Lesson barn or boarding/training barn? Any/all advice appreciated!!!
Hopefully I will provide enough details to reasonably explain the fork in the road...
I have a small facility with 5 stalls, a good outdoor arena, round-pen, and a couple of turnouts. I started a lesson barn roughly 5 years ago, and now, depending on the season, I have between 35-50 students and a handful of wonderful lesson horses. NO boarding as we are inside city limits and 5 horses is the max.
I am the only employee, BM, BO, and instructor, although I have a large "working student" program of about 10 teenagers who help with assisting students and stall cleaning.
In the beginning, all of my students were beginners. As the program has evolved, I now have several students showing and are ready to buy their own horses, and step up from the schoolies. BUT, I cannot offer them boarding, and both boarding and lesson barns, decent ones, are far and few between in my general area, and I would be the only one in city limits.
I am debating about closing down the lesson program and turning the business into a board/training facility. The pros/cons I see:
My expenses would, as far as I can tell, stay the same. But, by switching to boarding/training, based on research of what I can charge, the profits would be 50% greater than what is coming in now. Plus, I would no longer be responsible for the upkeep of 5 of my own horses.
But, if a lesson student quits, it isn't a huge dent to my income and their spot is easily filled. If a boarding student quits, that would hurt a lot more and would be harder to replace.
Board fees would be the same, every month, but lessons can be low and slow some months, especially in the winter.
I have put a huge amount of effort and money into my lesson horse string, all of which were project horses, and am not ashamed to admit I am very attached to all of them. A couple could easily be sold to students, but the others would most likely be sold outside the barn. The idea of replacing them in the future, if I change my mind again, is very depressing.
Only a fraction of the students would continue riding elsewhere. The number one reason students transfer to me is because of my reputation for safety/had bad experiences at their barn. Most of my working students would not be able to ride at all if they weren't able to work off their lessons, and be within walking/biking distance of the barn, and I hate the thought of turning them away for more financially lucky boarders.
The idea of working strictly with 5 students, hopefully several days a week, on their own horses, is attractive. While my own hours would stay the same, I might be able to (gasp) have two "days off" a week rather than one (most weeks), and would make enough to hire someone to come in those days to at least do the stall cleaning.
I have thought about boarding a couple and keeping a couple of lesson horses, but as many students as there are, and as much demand as there is for lessons, I don't know how I could turn away so many students because I no longer have time or a lesson horse for them, in a fair manner. It feels like it should be cut and dry, one way or the other, and there is a huge demand for boarding that transversely, I don't know how I would choose which clients could board.
I'm sorry this went so long! This would be a huge change and any input/experience that I should be aware of is greatly appreciated.
That is indeed a dilemma. I have no answers perse but I do think it is neat that you have a thriving lesson program and are filling a large need of horse crazy kids that would never get to ride at all or spend time with horses.
That said, it may not be as lucrative or "simple" of having to manage just 5 paying boarder clients. The 5 paying boarders though can turn on you on a dime though - just remember! Seems the more you do for someone, the more they think nothing of leaving for "greener" pastures. Also, you may find that you are just as busy with going to horse shows and all the work around that.
Whatever you decide - good on you for developing an opportunity for those kids!
The shows were probably the first factor that prompted this possibility: this season, on average, I had 7 students sharing 3 lesson horses it was challenging to decide who got to ride in what without overworking the horses, and I don't think the association was in love with our group, either
The other thought I keep going back to is one of my working students. She has been with me since I first started, teaching on the weekends, ad I know she is probably the best "employee" I will ever have. She works off a partial lease of a schoolie and one lesson a week, and she works her butt off for it, and does it with enthusiasm and dedication. Last winter, we cancelled lessons for nearly a month due to ice storms and sub-zero temps, and I gave her the month off, too. But, every day after school, I got a text from her asking if she could at least come and clean stalls, after YEARS of cleaning stalls! The thought of taking away what she has worked for, and for so long is a very tough one to swallow.
I find that in a lot of areas, there is a huge need for a good, safe place for people to start riding. Your program sounds lovely and I think you would be silly to change to 5 boarded horses. Once the 5 horses are not yours, your boarders will want more and more from you and get more and more demanding about how the horses are kept (no matter how good the care). With you owning those 5 horses, they are all yours with no outside influences or demands. Yes. The expense is all yours, too, but there is something to be said for not having to deal with boarders, no matter how much you like them.
