Taking on an established yard with established clients can be a great way of entering the livery yard ‘market’, whilst others start afresh with a brand new yard and a brand new business. Either way, running a livery yard isn’t just about the horses, but more importantly about the overall management of the horses, facilities and the clients. Dealing with groups of horse owners who all have different needs or demands can be tough and it’s often hard to please everyone. Below are just a handful of common mistakes it’s important to avoid both with a new and established business.
Don’t Underestimate Your Costs. Especially as a startup its important that you work out a fair livery fee for all parties. Take into account not just your rent or yard costs, but also insurances, utilities, professional fees, rates, taxes, staff costs, maintenance and anything else you outlay for the purpose of the business. Make sure you allow a 10% contingency on top of these costs for any unforeseen problems such as damage to facilities, price increases or other incidences which may cost you money out of the blue. It is important to factor in your time as well. For services and inclusive contracts make sure you allow more than enough hay, bedding and staffing time to undertake all of the jobs. Write a list of every outgoing you have over the course of a year and calculate this per week per stable (allowing for one or two empty ones) and this will give you a fair idea of what to charge. Whilst its useful to see what other yards locally charge, don’t be bound by this. No two yards are the same and a cheaper yard may just be a cheaper yard as they have less to outlay. There is, therefore, no point trying to match their price if you won’t cover costs. And most importantly, don’t forget to add a profit percentage on top. You need to satisfied that your income each month not only covers the outgoing costs with ease, but that you actually earn an income from your yard that you consider a fair amount compared to the work and effort you put into the business. If you work full-time hours on the yard, at the end of the year you want to have earned a full time wage- especially if it is your only income!
Don’t be Desperate to Fill Spaces. As a new business with empty stables, it can be tempting to accept anyone who wants a space to start the income rolling in even if you feel they will not gel with existing clients, or you foresee them being problematic. You should always go with your gut instinct when meeting potential clients and use a viewing appointment at the yard to find out as much about them as possible, both themselves and their horse, to identify any potential problems you feel they may bring to the yard. Similarly, there is no point fibbing about aspects of your yard to make it sound better to potential clients because as soon as a new livery is in-situ they will soon learn all is not as promised! It’s much more important to ensure anyone you accept is a good fit with the yard. It’s better to wait and fill spaces with horses and clients who suit your services and facilities than accept someone who you may feel not be suited to the yard and subsequently risk problems arising in the future or ending up with an empty stable shortly after they arrive.
Check People Out. More likely than not, new livery clients are complete strangers to you. These are people you will be trusting with your property, equipment and with numerous other horses on the yard. It is important to take due diligence when taking on new clients. There really is no harm in asking for as many details as possible when showing them around in relation to their experience, knowledge, previous yards and suchlike. And if they decide they would like a space there is no reason why you cannot ask for a reference from their previous yard owner or an equestrian professional (such as riding club chairperson, riding instructor), and other documents to confirm their identity and address- such as a copy of their driving licence or a utility bill- in the event of debts being run up or other issues which may be helped by these details. If, during discussions, you feel that there may be issues with the client or their horse on the yard then tell them or ask for more details to help you assess if it’s really the yard for them. See our guide to Introducing New Liveries to Your Yard here.
Contracts. Contracts these days are more important than ever. They lay out what services are on offer and how much for, as well as detailing responsibilities of both the horse owner and yard owner with regards to their side of the agreement. Not just to have a contract, but to make sure they are signed and returned as soon as new liveries are on the yard. Make sure, when viewing, that liveries are aware of any unusual or specific clauses in your contract- you could even give them a copy to look at whilst they are there. Once they have confirmed their space, you can send them a copy which they can sign and give to you- along with any other necessary paperwork- as soon as they arrive. The last thing you want is to give a client a contract the day they arrive for them to say they thought more was included, or they didn’t know those were the terms of the agreement. If there is any delay in clients returning the agreement to you, or any of the documents you have requested then be firm and give them a deadline. It’s important to be honest and clear of terms and rules from the start so everyone gets off on the right foot. It is also important to check that your client is the horse owner. If the horse is on loan then it is worth contacting the owner as at the end of the day if any issues arise the loaner may not have the final say, and in the event of any debts or abandonment by the loaner, the owner will need to rectify the situation and deal with the horse’s subsequent care or removal. Make sure you consider every eventuality and include as much detail as possible in your contracts. You can view our Template Livery Contract here.
Considering Bio Security of The Yard. New horses on a yard can potentially bring a whole host of issues. From worm burdens and lice to other, more serious, diseases and illnesses such as strangles. It is, therefore, important to have a good system in place for introducing new equines to the yard. Upon arrival, or even before, you should ask the owner to show you copies of their vaccinations so you can be satisfied these are up to date. All new horses should be isolated initially and wormed upon arrival. You can keep them in their stable for a number of days to observe their behaviour, temperature and the like, or turn them out in a separate paddock away from the existing herds. Once you are satisfied with the health of the horse and that it has been satisfactorily wormed then you can introduce it to the rest of the yard and move it into the shared areas. During this isolation period, it is also important not to risk cross contamination by use of shared grooming kits, tack or tools which may inadvertently spread germs. Some yards may even these days request blood screening or a veterinary health certificate to assure the horse is fit and well even before moving to the yard. While it may seem a lot of work creating isolation areas and undertaking these checks both for the yard owner and client it is well worth it if it can reduce the risk of a disease outbreak which can be costly and inconvenient for the whole yard. The same should be said about being conscious about the spread of disease from visitors to the yard that have been in contact with other horses and yards such as equestrian professionals carrying out services, and also to ensure you remind clients that they should take precautions to avoid cross-contamination if they are taking their horses out to events or competitions. See our guide to Disease Prevention on Your Yard here.
