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  1. #1
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    Default What makes a successful lesson program or riding school?

    Please educate me! In your experience, what constellation of things makes a successful lesson program or riding school? I'm particularly interested in what qualities or behaviors in an instructor (or instructor + other) you have seen in successful programs.

    Demand and good lesson horses are a must, of course.

    Have you ever seen someone try to start a lesson program and fail? Why do you think they failed?

    I have seen several arrangements between instructors and other parties at work. In the one I am most familiar with, the riding school was one part of a larger business. This allowed for the riding school to have access to great facilities (two indoors, for example) and to take on quality retired show horses as new school horses, but also allowed the trainers of competitive riders and horses access to new clients.

    However, I was never privy to the inner financial workings of this system, which is why I am especially interested in hearing about... um, successful financial behaviors

    TIA
    Disclaimer: My mom told me that people might look at my name and think I had an addiction other than horses. I don't; his name was Bravado.



  2. #2
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    Please define "successful". Do you mean in a business sense, or do you mean producing good horsemen with excellent riding skills?

    You can do one without doing the other!



  3. #3
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    Run it like a business...have a business plan and follow it. Keep your accounting on QuickBooks so you can keep track of who paid for what/when. Have your policies for cancellations, make-ups etc available and clearly stated.

    Consider offering basic lessons through your county parks and recreation program. It will feed a steady stream of new riders and some of them will move into your regular lesson program. Be prepared to offer lessons when there is demand -- weekends, late afternoons, evenings.

    Instructors need to be able to teach the level required. If teaching first time riders, the instructor must be very patient. We identify speciific goals for our lessons so that our instructors are uniformly teaching the same skills at each level.

    Personally, having a lesson program with other services such as boarding, training, and sales can work well. You have to be very organized.

    I have witnessed one thriving lesson business fail and attribute it entirely to the poor business judgment of the owner. He ended his county rec affiliation thereby reducing his pipeline of students, he lost checks regularly and did not have a handle on his make-up schedule, and the barn was disorganized. He was renting and eventually he pissed off his landlord so much that they declined to renew his lease......the owner was rude, arrogant and ruined an absolute goldmine.
    Where Norwegian Fjords Rule
    http://www.ironwood-farm.com



  4. #4
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    In my experience, the best barns are those OWNED by the trainer. That way, there is no drama about stealing clients, or suddenly leaving etc etc. I've ridden at two such barns (and many others that didn't have that set up) and those two had the best "culture" -- an atmosphere of friendliness.

    Beyond that you need good instruction -- a talented teacher, who can read people as well as horses. For example, my trainer can be unbelievably tough on some kids and back right off of others, depending on what is going on, and works, with that particular kid.



  5. #5
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    Default

    Financially, some of it is luck, but they say luck can come through good planning too.
    You need enough lesson horses, or access to enough horses, that you can rotate them out of the program if they should become injured. I know of lesson programs that bute to use and I think that is setting a bad example for the clients as well as leading to eventual ulcers or further injury and complete loss of use of the horse.

    You need to have good organizational skills, you need to return calls for new students promptly and have an assessment lesson for new students.

    My first trainer used to sit down at the end of the day and go through her book and assign all her lessons - so the 5PM group lesson would have Sally on Blackie, Suzie on Brownie etc, and there was always an assistant or working student to help out or go to the instructor in the event a horse turned up without a shoe or lame from the field, where they'd pick from the suitable extra horses. They also had a ton of tack so if two horses used the same odd bit it was never an issue.

    She took payment at the end of every lesson and would settle accounts in the book daily if you paid in cash. She spent at least an hour with her assistant every day going over this stuff, which horse is useable, what tack was damaged or what grooming tools got mislaid, how long till the next horseshow, we need to put up the sign up sheet and if so an so goes she needs to work on this or that.

    I don't know if she had bad payers or what exactly she did with them, whether she cut them off or created a payment plan or let them rack up big bills forever. When I dealt with her she was always very clear about where we stood bill-wise.

    Right now my trainer is a one-woman business so she moves my lesson time around a fair amount. I go before work so it isn't usually a big deal to change days, but since she let her outside instructor go partly for shuffling lessons around too much at the last minute/cancelling for personal emergencies, I'd suggest that a stable lesson schedule is a good thing.

