Make The Most Of Your Barn Help
by Nikki Alvin-Smith
Whether you run a horse business or a small private backyard, finding good employees to help with the daily duties of horse care, training and lessons is always a difficult task. Some horse owners freely admit that their ‘horse resources’ acumen is better than their ‘human resources’ acumen. Actually good management of both takes similar talent and is easier to achieve than you might think. Here are some few tips to help you along the way:
Select Staff Carefully
In the words of leading entrepreneur and the U.S. Shark Tank TV Show’s legendary panelist Barbara Corcoran,
“When you have chemistry with a potential hire, they will most likely become a great employee.”
This is a good way to narrow down your selection of a new hire.
Consider also that the job you need doing will most likely require certain skill sets. Some of which can be trained and some of which may be innate. When you make a good choice the first time around, there is a much better chance that the person will stay and do well under your tutelage. As Corcoran also explains,
“Don’t teach talent that isn’t there.”
It is a fact of life that if you hire people to work for you, at some point you are also going to have to fire people that work for you. But try to minimize the staff turnover as much as possible by checking all job references, spending time with the prospective employee to get to know them and do a thorough job of explaining the job requirement in a realistic manner so you can gauge their reaction.
During my career as an advanced rider/clinician/coach I’ve often wondered why it is that folks will go to the end of the earth to select the perfect horse to purchase for themselves, yet when it comes to who they will share their horse time with, who will take care of the beast as the designated groom, barn help or exercise rider, they rush into the final choice without due diligence.
If like many horse owners, your equine partners are part of the family, you should probably care very much about who is around them on a daily basis, how well they are going to care for them and ensure the help is an honest and reliable individual with integrity.
Probation periods are an option when employing an individual, much like a horse coming home on trial, and they provide a valuable opportunity to assess the ‘fit’ and suitability of your selection. Be aware however, that just as many folks won’t allow their good horses out on trial before buying, prospective staff that have already earned a good reputation and have the required talent to do the job, often won’t agree to probationary periods of hire.
Harmonious and Safe Environment
Regardless of the level of training or instruction services at your facility, it’s imperative that all regular occupants and visitors to the property feel safe and secure when on the grounds. This is especially true for staff that will toil long hours doing sometimes arduous and possibly even dangerous work on your behalf.
The aisleways of the barn should be clear of obstacles with emergency release crossties, and be designed wide enough that horse and human can safely navigate the space. Outside, the fences and gates to pastures should be in good repair, heavy traffic area such as entrances to barns and paddocks properly surfaced to avoid seasonal mud and ice issues. A clean yard is a safe yard. Equipment that might cause injury to horse or human should always be stored out of key work zones.
Fire safety is always a major concern at a horse facility. Exit signs, no smoking rules and properly charged fire extinguishers should always be clearly evident throughout the barn ( especially both ends of a center aisle), or indoor riding space. Emergency evacuation plans for hurricanes, floods, mudslides and fire should always be posted and emergency numbers on hand.
Barn rules should also be clearly posted, as well as labor law notices that pertain to the business that are a requirement for operation of the entity.
Ensure you provide employees with a safe location to store their personal belongings when on site, and a place to relax in comfort during their breaks (these breaks should be given as the law requires). A break room or space that is heated in winter and cool in summer with a few simple provisions such as a coffee pot and a fridge with bottles of water will help refresh your staff throughout the day.
Training Protocols Matter
It’s not much help having great ideas in your head if you don’t communicate them to your staff. However brilliant a new employee may be, they are not in my experience, mindreaders.
Don’t throw your staff in at the deep end and expect them to just ‘get on with it.’
We all have our particular ways and preferred methods of doing things, and taking the time to properly explain how and when you want tasks performed is key to minimizing the time you need to spend supervising the employee.
In the same way you ease a new horse into your regimen, be fair-minded and do the same for your new employee. Make any changes slowly, and ensure that the staff member fully understands the requirements of the duty at hand and has the necessary equipment, be it tools, reliable working UTV/ATV or tractor, or specialist clothing, to do the job without risk of injury and with full confidence.
You wouldn’t ask a green OTTB to jump an oxer or a just ‘broke’ horse to compete in a 50-mile endurance ride. Don’t ask your help to take on more than they are trained to do and have the ability to successfully accomplish.
It is essential that the employee knows their job inside out and is confident in their ability to complete all the facets involved. For example, if you have a feisty Warmblood stallion in the yard that requires adept horsemanship skills to handle, do not ask your newbie inexperienced equestrian employee to take on the job i.e. set your staff member up for success.
Ensure that there is a time schedule available for rotational staff shifts if they apply, and that the daily chore list is ticked off with the time it was completed and initialed by the person that handled it. This will minimize the time you need to spend wondering where in the schedule your help is currently working, what needs doing and even being able to locate them if they are out of range of cell service and you have a large farm.
A blackboard or similar highly visible signage at the barn entrance can alert employees to special needs that might have arisen during their absence such as a horse showing signs of colic or lameness or additional duties that need to be prioritized.
A sign with horse feed times and amounts, and turn out schedules for the horse should be posted on the stall door, given each horse enjoys it’s own particular stable (include the name of any equine companion the horse should or should not be pastured together with and any special paddock selection needs e.g. for stallions or mares/foals). This information can save time and mistakes administering feed, supplements, hay types and quantities, and address leg wrapping or medical needs that may be pertinent. If the barn has an allocated feed room these feed notes can be duplicated there too, adding an important double check system in busy barns.
