The economic downturn may have you scrambling to devise ways to turn your love of horses and interest in the industry into a money-making enterprise. Adding boarding services could be a great solution if you lay the groundwork carefully. But boarding horses is a business, whether you have one boarder or 10. And as with any business, there are organizational, legal, and contractual issues that you need to resolve before you throw your doors open.
Among other considerations, you need to assess how your proposed boarding business will affect you-other than bringing in extra money. Do you have the time and energy to add more hours of horse care to your weekly responsibilities? Are you an organized person who'll keep accurate records and stay on top of billing your clients? Do you look forward to other horse owners sharing your barn and facilities? Will your horse enjoy having other horse buddies around? If the answers to these questions are "yes," then read on!
Know local ordinances. Many states all across the country stipulate a ratio of acreage per horse for equine facilities. In addition, the ordinances themselves may even limit the number of boarders you may have. The amount or type of property you own-rather than the available number of stalls in your barn-may be the limiting factor in how many boarders you can legally take on. Talk with your county land use department before you do anything else.
Also, county ordinances may define how close to your property line you can build riding arenas, horse shelters, and other amenities. If you imagine a round pen close to your turnout pen, it's best to know what the regulations are before your plans outpace what's possible.
Determine your goals. If you're going into the horse-boarding business, you need to make sure it'll be profitable. What is the minimum amount you need to earn to make the business worthwhile?
Figuring this out can be a lengthy process. Some of the costs of doing business won't be apparent until you've done some research and analysis. Your calculations should include what your area's market rates are for boarding; how much it will cost you to provide a safe, legal boarding facility; and how many boarders you can reasonably accommodate to ensure you're making a profit.
Figure out prices. You don't want to over- or under-price your boarding rates, so it's a good idea to find out what other boarding facilities in your area charge, and what are the typical fees for feeding only versus extra services like deworming, blanketing, turnout, and so on.
Don your "Sherlock Holmes" hat, and do some sleuthing! Call other boarding facilities in the area and ask them their rates, as if you're a potential customer. There are several online advertising services-such as craigslist.com, localhorse.com, horse-talk.com, localequineservices.com, and newhorse.com-that may list boarding facilities in your area. Other ways to find out what local barns charge is to look in the local newspaper's or farm publication's classifieds section, check out the bulletin board at your local feed store, or call boarding facilities listed in your area's yellow pages.
Cooperative Boarding or Exchange Labor
With horse care costs rising and incomes sinking, many horse owners and boarding facilities are looking for ways to reduce costs. Cooperative boarding or exchange labor may be the answer for small- to medium-sized boarding businesses.
Boarders are responsible for upkeep chores, such as mucking out stalls, feeding, and turnout, in exchange for discounted boarding rates.
You determine which chores the boarders can be responsible for. Mucking out the stalls and changing the bedding might be reasonable chores to begin with. If boarders want more ways to defray costs, you can expand the list of daily or weekly chores they can take on.
Assess a value for each chore, based on the hourly rate you'd charge if you (or a hired hand) had to do the work. Each boarder's fee will be based on how many chores he or she has done each month, deducted from whatever the full board rate is. Make sure that exchange laborers know that if they don't do their agreed-upon chores, you (or a hired hand) will do the labor and their boarding fee will reflect that cost.
Make the assigned chore routine, so that it becomes a habit: If Jen mucks out stalls every Wednesday morning, she won't forget from one week to another.
Have an easy way for your boarders to log the chores they complete every week, and use that as the "ultimate authority" if disputes come up. If a boarder didn't fill in the log, he or she may not get credit for doing the chore when monthly fees are calculated.
If your boarders are responsible for helping out with barn chores, that should be in their boarding contract, along with the value of each assigned chore.
To avoid resentment or unintentionally creating a two-tier system at your barn, you may want to advertise your business as a cooperative barn and only take in boarders who will do chores, rather than have some boarders who do and some who don't.
Assess insurance coverage. Most homeowner policies don't cover commercial enterprises run from the home, so you'll need to purchase additional insurance to protect yourself from potential liability issues. To be on the safe side, consider a commercial equine liability insurance policy that is written specifically for your boarding business. Yes, it'll increase your overhead, but the cost of insurance can be factored into your boarders' monthly charges.
Full-service versus co-op. Assess how many hours you can afford to spend on your boarding business, including monthly billing and buying supplies. Then estimate how much time it will take to muck out all the stalls daily; water and feed all the horses; turn them out; blanket them; etc.
You may decide to do all the labor yourself, or hire some help, or have boarders pitch in (see the sidebar on cooperative boarding). No matter which scenario you choose, spell it out in writing and specify what each service will cost-make it part of the boarding contract.
Create a boarding contract. Boarding contracts protect both you and your boarders by laying out the terms of what you'll provide, what the boarders' responsibilities are, and when payments are due. Hiring a lawyer to draw up your boarding contract is money well spent, because a good lawyer should help you think about "what ifs" that you might not otherwise consider. What if a boarder stops paying her fees? What if a boarder's horse colics and dies? A well-written contract should provide solutions to these sorts of scenarios.
Evaluate your facility. Make sure that your barn, paddocks, fencing, and gates are all in tip-top condition. Maintaining your facility will reduce your liability should an accident occur. And a well-kept barn will translate into happy boarders who are willing to pay for a clean and safe facility.
Maintenance will be ongoing, so you'll need to identify who will be responsible for upkeep. Can you do it yourself, or will you need to pay a handyman (or woman) to do the work for you?
Plan pasture management. Managing your pastures is a crucial component for a boarding facility. Increased numbers of horses in your pastures translates into increased soil erosion and the very real potential for overgrazing. Not only is this bad for your property, but it's bad for business. Nobody wants their horses eating poor-quality grass. Savvy planning means talking with your county extension agency to design a rotation-grazing scheme that's effective and simple to follow.
Organize manure disposal. You'll also need to find ways to dispose of the increased amounts of manure and urine-soaked bedding your business will generate. A horse produces about 50 pounds of manure daily, which equals about 350 pounds of manure per week. Multiply that by the number of horses you'll board, and you've got the potential for a lot of smelly, fly-enticing stuff that will soon overwhelm your capacity to store or use it. If you live out in the country, you may be able to compost the manure on site without causing complaints from your neighbors. But it's likely that-either now or later-you'll need to find a recycling operation that will haul the waste away periodically.
Manure hauling sometimes is a service performed by landscape companies or sand and gravel companies; sometimes it's done by companies that specialize in hauling manure. You'll have to search the Internet, ask around at local feed suppliers, check with your horse-keeping neighbors, and make many phone calls to find local solutions and compare prices.
Provide bathroom facilities. If your barn doesn't have toilet facilities, you may want to lease a portable toilet or build an outhouse rather than inviting boarders into your house to use your bathroom. Add this cost (and its periodic clean-out) to the budget for your business and to the boarders' fee.
Create a secure tack room. Lastly, your boarders need a safe place to store tack. If all the tack will be in one room, make sure the space is organized and labeled so that tack doesn't "wander." Better yet, if you have room to provide individual lockable storage compartments, your boarders might never squabble over missing gear and supplements! Make sure that the outside door to the tack room can be locked for security.
Opening your barn to boarders could be a wonderful way to turn your avocation into a profitable business. If you see it as a labor of love, rather than just a solution to hard times, it may be the right choice for you.