Client Management

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Being in the horse business means you also are also in the people business, much to the chagrin of many stable managers. And in any people business, how you handle client requests can impact your success. As situations invariably will come up to test your policies and bottom line, you must consider several factors to make the client relationship work and maintain harmony all around.

First, consider what type of operation you are running, as this affects how you structure or modify your rates, and therefore how you accommodate client requests. For instance, are you operating a rough board barn, where the client is responsible for care, and where you are mainly in charge of administration; a pleasure/ lesson barn that includes basic services, and where the majority of your boarders think of your facility as their home away from home; or a high-profile show barn whose rates are all-inclusive, and whose boarders are largely out-of-towners who only come to ride once every two weeks?

To find out how some premier barns handle client requests, Stable Management talked to four successful managers.

“Considering what is good for the barn as a whole is our first priority, but it is also important to be flexible,” asserts manager/trainer Bevin O’Reilly-Dugan, USEA ICP Level 2 Instructor at Winchester Stables in Newfane, Vt.

Board at Winchester includes:

• “barn feed” and hay, which can be fed up to three times a day

• blanket change

• turnout and stall cleaning

• use of the facilities—the outdoor/indoor arenas, galloping fields, lounge/viewing room, storage lockers, wash stations, etc.

“If a client wants his/her horse to wear extra blankets, it can be arranged as long as it doesn’t turn into a complicated situation, which will take our help away from their other responsibilities,” says O’Reilly-Dugan.

“Things like administering meds, or holding a horse for the farrier or vet are the most called-for extras,” she says. “I feel that if they are asked for within reason, and are planned for ahead of time, we can go ahead without charge; I consider it to be part of the ‘flow’ of the barn.”

On the other hand, she makes a point of saying, “If a client knowingly takes advantage, and it becomes apparent pretty quickly, I have no problem in putting on the brake—but always in a professional manner,” she adds.

Ruth Nicodemus, trainer and acting stable manager at the famed Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien, Conn., a full-service facility, offers a different perspective. “As a show barn, our board includes everything from trimming to night checks. In other words, anything pertaining to the welfare of the horse is covered under one fee.”

Since the horses are in the care of professionals—from the grooms to the trainers—they are monitored closely with regard to all their health, management, exercise and training needs. Therefore, it is expected that a member of the staff will be available to accommodate whatever the situation calls for. “Meeting with the vet, changing wraps or adding blankets are included in the price,” she says. Of course, she notes, the cost of these services is factored into the monthly charge.

Emily Darling, manager/assistant trainer at the Northshire Farm dressage barn in Winhall, Vt., has a similar view. “The care and well being of the horse is number-one at Northshire; therefore, we will consider any reasonable request if it will be of benefit in either of those cases,” she says. “There is no nickel-and-diming here.” However, she says that there are situations that are not negotiable under any circumstances, such as turnout when the paddocks are wet and muddy, which she considers a potential cause of pasture accidents. “There are no exceptions when it comes to safety,” she emphasizes.

But Darling does allow a few exceptions to barn policy. “We grant our boarders after-hours riding privileges on occasion,” she says. “But they must carry a cell phone, and leave the barn as clean as they found it.” She will dispense up to three supplements per horse, after which her clients must provide pre-packaged alternatives. “And, as for holding horses for the vet and farrier, if we are notified in advance, and if it doesn’t become a regular thing, we do our best to be accommodating,” she says.

For horses in Northshire’s full training program, complete care is reflected in the fee, which eliminates many additional requests. “This arrangement especially suits clients who are unavailable, or live out of town, and so rely on us for all aspects of their horses’ care,” says Darling. “They come to us because they value our expertise, and trust our judgment.”

At Gunnar and Birgit Ostergaard’s Deerwood Farm in Ocala, Fla., which specializes in FEI dressage training, manager Elicia Brown talks about the long-standing relationships they have established with their clients over the years, and how these have translated into mutual trust and respect that transcends special requests. “Many of our clients fly in from all over the country, and are only here for short periods of time,” she says. “We do what we can to make sure their experiences are as rewarding as possible—whatever that entails.”

Referring to Deerwood’s policy of horsemanship first, Brown recounts the many courtesies the staff performs to ensure each horse and owner is well and happy.

“For our clients that ride at night, we will stay late in order to cool down, un-tack, groom each horse, and afterward clean their bridles and saddles, and then arrive early in the morning to get the horse ready, which typically includes grooming, tacking up and longeing or warm-up.”

While fees are pre-determined, they are based first and foremost on what is good for the horse. “The Ostergaard reputation has been built on this principle,” Brown states. A typical day at Deerwood begins at 6:00 a.m. With three working students and two part-timers to care for the 15 horses in residence, the barn is meticulously cleaned by 7:30, after which the first horse is prepared for his/her training session. Following a lunch break, the routine continues with Gunnar’s instruction until the end of the day, when evening chores are done. “At Deerwood we attend to every detail; no stone is left unturned in this all-inclusive training facility,” Brown concludes.

In the end, it would seem that owners are accommodated gratis as much on an individual basis as they are charged for additional services according to barn policy. Caring for horses is never a linear process, and it stands to reason that dealing with clients would fall within the same category. When it comes to the greater good, everyone is on the same side; it is just a matter of how to make the numbers work—whether you build charges for services into your monthly fees or bill them à la carte.