the winter,” she explains. “So I wanted a place for parents to be comfortable with their younger kids while they watched their older kids take lessons.” After all, she adds, “If you can keep the parents comfortable, they’ll keep bringing the kids for lessons, and they are more apt to ride through the entire year.” You don’t need an ultra-plush setting to reap this benefit; comfortable used furniture and a space heater (in the winter) or fan (for summer) will do the trick.
Having snacks on hand is another plus that boarders young and old appreciate. Foote keeps her observation room stocked with microwave popcorn, M&M candies (“We average about 10 pounds a week!” she says), coffee and hot cocoa mix. There’s even a basket of apples for the horses. “It’s just fun,” she says, “and people really get a kick out of it.”
Can’t afford to feed your boarders for free? Consider adding vending machines. Customers will still appreciate having on-farm access to snacks and drinks, even if they have to shell out some small change to get it.
At Hoopdance Hollow Farm in Connecticut, owner Ken Torres tries to make life a little easier for his clients by picking up items they need. “I’m always at the tack shop anyway, so if a client needs a fly mask or a sheet, I’ll get it for them and just put it on their monthly bill,” he says. Another gesture that can go a long way is having clients’ horses tacked or untacked if they are pressed for time. “I don’t do it all the time, but if I know a client needs to be in and out relatively quickly on a certain day, I’ll get the horse tacked and ready to go. It’s always appreciated.”
Perks don’t have to be free to be meaningful, especially if it’s something your boarders and students can plainly see costs you money. Anything that saves your customers time, money or hassle earns their appreciation. Such is the case with hosting on-site clinics and fun shows. Karen Briggs, a former boarder who now keeps her horses at home, notes that, “One of the things I miss about boarding is the occasional organized clinic or schooling show on-site. It was very nice to have your clinician arrive at your home farm instead of having to hook up the trailer and ship all over the place. And of course resident riders usually get advance notice of such clinics, so they get first dibs on the spots available!”
Foote has hosted two-day jumping clinics at her farm, as well as Pony Club camps and will soon begin hosting Pony Club “ratings prep” days. She’s also made sure that the farm’s PA system is piped throughout the farm, so people can tune in to a clinician’s comments wherever they are. (The system includes a 100-CD player, and each boarder has slots of her own—a useful perk for riders who want to practice musical freestyles.)
Covering the Cost
Although Foote charges for clinics, the fee is just enough to cover costs. “The clinics don’t cost me money, but they don’t make me money, either,” she notes. “However, they’re a great way to expose [my boarders] to these high-level people.”
What about other extras, though—the ones with no charge attached? How do you make up for the cost so your farm isn’t losing money just to keep clients? Foote and Childs don’t see this as a problem. “The cost is not that much, and with what we’re making in lessons, we can cover it,” says Foote. “The observation room, for instance, is there anyway, so people might as well use it.”
Childs notes that some of her extras are essentially rolled into the cost of board. But, she adds, “Our rates are not more than most facilities in the area.” What’s more important than these minor expenses, she adds, is giving her customers the right experience. “I personally consider this just part of having each horse be treated as if it was my own,” she says. “We feel that everyone should enjoy the wonderful world of horses, and whatever we can do to make that happen, we try to do.”
And the clients, she says, do notice. “Most are amazed that we do as much as we do and let us know in many different ways,” she says. When your boarders are letting you know how happy they are, your turnover rates are bound to be low. And that’s simply good for business.