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Vetting and Working with Boarders

Getting a good set of boarders at your barn is not only good for you, it's good for them. But what constitutes a good boarder? While each barn owner may have some slightly different opinions, you're sure to agree on most of them.

Be Fair
If you want good boarders, you need to provide a good barn. You also need to be fair with your rules and flexibility. If you provide quality horse care and an inviting, well-maintained barn, you're far more likely to have long-term happy boarders that pay their boards and other fees on time. That said, here are some things to think about to help you choose good boarders.

Reliable Fee Payment
For starters, you want boarders that are going to pay their monthly fees on time. But that's hard to judge just talking to someone. If they drive a jalopy that's falling apart, it may just mean they don't put their money into vehicles, or it may mean they're funding their horse addiction on a shoestring. It doesn't mean they won't make payments, but you may have to work with them. The flipside is the individual driving a recent-year, high-priced vehicle. Everything about them from their car to their tack may say "success", but that still doesn't mean they're reliable payers or that they can even afford the car and tack they have. The safest way to protect yourself is to use a reasonable contract that clearly stipulates when each monthly fee is due and a clause that allows you to take possession of their horse if they don't pay or work out alternate arrangements with you by some certain time after which they're in arrears.

Horse Size
As important as getting paid on time each month is to you, it's not the only issue to vet. For example, how big is the boarder's horse? If it's a large draft breed, do you have one or more available stalls that are large enough? It's not fair nor healthy for a horse to be forced to live in too small a space. Not all barns can accommodate very large horses.

Prospective Boarder's Personality
What can you tell about the prospective boarder's personality? Does he/she seem friendly? Or are they arrogant and full of themselves? If the latter, will such an individual upset an otherwise smooth running barn or is this person just more of the same? To be honest, I've been to barns that have lots of egotistical riders and competitors, and they seem to each go their own way and the barn survives ok. But if you own a facility at which the boarders often interact, ride together, establish friendships at the barn, and become part of a family, you and they may be more sensitive to a new boarder who may upset that balance. Of course, everyone has their little idiosyncrasies and bad days, and you can't reject someone just because they occasionally get into a bad mood. But a few individuals seem to have trouble getting along with most anyone and you may be better off avoiding such an individual.

Prospective Boarder's Treatment of Horses
While a boarder owns his/her own horse, many of us will find it difficult to watch their interaction if it varies greatly from our own philosophy. I remember watching a guy that treated his horse in ways I felt were too harsh — I found it very difficult, wanted to rescue his horse, and wanted to correct his behavior in ways not generally deemed acceptable. He didn't beat his horse, but he did yell at him in frustration and it didn't sit well with me or others in the barn. If you're speaking with a prospective boarder and it becomes obvious that the way they treat horses is radically different from the way you and other boarders feel they should be treated, it will likely be uncomfortable to have them board at your barn. In such cases, it's better to let them find another place.

Setting Honest Expectations
Let's say you're having trouble paying expenses and have some empty stalls. Then a prospect approaches wanting to board at your barn, but she really wants a large paddock in which to practice cavaletti or badly wants a barn with an indoor arena. You don't have such a facility, but in order to secure this boarder (and her money), you're tempted to mention that you're planning to add one. If this is true, it's ok as long you truly expect to follow through in a reasonable timeframe. But if you know that finances won't permit implementing such a dream for at least a few years, you should send this boarder to look elsewhere because you're going to lose credibility when she sees nothing happening after some time has gone by. Once you lose credibility, that boarder will share her frustration with other boarders and you'll soon have a less happy and trusting barn. You may be tempted to conclude that she's just a bad apple and poisoned the other boarders, but the truth will be that you essentially lied to her and it really will have been your fault. If you tell her the truth, yes, she'll likely go elsewhere. But she's just one boarder and at least your other boarders will be happy and not feeling you've made unfulfilled promises. Just as you expect them to be good to their word and pay monthly fees on time, they expect you to make promised improvements and expansions in reasonableamounts of time — don't succumb to the temptation of promising something you know you can't or won't provide in a reasonable timeframe.

Special Needs
Does the potential boarder's horse have any special needs? Could you and your barn provide for those needs? If a horse requires special care due to his age or a physical condition, you may find that you'll be expected to provide some of that care. The prospective boarder may offer you an additional payment to be paid monthly if you'll take on this additional responsibility. But before you say yes and accept that appealing money, you must realize that you're also taking on the additional responsibility for that horse's care. So you need to ask some questions and be honest with yourself:

  1. Do you have the time to do so?
  2. Does this horse require special feed or medications?
  3. Does their administration require special skills or special knowledge to adjust such feed or medication?
  4. Do you have the required expertise?
Essentially, you need to honestly assess whether this a medical condition requiring special knowledge or skills to care for this animal and whether or not you AND ALL STAFF COVERING FOR YOU, has the required knowledge and skills. If you (or your staff in your absence) is not qualified or comfortable with these requirements, this may be a prospective boarder upon which you should pass regardless of the additional monies being offered. Because if you accept the deal and the horse's condition worsens or he dies, and it can be proven that you or your staff made mistakes that could be legally construed as "negligence", you could be held liable, even if your contract has wording meant to except you from such liability. Courts will sometimes decide a contract section is invalid if it contradicts federal or state law or normal business covenants. That can especially be the case when one party accepts payments to provide a service to some standards and that party can be found to have failed to do so. And a horse the worsened or died under your care in such a situation will certainly not make a very good impression on the other boarders — don't take on what you can't handle

Barn Rules
You should have some basic rules for your barn. Some barns have excessive requirements and you don't want to go overboard, but a few basic rules are good. An example of a good basic rule to consider is that no boarders should be allowed to visit the barn or their horse's (even in pasture) between certain hours of the day, such as from 9:00 pm to 6:00 am without explicit permission from you. Such a rule assures there is "quiet time" in the barn and turnout so that all horses can have some peace and quiet to sleep each day. Of course, you can make an exception for a responsible boarder trying to support their horse through a foaling or a bout of colic regardless of the hour.

Limit the number of rules you establish. There shouldn't be a long list and your boarders shouldn't have trouble remembering your barn rules. Too many rules will frustrate them and make them feel that boarding at your barn is a real pain. If you keep your rules simple, fair, and reasonable, your boarders will follow them willingly because they'll know the rules benefit everyone and their horses.

Use a Boarding Contract
A contract helps preserve your legal rights and it protects you against undue liability. And believe it or not, a good contract is also reasonable to the boarder. Avoid contracts that protect all manner of your assets and liability and do nothing for the boarder. Such agreements can start a relationship off badly by implying that you care only about yourself and no one else. Savvy negotiators know that agreements that require appropriate compromises and responsibilities from both parties make for a much more trusting, happy, and long-term relationship. Boarding contracts will be the subject of a future article.)

Of course, the best way is to consult an equine attorney as to the boarding contract and to address lien and payment issues. The Horse Girl and I often make this recommendation — it's not because we're trying to get her more business — it's because it makes good business and liability sense in protecting your assets. The laws in each state vary as to these matters and without correct drafting of the wording by an equine attorney familiar with the laws of your particular state, a contract and its legal protections may not hold up when you need it most.

In Summary
Like most things in life, interviewing, vetting, and accepting new boarders requires a little knowledge and a large dose of common sense. Most horse farm/ranch owners are in this business for the love of it as well as an expectation of some reasonable payment for services. You can't let either be the only driving factor or you'll go out of business or get yourself into trouble. But a little forethought and common sense can make all the difference in having a friendly, happy, smooth-running barn.

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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