All bridles, saddles and halters should be tagged to indicate the horse’s name to avoid errors tacking up. This will save wasting time refitting halters and equipment each time a horse is handled.
Hopefully each horse enjoys the important benefit of its own saddle that has been professionally fitted for its individual needs, a bridle and bit that fit and that work best for the particular horse and an appropriate halter that won’t pull off over its head if it gets fractious or excited during turnout and it pulls back from the handler.
Time and Pay
It is often difficult to manage the budget when running a horse business, but investing in your staff is a key area not to be overlooked.
Training your employees takes time and effort, and even if they aren’t learning on the job, you don’t want them to be unable to dedicate the necessary time and effort to your work because they have to run between multiple employment places in order to earn a decent living.
When determining the pay scale, it is not fair to expect ‘free’ help after hours for no additional pay. Extra payment for overtime does not have to be monetary, it can be a training lesson or paid clinic riding slot, or extra time off. Whatever the hours, the pay and the terms of employment should always be in writing. Then make sure you stick to them.
As Richard Branson, Founder of the world renowned Virgin Group among other successful businesses would say,
“Train people well enough that they can leave, treat them well enough that they don’t want to.”
That’s great advice I can attest it works.
But also remember Barbara Corcoran’s quote too, ““Money is not the only thing that motivates employees. It’s about making them happy.”
I think we can all relate to that message.
Before You Criticize
The first step in good team management is to take responsibility if the fault or problem lies with you. For example, if you never instructed your groom on how to correctly fit and take both on and off a double bridle on a horse, don’t just leave it to them to figure out. Compare it to asking a horse that has never been off the farm, to walk up on a stranger’s tiny horse trailer and settle quietly for the ride. It might happen and the result might be O.K. but it also may not. Why take the chance? Training is important in both cases to ensure a successful outcome.
If you determine that the error or fault lies with the employee, than always sandwich your criticism. That is praise them for doing something right, then explain what task they need to improve their skill set doing and then praise them for trying hard or doing their best and let them know you are there for them if they need help.
Show respect for your staff at all times. Another fabulous Branson quote, “ Respect is how you treat everyone, not just those you want to impress.”
Biggest One of All – Show Appreciation
Incentivize your employee to work harder and stay keen at the job by offering a bonus for extra effort. In horse idioms, the carrot and the stick philosophy works to some degree, but just as with most horses, people are also reward driven. In any case ‘the carrot’ is the kindest and fairest method to utilize because it builds trust. A pat on the back, a verbal reward or even praise you dish out about an employee in their earshot to a respected industry colleague, can go much further than the ‘stick,’ a threat of some sort such as firing them if they don’t improve.
Most people want to work at a job that they enjoy, where they are treated with respect and where they have prospects for promotion and a larger paycheck or job training opportunity. Provide that!
Always remember that trust is build through transparency and leadership. Set the tone and actions in the barn through setting a good example that your staff can mirror.
Remember horses behave by imitating others too. A horse that is acting up sets a poor example to others in the vicinity. It will inspire panic at worst and be a distraction at best. It’s a follow the leader mentality. Just as you would take an experienced horse and rider as a lead pair the first time you take a green horse out on the road or trail to show it how the job is supposed to be done, always aim to be that calm lead horse yourself and set a good behavior model.
Herd Mentality Applies to Staff
Always select your staff with an eye to how they will all get along. It is essential that everyone is aware of their pecking order or chain of command and follows it, including you! If you designate a Barn Manager then follow through on your delegation of duties and let them manage.
Don’t undermine their efforts and go behind their backs to discuss minor complaints directly with other staff, or interrupt their conversation with the hay delivery guy when he arrives and second-guess their instructions, especially in front of third parties.
In a horse herd there is a dominant member and a leader, and they are not the same individual. Which one are you? Or are you both? Hopefully you are the leader and your Manager is the dominant member.
Always show respect for your staff and take them aside at a quiet moment to address any issues that may arise.
In the event of discontent with one staff member, know that their grievances should always be listened to and remedied as soon as possible, and not left to fester and contaminate the work environment for everyone else. Open communication is very important in establishing good working relationships.
Take Home Message
We always learn best when we surround ourselves with others that have been successful at what we aim to do. Think of the gurus like Branson and Corcoran as your Olympic level clinicians and take their advice to train yourself to be a better employer. Most of us did not go to school to learn how best to manage staff or have a degree in Human Resources or Human Psychology, but by learning and following a few simple rules, we can make the life for everyone at the barn a whole lot better.
As one of my favorite dressage masters, Walter Zettl says about horses,
"Trust and respect are two-way streets. We want the horse to accept us as leaders of the herd, to guide them safely and to provide protection and comfort. In return, they will give us their respect, and willing submission to our ideas about what to do next, and when and where. But this respect can only be based on well deserved trust."
Zettl’s sage advice could aptly be applied to the management of staff too.
About the author: Nikki Alvin-Smith is a professional writer and PR/Marketing Specialist. Her works have been published in over 230 magazines worldwide. Nikki is a British international Grand Prix dressage trainer/clinician who has competed in Europe at the Grand Prix level earning scores of over 72%. Together with her husband Paul, who is also a Grand Prix rider, they operate Willowview Hill Farm, a private horse breeding/training farm in Stamford, NY. Please visit her website at https:/www.nikkialvinsmithstudio.com to learn more.