Monday, January 20, 2014

Entrepreneurship: Riding a Lion

Starting and running a business; "It's like a man riding a lion. People think, 'This guy's brave.' And he's thinking, 'How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?"

A fantastic article by Inc. Magazine goes into the complexities of entrepreneurship and the behind the scenes of starting a business. Basically, in essence it describes my life, the challenges, the obstacles, and why I do what I do.

I am invited to a lot of career days at schools - perhaps with the hope that I'll encourage kids who want to work with animals, specifically horses. The first thing I always emphasize, however, is that they need to be educated, they need to choose a field to work in, and perhaps they want to have a stable career working for someone else. 

Be careful what you wish for, and understand what you're getting into if you really want to run your own business. You can always have a barn at your house but are you sure that you want to run it as a business? A barn and a business are two very different things, very different beasts. 

I wouldn't trade my business for anything. A) I have too much in it at this point: equity, work, lost relationships, missed opportunities, hopes and dreams. B) I really do love what I am doing, meeting the people who ride my horses, and overall I really do love my horses (even if the business side sometimes makes me forget why I do what I do, the horses work hard to remind me). But that said, it takes a particular brand of stupid to do what I do. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Those who don't own barns, board

Boarding: it's an inevitability of the horse industry. It's complicated, frustrating, exasperating, and tedious (for both the barn owner and the horse owner) while at the same time rewarding, educational and a source of financial security for barns and feasible horse ownership for those without land. 

I have worked with a large number of boarders in the past both at this barn and others and every one of them has taught me many lessons. These lessons are all informative whether they were taught by the peaceful boarders that have been with me for years and will most likely be with me for years to come; or from the more argumentative boarders with whom I could not see eye to eye. 

Community and Rhythm

A saying I will overuse in this post is "to the beat of your own drum." My definition of this is that when people march to the beat of their own drum, they do things the way they want without taking others (horses, humans and community) into consideration.

The biggest benefit of any barn is the community. The community of horses, staff, other boarder, students, volunteers, and the network of acquaintances and relationships that the stable has with other barns and trainers. To succeed and be happy at any barn the trick is to get in with "the flow of the barn" and to take advantage of the community that surrounds you and your horse. As a result, it's incredibly important that you choose a barn with the same rhythm, personality, goals and schedule as your own. Because even something small can make the difference between inclusion of your horse or you in the community: different schedule, adherence to alternate training program ideologies, use of different supplies, etc. And let's also just be honest: people actually have to like you too. In essence: ostracize and fail. 

Beyond that, it is important to realize that barns cannot provide consistency if you go to the beat of your own drum. If you feed your own horse at different times than the rest of the horses, demand that your horse goes on a different turnout schedule than the other horses, ride your horse irregularly or in spurts, or do anything different than the rest of the barn then there is no way for barn staff to maintain a level of consistency. Barns run on one schedule and it's not just to be cost effective and efficient: it's to keep the horses as a herd.

When we as barn owners say we will treat your horse like our own, what we mean is that we will treat them just like our own horses; no better, no worse - just like our horses. That means that before you board at a facility you need to look at the other horses already living there. Look at their lives and see if you want your horse's life to be like the other horses in the facility. This is important because while you want a community, your horse is going to want to be included in a community too. What choosing a facility doesn't mean is that you can have your horse at a barn and expect or do something different than what is being provided to the other horses. Because, like I said, we are going to treat your horses like our own. No different. No worse. No better.

Don't expect us to be a part of the training of your horse if you do things your own way. If your horse on a different schedule, doing different things and working with you differently, how are we supposed to train your horse is a part of our normal routine? And by training I don't mean riding and doing finesse work; what I mean are those normal behaviors in the barn that should be expected by any horse. Manners. We cannot train your horse to walk patiently to their stall if you let them run over you. We cannot train your horse to tie and stand patiently if you refuse to tie them yourself. We cannot teach them to behave calmly with the other horses if you continually act as though the other horses are monsters when you are around your horse. And we cannot teach your horse to respect personal space if you are always allowing your horse to go through your pockets to get treats.

Boarding vs. Owning a Barn

When you board you are in essence giving up some decisions about your horse and facilities used to maintain them. Similar to renting an apartment or home instead of buying a condo or house, you give up some key control on how things are maintained. You don't get to decide what plumber comes to fix the leak in the toilet. You don't get to decide what color the house is painted. You may not have control over how the lawn is cut. And you don't get to choose what maintenance schedule is followed. However, what you do get is a lifted burden of responsibility, because in the end it is the owner of the facility that is liable, responsible and stuck with the repercussions as they arise. 