    Make sure you have a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. I was just telling a friend about my very first riding lesson ever, where I, a Western rider went to an English barn as a kid and the other kids helped me feel even stupider than I already felt. Needless to say I never went back and the barn lost a potential client. You aren't running an exclusive club where only the best/rich/whatever can play. Maybe once you get into the upper levels you can pick and choose your clients, but for a beginner program you are going to get everybody.
    Courageous Weenie Eventer Wannabe
    Incredible Invisible



  6. #6
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    Jan. 29, 2003
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    For a riding school, get an instructor that is NICE. You'll have much more business with an average instructor that knows all the kids' names than a super knowledgeable teacher that isn't approachable.

    The kids that want to continue on & actually do something with their riding can be taught by another instructor but if they don't have the tenacity in the first place; a demanding teacher will be the end of them. Lots of kids (& parents) just want their one hour pony ride a week so don't make it too challenging or it won't be fun. Therefore, an instructor that is a stickler for the "right way" is probably not the best bet for your once-a-weekers. Ask me how I know this

    School horses usually have about 4 years of "service" in them. We have one, god bless him, that has lasted and will last forever but he's a bugger. They have to be a little ignorant to withstand the grind - it's hard work for the poor souls. When we start to notice a horse having less tolerance, he gets rehomed to a one-person situation & we find another to replace him.

    As far as finances go; we had the most luck with charging for blocks of lessons - usually in 3 month increments. People are more likely to show up when they've handed over a chunk of money.
    \"Don\'t go throwing effort after foolishness\" >>>Spur, Man From Snowy River



  7. #7
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    Default

    Thank you all so much for these incredibly thoughtful replies. Here are some follow-up questions:

    How have you seen people deal with those who don't pay?

    Has anyone ever seen or personally excused a student because they could not teach that person for some reason? Whether it was that they felt the chemistry wasn't right between teacher and student, or the student could not ride (or handle horses) safely, or some other reason...
    Disclaimer: My mom told me that people might look at my name and think I had an addiction other than horses. I don't; his name was Bravado.



  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by ReSomething View Post
    Make sure you have a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. I was just telling a friend about my very first riding lesson ever, where I, a Western rider went to an English barn as a kid and the other kids helped me feel even stupider than I already felt. Needless to say I never went back and the barn lost a potential client. You aren't running an exclusive club where only the best/rich/whatever can play. Maybe once you get into the upper levels you can pick and choose your clients, but for a beginner program you are going to get everybody.
    Does anyone have any thoughts on why people have this experience?

    I had been thinking about my own experience as a lesson kid, and how desperate I was to spend time at the barn. So I was thinking of arrangements that some barns might have to help wannabe barn rats "earn their time." But I don't think that being a babysitting service, whether the kids earn it or not, is a selling feature for a riding school. Because really, a crowd of 12-15 year old kids who are anxious to show off their knowledge is hardly a good welcoming committee. Anyone ever seen this arrangement work out to everyone's mutual benefit?
    Disclaimer: My mom told me that people might look at my name and think I had an addiction other than horses. I don't; his name was Bravado.



  9. #9
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    Yes, my trainer's barn has a crew of working students ages 13 - 18. They do a lot of the work -- she has a system down pat. They have time sheets, and are assigned shifts -- basically it is just like an after school job. The barn manager oversees all of it. They start out mucking stalls, filling water buckets and tossing hay; as they get older and the trainer knows how responsible they are (they all have to be responsible to some degree!) they help the little kids tack up and get ready for their lesson . . . if they've been in this system for four or five years, by the end they are giving little kids pony rides and helping with the summer camp.

    They do this to work off their bill; many don't have their own horse but take lessons. My trainer also has a bunch of her personal horses that she "free leases" to the really keen really responsible teenagers, so they work hard and have really, really nice horses to ride (these are often horses that evented at high levels but have stepped down).

