First Impressions

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Picture this. You shift into low gear and bump up a gravel driveway lined with weeds past their prime into an area where cars appear parked at random. A teen with his sleeves rolled up, shirt hanging out and a cigarette clamped in his lips says nothing until spoken to. He slouches over to a rusty truck body that serves as a no-longer-mobile tack room and grabs a halter out of a pile on the floor. Then he pushes a sagging gate open and saunters out into a field surrounded by tired wire fencing to catch a horse.

Now picture this. You pull up in front of a wrought iron gate. Prompted by your appearance on the videocam, someone presses a button, and the gates swing open silently. The drive, lined with ferns and rhododendrons, curves past flowers blooming beneath the hooves of a bronze mare and foal. You see the low, chocolate-colored barn just ahead, each stall’s window tilted at precisely the same angle to catch passing breezes. White board fences partition the hill behind it into individual paddocks carpeted with lush grass.

The trainer steps up to your truck to greet you as soon as the engine stops, her boots polished, a white shirt tucked into belted pants, and a welcoming smile on her face. The glass-paned barn doors behind her are rolled back so you can see the roomy box stalls flanking an aisle paved with rubber blocks. Not a shaving or hay wisp litters the view.

It’s possible that horses get decent basic care at both of these farms. But which would you bet on? You might feel like you’d just pulled off a rescue mission if you picked a horse up at the first one. And you’d probably feel like your horse hit the lottery if you delivered her to the second. That’s the impact of a first impression.

“I’m not from the horse industry,” says Larry Michelson, proprietor of Brookwood Equestrian Center, the basis for the idyllic farm described above, in Lakewood, Wash. “I came from an advertising and marketing background where I learned that first impressions really do count.”

Why should farm owners care about first impressions? Business consultants point out that first impressions are often lasting impressions. You get one chance to make a good one. They know that a firm handshake, a smile and eye contact project an air of confidence and competence to people meeting you for the first time. You want your farm to project confidence and competence, too.

Consider your barn’s first impression as an essential marketing tool. If a potential client’s first impression of your barn is negative, any sales of horses or services may be lost before you even have a chance to say hello and shake the potential customer’s hand. You may never get a chance to correct their impression and, worse, they may pass it on to others. Conversely, if your facility makes a good impression from the moment someone sees it, the job of turning them into a paying client becomes that much easier. “What makes a good impression is also good business,” says Jeff Derby, livestock manager at C Lazy U Ranch in Granby, Colo.

HOW DOES IT LOOK?

The collection of sensory experiences that combine to create a client’s first impression start at the farm’s entrance. The moment people reach it, they begin forming an opinion, says Derby. A gate with an emblem of a roping horse, a sign with a cutting horse or an antique wagon wheel each conveys information about the farm’s purpose. The condition of the entrance and the drive reflect the standards the visitor can expect to find when they reach the barns.

A facility does not have to be lavishly appointed, Derby says. But things should be in good repair, of good quality, safe and practical. Used equipment, piles of wire, or anything else that could be dangerous to a horse or rider are his ultimate turn-offs.

“If the grounds are poorly kept and unloved, you have to wonder about the level of the horse care,” agrees Michelson. When he first purchased Brookwood, the turnout paddocks were knee deep in mud, unsightly and unsafe. He dug them out, rimmed them with a drywell, laid drainpipe, and then built them back up with layers of crushed rock and pea gravel. They not only present a great first impression, he says, but the farm also has no more thrush, no more ankles turned on potato-sized rocks, and there is always dry ground to turn the horses out.

When Bruce Travis bought RedGate Farm in Newtown, Conn., unkempt paddocks on the over-60-acre parcel were one of his priorities, too. Now each of the farm’s 31 turnout paddocks is seeded, rolled and aerated annually as part of a regular turf maintenance program. “Because of the size of the farm, sometimes I feel more like a grass farmer than a horse farmer,” he laughs. But the result is that there is ample grass for each boarder’s horse, and visitors get an impression of the great care and pride Travis and wife Kim take in their farm.

