Tips for Schooling Students at Horse Shows

One of the most stressful responsibilities a riding instructor can undertake is schooling students at horse shows. It’s nothing like teaching riding lessons at home, and no matter how carefully you prepare there never seems to be enough time.

This is especially true when schooling lots of students at horse shows. You can only give a certain number of minutes to each student, and disasters always strike at the least opportune times.

So how do you go about schooling students at horse shows without losing your mind? Here are some tips I’ve picked up in my travels.

Ask for Volunteers

You might be the only person schooling students at horse shows, but you need helpers to keep things moving along without incident. Parents, siblings, students who aren’t competing, assistant riding instructors—all of these people make great volunteers.

Essentially, your helpers will act as gophers while you’re schooling students at horse shows. They will go back to the barn to grab forgotten gloves, pick up fallen rails in the warm-up arena, lunge over-excited horses, and generally make themselves useful. They are also great for coffee runs at five a.m. when you can’t leave the barn.

Hold Practice Shows

Schooling students at horse shows is stressful, and one of the main problems you’ll encounter is confused students. They don’t know where they’re supposed to be and they’re tugging on your sleeve every ten minutes to ask you another question. You get it, they’re nervous, but you’re on your last nerve.

The best way to combat this is by holding practice shows. Prepare your students beforehand so they’ll know what to expect. They will ask fewer questions and you won’t feel like you’re being pulled in three million different directions at once.

Map the Schedule

Every riding instructor has a different method of scheduling their schooling methods at horse shows, but you’ll need to pick a system that works. Don’t rely on the printed schedule you’re given at the start of the horse show because you’ll waste precious minutes wading through all the names and show numbers to find your students’.

Instead, write out a personalized schedule with all your students or highlight your students’ names on the printed schedule. Some riding instructors even pair a customized schedule with a map of the grounds, especially when you’ve got multiple arenas going at once.

Give the Babies Priority

Prioriitization is an important skill when schooling students at horse shows. The students for whom this is a first competition should rate highest on your list, with the veterans at the bottom. This doesn’t mean you should neglect your more-experienced students, but you’ve got to make sure the babies are taken care of.

I also recommend requiring that younger and less-experienced students come with a parent, guardian, or other adult supervisor. This way, they always have an adult around to help them get what they need.

I know that schooling students at horse shows can be stressful, but organization is key. Keep to your schedule, know your priorities, and try to have fun—remember, it’s supposed to be an enjoyable experience for you and your students!

Starting a Family-Owned Horse Business

Striking out on your own in the horse business might sound a bit too scary for contemplation, but what if you had a partner? Family-owned horse businesses fair extremely well because of the shared responsibility and creativity, but there are a few landmines you need to watch out for.

Unequal Footing

If you start a family-owned horse business with your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or children, the age difference alone will put you on unequal footing. The older among you has more experience and might therefore take an authoritarian approach.

Furthermore, family members of differing generations are often in different places financially. If you start a horse business with your Mom and Dad, for example, they might be investing more in the business from the outset and might therefore seek greater control over decisions.

Family Squabbles

I have yet to meet the perfect family, and I’m guessing yours ain’t it. This doesn’t mean you’re dysfunctional or doomed to failure, but it does mean keeping the family dynamic in mind as you start your horse business.

You are more likely to speak up in business matters than involve your family, and you are less likely to think before you speak and/or do. It’s important to keep your emotions in check because business is, after all, business.

Making It Work

There are several things you can do to make starting a family-owned horse business a successful venture.

First, you need to draw up a contract with your business partners that solidifies your ownership and interest in the business. This means recording your individual investments in start-up as well as your continual output in terms of keeping the business afloat.

Determine what percentage of the horse business belongs to each partner and how profits will be split. Give each partner a set of firm responsibilities that he or she must uphold.

And finally, create an exit strategy. You need to know what will happen if one partner decides he or she wants out as well as what happens if a partner passes away or is rendered incapable of running his or her end of the business.

The thing is, you can trust your family but you have to protect yourself. Small disputes become legal battles because no one bothered to put anything in writing, and that’s the last place you want to end up.

Should Riding Instructors Let Students Ride Outside Lessons?

Every so often a Riding Instructor University reader sends me a question about his or her horse business. Last week I received the following query from a riding instructor and horse business owner named Kiran, who hails from Minneapolis, MN:

I hope you have the time to answer this, Laura. I’m a riding instructor and I’ve got lots of great kids in our riding program. Many of them have expressed an interest in coming to the barn on non-lesson days to help out, but I know they expect to get to ride. Should I let my students ride outside their lessons? Thanks so much in advance!

