Open Doors?

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If you run a horse barn, you can expect visitors. Riders’ friends and family will come to watch. Potential customers will stop by to see your facility. Complete strangers will wander onto the property, children in tow, and want to pet the horses.

Stables and horses attract visitors, and welcoming them is one way to obtain new clients, says Kathy Kane, a commercial farm insurance specialist in Niantic, Conn. But Kane, who also managed a public stable for five years, notes that unsupervised visitors can pose risks. People who are unfamiliar with horse behavior may be bitten, kicked, or otherwise injured— and sue you. Or they may act inappropriately and spook horses, causing accidents and injuries.

For a manager, “Safety of the horses in your care and your clients is a priority,” Kane says. Limit your risks, she advises, by setting visitor policies that include both hard-and-fast rules and flexible guidelines. Then make sure that your clients and staff understand those policies. What should the visitor policy cover? That depends somewhat on the nature of your business. A busy barn like Kane’s may need one set of guidelines, while a smaller operation or one that caters to a closed group may need another. However, your policy should cover 10 essential points, as suggested here by Kane and Pat Galvin, business manager at Far Meadow Farm in Morris, Conn.

1. Meet and greet.

For security if for no other reason, it’s important to know who is on your property. Make sure that visitors check in with you (or whomever is in charge, if you’re absent). “We encourage visitors to stop in at the office, so we know who they are and why they’ve come,” says Galvin. Far Meadow is on a quiet road and ­doesn’t have a public lesson program, so the staff generally is aware when strangers or unfamiliar cars come onto the property. Anyone who stops by unannounced is politely but promptly directed to the office.

Kathy, who ran a busy public barn on a main road, took this policy a step further. “We always had visitors sign a guest book in the office,” she says. That way, the farm had a record of the visit.

2. Give the tour.

Don’t let visitors explore the property alone. Instead, says Kathy, give them a brief tour of the facility. “To take ten minutes from your busy day to walk and talk with visitors helps eliminate injuries,” she says. Non-horse people tend to think of horses as big pets and are not tuned in to normal but risky equine behaviors like spooking or kicking out, she notes. In addition, many farms have electric fencing or other equipment and features that could be hazardous to the uninitiated. Besides educating visitors about safety, Kane says, “An important reason for showing guests around the facility is to control and limit the areas they visit”—and thereby keep them out of trouble.

3. Enforce safety rules.

Don’t let anyone sit on a horse, even for a short “pony ride,” without an approved helmet and a signed liability release, Kane and Galvin agree. Far Meadow doesn’t require liability releases for non-riding visitors, but Kane says it’s a good idea to obtain signed waivers from guests who just come to hang out or spend the day with a friend who rides. “Accidents happen on the ground, too,” she notes.

4. Control kids.

Don’t let parents leave children unattended. Kids are naturally attracted to horses, but at the same time they’re often oblivious to risks and clueless about how to behave around large animals. Far Meadow’s rules require children under 12 to be supervised at all times. Young children—under age six, say—need the closest supervision and should visit hand-in-hand with a parent or other responsible adult.

5. Control dogs.

Set and enforce a policy for visiting dogs. At the very least, dogs should be leashed; a loose dog at a stable is an accident waiting to happen. You may choose, as Far Meadow does, to bar visiting dogs altogether.

6. Nix treats.

Horses are moochers and love to beg treats; visitors love to feed them. But, much as your critters might enjoy getting handouts, it’s a bad idea. An inexperienced guest could be nipped, or might feed items that a horse’s owner doesn’t want him to have.

7. Restrict contact.

Risk of injury is one reason to limit contact between visitors and horses; disease is another, says Kane. “Strangles bacteria, for example, can be carried by people who visit from barn to barn; someone who was making the rounds in the search for a boarding or lesson stable could pick it up at one place and bring it to yours.” “Look but don’t touch” is the safest policy for visitors, she believes. A disease like strangles can rip through a barn and force you to quarantine your facility.

8. Make room at the rail.

Ask guests to watch lessons and other activities from a safe spot outside the ring, where they’ll be out of harm’s way. “We have comfortable viewing areas and encourage friends and family members to watch riders from those areas,” says Galvin. The rule isn’t ironclad, she notes: “If the ring isn’t busy or crowded, we don’t mind if a friend or parent is in the ring with the rider—as long as he or she isn’t a distraction or in the way.” But at busy times, spectators must stay outside the ring.

9. Stay on schedule.

If visitors show up at a busy time—when you’re in the middle of teaching a lesson, for instance—don’t be afraid to ask them to visit at another time. Better yet, ask them to call first. A call-ahead policy is also good for friends and family members who come to visit or care for a horse when the owner is not around, says Galvin: “Because they may not be familiar with the barn routine, we want them to let us know when they’re coming, so they don’t interfere with feeding and turnout schedules.”

10. Set visiting hours.

Roll out the welcome mat for visitors during business hours; they may be future clients, after all. But discourage people from stopping by during off hours, when managers won’t be around. Let boarders know that anyone who comes by when the office isn’t open should be asked to come back another time. Post your business hours at the front gate—and shut the gate when you close for the night