    The atmosphere at the barn is great, not because or in spite of the teenagers, but because the trainer/owner has good values -- she tries to make it work. If she sees someone really wanting to ride, and willing to work, she'll make it happen. Recently when money was tight for me, she gave me free lessons on a horse I used to lease, because as she said, the horse needed exercise anyway, and either I rode the horse, or she'd have to pay a working student to do so (the owner was broke, so couldn't pay for exercise rides). And I pulled a mane or two on the school horses in return.

    This kind of barn attracts a certain kind of person -- it does not attract the spoiled, want-the-horse-handed-to-them before the lesson kind of person.



  10. #10
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    Default

    Quote Originally Posted by BravAddict View Post
    . . . Because really, a crowd of 12-15 year old kids who are anxious to show off their knowledge is hardly a good welcoming committee. . .
    But if they are anxious to show off what they know in a polite, friendly and helpful manner they're an asset, and that attitude has to be drilled into them by the trainer. In my case it would have been the BO, as these were probably boarder kids and they chose to laugh at the new kid who couldn't hold the reins right or post or get her horse to canter, or figure out where under that big flap was the cinch. And called a girth a cinch to boot.

    My current trainer has one or two ws, of the lesson kid variety, any time she can get them and they know very well what their duties are and how they are to behave towards other lesson kids and adult clients. They are learning how to work and be professional. They have to be around 13 before she will take them on.
    Courageous Weenie Eventer Wannabe
    Incredible Invisible



  11. #11
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    Oct. 24, 2010
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    Default

    I've made it a policy to offer working student positions to 12 - 20 yr olds -- who were taking a weekly lesson, but wanted to really ride / and show. For the most part, this has worked out extremely well for our farm. I teach them the whole spectrum -- from tack cleaning, feeding, picking stalls, grooming.... they have to show me that they will do these things before I add in more riding time. A very large percentage of ws really work out great for us. They end up being much better equestrians than if they only took the "weekly" group lessons that they can "afford". Often I end up hiring them for camp, or boarders will pay them for a variety of things. The "kids" who stick around and do the work are invariably very pleasant to be around, and I tell them early on that I do not "do" barn drama. (And the few who didn't believe me .... ride elsewhere now)



  12. #12
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    Feb. 27, 2008
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    I was one of the barn rats when I was a kid.. at 2 barns! haha I kept my then 3 horses at a walking horse breeding barn and took lessons at a HJ/eventing barn. When I couldn't afford lessons anymore, my trainer told me I could work for it. I think that is the best program available. If I ever grow to be big enough and have students interested in more ride time, I would def like a program like this involved in my facility. I think kids who have to work for it learn better.
    *Paige*
    ~*It's not about the ribbons, but about the ride behind it"
    R.I.P. Teddy O'Connor



  13. #13
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    Can't think of too many sucessful programs that have exsisting clients-snotty kids apparently-running off potential new sources of income from new clients. Good programs don't tolerate that and stop it immediately of they discover it.

    Also, don't think letting kids work off lessons is that big a cog in the wheel of a successful teaching barn. It's nice, IF the barn can afford to support it. And IF the barn is geared towards younger riders...not going to attract working adults or real serious younger riders who are going to be paying cash and do not have the time or desire to work off lessons. Not going to sound nice but I really do not care for a pack of 12 to 16 year olds "running" any barn. Don't think any of the more serious riders who have more money to spend do either.

    I DO think one of the key components is to allow riders to move up as they advance in ability and have appropriate lesson levels and school horses to support that. I see many beginner level barns stuck in that beginner rut go bust because there is no advancement. Once they learn to post, get the leads and go over a crossrail? They are stuck there.

    Oh, non payment? They don't get any more product until they pay for what they have already used. I know, it's not the kids fault...but that does not feed that school horse or pay the rent. Extending too much credit, not enforcing a payment and/or make up policy and letting too many kids work off the costs have put many barns in the red.

    There are at least 3 beginner level barns around here that did just that now out of business-everybody there loved them but too few paid-and there was no advancement available. So they turned into glorified, free, day care for the summer and on weekends then filed for bankruptcy when there were fewer clients with the economy.

    It's called getting a business plan and following it.
    When opportunity knocks it's wearing overalls and looks like work.

    The horse world. Two people. Three opinions.