One of your priorities as a riding instructor is to keep your school horses safe. This means, in part, making sure none of your lesson horses is over-worked in an attempt to keep your students happy.

When you say that your students want to ride outside lessons, I assume this means they will be hacking your school ponies. While this might be acceptable on special occasions, it can also lead to problems with the horses themselves.

Some riding instructors have thirty or forty school horses at their disposal, in which case it is unlucky any will be overworked. If you have plenty of inventory and you are there to supervise your students, I see no problem in letting them pick up rides on non-lesson days.

If, on the other hand, you only have eight or ten lesson horses, letting kids pick up extra rides might mean compromising other students who are taking lessons on that given day. Furthermore, the horses will be used more often than normal, which can lead to over-exertion.

There are also liability issues involved, not to mention potential scheduling problems if parents don’t pick up their kids on time. You run the risk of running a free (for the parents) daycare and losing valuable time in which you could be making money as a riding instructor.

Tread carefully in this situation and make sure to establish rules about kids riding horses outside of lessons. You might want to set a minimum age and receive parental consent in writing before you set up this kind of arrangement.

Good luck, Kiran, and to anyone else who might be struggling with this conundrum. And if you have a question about riding instruction or the horse business, don’t hesitate to write me and ask!

Riding Instructor Specialty

Some might say that riding instruction is a specialty unto itself. It’s a narrow subset of the horse business as a whole, and it requires a specific set of skills and strengths. However, in my experience, riding instructors thrive when they specialize even further.

A good friend of mine, for example, specializes in teaching very young children. She works miracles with three- and four-year-olds on horseback, and she enjoys a thriving business because of it. Most riding instructors won’t teach a child that young.

Another riding instructor I know specializes in fearful riders. She works with students who are scared of horses but want to overcome their fears, as well as students who have taken bad falls and want to get back in the saddle again.

Your riding instructor specialty could be related to a number of factors, including:

Demographics
Riding discipline(s)
Student goals (e.g., competition)
Specific obstacles (e.g., fear, disabilities)
Breed(s) of horse

The options are limitless, but this is not a situation where you should draw a specialty out of a hat. Riding instructors should specialize based on their strengths and gifts as teachers.

For instance, maybe you connect best with students who are visual learners. You like to demonstrate new concepts, draw diagrams, create graphs and charts, or engage in other visually-oriented teaching methods.

Or perhaps you speak a foreign language, so you cater to children and adults who speak that language.

Choosing a riding instructor specialty will set you apart from all the other riding instructors in your area. It will give you a brand, a presence, and you’ll be able to use that specialty to bring in more students.

Believe it or not, specialties widen client potential rather than narrowing it. If potential clients know that you’re the go-to riding instructor for fearful riders, for example, you’re the teacher they will seek out when they need such a professional.

What’s your riding instructor specialty?

Reward Riding Lesson Students with a Schooling Show

Riding lesson students work hard to learn all they can about riding and horsemanship, and many of them either can’t afford or have no desire to compete. A schooling show is an inexpensive, no-pressure way to reward riding lesson students for their loyalty and their hard work.

The great thing about a schooling show is that it’s completely informal. Your riding lesson students don’t have to dress in their finest competition gear and there is very little overhead for the horse business owner. It might be nice to purchase ribbons for all the winners, but you can just as easily make your own rosettes or print certificates on your computer.

Riding instructors can include typical classes in a schooling show, and even add fun classes that riding lesson students wouldn’t find at a typical horse show. Examples include barrels and poles, the keyhole race, ride-a-buck, Mother May I, and numerous other options. Use your imagination.

The important thing is to make a schooling show feel special. Include all of your riding lesson students who want to participate, let them invite their families and friends, and put no pressure on them to win. Schooling shows often involve ribbons or awards for everyone (e.g., honorable mention) or even silly awards at the end, such as Most Classes Entered or Funniest T-Shirt.

A schooling show is an opportunity for riding instructors to demonstrate their gratitude to students and their families. It’s a chance to let kids and adults show off what they’ve learned over the years and to participate in a fun barn activity that is different from their regularly scheduled riding lessons.

Introducing the Horse Business Glossary

For a while now, I’ve been kicking around different ideas for making your life easier. One of the projects that I finally got off the ground was the horse business glossary, which is an organized list of horse business and equine-related terms organized alphabetically.

The horse business glossary isn’t very big right now, but it’ll grow as time goes on. I could have waited until its competition to publish it live to RIU, but I figure it could help horse business owners even in its abbreviated state.