The condition of stalls and aisles is a litmus test for most horsemen. “If aisles are clean, then I don’t wonder about the horse care,” Travis says. RedGate does not allow trunks or other obstacles in its aisles. Cluttered aisles are not only hard to sweep, they invite more clutter and can be a safety hazard.

At Brookwood, “Everything is always clean,” says Michelson. “The drives are neat and clear of manure, the flower beds are weeded, the paint is touched up often both inside and out, and the restrooms, which we tiled and made all white, are cleaned almost daily.”

If things are orderly, clean and well maintained, then touches like flower gardens, hanging baskets or decorative stall grilles can add to the farm’s overall ambiance. Kim Travis has scattered peaceful pocket gardens throughout the RedGate complex.

El Camino Ranch in Redlands, Calif., presents one of the best impressions anywhere. Visitors drive through the ranch’s orange grove as they approach the barns. They reach the office by walking through “The Show Room.” Ribbons won by the farm’s Saddlebreds and National Show Horses hang from the ceiling, photos line the walls and trophies are displayed in cases. Talk about first impressions. “The kids are enthralled,” says owner LaVesta Locklin.

HOW DOES IT SMELL?

What do people smell when they first step out of their vehicle? If they peer into a stall, does ammonia sting their nose and eyes? At RedGate Farm, manure is collected in large dumpsters that are hauled away weekly before any odors can build. Travis located them strategically to both hide them from view and away from winds that would blow odors toward the barns. He jokes that the staff cleans everything up before it even hits the ground, and no one leaves manure trails from the barn to the dumpsters.

Every day at the C Lazy U Ranch 180 head of horses come in from the pastures at 4 a.m. and stay in paddocks until they return at 6 p.m. That means a lot of mess, admits Derby, but the staff works throughout the day to keep manure picked up. “It makes it an enjoyable place to be, keeps the bugs down and keeps the parasites down,” he says. “If pens, corrals and stalls are sloppy, there’s no pride there.”

HOW DOES IT SOUND?

What’s the first thing people hear when they approach your facility? The first impression most people get of a farm comes from the way the telephone is answered, says owner Mary Chardy Shealy of Brindabella Farms in Fair Grove, Mo. When new staff starts work at Brindabella, they get a safety and orientation sheet to read and sign. It includes instructions about answering phones and greeting new arrivals that take courtesy, privacy and security issues into account.

Derby instructs his staff to refer to ranch guests as ma’am or sir until they know their names. Then they address them by name. He also instructs them to remove sunglasses when speaking to someone, a sign of courtesy that allows eye contact. At El Camino Ranch, where there are 65 students (even more during camp season) and 20 staff members, Locklin recently issued nametags with photos and titles to each staffer. The tags help parents and visitors find the right person to talk to more easily, she says.

Shealy points out that when the owner is not on the premises, he or she needs to feel confident that the staff will treat visitors and clients in a way that represents the owner and farm well. This requires mutual respect between the owner and staff, she says. Without that, the staff may make disparaging remarks when the owner is absent. The lack of respect will carry over into their treatment of clients who may then decide to look elsewhere for a more congenial place to ride.

HOW DOES IT FEEL?

The “feel” of a place is a combination of many factors. Signage that makes it easy to find a farm, tells people where to park, or how to find the office makes visitors feel welcome. Obviously, greetings from the barn’s staff play a role here, too.

Travis feels it’s up to the owner to set the overall tone for a facility. When he bought RedGate, he found the atmosphere in the barn very sour. His solution was to give everyone two months to find a new place and to start over. When new boarders come in, basic rules such as keeping the washrooms clean, putting everything away in the tack room and sweeping up any aisle debris before they leave are explained. More to the point, he tells them there are three firm rules at RedGate: no barn gossip, no whining and no complaining. As a result, “This is a happy place,” he says. “We live here and we love it.” Boarders do, too, and show it in the farm’s very low turnover.

