Should I Start a Boarding Operation?

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It should be pretty simple, right? I have extra stalls and plenty of fields, plus a nice arena and some trails. Several of my friends, and friends of friends, have been asking if I would board their horses. Now what?

Starting a boarding business can be a solution to having extra stalls and space, but don't start a boarding business without a lot of planning. In this article we'll give you six steps and a couple of first-hand experiences that should help you better decide if running a boarding stable is really what you want to do.

There are a multitude of responsibilities that come with running a boarding business. Before heading merrily down this bridle path, take time to consider the market demand, facilities needed, legalities, business venture, insurance, equine dynamics, human dynamics, neighbor dynamics and wear and tear. And in this environmentally enlightened age, who could forget the extra manure.

Step 1: Market Demand

The “build it and they will come” strategy does not work well when it comes to boarding horses. Before tackling any other start-up tasks, the very first thing you should do is determine if there is enough business to keep you in business. Start by making a chart of all the boarding facilities within your market region. Include what their specialty is. For example, are they focused on youth or adult, showing or recreational, riding or breed orientation? Are they full, and if not, what is their average occupancy rate? What is their reputation?

From there you will want to identify your niche. Will you fill a vacant niche so that you can capture enough market share to make it?

Step 2: Zoning

Generally speaking, if you are in a rural or agricultural zone, stables are a permitted use. If you are in any other zoning, you should check out your zoning laws ahead of time and be sure you’re in compliance. If you aren’t, you will want to get the required approval to go ahead. Remember, you are now creating more traffic in the neighborhood and your neighbors may raise the issue with town officials if you don’t.

Step 3: Facilities

Elements to consider are the horses’ living quarters, riding or exercise options and rider comfort. Many states have laws that mandate what months shelter is required and define what that shelter must consist of.

Generally speaking, “shelter” can mean a run-in shed, stall in a barn, or stall that opens into a paddock area. Whatever your choice is, be sure the building is in good repair, and remove any broken boards, protruding nails or other equine hazards. Cover exposed electric outlets, and be sure lights are way out of reach, even for horses that may be playing or misbehaving.

Step 4: Horse Management

Will horses be turned out separately or together? How will the horses get along if they do go out together and what will you do if they don't get along? Will you put mares with geldings? Fencing is a key concern regardless, since you want to keep them all fenced in, and may want to keep some of them apart. And while your horse may respect one strand of electric fence, many a Houdini horse has escaped more elaborate systems.

What kind of supervision will the horses have? Most commercial stables pride themselves on having someone on the grounds 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This means that problems will be caught sooner.

What will you feed your new boarders? If you feed grain from one company, and your new customer has been getting grain from another, it’s smart to know how to make a switch in rations that won’t be stressful to the horse. As for hay and bedding, what storage capacity do you have? If you aren’t able to keep a year’s supply, you will want to investigate delivery options. However, this may mean you’ll pay a higher price.

Don’t overlook other horse care issues when considering taking in boarders. How will blanketing, boots for turnout, and fly spray tasks be addressed? Boarders may also have their own veterinarian, farrier and other complementary care providers; are your facilities set up in a way that provides these folks with a good work area when their services are required? This means adequate light, a level surface and shelter from the elements. Will there be somebody available to help them with the horse if that is needed?

Step 5: Accommodations for the Horse Owner

Are you offering full board, rough board or a combination? What hours and what days of operation will you offer? Will you provide the horse owner with access to her horse 24/7? Is there adequate parking that won’t hinder the horse operation? Where will they keep their tack and horse supplies? Is this a secure area? What will you do about a boarder that never comes? What about a boarder that never seems to go home? Do you have a port-a-potty or bathroom accommodations for the boarders, or will you welcome them into your home when nature calls? Is there a place for them to park their trailers?

For exercising their horses, will you provide a riding area that is fenced and relatively flat? Do you have access to trails? What about barrels, poles and jumps? What is your policy if a boarder breaks equipment? How many months a year will the rider be able to utilize the riding areas? Do you offer lights for night riding and short daylight seasons? Will you allow freelance trainers and instructors come to work with your boarder?

Step 6: Risk Management

To protect yourself, you will need a boarding contract. Lay out in writing what you are offering, for what amount of money, what authority you will have regarding the boarded horse, the level of care required, how you will collect if the boarder becomes delinquent in paying, why a boarder can be asked to leave, what facilities and equipment are included in boarding. You should also get a signed release for liability. Both documents help clarify responsibilities and procedures, and it would be best if your attorney created them. Gray areas, topics left undiscussed and individual assumptions are often revealed through this process. Tackle them before they become a bad reality. You should have your attorney review these documents with you so you have a thorough understanding of how they are designed to work.

Then have a heart-to-heart with your insurance company. What will really happen if an accident occurs? Insurance issues are serious concerns. What if you, the property owner, get hurt while handling the boarder’s horse? What if the horse owner gets hurt? What if the boarder brings a friend that gets hurt? What if the boarder’s horse is injured by another horse? What if the horses get loose in the neighborhood and a car hits it?

Be sure to take your time and explore each of these topics thoroughly. In the long run, you’ll learn much about how to be smart, safe, and earn money with horses!

(Lisa Derby Oden has been providing business development and marketing consulting services to the horse industry since 1995. Oden is the author of Growing Your Horse Business and Bang for Your Buck: Making $ense of Marketing for Your Horse Business. She can be reached at 603-878-1694; Lisa@blueribbon­consulting.com; or at www.blue­ribbonconsulting.com.)

Two Perspectives

Filling a unique niche—Cassie Schuster runs Wellness Ranch, a small, family-oriented boarding facility in south Texas that offers a wholesome, non-toxic environment for horses who are in recovery from injury, are in retirement, or come to “just be a horse.”

“We only wanted to be a small mom and pop place, no more than four horses at one time," said Schuster.

“I always took my services to other barns until we built our own barn in 2008 with a treatment stall, three regular stalls, offices and living quarters—where I once stayed for a month to be with two very ill horses. I started full-blown holistic, then quickly realized that people didn’t understand the terms, the value, the reason...so I stepped it down to different packages. In July 2010, we purchased a peaceful, nature-filled property and turned it into a unique equine wellness facility: a teaching/therapy barn for foaling or QT boarding; another barn with four stalls; pastures with run-in sheds/lights/automatic water systems; and pasture boarding. We have lots of options for lots of needs. I provide consults, nutritional support, body care sessions, and plenty of one-on-one attention. We currently have seven horses here, with room for five more.”

Developing the niche as a result of experience, Laura Kelland-May owns and operates Thistle Ridge Equestrian Services in Ontario, Canada. “I have been boarding horses for over 10 years. I board the horses for people who ride with me, so if they board here they are required to be in my lesson program. I learned this the hard way. I had a boarder that would come out once per week and take her horse out and ride for two to three hours. After her ride she would shove him out and leave him until the next week. She also invited friends to come to the stable and ride her horse. While she has every right to say who can ride her horse, on my property my policies require that: 1) helmets are worn, 2) safety precautions are met, 3) liability waivers are signed. She never did any of these things.

Consequently, I decided that just boarding would not be an option, as I want to have some input into training, farrier, vet and development of the horse-rider team.”