Like Oil and Water

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Jumpers riding side-by-side with dressage devotees? Western pleasure riders sharing space with barrel racers and ropers? Ponies in harness coexisting with gaited horses under saddle? It’s not a fantasy.

Sure, history and many a trainer’s experience has shown that blending such diverse equestrian disciplines in a single facility can work about as well as trying to mix oil and water. But four barn owners have devised strategies that make the seemingly impossible a reality—to the benefit of their boarders and their business.

Strategy 1: Separate but Equal

The easiest way to help equestrians with different interests get along is to have a separate riding (or driving) area for each discipline. That’s key to keeping the peace at Fiddler’s Green in Bulverde, Texas, where boarders pursue hunter/jumper, dressage and eventing activities. “I have an arena with jumps, a cross-country course and a separate dressage arena,” says owner Terri Steele. “There’s room to spread about, so there isn’t much conflict here.”

A similar theory allows Joyce Webster, co-owner of B&W Stables in Hartselle, Alabama, to keep lesson time free from distractions. Whether she’s teaching saddleseat, in-hand or driving skills to the barn’s Saddlebred and Hackney Pony enthusiasts, she restricts usage of the indoor arena during lesson hours. But boarders can do their own thing in the outdoor arena and pastures.

Strategy 2: Room to Share

The next best thing to multiple arenas is one ring that’s big enough for everyone to share. How big are we talking? Susan Wiser, co-owner of Diamond J Stables in Millstadt, Ill., finds that her 330-foot-by-150-foot outdoor arena is large enough to allow hunter/jumper riders to school over fences in one end while barrel racers practice runs in the other. Meanwhile, the farm’s Western pleasure and hunter-under-saddle riders have learned to work around the obstacles without complaint.

The strategy works so well that Wiser is making sure the farm’s indoor arena (now under construction) will offer the same advantage. “When we decided to build an indoor, we decided that we needed to build it big,” she says. “So, it’s going to be 300 feet by 125 feet.”

In the past, Steele has also used a single arena for multiple disciplines. “At one place where I leased space, the Western vs. English thing was a problem,” she relates. “For a while, I had to tear down the jumps and reset them every time I wanted to use them. But it was a big enough arena that I eventually convinced the other trainer we could each have our own area.”

Strategy 3: Pencil It In

Of course, many farms don’t have the space for multiple arenas or even a single mammoth one. So what happens when you’re all stuck sharing one average-sized ring? You need to plan out a timetable. As Webster says, “I have found through the years that it is much easier to have scheduled times than to have 10 riders competing for the arena.”

In fact, even with a giant arena, Wiser finds that schedules can make life a lot easier. Although she doesn’t restrict ring usage during her lesson times, she does post her teaching schedule. That way, riders can plan their schooling times so they don’t overlap with Wiser’s lessons. “I never tell my students they can’t come in the ring while I’m teaching. And, if I’m teaching two riders over jumps, it’s still okay for two or three other riders to come in and work on barrels or pleasure,” she notes. “Still, if you just let things happen completely at will, it can get scary in a situation like this.”

Wiser also uses scheduling to accommodate the arena needs of her husband, racehorse trainer Jimmy Wiser, whose hobby happens to be team roping. Since all the jumps and barrels need to come out when Jimmy wants to do cattle work, Wiser lets him know in advance when she’ll have most of her students at a show. “We try to plan like a month in advance, so he knows which nights he can have the arena for his roping practice,” she explains.

An unwritten schedule also comes in handy during the winter, when Jimmy brings his racehorses home from the track. “Some days it can get hairy,” says Wiser. “But everyone knows that from 7 a.m. until 10:30 a.m., racehorses are getting trained, so they really can’t ride.”

Similarly, Steele has worked in situations where multiple trainers, each specializing in a different discipline, all needed to share ring space. In one case, the barn was homebase for polo, racing, Western and hunter/jumper trainers. In good weather, each had a designated outdoor arena to work in. But when the weather turned colder, everyone was forced to share a single indoor arena.

“We had to block off a couple hours for each discipline and adhere to it,” says Steele. “The property manager made the schedule, and he happened to be a polo player, so they got the best time of day. Then the hunter/jumpers after that. You could just see how the caste system worked. But we all just swallowed it and did it. I think a better system would be to have a schedule, but rotate the times, so everyone has a chance at the good hours.”

Strategy 4: Show the Benefits

When the above strategies don’t work, or don’t fit into your facility’s routine, it’s time to get creative. Often, that means coming up with ways to make riders see a productive side to sharing ring space. In other words, find a way for both sides to see “what’s in it for me.”

Steele once had to deal with a conflict between two dressage riders, each of whom wanted to school in the arena alone. “I suggested that they ride tests for each other and critique each other. It worked,” she says, noting that both riders got something useful out of the experience.

Another time, Steele had to share an arena with polo players. They let her have a few jumps up, but she had to tear them down every time the polo players wanted to practice. With a little ingenuity, she changed their mind. “I convinced them that they could train their ponies on doing tight turns by maneuvering around the jumps,” she says. “They agreed.”

Wiser, too, tries to show boarders that they can benefit from having other disciplines at the barn. For instance, she might explain how being around cattle at home can boost a pleasure horse’s performance. “We go to a lot of Quarter Horse shows where they have cattle events, and the cattle are in a pen at one end of the ring,” Wiser explains. “You see some of these pleasure horses go in and just lose it when they get near the cattle. The ones from our barn don’t care.”

The bottom line, she reminds riders, is that when you’re showing, you need to be prepared for anything—from cattle to a dog running loose in the ring to a shrieking baby in the stands. And the more a horse is exposed to at home, the better he’s going to handle unusual situations away from home. “Once we talk to them, most of my clients say they would rather have their horse exposed to things,” she notes.

More than that, she adds, some riders even find a new equestrian pursuit to follow. “We’ve had several clients in recent years who were doing strictly hunters when they arrived,” she says. “But once they saw everything going on, they decided to try other disciplines. So now some of them will show their hunter, then turn around and go show pleasure.”

Strategy 5: Courtesy and Community

Another important part of keeping the peace, says Steele, is teaching all boarders about ring courtesy. She teaches safety skills—such as calling “inside” or “outside” when passing, or yelling “heads up” when jumping—as part of her lesson program.

In addition, she says, creating a sense of community among the boarders will help everyone get along. “We have a pretty close-knit group,” she says. “We do barbecues and trail rides together. That gives everyone a chance to see that we’re all just people who love horses. And I think that helps when conflicts do come up.”

What’s Best for Your Business

Whatever policies you try at your facility, make sure to get the word out to all current boarders. Then make sure you discuss the policies with potential customers before they sign a contract. While many riders will give a multi-discipline barn the thumbs-up, a few will not want to be part of it. You’re much better off sorting out those feelings before money changes hands.

Finally, if you’re unable to find a solution that works for you, maybe it’s time to change your barn’s mission. You might find that it’s necessary—or best for your business—to offer just one or two disciplines, suggests Kim Bearsch, who teaches adult beginners in English and Western riding at her Flying K Farm in Joppa, Md.

“You will not please everyone,” she says. “And who is to say that a group of boarders this year will be the same group you are dealing with next year? You need to do what is best for the whole facility, not just one or two people.”