Let the Good Times Roll

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We understand. You run a boarding, lesson, or training facility—not Party Central. All the same, injecting fun events into your schedule of services can boost business.

Your customers own horses for enjoyment. Being at the barn is often their major social activity. If you can find more ways to increase their pleasure factor, you’ll benefit not only from high morale, but also from increased business, stronger customer loyalty and, quite possibly, more helping hands around the barn when you really need them.

Besides, says Chris Cassenti of Chrislar Farms in Rowley, Mass., “Nobody wants to go around in circles all the time.”

Customers Love It

From informal barbecues and group trail rides to field trips, rider camps and musical extravaganzas, many facilities find plenty of ways to keep boarders and students excited about being part of the barn family.

“There’s no one who isn’t involved in something,” says Elizabeth Englert, owner of Fox Run Farm in Cadiz, Ky. Special events include pony and adult camps, field trips to the Rolex Three-Day Event and neighboring farms, dressage clinics and game days. Her clients are so into socializing, they formed FRRIENDS (Fox Run Riders Into Eventing and Dressage Society) expressly to organize fun and educational events.

“For events and activities we hold at the farm, like fun shows, award dinners and swimming parties, we have about 75 percent participation,” says Stephanie Ayers, director of the riding school at Snowbird Acres Farm in Long Valley, N.J. “For activities outside the farm, the level of participation is limited because we can only take a certain number of horses in the trailer.” Since she highly values social activities, Ayers makes sure there’s something available for riders of every level.

Chrislar Farm goes a step farther and guarantees that everyone participates in at least one social activity per year. How? Co-owner Cassenti brings in cake for each person’s birthday. The farm’s annual musical extravaganza (rides choreographed to music) draws exhibitors and strong spectator support (from non-performing students, family members and even the public). Participation in more typical activities, such as trail rides to the forest or beach, is determined by riders’ experience levels.

Barn events can go big-time. At Far West Farms in San Diego, Calif., co-owner and manager Sandy Arledge notes that the annual Labor Day barbecue (complete with live music) brings in some 400 students, boarders and family members. The annual New Year’s Day trail ride is also popular. The annual fall camping trip is limited to 45 horses (due to corral availability) and there’s always a waiting list, and some people tag along without horses just for the fun. Trail rides and informal potlucks also attract a regular crowd.

One of the key events at Shenandoah Riding Center in Galena, Ill., is the Kentucky Derby party, which is open to the public as well as boarders, students and facility members. In 2001, 40 people attended, says Liz Taylor, barn manager. The barn also holds parties for pasture clean-up and, at Christmastime, goes caroling on horseback. Monthly trail rides draw unpredictable attendance. “This last year, it seemed like every third month we’d have no more than three or four people show up,” she says. “But one ride had 64.”

The Barn Benefits

“Okay,” you say, “sounds like fun. But let’s get down to brass tacks: What’s really in it for me?” For starters, social activities develop a family atmosphere and break down cliques that can cause friction between your customers. “Our boarders and students are competitive, but it’s a very supportive atmosphere,” says Englert. “They know one another and are interested in how everyone is doing, how their horses are coming along. If someone needs help, they’re there for each other.”

That general bonhomie makes for good PR, too. Says Cassenti, “If you run into one of our clients and ask what we sell, they’ll say fun. We’re all part of one big, extended family.”

Another important perk, says Ayres, is that “group activities bring everyone together and help everyone to get to know each other,” even if they normally wouldn’t cross paths because of different riding schedules. “New friendships are made, and the students feel more a part of our riding school,” she adds.

Arledge agrees wholeheartedly. “The social activities are highly important to a successful stable,” she states. “They get people enthusiastic and show that you have an interest in the boarders. You get to know everyone, and they get to know you.”

A natural result of all this kinship and goodwill is increased interest in helping the farm itself succeed. In a nutshell, says Taylor, “We try to do anything and everything to get the boarders out here, to see their horses, to make friendships. Then they’ll come out and volunteer when we need help.” Englert adds, “It’s give and take. And I know it’s helped the business.”

Footing the Bill

Of course, you can’t empty the piggy bank just to bring joie de vivre to the barn. Most facilities use a variety of methods to make social activities financially feasible.

For instance, at Fox Run, the FRRIENDS group charges a $25 annual membership fee, which helps fund activities. In addition, entry fees support some farm activities. “In general, everyone pitches in,” says Englert, “and we tend to do stuff that doesn’t cost a lot, anyway,” she adds. “For instance, at the adult camp, where students actually spend several days and nights here, we make it affordable by assigning two people to handle each meal.”

