Imagine your barn filled with horse lovers of all ages working together. Patient adults and respectful children enjoying their animals side by side in idealistic harmony. Seems too good to be true? OK, time for a reality check. Perhaps your barn is filled with radio wars, candy wrappers, uncontrolled kids and impatient adults. But, it doesn’t have to be that way, say trainers and stable managers Sarah Aron of Preston, Wash., and Ashley Fiedler of Troy, Idaho.
The truth: Kids and adults can learn a lot from each other in this business. Adults often have years of horse ownership under their belts and can share their experiences with the youngsters. Kids usually have a youthful exuberance for their horses and riding, which can rub off on adults who, over time, have just settled into going through the motions of horse ownership. “And kids even help show the new adults how to do things, and it’s really fun to see that happening,” Fiedler says. “The kids love it. The adults see the kids having a great time, and they want to join in.”
Aron, trainer, coach and stable manager at Deerfield Farm, oversees 21 horses and 19 adult and youth competitors on the Appaloosa show circuit. The program, developed by farm owner Sue Cummings-Schultz, has produced numerous ApHC world and national champions over the past 25 years. Fiedler trains about 30 hunter-jumper kids and adults out of Thoroughgold Farm in Moscow, Idaho, and boards horses at her farm, Shady Grove, in Troy. Both Aron and Fiedler run well-oiled barns where kids and adults coexist in nearly perfect harmony. Here are the guidelines that make this possible.
Rule 1: Kids and adults follow the same rules.
When managing a barn full of children and adults, everyone must follow the same set of rules, with no exceptions. “It’s good for the kids to see the adults doing the same things and know that there’s equality between everyone,” Fiedler says.
To Fiedler, that means everyone, from the smallest fingers to the weariest adult worker, is responsible for putting away tack, sweeping barn aisles and caring for their horses. “I don’t care if your 50 or 5, you follow the same rules,” she says. “My philosophy about kids in the barn is that they’re treated the same as the adults. Everybody knows what’s expected of them—how to handle the horses and put away tack. We laugh, have fun, and it’s a really good time, but we can do that because there are ground rules that everyone follows.”
Deerfield takes accountability a step further by formally requiring adult clients, kids and parents to sign an agreement to abide by barn rules. These rules, outlined in an introductory packet, don’t just hold kids and adults accountable for their care of the horses and the facility. The rules also include guidelines for how Deerfield students care for each other.
“It’s a total team atmosphere,” Aron says. “Here at Deerfield, they’re all responsible and held accountable for themselves and their actions. And, as part of a team, they know they’re accountable for holding each other accountable.”
Also, be honest with your adult clients from the very beginning, Fiedler says. If your business includes a stable of busy kids, let prospective adult clients know there’s a youthful atmosphere in the barn. Some adults simply may not want to share a facility with children, and that’s their right.
Rule 2: The barn isn’t a daycare service.
Conflict between kids and adults often arises when parents leave their children unattended at the barn, so make it clear to parents that the barn isn’t a daycare service, unless, of course, you run a youth program or camp that does include supervision of children.
At Fiedler’s barns, if parents do drop kids off, “I make sure the kids know the ground rules,” Fiedler says. She also expects parents to pick up kids in a timely manner. “I’m not hired as a babysitter,” Fiedler stresses. “I’m there to teach kids how to ride.”
On the same note, parents should not drop their kids off at the barn and expect adult barn patrons to babysit, either, and the burden of watching kids shouldn’t fall on your adult boarders and clients.
Deerfield, with its team training program, allows kids in the barn without parents during the weekends, school holidays and summer vacation. But, by keeping kids busy with chores and responsibilities, Aron focuses their youthful energy in a positive way. The barn’s policy is that no one’s done until everyone is done. “I always have a thousand little jobs for them to do,” she says.
Rule 3: Get parents involved.
Fiedler feels it’s important to keep parents updated on their children’s progress in the saddle and in the barn. She also offers parents constructive criticism when problems arise and tries to keep communication about the kids positive.
“Parental involvement is great,” Fiedler says. “I like to talk to the parents and say, ‘Hey, these are the patterns I’m seeing in your child,’ or ‘She’s really improving in these ways and being responsible.’ And it’s neat when I hear from parents that the responsibilities the kids have in the barn have moved into other aspects of their lives.”
By communicating with parents, you can also maintain an ongoing dialog about how their children interact with other adults in the barn. And, if parents ever have concerns about how adults are treating their kids, they’ll feel comfortable discussing the issue with you.
Rule 4: Keep positive lines of communication open.
As a barn owner or manager, you’ll probably have to facilitate communication between the kids and adults in your barn. You may also need to encourage adults in the barn to listen to the kids and treat the youngsters with patience and respect. On the other hand, kids need to be mindful of all adults in the barn, not just you and their parents.
“Sometimes the kids don’t quite know how to address the adults,” Fiedler says. One end of the spectrum includes kids who lack respect for the adults. “And sometimes there are kids who get a little intimidated about being around adults,” Fiedler adds. “That’s when the barn owner or trainer needs to work as an intermediary.”
Deerfield’s barn policy, no matter if you’re a kid, a parent or an adult client, is to only talk about a problem in the barn with someone who can help solve that problem, which helps cut down on gossiping. It also squelches the flames of conflict before they become wildfires.
Rule 5: Post a schedule.
Many adult riders use their time in the barn as a chance to decompress after a long day of hard work at home or in the office. “It’s more of a social thing for the adults, and sometimes they just want to relax and enjoy the horses,” Fiedler says.
Kids, on the other hand, are usually active and full of energy. From
4-H and Pony Club meetings to mounted drill team practices, groups of kids can make even the biggest barn feel crowded. If your barn is home to any organized activities that take up room in the arena or barn aisle, post a schedule or close the barn during practices. Clients can then schedule around the activities.
Rule 6: Include everyone.
No matter their age, people like to have fun, so create opportunities to build camaraderie between all of the boarders and students in your barn. Invite kids and adults to participate in the same activities. “We just put on an in-house schooling show last month, and the coolest thing—in the jumping—was that everyone applauded and cheered after every single round and every single class,” says Fiedler. “Everybody, no matter their age, was supportive of everybody else.”
Deerfield’s training puts kids and adults of the same experience levels in lessons together, which helps build a team atmosphere and a mutual respect between riders of all ages. “The adults and kids are always coaching, supporting and helping each other,” Aron says.
Aron and Fiedler agree that this formula for keeping kids and adults content under the same roof isn’t always perfect. But with a little organization on your part, some mutual respect and a set of equal expectations, your adult and youth clients can coexist in harmony. Now, choosing a radio station in the barn they can all agree on—that’s the real challenge.