You will probably be familiar with most of the terms in the horse business glossary already, but I wanted to create a repository of terms that could be beneficial to beginners and veterans alike. It will cover everything from basic horsemanship terms to complicated business topics.

If you think of a term you want included in the horse business glossary, feel free to contact me with your suggestion(s). If I’m honest with myself, I know that it will never be complete—this is an ongoing project in which I will continue adding new terms as they come to me. Until then, enjoy.

How are You Training Your Horse Business Customers?

Every interaction between a horse business owner and his or her clients is an opportunity. You are communicating something about yourself and your business each time you send an e-mail or initiate a conversation over the water trough. And that information gets filed away in your client’s mind for future reference.

Think about the relationship between a horse and a horse trainer. When the trainer digs his spurs into the horse’s sides, he’s telling the horse that he’s unforgiving and cruel. When he gives up on a training session out of frustration, he’s communicating to the horse that he’ll let the animal win.

The horse learns about the trainer through every interaction, and over time will respond to the horse trainer in a certain way regardless of whether that trainer changes his tune. It takes a lot longer to re-train a horse or human than it does to train correctly in the first place.

Now apply that lesson to your customers in the horse business.

If you fail to fulfill promises you make to your clients, they learn you aren’t trustworthy.

If you suddenly raise your prices without any explanation, your clients will learn you are greedy and insensitive to their needs.

If you don’t take care of your horses or your property, customers will learn that you don’t care enough to put in the effort.

If you apply rules differently to certain customers, other clients will learn that you don’t care about them as much.
Imagine that you’re chatting with one of your clients at the barn, and out of the blue she tells an off-color joke that offends you. She may have never showed you that side of her personality in the past, but all of a sudden your impression of her is forever tainted by that one moment.

It’s the same in the other direction. Imagine when interacting with clients that every word, gesture, and behavior is filed away in their minds. Don’t do or say anything that you don’t want your clients to remember or apply to their overall feelings about you and your horse business.

You are training your clients to think about you a certain way. Make sure it’s favorable.

Horse Training at Someone Else’s Facility

Purchasing an equestrian facility—or buying land and building it yourself—is expensive. Too expensive, in fact, for most start-up equestrian professionals. Unless you’ve won the lottery or inherited a chunk of change from Great Aunt Mabel, you might have to pursue horse training at someone else’s facility.

This is not a bad thing. Lots of professional horse trainers work out of their clients’ facilities or rent space from another horse business owner. No big deal. But before you jump into this type of symbiotic relationship, you need to get the ground rules straight.

Grounds Fees

When you start a horse training business at someone else’s facility, the general rule is that you pay a grounds fee, which translates as a charge for using their property and amenities. The grounds fee is generally negotiated before you “move in.”

Equipment Rental

If you won’t be bringing your own saddles, bridles, bits, martingales, lunge lines, lunge whips, jumps, barrels and other equipment, you might need to pay for equipment rental for horse training at someone else’s facility. This can be structured per-use or per-month, or another arrangement entirely.

Shared Clients

In some cases, bringing in new horse training clients means that the person whose facility you are using benefits as well. For example, a client wants you to train her horse, so she boards at the facility where you work. In this case, grounds fees and equipment rentals might be reduced.

Facility Time

When you are horse training at someone else’s facility, you might have a specific block of time during which you are permitted to work. This might be during the day, for example, at a barn where the arenas are used primarily for riding lessons in the evenings. Keep this in mind for scheduling purposes.

Branding

The horse business owner whose facility you use for horse training might “lend” you his logo and other intellectual property for use in branding your business. Otherwise, you can develop your own brand to distinguish yourself as an autonomous equestrian professional. For example, some horse trainers create a barn name separate from the facility’s name for the purpose of branding. You own that brand, which means you can take it with you if you decide to move elsewhere.

Non-Compete Agreements

When you practice horse training at someone else’s facility, you might be asked to sign a non-compete agreement. This document will prevent you from offering horse training services at another facility within a certain radius. Keep in mind, however, that these agreements are frequently lop-sided in terms of benefits and sacrifices, so don’t sign until you’ve read it carefully. In fact, I recommend having an attorney glance at it first.

Liability

The last thing I want you to consider before you decide to start horse training at someone else’s facility is liability. What happens if one of your clients is hurt while you are working? What if you are hurt? Find out if the barn owner’s liability insurance policy will cover you and your clients. If not, you might need to purchase a separate policy.

Hiring Horse Business Employees Part Two—The Application Process

There are few things in the world more boring than poring through a collection of employee applications, but it must be done. If you want to hire the right professionals for your horse business, the application process is your first opportunity to find gems—and to weed out non-contenders.