I don't know your area, but I would suggest developing a relationship with a trainer who is the next step up from you, and filter the students who want to own and show more to them. Best case scenario is that you send a few clients your way, and you get sent a few new lesson students in return.
Agree, keep doing what you are doing just develop a plan and send them along when they are ready. You start another one the next day and have a ready supply of new riders to keep you full and making $$.
It's a grass is always greener thing. You KNOW you are on lush pasture but it just looks more green over there on the other side of the fence. But when you go to just boarding 5 private horses-after you deal with moving so you can board and sell the schoolies-you are totally dependent on those 5 client. Sooner or later, one is going to move on, without a lesson program you don't have anybody else to plug in.
Once you go private, you will be competing with other, bigger reputation trainers. Right now, you are unique and fill a need, go private and you are just another trainer offering the same old, same old.
Finally, some of your complaints are your fault and you can solve them. You can take more time off, you can turn over more responsibility to your older W/S. You can close the barn for a week during the traditionally slow season and head to Florida to thaw. Learn to say no and put some limits on your business so it doesn't run you.
That grass isn't greener, just different, and I bet the grass where you are tastes better and lets you sleep better at night knowing you have found your niche and fill a real need.
When opportunity knocks it's wearing overalls and looks like work.
Thank you; so many good points that I am considering. Truth is, I don't want to close down the lesson program, but, as usual, the crux of the matter is money.
Have been sitting down to crunch the numbers, and in order to get the same increase in lesson income that boarding would bring in, I would have to replace most of my working students and raise the costs of lessons by $10, and where the prices are now I'm not sure how many clients could afford to keep going, and Im in the same boat. As far as enjoyment, my pastures are very lush and I don't want to lose that, but financially I would feel better to be on the most profitable path; I don't want to work 6 days a week, would love anything more than a few days of "stay-cation", but can't swing it with how things are.
I can see holding off on the boarding decision for a while longer, because I agree with everyone so far that the lesson program is a better road, but Winter is such a great time to make any changes I need to be brainstorming other solutions. It will most likely mean another thread or two
Just for clarification, in case I am giving the wrong impression: the business is healthy, and shows good growth every year, and more income each year. My schoolies are well cared for and get anyththing and everything they need, and I truly do love my job. Switching to boarding would simply mean a raise for myself and more profit to work with to improve the facility (you should see my list of my projects!), both of which are attractive ideas. Just don't want this thread to be a "Debbie downer" for others thinking about going professional
What about something more incremental? So if the changes needed to equate to boarding income are too high- you'd lose people --what if you just planned for a modest income increase, and found a middle ground?
It almost sounds like it might be worth a consultation with a business person who can help you look at the books and see what could be done to give you more cushion, and more time off, without fundamentally changing a business model that works, that you are good at, that is financially sustainable, and that fills a real need. That's a lot to throw away.
I don't think 5 private horses is going to be a steady enough income stream-what happens if (in reality that's a WHEN) one gets sick or hurt and takes up a stall for 90 days producing no lesson or training income? What if one of the 5 riders gets seriously ill or twists a knee playing soccer and can't ride for 6 months. What if you can't get 5 to lease or buy and become boarders despite what they said or you thought? Too many what ifs and too short a timeline until they go off to college for a 5 horse training stable, too small to absorb any losses when it drops to 4...or 3 due to illness, injury or they leave. And they will leave with the horse you sold them, you can pretty much count on that.
If you need to raise your rates, raise them. You'll lose some but not as many as you will when they have to own their own.
Run the numbers and get a business plan going either way. No reason to continue at a loss. Maybe just go up $5 for now instead of $10. But go up.
When opportunity knocks it's wearing overalls and looks like work.
Congrats on your successful program. It takes time and dedication and being a good teacher to get what you have.