Most barns share the party costs with the riders. At Shenandoah Riding Center, Taylor says, “Shows are our profit makers, and we rely on volunteer boarders to help run everything. With boarder events, we’re giving back to the customer, so we want to keep the cost low and participation high.” For instance, she’s found a caterer who delivers a full lunch (for post trail-ride gatherings) at just $5 per head; participants pay that, and the barn supplies drinks. Taylor also believes in trading labor for fun and food. For example, she says, “We do a pizza party in exchange for boarders’ help in cleaning up the pastures.”

Far West Farms also believes in meeting boarders and students halfway. At the annual barbecue, the barn supplies meat, rice, beans and beverages, then asks each attendee to bring a dish to pass. For the fall camping trip, participants pay for their camp and corral reservations, and also bring food, which Arledge prepares for breakfast and dinner.

At Chrislar Farms, home of the free birthday cake, most Saturdays one customer brings in a veritable feast of pizzas or calzones, says Cassenti. For other activities, there is usually a minimal cost involved. For instance, she asks students in the musical show to pay a small fee, since she can’t run lessons or train while they’re using the arena for practice.

Spreading the Word

For social activities to be successful, of course, people must know what’s happening and how to get involved. Email and newsletters are popular media. At Fox Run Farm, both Englert and FRRIENDS use e-mail extensively to send updates and alerts of coming events. Englert also puts out a monthly online newsletter and posts notices around the barn.

Arledge prints a monthly newsletter that is mailed to boarders and posted online as well. For special events especially, she may resort to phone calls.

Taylor goes strictly old school. For activities that are open to the public, she places ads in local horse publications and sends direct mail fliers.

Cassenti and Ayers spread the word with barn props. Cassenti uses a big easel and white board to list upcoming events and hangs posters around the farm. Similarly, Snowbird Acres has a board in the main barn where event notices are posted, and Ayers also makes sure flyers are posted in the barns and given to students. She also includes an activities list in the “Birds Bulletin,” a newsletter sent out with monthly statements.

Just as important as getting the word out is doing it soon enough. “Making sure you give people enough notice so they can plan it into their schedule is key,” says Ayers.

Get the Party Started

Ready to get the party started? Begin by asking boarders what sorts of activities they’d like to have around the barn, advise Cassenti and Englert. Then, suggests Arledge, “Find someone who is active, interested and personable, and enlist their assistance.” You might even consider forming a recreation committee.

The bottom line is to simply find a way for everyone to have a good time. Arledge sums it up directly: “Horses are a leisure-time activity. So let’s have fun!”

Fun Ideas at a Glance

Here’s what a few other farms are doing to crank up excitement and enthusiasm among their customers.

Fox Run Farm (www.foxrunfarm.net)

  • Dressage clinics and lecture series
  • Field trips (competitions, breeding farms, special equine events)
  • Schooling shows, game days, fun days
  • Trail rides
  • Pony & adult camps
  • Quadrille practice
  • Secret Santa
  • Jump-painting parties
  • Informal barbecues

Far West Farms (www.saqh.com)

  • Labor Day barbecue with live music
  • Informal potlucks
  • Weekly to bi-weekly trail rides
  • New Year’s Day trail ride
  • Fall camping trip with horses

Chrislar Farm (www.chrislar.com)

  • Fun shows with games, timed events
  • Annual musical extravaganza
  • Trail rides in state forests, state parks, beach
  • Birthday cake for everyone’s birthday
  • Informal get togethers on and off the farm

Shenandoah Riding Center (www.shenandoahridingcenter.com)

  • Pasture clean-up and pizza party
  • Kentucky Derby party
  • Halloween party
  • Monday Night Football parties
  • Men’s coffee gatherings
  • Fun show
  • Hunter pace
  • AQHA Trail Ride
  • Monthly summer trail rides
  • Open house
  • Rodeo Days with fireworks
  • Cowboy poetry
  • Caroling on horseback
  • Parades (including the 2002 Thanksgiving Day parade in Chicago)

Snowbird Acres (www.snowbirdacresfarm.com)

  • End-of-year awards banquet
  • Fun shows—“Mini-Prix” and Gymkhana
  • Educational clinics
  • Informal barbecues
  • Swimming parties
  • Volleyball and other games
  • Mock horse show with dogs
  • Off-farm trail paces, horse shows and pleasure trail rides

—SDW