  14. #14
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    I think a lot of that depends on your area. In a heavily populated area you can specialize; in a rural area you need to diversify.

    I'm in a more rural area. To be successful here, you need to offer several disciplines (2 successful barns I can think of have multiple instructors...one has h/j, eventing and dressage instructors - one is the barn manager and the other 2 teach out of there on a contractual basis. Other barn has an english and a western program).

    -Opportunities to show even if it is just local or even in-barn. Most people do have a competetive nature to some extent, and shows can be a financial boon if done properly (i.e, you can get entry fees, stall fees, horse rental fees, coaching fees, etc, but you need to get a decent judge for a good price and lots of volunteer help).

    -Offerring things like trail riding, boarding, birthday parties, etc. can be a hassle but will also supplement your income, and may draw in customers for the lesson portion of your program. Obviously don't overextend yourself. If birthday parties aren't your niche or you don't have safe and reliable ponies to pull it off, it will do more harm than good.

    -Camps scheduled for school breaks can be a good source of income and a way to recruit riders, but set it up to avoid being a daycare facility.

    -Flexibility is probably the biggest key. Once you get a student in, help him or her identify and set goals, and help them PROGRESS. Stagnating in a lesson program is the best way to lose students. Learn how to push and inspire without scaring. Keep exercises and lessons fresh and new. If you can give a lesson on autopilot, time to re-evaluate. Whether their goal is trail riding safely solo or showing on a rated circuit, be sure you can meet their needs before you promise anything, but develop a plan and work on it.

    -A good price list is imperative. You don't go to a restaurant and find a menu without prices (well, not typically!), or worse yet, no menu. Don't leave your customers guessing as to what services are available and what they cost. Also don't be afraid to package things. A package of lessons. A show package. Camp package. Mother-daugher or sibling packages. Etc.

    -If you employ working students, again be clear about expectations and requirements. Set up a chart. Mucking x number of stalls = a lesson. Cleaning x number of saddles/bridles = a lesson. I think if you have a good junior rider than can help keep horses exercised/tuned up, that can be a good arrangement. IMHO, they should not be teaching or telling people what to do. Letting them ride with some supervision can be a good use of a talented rider's skills, and they won't be putting anyone off if they have an abrasive attitude. If you use them in lessons, say as a sidewalker for a beginner or to help a young rider who needs supervision grooming and tacking up, make sure you instruct them on what to do and what not to do (i.e., don't do everything for them, be positive and encouraging). Teens are tricky...some have great attitudes and are a huge help, some are toxic. Keep the toxic ones in situations where they can't cause issues (i.e., control who they are interacting with).

    -A very clear payment up front program is key. Most people don't have time to waste obtaining uncollectible judgments in a civil court.

    One of the more financially successful barns in the area doesn't turn out the best riders, but the gal offers services that her customers want, and she has found ways to keep costs way down, which in her area is what works. The key is knowing your customer base, identifying what they want, and giving them what they need.

    I've often thought that a barn could draw in a huge population of young-middle aged women who used to ride, and want to get back into it or need help with confidence issues. This group has the money to take lessons too, which is a definite plus.



  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by SMF11 View Post
    This kind of barn attracts a certain kind of person -- it does not attract the spoiled, want-the-horse-handed-to-them before the lesson kind of person.
    That is an unfortunate attitude making alot of assumptions about full service options...especially when those options rake in the cash that pays the mortgage. Not to mention the working Adult who has more to spend but less time to spend it.

    It's nice some trainers are in a financial position to offer free leases and allow kids to do minor chores to work off lessons and keep the payroll at a minimum. However, that is not something loan officers look at and it does not pay the feed bill.

    These things need to be in addition to a well thought out business plan, not instead of a steady income stream.
    When opportunity knocks it's wearing overalls and looks like work.

    The horse world. Two people. Three opinions.



  16. #16
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    Quote Originally Posted by findeight View Post
    That is an unfortunate attitude making alot of assumptions about full service options...especially when those options rake in the cash that pays the mortgage..
    Sorry, my point of view is based on my experience, which is that around here many many people ride because "it is the thing to do" not because they like riding or horses. And yes, I do have some judgment about that

    In fact, my trainer's barn is very financially solvent; I can think of more than one trainer who offers the kind of "full service" who bounces checks all over town. So, no I don't think that kind of full service is necessarily a better business model.