IMO, you cannot make a living with a 5 stall barn. 5 boarders is just not enough to make it, either financially or reputationally (yes, that is a word -- I just coined it). If one horse goes lame or the owner can't show/lesson for a while that is 20% of your income gone, just like that. When you are doing your financial calculations, I think you are basing the $$ on a full barn with everyone sound, healthy and financially secure enough to stay fully involved with their horses. --- Great plan, but the real world doesn't work like that.
Good schoolies are worth their weight in gold. They are a big component in your success. Do not let them go.
If you want to make a leap, can you leave your current location and find a barn to rent with at least 10 stalls? Or become a "trainer in residence" at an existing barn, where your students would pay board straight to the BO and you are only responsible for training?
If a BO would let you bring your schoolies, then maybe your incredible working student could take over more of the lesson side of it, while you slowly crossed over into the private training side.
But, if you have to stay where you are, I vote that you keep doing the lessons and pass students along to trainers who show, when they are ready. I just do not see a training barn with 5 stalls ever making a profit.
I agree that having only 5 boarders does not seem like a profitable way to go, others have listed the reasons why.
I think I would at least try raising prices first. You may be surprised about how few people leave (I raised my dog grooming prices by 5 dollars this last year (as well as a couple years earlier) and was shocked that not only did we really not lose anybody, but hardly any people even commented on the price change). And if too many people leave, the clients 'rich' enough to buy horses will most likely be the clients still staying with you so you could still move onto the boarder idea.
BTW I'm not sure why you have 10 working students for a 5 horse barn? It seems like 2-3 could get all the mucking and feeding done. If you are doing 10 'free' lessons a week (with WS working off the lessons) that's a lot of time (and a lot of horse power) lost that could be put towards actual paying clients.
Are these kids instructing? Are they insured to instruct? You said you only started the barn 5 years ago, and all your students were beginners, that seems awfully fast to have someone trained enough to train others.
My question would be once your 5 boarders that you recruited as lesson students age out (as teens tend to do) and go off to college etc. - since you have no lesson program anymore - how will you attract new boarders? Can you draw away from larger barns and how? That would be my concern in that the change to boarding may work for you now but in a few years you may end up regretting it.
I have seen some areas where the smaller starter barns like yours team up with a larger barn that is strictly boarding. So say you become the lesson barn to give excellent basics to new students and then refer your "graduates" off to the bigger show barn when they are ready to buy/compete at a higher level. THus you form a partnership. The boarder-only show barn does the same for you in that when they are approached by kids that aren't ready to buy/are looking for a lesson program - they refer to you. Do you know of a boarder only barn that you could begin for forge that sort of relationship with? You might find it very rewarding and who knows where it could ultimately lead...
You may find some of your students value the community of the barn, and if you drop to only 5 students the entire community will disappear and your clients may not like the new, more private feel. I am also not sure how you plan to grow replacement clients if you don't have a lesson program.
I am also having trouble figuring out how boarders would make you more money than lessons, when it sounds like you use your horses efficiently. If you are looking for more time off, while making money, consider part leasing your lesson horses to the more advanced students, so the horses are 5 days per week in lessons, one day lease rides, and one day off.
All in all though, I think a 5 horse program is just too small to be profitable either way.
What you have is an incredible gem, I'd keep it the way it is. Horses are good for the soul, and you sound like you have a lot of students who benefit from having a barn in close proximity where otherwise they wouldn't be able to ride or afford lessons. I know, selfishly I'm thinking at least, horses kept me so out of trouble as a kid, taking that away from them could be devastating. I don't think it'd be worth it for 5 clients, like others said, people get hurt, horses get hurt, people move on, crap happens. Having a solid lesson program, those are few and far between. And like I said, it sounds like a gem. I'd keep up the good work you're doing now.
On reading a few of these replies and going back to your OP? Why do you have 10 working students for 5 stalls when you are worried you are not making enough money? You NEED most of them to pay for lessons and use of your horse you have to feed/vet/farrier.
Realistically, they can't be doing enough work to equal your lesson and horse use charges. You are being very nice but you can't really afford for what sounds like 30% of your students to pay a reduced rate or nothing. That might be the root of your financial problems , not enough full rate paying clients.
There was a barn that ran like that near here, everybody loved it and she must have had a dozen working students for about 15 stalls. But she didn't make enough cash to pay the hay guy or the landlord. Went bankrupt, actually got evicted from their rented house... But the kids loved her.
