Owning or managing a boarding stable can be a dream come true—if all goes as planned. Most people who board their horses are easy-going, reasonable and responsible. They follow the rules, pay their board on time and are grateful for a clean, well-maintained boarding facility. But nothing is perfect, and even the most bucolic boarding facility can suffer from a difficult boarder now and then. And this can lead to a host of problems for barn owners and managers.
How you deal with a hard-to-handle boarder is important. Such a person can affect the morale of your other boarders, the safety of the facility and ultimately your bottom line.
The vast majority of issues with boarders seem to result from a breakdown in communication. This can cause all kinds of problems, from violating rules to expecting different services than those actually provided.
“The only difficulty I’ve had with boarders was when a miscommunication occurred based on a boarder’s expectations and the services we were willing to provide,” says Leslye Shellam, owner of Bryn Melyn Farm, a 25-horse boarding facility in Burleson, Tex. “I was once awakened at 11 p.m. by a boarder who thought her horse should have been blanketed. It was above 40 degrees, and I don’t blanket unless it’s expected to be freezing. She didn’t understand that.” Shellam now carefully explains her policies regarding blanketing to prospective boarders.
“Communication is the key,” she says. “A prospective boarder can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to our program. I don’t expect or want to be the perfect barn for all boarders. It just has to be a match.”
Ed McAdam, owner of The Longbranch Stable in Parrish, Fla., a boarding facility that houses 22 horses, also finds that misunderstandings are behind most conflicts at his barn. “Basically, difficulties boil down to poor communication between the owner, manager and boarders,” he says. “In 1994, I developed a written stable policy statement, which is signed by all boarders and staff. In essence, it states ‘Be a good neighbor to all.’”
The difficulties McAdam has encountered with boarders involve poor communications and non-adherence to stable rules, even though the rules are clearly defined. Some of these issues have included rule violations such as grooming a horse while inside a stall, smoking in the stable, and leaving open a stable or stall door or gate.
These violations can have consequences, he notes. “One time, a boarder was grooming a horse in a stall when another boarder passed by the Dutch door and spooked the horse,” says McAdam. “This caused the person in the stall to panic, which made the horse panic. The horse pushed the boarder into the wall.”
Another issue involved the 16-year-old daughter of a boarder, who loudly disobeyed her parent regarding the family horse, on two occasions. It got worse. “When the girl disobeyed my instructions in front of the parents and nothing was done about it, they were evicted immediately,” says McAdam.
Sometimes when communication is a problem between barn managers and boarders, the boarders come across as overly demanding. In reality, the problem is that boarders simply don’t understand the services the barn owner is offering.
“The toughest part of managing a boarding stable is accommodating different personalities of boarders and maintaining open communication at all times,” says Fay Strasel, owner of Sunny’s Corner Farm, a 31-horse boarding facility in Middleburg, Va. “Nitpickers are probably the toughest. They demand that their horse receive this or that, and in a certain fashion.”
According to Strasel, the only way to resolve these kinds of issues is to politely educate the boarder so he or she understands what you are willing to provide. The boarder can also be given the option to provide the horse the specific care it needs, rather than having the boarding stable provide it.
“If a boarder feels that our philosophy of horse care doesn’t agree with hers and we are unable to resolve the issue, I usually try to help the person find someplace that is more suited to her needs,” says Strasel. “But I leave the door open if the person ever wishes to return.”
Although most boarders pay on time and don’t need to be reminded, some boarders are chronically late with their payments. Some stop paying their board altogether, forcing barn owners to confiscate their horses for resale to recoup unpaid fees. In many states, owners are allowed to padlock stalls until the boarder pays the bill. If the bill is never paid, the horse can be auctioned off to the highest bidder after 90 days, but rules vary on this so it’s wise to check with your lawyer.
Most barn managers don’t want a situation to get this point and will try to work with boarders who are having financial difficulties. Others are simply asked to leave.
“We’ve had problems with boarders not paying board on time,” says Cathy Virtz, owner of Rockland Breeze Farm, a small boarding facility in Westminster, Md. Virtz had one family on self-care field board; they paid a boarding fee to keep two horses in a field with a run-in. The horses often had no water, and Virtz felt obliged to fill the trough. One day, she came home to find a third horse grazing in the field.
“The clients couldn’t understand why their board needed to increase because of the third horse,” she says. “The additional hay, reseeding and the fertilizer costs meant nothing to them. They actually got very belligerent with us, and we finally had to tell them to pack up and leave. When they did, they left with our fencing material.”
As a result of this experience, Virtz no longer allows self-care boarders, and does very limited field boarding.
PEACE & HARMONY
Barn owners with years of boarding experience often develop strategies to achieve harmony at their facilities. In the past Shellam often tried to meet the needs of every individual boarder, but now instead requires that boarders fit her program. “I am now very rigid as to what I will commit to a boarder up front,” she says. I have a basic plan that a customer can either accept or reject. Anything on top of that is an additional fee.” This works for 99 percent of her customers, she adds.
Because Shellam has such a firm policy, she not only has peace among boarders, but also very few injuries, no colics, and a very successful show team. “We are considered by many to be the best boarding stable in the area for those looking for quality care, training and facilities, balanced with a reasonable cost,” she says. “Also, now that my horse training clientele is maximized, they agree with my care program, and the farm is more unified.”
McAdam also has a firm policy that helps keeps things at his barn running smoothly: “Boarders that don’t adhere to the stable rules are asked to leave.
“Typically, equestrians are responsible people. The equine industry over the many years has maintained a friendly, family-oriented, positive social environment to promote a good-neighbor policy. When the rules are based on safety, security, care and control, and boarders stick to them, it results in a pleasurable physical and social environment for both horse and human.”
And we can all agree to that.