Here are 15 lessons I learned that make a horse business profitable.
1. Purchase winter hay well in advance.
Hay prices are cheapest in summer, and steadily rise throughout fall and winter. Buy and store hay in summer or early fall when hay prices are at their lowest. Buy directly from farmers rather than feed stores to get the cheapest prices. If you can transport it yourself, you will save even more.
2. Have your boarders provide their own feed concentrate. If you provide feed concentrate instead, store it in lockable bins.
Boarding facilities should always provide quality forage (hay) for the horses they board. But feed concentrate (grain) is another story. Unless you need to provide feed concentrate in order to remain competitive with other facilities, consider requiring boarders to provide their own feed for their horses, along with trashcans or tack lockers in which to store the feed. These can be placed in front of the horse's stall. If you provide grain instead, buy quality feed concentrate in bulk and store it in lockable bins that only you and your staff can unlock. If you don't, boarders will help themselves freely, your feed costs will skyrocket, and your barn will experience alarming rates of colic or laminitis. Here is a type of lockable feed bin I recommend.
Lockable Storage Bin
3. Weigh your hay and feed—don't guess.
Weigh your hay flakes to get an idea of how much they weigh, on average. Then feed the number of flakes each horse needs based on weight. The average adult horse in light or moderate exercise needs about 20% of his body weight in forage. For a 1,000 lb horse, that means 20 lbs of hay. If your hay flakes weigh about 4 lbs, that means 5 flakes daily, divided into 2-3 feedings. A pet scale like the one shown below works great.
If you provide feed concentrate, obtain a measuring scoop that is specific to the brand of feed you're providing. Your feed store or the feed manufacturer should have them. Then measure out the exact amount each horse requires. Or buy plastic pitchers or measuring cups, measure out grain in pound increments, and mark the pitchers with a permanent marker showing the levels for 1 lb, 2 lbs, and 3 lbs. Throw out that coffee can or generic quart-sized measuring scoop. You will save money in the long run.
Pet scale weighs items from 0 to 30 lbs
4. Don't skimp on pasture care.
Turnout is essential—not optional—for a horse's physical and mental health. But horses will graze your pastures down to dry lot unless you know how to take care of them. Divide your pasture into lots and rotate grazing so that any one area doesn't get over grazed. Learn how to mow harrow, seed, irrigate, fertilize, and control weeds, or hire someone to do this for you. It will pay off in the long run.
5. Spread or sell your composted horse manure
Composted horse manure is “black gold” to gardeners and farmers. It takes about 4-6 weeks to turn horse manure into sellable compost. During that time, the heat generated from the decomposing process will rise high enough to kill off any harmful parasites, worms, or pathogens. Then spread it on your pasture or sell it to local plant nurseries or farmers. Here is a 5-minute instructional video showing how to compost horse manure.
If composting sounds like too much work, you can spread manure on your pasture and save on commercial fertilizer cost. But beware! Fresh manure may be loaded with parasites that can make your pasture unsafe for grazing, or it may contain seeds that will sow unwanted plants. Also, if you spread shavings along with the manure, you will simply kill your pasture. Wood absorbs nitrogen so the grass can't utilize it. Wood shavings are best used as mulch to kill weeds.
Pig farmers will take your stall waste—manure, shavings, and all! We worked out an arrangement with a local pig farmer to remove our manure pile biweekly. That kept our property looking great and greatly reduced the fly population as well.
6. Rent your facility
Local trainers frequently need arenas in which to train their horses and to give lessons. Work out an arrangement for them to use your arena in exchange for a reasonable fee, such as 25% or 30% of their lesson and training fees. Be sure to have them include you on their professional insurance, and to have them and their students sign a hold harmless agreement. If they injure a horse or student while using your facility, you may get sued.
7. Charge for exercising, longeing, grooming, braiding, body-clipping, and other services
Horse owners frequently have the best intentions about keeping their horses exercised and well groomed. Then the reality of working and taking care of their families sets in, and they just want to ride their horses when they find time to come to the barn. By offering these services, you can generate additional income streams for your business. Here are two clippers and a longeing system that I recommend.
