You are losing sleep over details. You are angry on a hundred fronts. You are a powder keg of emotion. All it takes is Donna innocently asking, “Did you feed lunch yet?” for a thousand bees to come swarming out of your gaping mouth, and soon the local priest has been called in for an emergency barn owner exorcism. It’s only Tuesday. Who is this mad hatter running amok in your barn? Do people like this person? Do you like this person? If you have had days like this, then please take a minute to decompress and read on for some tips to keep your sanity and sense of humor.
1. Manage your stress.
You are overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the task of running a barn, a business, taking care of horses, managing your clients and working on personal growth, all while trying to stay financially afloat. Yikes. Some of these stresses will never cease, but many of them can be re-filed. So let us take stock of the stress; let us categorize. There are three files in your brain: 1. Things to deal with now, 2. Things to deal with long term, and lastly the good old-fashioned nonpartisan 3. Things not to give two sh**s about. Stress about a hay payment hanging over your head? Category 1. Stress about the quality of your footing? Category 2. Stress about Stephanie insisting Cookie doesn’t like her new water bucket because it’s blue? Category 3. Embrace Category 3. Learning to compartmentalize and reduce your stress is key for managing your barn. So the next time Cookie makes a poop milkshake out of her water bucket, you won’t take it as a personal preemptive strike.
2. Understand your clients’ perspective.
Horses are expensive, large and often make poor choices, yet we all love them and can’t live without them. Your clients work hard and make many sacrifices to have horses. They work long hours, take time away from their families, and diligently drag themselves to the barn after work in the cold and in the dark. If they are showing up to a lecture from you on how much of a pig Tonka is with his food bucket, it’s likely they will feel pretty solid that their hard-earned pay covers the cost of scrubbing it daily. Don’t irritate your clients with complaints about trivial matters. It is rude and leaves a sour taste in their mouth. Save your nitpicking for things that matter, like kicking and biting. Balancing the work/home/horse life is an art form for those not lucky enough to work in a barn. Often we have no idea that Susan’s husband is justifying his third motorcycle because he lost his wife to her third chestnut gelding. So be nice to those doing the juggling.
3. Do what you say and say what you do.
Do what you say: Are you telling your clients you are investing in new footing? Better make it rain GGT. Making promises that mud season will be better next year? I hope you can back that up with gravel and a dry weather dance. Say what you do: Changing grains? Better announce that bombshell. You do not need to explain yourself or decisions at every little turn but believe me when I say broad communication about broad barn decisions is best kept above board. Being upfront and honest about change will save you the headache of damage control later on.
4. Do not go nuclear over spilled grain.
Ever notice how the first day of your week is a cluster-mess of problems? A million texts and emails about who did and didn’t say or do whatever nonsense. Suddenly turnout is taking two extra hours because you keep having to take your gloves off to text Tina, “I am not starving ChiChi. Her feed got erased from the chart after Sarah lost control of the hose in the back aisle.”
Why is this a weekly occurrence? Because when the cat is away the mice will play. A day off for you is 24 hours of free range for your clients. I already know what you are thinking, and the answer is no. No you will not start sacrificing your day off to “check in.” The solution is simple: Laugh at it. Remember Category 3? It’s designed for Mondays. Listen, people do and say dumb things. To you, at you, about you, while they are storming away from you. Let them. You cannot … repeat after me … you cannot waste precious energy on haphazard half-witted opinions. Barn drama only becomes real when Mom gets involved. Save the nuclear option for real problems.
5. Delegate. Delegate. Delegate.
“Ummm, Ali, do I have to put Gordo back out or can you take him?” Of course I can take him back to his paddock. I am heading that way to feed lunch anyway. Oh wait, now I am carrying lunch buckets, four flakes of hay, a sheet for Sassy, a sugar cube for Ginger, and Gordo is ripping my arm off every three steps to grab the singular last blade of grass on earth. It’s too easy to be accommodating. So yes, Janet, you need to walk your horse back to turnout after riding him. And by the way can you please take his lunch bucket with you? A lack of delegation leads to a never-ending day. A never-ending day means never-ending resentment.
6. Watch your mouth.
Remember your word will be repeated. Do not give an opinion on other people, horses or situations unless you are comfortable having it repeated second hand. And third hand. And fourth hand. Soon your innocent statement of, “That horse needs more training” comes back to bite you with, “DID YOU tell Cindy that Princess should be turned into DOG FOOD???” So either don’t say a dang thing about Princess, or tell the owner straight to her face that Princess should, in fact, be turned into dog food.
7. Lead by example.
Remember when you were 11, and you had every inch of your Breyer horse barn immaculately organized and clean? You were basically the pre-pubescent version of Marie Kondo. Fast-forward to living the dream in real time, and your horses and barn don’t exactly match the fantasy. Dirt, random rubber bands, stray hay, blanket monster mess, arrrggg! Before you resort to huffing and puffing and passive aggressively cleaning up after people while singing the Cinderella theme song, first check in about your own habits. Do I religiously sweep up the crossties before removing my horse? Do I meticulously fold my blankets? Or am I the human version of Oscar the Grouch popping my angry head out of my garbage can of a locker while verbally chastising others? Sweep up, pick up, put your tack away, keep your horse/locker/trailer/stall front immaculate. Set the example. Be the example. Live the example. It might not inspire others to do better, but at least no one will call you a hypocrite.
8. Focus on the big picture.
I like to call this taking stock. At some point in your day take a minute to ask yourself: Are my clients happy? Now we all know that is a trick question. You will never make everyone happy. It is more telling to look at the answer like a ratio or a grade. Is the ratio 80% happy and 20% needs improvement? Is it 90/10, 70/30 etc.? Do the math. If you are a B+ or an A-, then you are doing great. If you are a C or lower you need to make some changes. Now the second data set is more important. Are the horses happy? Are they well fed, hydrated, sound(ish), warm in the winter and cool in the summer? The only right answer to that is 100%. Focus on that number.
9. Take care of yourself.
Take care of yourself so you can take care of everyone else. Eat. Sleep. Hydrate (with actual water). Ride for fun. Take a lesson. Go on a date. Give yourself the best care so you can be a happy person, and you will be happy in your barn life. If you need more guidance in this realm then look for my next article: “Self-Care…What’s that?”
Ali Ingellis is the owner of Amherst Equestrian Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. She is an FEI competitor and a USDF bronze and silver medalist. Ali is a native of Martha’s Vineyard and resides in Amherst with her husband and children. Be sure to check out her popular “Nine Tips To Avoid Becoming A PIA Boarder” article as well.