Not worth it, most of them need to pay. 1 person can take care of 5 stalls and some cleaning in 3 hours or less a day so that "savings" is imagined and actually costing you.
When opportunity knocks it's wearing overalls and looks like work.
I have a similar set up to you ( 5 stall barn, limited turnout for now), a nice big outdoor but no indoor. I do the training/board thing. I teach too but primarily at other barns.
I could not afford this if I didn't have a say job. I work 9-3 in a financial institution. The boarders and training horses are inconsistent and on the winter time my business drops drastically as people choose barns offering an indoor arena. I also cannot take training horses in the winter as I cannot guarantee I can work them X days per week since the arena might be a sheet of ice ex the whole time the horse is there.
What I do helps subsidize my own couple of horses. I enjoy it, and in the summer time I do make a decent profit but it's just not sustainable as a full time gig.
Keep doing what you are doing, and find a way to bring in more profit doing that.
The older working students help the younger students catch, groom, and tack up, and at the end of their lesson help them to put up their lesson horse up. I have one of these girls scheduled every day that I teach, for the hours that I teach for, and most days they have their hands full just making sure everyone is getting the help that they need and being safe; the most stall cleaning that they will do is to help the younger kids if they need a hand. Their work is justified; they allow me to squeeze in 2-3 more lessons each day than I would be able to do on my own. The younger working students, though, I'm not sure what to do with. They, on average, work one day a week to work off one lesson a month, just to ease the financial cost a bit. Their jobs include stall cleaning, tack room cleaning, cob-web clearing, that kind of thing. If I were to scrap this side of the WS program, I could do that work myself, or, with the increase in income I would receive from replacing worked-off lessons for paid ones, might be able to hire a college student looking for a flexible, low-hour kind of job to come in and just clean stalls every day (before anyone says something, the college is literally a walking distance away; fuel costs would be very minimal). It all goes back though to walking the line between running a sound business and allowing students the opportunity to ride more through their work.
Guys, the hunter/jumper scene where I am is pretty weak. Drive two hours one way, or three in the other, its a different story but here there is only ONE other h/j trainer, and she is part-time and doesn't have a boarding facility, either; she leases stalls for 7 or so horses at a private barn, and the rest of her students trailer in. The best case scenario would be for my students to find a boarding place that will let them bring in a trainer (either myself or the other h/j trainer), or that they purchase a trailer and haul in for lessons.
I really appreciate all the advice here; may I ask a couple more questions?
Understanding all areas a different, and that it does "depend", and that I have looked into what the other lesson barns in the area are charging already when writing my business plan, what would lessons cost where you are, for the following?
- In town, walking distance for two elementary schools and bus stop right down the street from two jr. highs, next closest lesson barn offering English is in the next town
- Several very good lesson horses, for beginners through intermediate, safe, supportive environment
- Showing potential, for those interested
- Good outdoor, but no indoor
- Private 30 minute (required for beginners), 45 minute semi-private, or hour + group rates?
As I said, I have based my rates on what others are charging in the area, plus added a percentage for the "in-town" factor, but with no other lesson program really similar to mine here, a comparison to other areas in the country would be helpful.
Lessons generally range from about 35 for group (including use of horse) to 100+ for BNT private on own horse just about anywhere off the uber expensive coasts. Operating costs for the barn (land, rings, utilities, taxes, mortgage, rent, insurance horse costs and upkeep) and disgressionary income (what typical client can pay) should determine what you charge-that is something you need to work out based on your specific area and what giving a lesson actually COSTS YOU. Not what others charge, what you must charge to break even. Then add a little to pay yourself but only after you feed your emergency fund so you can get thru a bad spell or weather the loss or lay up of a schoolie.
IME, the quality of the school horses, or lack thereof, is not part of the lesson charge computation-its all about the cost to keep that horse and give the lesson. I've paid more to lesson on a POS in fancy places with some kid teaching and far less for nicer horses in dumps with a good instructor over the years.
