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February 3, 2010

Barn Manners: A Communication Quandary

Question: I have a boarder who won't talk to me when she has questions or concerns; instead she leaves notes on the board. Several times, she has indicated annoyance that her horse didn’t have hay. The vet put her horse on thyroid meds, and as a result he's dropped some weight and looks good. But now, if the owner comes to the barn early, she puts half a bale of hay out in his run-in shed and outside. Most of it is wasted. 

A few nights ago, it was nice out, so I locked her horse (along with my five) out from under the run-in shed. All were blanketed and had access to a new 1000 roll of hay. She wrote me another note on the board, angry that her horse was left outside. I have called and left messages with her mother and on her home phone. I can't fix what I don't know is wrong. She does not take suggestions well (such as your saddle is 1 - 2 inches too short for you) or advice from the farrier. What should I do?

Answer:

You have one problem: communication.

Call the boarder (and her mother if appropriate) and ask them to come to the barn at a certain day and time for a meeting. If you have to leave a message say, “I’d like to set up a time for us to chat. I have some questions regarding your horse’s feeding schedule. Can you meet with me Thursday at 4 p.m.? Please let me know. Thanks!” Keep calling, leaving the same polite message until you get an answer.

Have the meeting in a private place, not in the tack room where people are coming in and out. You’re going to need to be as diplomatic and polite as possible, and there can be no hint of annoyance or disrespect in your voice or facial expression. (Believe me, it’s there, even if you think it isn’t!) Tell the boarder that you sense from the notes she’s left that she’s unhappy with the care her horse is receiving. Say that you are really glad to have the opportunity to sit down and talk about her concerns. This kind of situation really can’t be resolved over the phone or email. Then ask her to tell you about her concerns. And then, stop talking. This is much harder than it sounds. Let her talk. Say nothing until she is finished. Really, do not speak. Zip it. Pinch your lips shut if you must. And remind yourself to remain Dalai Lama-calm throughout the meeting no matter what. If you raise your voice or express anger, you won’t get anywhere.

Really listen to what she says. If there are points she brings up that you can address, do so. If she asks why the horse had limited hay outside say, “It was my understanding from the vet that she should be limited to two flakes of hay outside, so that’s what we’ve been doing.” And then give her a chance to respond.

More often than not, a calm face-to-face conversation can clear up this kind of difficulty. If she has specific requests that are easy for you to provide, do so.

I would avoid giving this person any advice outside of your responsibilities as the barn manager. Advice regarding her saddle, etc., is obviously not welcome, so don’t go there. Unsolicited advice is one of the top complaints of horse people everywhere, and it’s an easy way for a negative situation to escalate. It’s also easy enough to fix. Just close your mouth.

Finally, some good organization can prevent this from happening in the future. Do you have a contract for boarders that spells out how you care for the horses? If not, you need to write one. It doesn’t have to be long or wordy. But it should include information such as:

  • Approximate times and how often horses are fed, hayed and watered.
  • Turnout availability and schedules.
  • Under what circumstances horses are left out overnight and how that decision is made.
  • A general statement that a veterinarian’s recommendations regarding feed and turnout are followed.

Disagreements and misunderstandings are most likely to occur when either side has unrealistic expectations. When you spell out your practices and policies, there’s less room for misinterpretation.

Check out the free sample contracts from Stable Wise. You can use their Sample Boarding Agreement 1 and easily customize it to fit your needs. 

Establishing a boarding contract sets you up nicely to deal with this kind of problem in the future. It may seem like a lot of work, but believe me, it will save you aggravation down the road.

Elizabeth Howell grew up riding on the hunter/jumper circuit in Massachusetts. Now she is a horse show mom. She holds a day job at The Emily Post Institute and slings horse manure on the weekends.  Her web site is www.sheridesIpay.com.

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