8. Sell items imprinted with your barn logo.
Have your barn name imprinted on t-shirts, baseball caps, tote bags, and other barn apparel and accessories. It's easy to design a logo for your facility using free online software, such as Canva. There are numerous on-line vendors who will imprint items from whom you can buy in bulk with deep discounts. Walmart has an entire site devoted to imprinting logos on various items. Or you can work out a deal with a local print shop. Then offer the items for sale to your boarders. If you add their horse's name to the item, it will make even more desirable and special. Not only will this provide another income stream, it will help develop loyalty and a sense of community among your boarders.
9. Lease your horses or barter training.
If you board your own horses at your facility, consider offering a half-lease to experienced riders. This brings in extra income, gives your horse(s) more exercise, and (if the rider is proficient) raises your horse' training level. It is also possible to offer working students the opportunity to ride your horse(s) in exchange for stall cleaning or other work around the barn.
10. Invest in stall mats.
Yes, they're pricey in the short run, but they will save you mega bucks in the long run because you will use far fewer shavings or other bedding. They also make the stalls more hygienic for your horse and for stall cleaners. The better brands also ease pressure on a horse's joints and hooves for your horse’s comfort and the sake of his joint health.
11. Use fly parasites rather than wasting money on fly spray systems.
We've used these for decades. They just look like tiny flies themselves, but they destroy fly larvae and tend to congregate around your manure pile rather than around people or horses.
12. Do NOT offer partial board services.
It seems like an easy way to save money, time, and effort—simply let the boarders clean their own horses' stalls and maybe even feed them. Except that the boarders will begin to think of themselves as co-owners of your facility, so expect power struggles. If you do choose to do this, make sure that they provide their own bedding, hay, and feed. Otherwise, they will use excessive amounts of all three and drive you to bankruptcy.
13. Check all water fixtures and hoses for leaks.
Don't rely on boarders or staff to let you know when there is a leak. Wasted water means wasted money to the water utility or excessive wear and tear on your well pump.
14. Choose the right bookkeeping system for your horse business.
How do you know you're using the right one? Easy: You're not spending entire days invoicing, making payments to vendors and trainers, and entering board checks. You're also not paying a fortune to someone else to generate tax statements. Some popular software systems are Horsebills, BarnManager, PaddockPro, and EquineGenie. If DYI isn't your thing, you can hire a part-time bookkeeper or contract with a bookkeeping service to handle all that financial stuff for you.
15. Keep your boarders by improving your people skills—or hire someone who has better social skills than you to be barn manager.
The fastest way to lose money is to drive boarders away—intentionally or unintentionally—by having poor "people skills." Not only will you lose the boarders you have, but word will get around and you will lose potential boarders as well.
To keep your barn as full as possible, ensure that the person who interacts the most with your boarders is someone with excellent people skills who "fits in" with the boarders. If you have terrific people skills, great! You're all set. If you don't have great people skills, you will need to rely on someone (a barn manager) who does. BUT (and this is crucially important) that person must also believe their first loyalty is to you—the business owner.
If that option doesn't work for you, then I offer this advice: Remember that horse owners are very emotionally attached to their horses, just as you are to yours. That attachment makes them feel very anxious about their horse's care. When people feel anxious, they try to seize control in order to reduce their anxiety. Some will try to control the people around them in order to reduce their anxiety. Others will try to control the situation by sneaking behind your back or forming alliances with your staff or other boarders in order to get what they think is proper care of their horse.
The best way to deal with other people's anxiety is to offer reassurance. Listen to what they are trying to tell you. You might learn something new. But in the end, if you decide the way you are caring for their horse is the best, than avoid saying, "This is how we do it. Take it or leave it." Instead, consider saying, "We have/had a horse in the barn who has/had the same issues your horse does/did. This is what we did and it worked great. Trust us." You might also add, "This is what we did on the advice of…" then mention an expert—a trusted trainer, veterinarian, or other horse expert. Keep in mind that reducing anxiety is your goal because that is how to get cooperation.
Copyright Denise Cummins, PhD March 28, 2018
The Thinking Equestrian
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