I have some concern about the fact there is not a lot of serious H/J activity in your area. You can attract a lot of business as a good beginner barn but if there aren't many shows or shows that require hauling? You could slide right out of your niche if you start restricting your business to h/J show oriented boarders. Don't think shows are a good focus for your business other then as a fun outing a few times a year IF they earn the privilege. And you need to figure your actual costs for that outing and bill accordingly.
Lack of an indoor hurts but that does allow you to keep costs down and the kids don't mind as much as adult clients would.
Anyway, get a handle on your total monthly costs then divide by 5. That's what that horse needs to make in cash every month for you to break even. So that's where you need to start figuring what to charge, an emergency fund and paying yourself go on top of that.
Most barns track W/S hours and credit $10 per hour for each actual hour worked, you could do that by assigned task too. But you have to keep track of it and make sure the work performed is actually saving you money. Right now I suspect its costing you, especially if 10 of your 35 to 50 students participate. Kind of problematic when they are the only ones there in the slow season.
If it makes you feel less of a scrooge, most kids will cheerfully do anything around horses for nothing more then being around the barn. Maybe you could switch to awarding points for barn work towards some kind of year end sportsmanship award or something? In the case of kids that cant afford it without working it off? That's tough but you can't help all of them and end up closing down and none of them can ride.
One other point, how's your insurance and do your rider release forms include bartering barn work for discounts on lessons?? One of those kids steps on a manure fork and smacks her face with the handle, slips on something wet or manages to get a trusted schoolie to bit or kick (and yes they can)? Those drop off and go parents will not be understanding and the hospital ERs ask for all information about accidents, especially with minors.
When opportunity knocks it's wearing overalls and looks like work.
Island of Heart Surrounded by the Sea of Intuition
Would it be possible to keep your lesson horses and your barn and have your barn be where most of your lessons are done. Then for the students who are ready for their own horse have another barn that you direct those clients to. My trainer has her own barn with 5 stalls and she is full. so she has a Barn owner that she gets along with and she directs her students with their own horses over to that barn. She still comes over and does training rides and lessons but it keeps her lesson horses in her care
The Love for a Horse is just as Complicated as the Love for another Human being, If you have never Loved a Horse you will Never Understand!!!
Crazy4, I think that idea of students boarding elsewhere but, hopefully, still wanting my coaching and I can go to them (or they can haul in to me), will be good compromise.
F8, thank you for all the advice! As the business is now, I am breaking even, and the lesson costs now are based on my expenses that need to be met, with a buffer to allow me take-home pay. The system works, but it doesn't leave a lot left over to expand or improve the facility, and it is a goal to make enough to purchase land adjacent to my place in 2 years, and I am just trying to find a way to make a enough to make that happen without a massive business loan to add to my plate. When I was starting up, one of my first clients was a small, successful business owner who sat down with me for hours at a time to help me sort out a business plan, and was awesome at getting the local market figured out to find a good balance point between charging what the clients could pay and what I needed to charge to get by (and lesson prices do go up a bit each year), but it is time to reevaluate everything and figure out if I can start adding a cushion.
I was glad to see how you recommended the working students be organized, and that my program follows what you suggested very closely: they earn just under $10/hour worked, and they "clock in" and "out", earning a lesson when 4 hours have been logged in. The idea of them earning awards for their work is a great one and I will definitely think about that angle, but you are absolutely right, as it is now I lose money each month keeping so many on and there needs to be an adjustment there.
The business is insured, everyone signs a release (I am paranoid and they sign one at the start of every year), and from what I understand if a student is both paying and working off lessons, they are covered as standard students, vs. if they were paid employees with W2's, in which case I would have to expand my coverage. I will double check on that, though!
Last season there were only 3 local h/j shows (a lot of competitors cross over from the eventing side), a couple of schooling shows put on by PC, and we traveled out of town for one more, so you are spot on about h/j boarders perhaps not having enough to go on. Annnnnnnnd, that leads to another dilemma as there are a lot of kids that want to go to every show, and that went to every show last year. I need to come up with a system this winter to figure out who can show, and when, and how much. All of the students that showed last year take lessons at least 2x/week, and all work hard, and all earn it, which is awesome but challenging when you have a small pool of horses to take. This is one of the big reasons both clients and myself are ready for students to start thinking about purchasing their own horses, so that they can compete as they please without the restrictions I have to put on them.