Parents, in particular, look for a sense of security about a facility, says Locklin. “One of the things that has helped us is that we have a closed gate,” she says. Signage directs visitors to the farm’s wrought iron entrance where they push a red button. A bell rings at the barn and the staff buzzes them in. While the perimeter fence was installed to corral any loose horses, Locklin finds parents feel much better about dropping their children off for several hours because of the sense of security.

EXCUSES, EXCUSES

Familiarity can breed blindness. When a situation faces you day in and day out, you may stop seeing it. You become so accustomed to the paint peeling on the farm’s sign at the bottom of the drive, the chewed fence boards on the paddock closest to the barn, the perennially dusty windows or the weeds in the garden that you simply don’t notice them any more. Ask a professional who has never seen your facility to visit as a consultant, or consider enlisting a non-horsey friend or relative. They can view your facility with a fresh eye and make recommendations about its first impression.

Psychologically, some people find it harder to justify things like flowers or nice signs or a new driveway compared to improving arena footing or resurfacing stalls. While they have no trouble spending money that directly benefits the horses in their care, they see “ornamental” expenses as frivolous, even vain, and certainly non-essential. Mentally reclassifying these improvements as maintenance expenses or marketing expenses in the annual budget may help clarify their contribution to the farm’s business goals.

You don’t necessarily need to budget megabucks to make a good first impression. A facility does not need to be fancy to impress. Shabby is even OK as long as the facility is safe, well kept and orderly. “You can have elegant antiques and antique wrecks,” Shealy says. “A place should look as though somebody cares about it.” Years ago, a Farm Journal article advised its readers that they didn’t have to be fancy to be good farmers but they did have to be tidy. That meant things like keeping equipment under a roof and keeping fences in repair. “The Farm Journal found that the most financially successful farmers were those who kept their places neat,” Shealy says. She’s remembered that advice ever since.

PLANNING TO IMPRESS

Once you decide you want to change the impression your facility projects, define the new standards you want your facility to meet. Write them down, being as specific as possible. For example, “Keep the barn painted” is too vague. “Hire professionals to paint the entire barn every 5 years in the spring and use regular staff to touch up any peeling areas every summer in between” is a specific goal that can be written into a budget and described to staff.

Divide your list into “housekeeping” items to work in the farm’s regular routines, “budget” items that will become part of your annual operating expenses, “capital” items that will require a significant investment to accomplish, and “human resource” those things that will require the cooperation of staff and clients to accomplish.

Good housekeeping can be built into any farm’s regular routines. For example, Michelson makes sure Brookwood’s stalls are cleaned early in the morning so that they are clean as soon as the first clients arrive. “Cobwebs are a pain in the neck,” he says, so they’re on the list of monthly housekeeping duties. Wheelbarrow crews leave the C Lazy U Ranch at regular intervals all day long to pick up manure on the drive and trails leading into the ranch.

If you own the place, sincerely want to project a quality image, but don’t ever seem to have enough cash left at the end of each month to keep driveway ruts filled or barns painted, it might be an indication that the farm’s overall business plan needs review. You may need to reevaluate the type of clients you are trying to attract, the prices you are charging, the services you offer or other factors to create a mix that provides enough cash to do it all.

Capital projects may be the hardest to accomplish, especially for trainers and instructors who lease a facility or part of one. If your landlord is reluctant to invest in the property, you might offer to provide the sweat equity if he or she will provide materials.

If you own your facility and things have become rundown, develop a realistic timetable for accomplishing your farm’s makeover. When Bruce and Kim Travis bought RedGate Farm, basic maintenance had been neglected for so long that it was a tired, run-down facility, with rotting siding and leaky roofs. They started by redoing the footing in the indoor arena, then tackled fences, paddocks and buildings. After five years, renovation on the last of the barns is nearing completion.