Some horse business owners don’t bother with applications and go instead with an informal hiring process. While this might be easier and faster, you are neglecting a fundamental aspect of hiring new employees. There is a reason why applications and resumes are required for most jobs in the non-horse world.

So what do you look for in applications? What should an application look like? And how does this process go?

Preparing the Application

Make sure you have applications prepared before you even post an ad for new horse business employees. The phone calls, e-mails, and drop-ins will start much sooner than you expect, so get everything ready beforehand.

The application can be as simple or as detailed as you’d like. Get all the pertinent data (e.g., name, D.O.B. social security number, address, phone number) as well as information about the applicant’s history (e.g., previous work experience, educational background). The application gives you an at-a-glance view of each candidate so you can weed the Definitely-Nots from the pile.

Have your applications printed out on high-quality paper, with your horse business name and logo at the top. Ask candidates to print legibly in a clear, visible ink (blue or black) and to attach their resumes or CVs when appropriate.

Evaluating the Applications

Once you’ve amassed a healthy collection of applications, review them at your leisure. Make three piles: one for possibilities, one you’ll discard, and one to file away for future openings or other positions. And be careful about discarding too many applications; you’re looking for people who definitely do not meet the requirements for the position. You can’t get the whole picture from an app.

Taking the Next Step

Once you’ve got a “maybe” pile of applications, call up each of those candidates and set up an interview. Let each one know that you are interested in his or her skills, and request any further information you might need to supplement your decision (e.g. resume).

Hiring Horse Business Employees

Most of us have been on one side of the interview process—in the chair across from the hiring manager—but sitting in the other chair is a whole different ball game. Interviewing potential horse business employees might sound like a cakewalk, but you must treat this process as more than a formality.

You’ve already perused the candidate’s application or resume, but now you have to meet with him or her face-to-face. This is not only an opportunity to evaluate the applicant, but also to see how you might work together.

Make no mistake: Interviews are two-sided. You are interviewing the candidate while he or she interviews you.

I’ve already given you sample interview questions in past articles, so now I want to focus on the purpose and mission of the interview. What do you hope to accomplish? And how can you best serve your horse business as well as the candidate?

Let’s start with some truths:

Truth #1: Interviewees Lie to Get Jobs

Not all, certainly, but some job applicants will tell you what they think you want to hear. They might exaggerate their experience or claim awards or certifications they never actually received. This is a serious problem for the horse business owner because an applicant’s omission or lie can lead to safety hazards.

This means that horse business owners must rely on two things during an interview: 1) Facts they can verify later; and 2) Intuition. The first is easy to identify, while the second takes experience and confidence.

Look for subtle tells that might indicate an interviewee is lying, such as fidgeting with his hands or over-qualifying a statement. But most important, listen to what your gut is telling you. Are you comfortable with this person? Do you trust him or her?

Later, you can research the applicant if you think he or she might be a good fit. This might mean checking references or contacting organizations from which he or she might have received certification or awards.

Truth #2: The Interview is About the Applicant, Too

This means that you need to decide if the candidate is a good fit for the position and if the position will effectively utilize the candidate’s strengths.

You don’t want to hire an over-qualified professional for an entry-level position in which he or she might grow frustrated. This leads to high turnover in the horse business, which is never a good thing.

Determine whether the candidate will be a good fit for the culture and atmosphere at your barn. Will he fit in with other employees? Can you see her thriving in this position?

Make sure the job description and title are clear to the applicant. Go over his or her main responsibilities and invite questions after every segment of the interview. Don’t make your decision based exclusively on what you want from the candidate; think as well about what the candidate will expect from you.

Truth #3: Interviewers Lie to Attract Employees

Yes, there are two sides to the coin. If you expect honesty from the equestrian professionals you interview, it is extremely important that you offer that same honesty in return.

This means giving him or her the facts regarding the job. Don’t embellish benefits or try to make the position more attractive than it really is. The applicant will find out you lied and will probably quit anyway.

Be completely truthful about compensation, working conditions, responsibilities, and benefits. Don’t hold back any of the details and don’t give the candidate the wrong impression. This will come back to bite you.

Truth #4: There is No Right Way to Conduct an Interview

Every horse business owner has a different interview style, which is perfectly fine. You’ll find your rhythm and grow more comfortable with this process as time goes on.

If you prefer an informal interview, meet in a place where you are comfortable, such as the barn office or rec area. If you don’t like to take notes during interviews, leave the pen and notepad in your drawer.

There are no right answers, as you’ll soon discover, and interviews are most successful when both parties are themselves. Try not to over-think it or your nervousness will impede the interview process.