Building Community, One Event at a Time

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Your business isn’t “all riding, all the time.” Time spent doing different value-added activities strengthens barn ties, builds customer loyalty, and expands your revenue base. An inventive extracurricular program can contribute enormously to client bonding: Kids and adults have the chance to support and encourage each other and form friendships outside of the barn. It’s harder for barnhoppers to desert when they have formed a rewarding social circle with the other boarders, since riding is social for so many. Imagine you’re creating the next hit reality television show, and think way outside the traditional box. Or just test drive the concepts here.

Drills

• Better safe than … Hold a mock fire drill, says rider and event marketer Morgan Osbaldeston of Dreamland Farms in Alpharetta, Ga. Osbaldeston reports that Tranquility Farms in Chester, N.J., simultaneously hosted a local fire department and an equine insurance agent. With fog machine pumping and alarms clanging, clients taught firemen in full gear how to put on a halter and lead a blindfolded horse. Food and hilarious lesson/pony rides followed for the guys, says Osbaldeston.

Keep Offsite Fun in Sight

• Far-afield trip. Get out and see the world. “Our barn usually goes to nearby Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament,” says Osbaldeston. “But once we splurged on Cavalia, the artistic equestrian multimedia spectacle, and got the backstage tour!”

• Roll on. Go to the movies, especially if it’s a horse or other animal film. Or, try rollerskating or another unlikely sport. It’s great for rider revenge to see a trainer hugging the rail for dear life.

• Take it away. At an away show, check local listings for what’s hot. If you’re in Orange County, Calif., or Atlanta, Ga., for example, a theme park is a natural.

• Broaden horizons. Gather the group for medal finals and regionals or major eventing or dressage trials. Go watch reining or endurance. All horses have something to teach us, and riders from different disciplines really don’t have cooties.

• Track up. On an outing, hire a couple of limos so you can enjoy adult beverages safely, get all dressed up, and sit in boxes like the VIPs you are. Bet this will be fun!

Food is Your Friend

• Dinner and a dance. A barn with a very wide aisle where Osbaldeston once boarded closed for one night each month to hold a ticketed lobster dinner and ballroom dancing. Have you ever seen a horse tango?

• Farming good neighbors. Osbaldeston says TimberRidge Sporthorses in Stratton, Ontario, hosted an open house meet ’n’ greet at which local businesses were invited to offer food samples, including jam, honey, elk summer sausage and local cheeses. TimberRidge owners Colin and Trish Neilson made chili with their own farm-grown beef.

• Toppings for topplers. If lessons and clean-up run late into the dinner hour, order pizza for hungry stragglers. And you don’t even have to pay for this pizza. Make it a barn policy that anyone who falls off during a lesson puts $1 in a jar. Let the cash accumulate. Then the pizza party honors the tumblers as everyone gives them an atta’boy or ’girl.

• Take a ribbing. Invite guests outside the barn group to mingle with your regulars. Consider local retailers, your vendors, and civic leaders, for example. Large gatherings over ribs worked wonders for the former Thirty Something Farm in Wellington, Fla., says co-owner Shannon Hitch. “We even swam some of the horses in the lakes, or held all-together barn trail rides to get us out of the ring.”

Your Great Gathering Place

• Community central. Your place isn’t just a barn, so why not use it like an old-fashioned community hall or other central gathering place? Host Pony Club or 4-H gatherings or perhaps Boy or Girl Scout meetings with a horsey twist. You never know who might become a client.

• Celebrate! When a child client gets a new mount, that’s big. Buy a cake, decorate the stall with streamers and balloons, and have everyone sign a poster. Chip in for a collective gift like a saddle pad with the new pony's name embroidered on it, and perhaps some matching polo wraps. That’s starting in style.

• Try something new. A supervised trail class builds confidence and navigation skills. Walk on tarps, cross a wooden bridge, pass an animated stuffed animal toy (a monkey clapping cymbals, if you dare!), close a "gate," walk under draped streamers. Make it non-competitive; skipping obstacles and leading a horse are both okay.

• Team up. How about a pas-de-deux, or drill team practice with music? Let the kids choose tunes on their iPods.

• Paint the poles. Kids love the mess, and while parents picnic with you, encourage them to take a lesson. Once poles are dry, allow each student to become course designer for a day. Even the beginners can design with poles. Watch how much more your clients understand their lines at the next show.

• Hoppy holidays. Holidays provide good themes. An Easter egg hunt is always a hit; prizes can include a free lesson or horse treats. Horse and rider costumes always bring laughs around Halloween—just don’t forget the pumpkin-carving contest. Santa hats look great when riding’s done, but in-ring, pick the Santa hat off the gate, or jump a low fence wrapped in Christmas lights. Any excuse to lay back a bit is always a welcome diversion, and holidays provide that.

Rider Natalie Roberts of Southern Cross Stables in Davis, Calif., cherishes memories of a July 4th trail ride, followed by a potluck. “Loads of fun, especially when I stenciled red, white and blue glitter stars onto my gelding. Horse people know how to party!”

• Be crafty. Make a scrapbook for the barn manager. Everyone does a page or two, and then throw them all together—great to look at over the years. Paint T-shirts, do horsey crafts and hold horse trivia contests, followed by ice cream for all.

• This snooze doesn’t lose. Your older teens can secretly sleep over in tents and sleeping bags in the aisle—funnier when your barn manager is on vacation. It’s a secret, while kids sneak around all night in pajamas, scaring each other—hopefully not the horses!

• Talk to the animals. Peggy Kline trains at Countrywood Farm in Chino Hills, Calif. An animal communicator spent a day talking to horses, dogs, and a barn cat, and clients were rapt.

• Equestrian Idol. Your version has kids imitating their favorite big-time professional rider or trainer, as in the game charades. Just don’t go all Simon Cowell on them.

Giving Back

• Win pink ribbons. At Hidden Acres in Ottsville, Pa., assistant trainer Kim Heller is proud of her barn’s contributions to the local annual "Pink Ribbon" ride for breast cancer awareness. “We raised a ton of money and spent an entire day trail riding in the local horse park, dressed in pink. We all really enjoyed participating and raising money for a good cause!”

• Fun fundraiser. Rider Katie Grove from Kemper Knoll Farms, McGaheysville, Va., is totally jazzed that her barn’s first annual Ride-a-Thon fundraiser netted more than $9,000 for the American Cancer Society, with kids raising $500.

“It took a lot of planning, but we had ring rides, trail rides, door prizes, a silent auction, and more,” she says. “We achieved our goal of keeping at least one horse in the ring at all times for 12 hours. It was a long day, but fun! [Owner] Darlene Kemper told local media that the feat was accomplished “in spite of 40º temperatures and 40 m.p.h. wind gusts.”

With a little creativity, you can create a barn atmosphere that helps clients learn and have fun, too. If you can help others in the process, that’s all the more icing on the cake.