As you are looking at where your business should grow, one of the fundamental decisions is whether you should delve deeper into your current niche of the equine industry, or explore other niches.
For example, if you cater to a barn full of dressage riders, do you have the ability to attract and serve three-day event riders? Or would you be better off looking to add an instructor, indoor arena, new stalls, etc. to be able to serve more dressage riders?
A lot will depend on the demand in your area, your facilities, and your reputation. Let’s look at each of these.
Do you know what discipline is growing in your area? If you have been focused on dressage then you might not be “tuned in” to the other disciplines. Let’s look at two scenarios.
1. You house mostly dressage riders and dressage is growing in your area. With this scenario, if you have a quality facility, then your boarding rates and turnover rate (or lack thereof) should reflect that standing. Here are some tips to determine where you might want to grow within that discipline:
- Ask your boarders what they want. You might be surprised at the answers. Maybe instead of an indoor arena what they really want is a hacking trail to give them and their horses a break from ring work.
- Ask your trainer (or several local dressage trainers) what they think their students need most. You might find out that something like adding mirrors to your indoor arena would be a huge benefit to the riders and trainers.
- Maybe you find out that there is a lack of beginner-level dressage events in your area, and you determine that a good business decision would be to host one or more events specific to those competitors. (Remember, a horse show should be a profitable undertaking. In order to do that, it takes planning, marketing and proper execution.)
- Ask the local/regional/state/national dressage federations what they see as upcoming trends in dressage.
- Look for groups. Maybe the local community college or high school is looking for a place to host its dressage team and you have the horses, time, and facilities to do so.
2. You board mostly dressage riders and dressage is holding steady, but Western dressage is growing.
- If Western dressage is growing in leaps and bounds in your area, perhaps you need to learn more about that discipline and incorporate some of those people into your facility.
- Talk to those who train, ride and put on shows for Western dressage. It could be fairly simple to incorporate some Western dressage shows at your facility, which would serve to introduce people in that discipline to you and your stable.
- Offer clinics in Western dressage at your facility. This might serve to expand what your current clients do with their horses as well as introduce you to potential boarding clients.
Making investments in your facilities is a business decision that should not be taken lightly. Make sure that you do adequate research on the ROI (return on investment) to ensure that the money you invest in your facility will pay off, and that you understand the investment and timeframe of that return.
If you decide you have the money (or line of credit) to do some facility renovations or construction, keep in mind that you don’t have to start with the biggest project to have a good return on your investment (and attract and retain good clients).
Smaller projects can sometimes make a big difference in how people feel about your facility. Perhaps you can attract (or retain) good boarders by doing some simple updates such as painting, cleaning or landscaping. Make a list of small facility additions or renovations that your customers want or you think are needed. Something as simple as buying new letters for the dressage arena could be a welcome benefit at little cost.
There are other projects that are more applicable to the day-to-day care of your boarders’ horses that don’t have to be big-ticket items. Do your stall floors need to be dug out and redone? Are there boards that need replaced in the stalls or around the arena? Would a new shavings storage shed or separate hay barn give you more room in the barn and a healthier environment for your horses? Would adding a fly spray system to the barn or a watering system to your arena be a better spend for you and make your clients happier? Would new saddle and bridle racks in the tack room improve the look and use of that space?
When you start looking at medium-sized projects, you might think about adding cross-country jumps, stadium jumps, or re-doing the surface of your indoor or outdoor arena. Maybe the expenditure isn’t on the arena itself, but making an investment in the labor and machinery needed to keep that facility better maintained.
While all of the above projects are nice and probably would be welcome, sometimes you know it’s time for the next big step in your facility. That might be a new barn, new arena (indoor or outdoor), or purchasing additional land to expand your field and trail riding capabilities. Again, talk to your banker, CPA and attorney about making these investments. Each of them will have a different perspective on expansion ideas and could save you money and headaches.
You can have the best facility in the region, but if you or your staff is known to be hard to deal with (or you don’t properly care for horses), then the best clients will not be found at your farm. Turnover will be high, and you won’t be able to charge what should be the going rate for the facilities and services you offer.
While we are discussing this last, this should be your first concern. A facility with fewer amenities or a worse location might be bursting at the seams while you go begging for boarders if your reputation isn’t good.
Can you turn around a bad reputation? Of course! But the best solution to this problem is to not have the problem in the first place!
First you must maintain your facilities adequately and provide what you promise to your boarders.
Second you must listen to boarder complaints, because if you don’t, they will take those complaints (and their business) elsewhere. It is much better to hear that your barn manager is doing a poor job of taking care of clients’ horses than it is to learn months later--after you permanently lose three of your best boarders—that the problem is your manager and her care of client horses.
Third you must act on the problems that arise at your facility. You are the ruler of that little kingdom, and it is up to you to maintain the peace, ensure the happiness of your subjects and do what is best for the whole (including yourself).
Fourth you must be paid what you and your facilities are worth, and what your area’s economy will support. If you move your stable to a rural location from an urban spot to get more land, you might not be able to charge as much as you could at the urban facility because of the longer commute. Conversely, if you expand your facility and services in an area of high demand, you should expect reasonable compensation for monthly board and additional services that you provide in that high demand area.
Growing our industry is important, and boarding and lesson stables are the starting point for many future horse owners. There will always be people interested in learning how to ride, who then go on to become horse owners. Stables offer those people a chance to learn to love horses and horse sports, and provide a comfortable place for those people to learn and their horses to live.
When planning how to expand your business, look at these areas of growing wider or deeper. Make sure you understand the financial implications so that you can prosper in the long run. Then enjoy the benefits of owning a successful and thriving equine operation.