Boarding is similar: you don't get to mandate a schedule, when and what is prioritized, what contractors are connected to the maintenance of the horses, who the barn employs, or the supplies and supply chain used by the stables. And if you don't like what you are getting you should leave the barn, not negotiate and definitely not push barn staff into corners with your demands.

Furthermore, in essence what boarders receive is not just the services, but the ability to piggyback off of investments, work, successes and in the case of barns most definitely the sweat and blood of others. Farms and stables are not cheap, not easy to start, barely easier to inherit, and require a substantial amount of infrastructure to maintain and run. 

Owning a stable is not just about buying hay, grain, and bedding, feeding horses, shoveling manure, monitoring horse self-destructiveness and filling water troughs. 

Owning a stables is: buying exorbitant amounts of land, maintaining old wood barn structures or building entire new facilities, building fences (or worse, inheriting fences), monitoring fence permeability, patching fences, planting grass seed, mowing lawns, weed whacking fence lines, replacing broken boards, fixing leaky hoses, breaking ice, cleaning water troughs, securing supply chains, sometimes growing your own hay but definitely loading and unloading by hand tons and tons of hay, bedding and grain, orchestrating manure management (this one surprised me on importance and difficulty level!), replacing light-bulbs, chasing barn swallows, insect management, parasite management, cleaning spider webs, paying mortgages, paying taxes, paying utilities, endlessly fixing tractors, maintaining trailers, maintaining trucks, buying lots and lots of fuel, leather-work and tack maintenance, attending farrier and vet appointments, dispensing medicine and applying medical treatments, memorizing horse records, developing and enforcing feed and cleaning schedule, and more.

And then for public barns there is also: calculating and paying sales taxes, securing insurance (not as easy to find as car insurance, by the way, especially in NY!), documenting everything for insurance purposes, sending invoices, collecting dues, accounting (logging payments, receipts, expenses, payroll), coordinating employees, hiring and firing employees, training new employees, maintaining a lesson, training, and trail riding schedule, keeping up to date on equine law practices, updating websites, maintaining social media, networking, advertising, writing contracts, logging liability waivers, securing a bathroom or porta potty, updating client records, and correspondence, correspondence, correspondence...

And before all of this happens you need to somehow be able to buy: land, barn, fencing, tractor, lawn mower, horse trailer, truck, water troughs, buckets, feed dishes, feed scoops, hay racks, hoses, lots and lots of storage, extensive amount of hand and power tools, shovels, pitch forks, wheelbarrows, vet first aid supplies, halters, lead ropes, saddles, bridles,... oh yeah, and horses. 


The boarders that I have had the most problems with have all been the same type of people. They are those who selected my barn for the following reasons: location, convenience, price, or continuity from our lesson program. With each one, there was a stark clash between expectations and our barn culture and community. Probably not ironically, every single one has also been a "wheeler and dealer." What I mean by this is that each asked for specific additional services or for things to be done a specific way (their way) AND also asked for additional discounts at the same time, trying to get the most bang for their buck. I can't blame them for trying and many of their requests were not logically unreasonable; however, the routines desired often conflicted with the existing barn experience already in place at our facility. This friction then creates an omnipresent tension that then becomes expressed through people avoiding one another, staff avoiding working with a specific horse to avoid or dissuade more tension, individuals doing spiteful mundane acts, horses not getting along with the herd because of differing treatment and routines, etc. and the relationship falls apart.

The boarders who have had the most success are those who selected my barn on purpose. What this means is that they chose my barn not because of location, openings and availability, or facilities, but selection with a full understanding of our culture, our services and what they get for their horses with us for the money. As a result, these boarders have woven in and out of our community, engaging our company but mostly spending the quiet and peaceful time with their horses that they desire without concern over details and with confidence in the future. 

The key to boarding a horse or having horses boarded at your facility is the following acknowledgement: not every barn is good for every horse owner, and not every horse or horse owner is good for a barn. Luckily, there are lots of barns.

The Tack Up Stranger

Why don't we allow our trail riders to help tack up their horses before rides?

Well, a little bit because people get in our way, but mostly because horses really don't like getting dressed by strangers. Despite what it may seem, tacking up is actually a quite intimate experience for a horse and requires a great deal of specificity, routine and trust. So, while it might seem like a good bonding moment for the human, it can actually be very emotionally difficult for horses to be continually readied by strangers. 

It is already difficult enough on our horses to have so many of our students preparing them for lessons. Adding non-regular riders to the routine would just make their lives that much more difficult and can lead to bad behaviors as horses exhibit their feelings of personal invasion. So, while we appreciate your help getting ready, we like the safety and happiness of you and the horses more. 

That said, our horses do appreciate affectionate petting and grooming from their riders after their ride, once they get to know you!!