It took Michelson and his wife nine years to pull Brookwood up to the standard they wanted. The oldest continuously operating stable in Washington looked its years when they purchased it from an estate that had leased it out while neglecting maintenance for years. “There were only three stall doors still hanging. We had to fix everything,” Michelson says.

EARN?RESPECT

Michelson notes that he has never had to discuss first impression issues with his staff or clients. “We set the standards ourselves and everyone just sort of follows,” he says. As for clients, the attitude is set when they first come down the drive, he says. If the barn is neat and well taken care of, with nothing lying around, they automatically pick up after themselves. “If we respect the place, they respect the place, too.”

At El Camino Ranch, Locklin hands out rules with boarding and training contracts so that everyone understands they are to pick up after themselves. Then it’s up to the staff to set a good example. “We keep it clean so they keep it clean,” she says.

Derby feels that the dress and behavior codes prescribed for C Lazy U wranglers reflect respect. “What I strive for is mutual respect between horse and human and between human and human. If you don’t have the human to human respect, you can’t have the horse to human. If you respect people, it will carry through to horses.”

And, he adds, “It’s just good business.”

What Customers Think

We conducted a totally random and statistically worthless survey of miscellaneous boarders, lesson clients, horse show mothers and other barn habitués and arrived at the following revelations.

Horse lovers get a good first impression when...

  • they see flowering plants around gateways and doorways
  • the staff greets them courteously and professionally
  • individual horse care instructions are posted on each stall
  • stalls and aisles are clean
  • boarders, students and parents have access to a clean bathroom
  • tack rooms are orderly
  • tack storage is secure
  • aisles and arenas are well lit
  • barns have good ventilation
  • there are soda machines*

They get a bad first impression when...

  • drives and parking areas have potholes or ruts
  • fences need repair
  • the barn exterior looks tired because it needs paint or repairs
  • staff is rude or ignores them
  • stalls are dirty, smelly or thinly bedded
  • arenas and paddocks are dusty or muddy
  • flies pester them
  • cobwebs hang everywhere
  • aisles are crowded, cluttered, or littered
  • wads of tack are jumbled on hooks
  • weeds or mud dominate turnout areas
  • loud, irritating music is blaring*

*Some respondents allowed that the importance of various items might be related to their age.

Feng Shui Your Barn

If you’re stumped about what measures you could take to improve your barn’s first impression, consider going Oriental. The ancient Chinese developed a set of principles known as “feng shui” (pronounced “feng shway”) that describe how the arrangement of physical spaces and the objects in them can affect people living and working there. The right arrangement, say the ancients, creates balance, harmony and prosperity. The wrong arrangement dooms occupants to negativity, conflict and struggle. Feng shui devotees use these principles to site buildings, locate entrance doors, arrange furniture and organize other aspects of their physical environment.

Depending on the source you consult, the multiplicity of these ancient rules can seem incomprehensible and complex, even silly. However, analyzing your facility from a feng shui perspective can provide common-sense insights into how small changes may make a big difference not only in your farm’s first impression, but also in how efficiently work within it flows.

For example, understanding feng shui principles might inspire you to alter a driveway that runs straight from the road to the main door of your barn so that it approaches the barn at an angle or ends in a circle. You might find life a little easier if you reorganize or even relocate an office or tack room or feed room. Feng shui strongly advocates “use it or lose it.” Removing clutter, loosely defined as anything you haven’t used in the past year or two, promotes a more auspicious flow of energy throughout the space. Ditto good housekeeping to remove dirt and debris. That’s a common-sense feng shui principle any facility can apply.

Alas, there is no direct resource for applying feng shui principles to a farm. For a simple introduction to the subject, try “Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui,” by Karen Kingston (Broadway Books), or “Move Your Stuff, Change Your Life,” by Karen Rauch Carter (Fireside). For a more traditional approach, try “Feng Shui Step by Step,” by T. Raphael Simons (Crown Trade Paperbacks). —BK