  17. #17
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    Never said it should be the ONLY option or that there were not bad business practices by some of those either.
    But you will attract more clients if you offer several options and charge accordingly.

    And, again, THREE long time lower level barns have gone bust around these parts in just the last year...the kids loved them, they offered mainly work off lessons, offered no other more full service options and could not move anybody up-and they went belly up.

    The best way is a la carte pricing for boarders and lesson packages with firm make up policies for lesson clients. Those barns last and retain clients the best IME.
    When opportunity knocks it's wearing overalls and looks like work.

    The horse world. Two people. Three opinions.



  18. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by meaty ogre View Post

    I've often thought that a barn could draw in a huge population of young-middle aged women who used to ride, and want to get back into it or need help with confidence issues. This group has the money to take lessons too, which is a definite plus.
    Yes! I don't understand why more barns aren't taking advantage of this demographic...it's an absolute goldmine. Middle-aged women who used to ride and now are established enough in their career to have a flexible schedule and some extra disposable income and/or have kids who are grown or old enough to not need constant supervision.

    I'm one of these...I owned horses/showed extensively, as a junior, got an instructors license and taught during college summers and then took nearly 30 years off from horses. At age 48, I suddenly got a hankering to get involved again and have been taking lessons and 1/2 leasing a horse for six months now.

    This demographic has money to spend and experience, rusty though it is. I needed a 10 minute refresher on grooming/tack, etc...mostly on what has changed over time and then was independent and didn't need help or supervision to get into the ring for a lesson, so low overhead in staff time compared to a first time beginner.

    I think the key to attracting these ladies is having nice, solid citizen, lesson horses. Women who were riding Medal/Maclay/Junior Hunters/Jumpers, etc...years ago are not going to be happy with an ugly, small or unathletic school horse, yet, due to age and time off, confidence is a big issue. No greenies or hot horses! Having a handful of nice, semi-retired, show horses around would attract this demographic. An instructor who is sensitive to the amount of fear of getting hurt that older riders bring to the table and who has some tools to help with that. Also, regular, organized social events where they can talk horses with other middle-aged women...monthly dinner or drink get togethers (not paid for by BO, but organized) would attract these folks too.
    Last edited by Canaqua; Jan. 28, 2011 at 07:26 PM. Reason: typo



  19. #19
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    Safety, well mannered, well cared for horses, knowledgable instructors who are also nice people, a fun, positive atmosphere.



  20. #20
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    Quote Originally Posted by Canaqua View Post
    Yes! I don't understand why more barns aren't taking advantage of this demographic...it's an absolute goldmine. Middle-aged women who used to ride and now are established enough in their career to have a flexible schedule and some extra disposable income and/or have kids who are grown or old enough to not need constant supervision.
    I'm not even middle-aged (yet, though I guess it depends how you define it) and I'd go for a barn like that over one that catered primarily to kids. My needs (as a re-rider) are different than the needs of a total beginner kid - I probably don't need as much in the way of 'this is how you steer' (at least, I hope not!) but I probably have fear/confidence issues that a lot of kids won't have. (Plus there's the whole thing of dealing with the fact that something you remember being really good at is now difficult again, because you're out of practice and out of shape for it.)

    Also, I do have some concern that as an adult lesson rider (rather than boarder) in a barn with a high population of kids, I'd end up in a sort of position of babysitter-by-default if I was one of the few adults around, and I just don't want that responsibility. (Which, you know, technically I could say it's little Suzie's parents' job to make sure she doesn't get kicked by Bob because she's pulling his tail, but personally, I really couldn't let something like that go on without saying something. So I'd rather not be in an environment where that kind of situation is likely to come up.)

    I don't know how much I'd participate in barn-related social events - it would probably depend a lot on the people and the location of the barn and so on - but it would certainly be nice to have the option. (And if there were events that were a sort of combined social/educational event, like maybe getting an equine nutrition specialist in for an informal lecture/q&a session, I'd be there with bells on.)



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