Treat One and the Same. All clients should be treated the same. All should be charged the same, all on the same package should have the same included, adhere to the same rules, payment terms should be the same and security deposits should be the same. Every horse should be treated individually even if you have one client with several horses. They should have a separate contract for each and pay a deposit for each. Some yard owners will take only the one deposit per owner rather than per horse but you are more at risk of being left with empty stables and debts of a client with multiple horses leaves in bad circumstances than if they have just the one. Inconsistency between clients will only cause confusion and you will soon discover if clients feel someone else is paying less or receiving a better service. Have fixed prices for all packages and services and what each owner sees is what they get. Different horses and owners have different needs but you should not need to tailor every client’s services to this. Maintain a system whereby you are supportive of everyone’s needs and can accommodate unforeseen circumstances such as box rest or recuperation from injuries, but do not go out of your way time or cost wise to accommodate. At the end of the day if a client or horse has issues with the services you offer or the yard routine then perhaps they may be better suited elsewhere or on a different livery package.
Enforcing the Rules from Day One. You may feel that as clients are new and may not be used to or know the rules that a certain leniency should be allowed initially whilst they settle in. This should not be the case. As long as you have fully informed new clients of the yard rules, and especially if you have a contract outlining such requirements, there should be no reason rules are not adhered to from their first day with you. If new clients make a genuine mistake or do not realise rules then make sure they are clarified on the spot so any problems do not arise again in the future. If you start being lenient with new clients, other clients may view this as unfair or that you are treating new clients favourably. If you have a larger yard, it could be suggested to ‘buddy up’ a new client with an existing livery so they can show them the ropes and help them settle in. When they arrive, make sure that yourself or someone on your behalf gives the new client a tour of the yard and its facilities and on the way round explain the rules and expectations of clients with regards to using and maintenance of such facilities and areas of the yard. Even if you feel details are small or insignificant or may rarely need to be known it is still worth mentioning to reduce any confusion in the future. See our suggestions for Yard Rules here
Have a Policy for Everything. Don’t wait for issues to arise before deciding what to do, try to have as many systems in place for every eventuality and be prepared in advance. From sensible things like fire policies, what to do when it snows or yard rules, to more unusual things such as serving abandonment notices, chasing debts or what to do if an owner dies- its all worth considering and having in the back of your mind. Or, even better, on paper. Make sure any staff are aware in case anything should happen in your absence. Include as much detail as possible on your contracts or signs on the yard and in the event these situations occur, learn from implementing your procedures and see if you can improve processes for the next time.
Where do Favours End and Freebies Begin? I am sure once or twice you’ve felt its not a problem to “quickly turn him out” or “chuck a feed in” for a client and think nothing of it. The same may apply to your staff too. However, if everyone on the yard asked you or your yard staff to do this on a regular basis you certainly wouldn’t want to be doing it for free! It’s important to have fixed fees for all of your services- however infrequent or small- and to make sure these are totted up and charged accordingly to the clients bills at the end of the month. Its easy to fall into a trap of doing small jobs to keep liveries happy but these all add up in your time, and more often than not save the liveries time or money, and there must be a small value to them that there should be no issue with them paying your set fees for such services! It really is okay to say “No” if you feel too much us being asked of you, or you are sick of repeated requests for favours so try to keep it to one rule or the other so everyone gets the same answer. Stay consistent with each of your clients and if they know quick jobs and favours are not on the cards they will stop asking.
Ad-Lib… or taking the mickey? Many yards with serviced livery packages include ‘ad-lib’ hay, haylage or bedding. But is this an open-ended amount or do you have a fair useage policy? Each horse will have different forage needs but you should really only be allowing enough for a good full net at night, and perhaps a little each in the fields if grazing is sparse or an extra net if they are in for the day. Having owners who top nets up to bursting day in day out, or who have horses that leave a lot of wastage that ends up on the muck heap is not good for your profit margins! It is certainly worth considering restrictions on hay and haylage in relation to what each horse needs and to reduce over-feeding and wastage. The same should apply for bedding. Knowing the way a horse leaves its bed you should be able to work out an approximation of fresh bedding the horse will need each week or month, even taking into consideration a completely new bed as and when required to make sure bedding is not being abused by whole almost-clean beds being removed or barrows of dry bedding being tipped on the muck heap. Not only does the abuse of ad-lib forage and bedding cost you more for the wasted product itself, but also an increased amount of waste to deal with, and an increase in your waste removal fees. If you have or introduce a fair useage policy this should be stipulated on your contract so everyone knows the rules regarding this and that anything deemed or excessive use will be charged as necessary.
Knowing Whats ‘Wear and Tear’ and Whats Not. In the course of a livery agreement, you can expect a level of wear and tear on stables and paddocks within reason. The odd bumps and knocks, scrapes and chews, loose fence posts or rails can be expected. Make sure you take a security deposit to cover any substantial damage which would be outside the remit of usual wear and tear- cribbed or severely chewed stable doors, holes in walls or continually damaged fencing. As per most livery contracts, you are well within your right to retain a reasonable amount from a security deposit to cover repair and replacement of any damaged items once the horse has left. If something is broken- such as fencing- and sits within the scope or skill of a client to repair themselves then give them this option as long as it is done to your standard. Make sure you can identify who is responsible in the course of damage and make sure it is dealt with quickly to reduce the likelihood of worsening issues. Its a good idea to take photos of paddocks and stables the day new clients arrive as these can then be used as a reference point to evaluate and prove any damage sustained during the course of their agreement.
Plan for the Future and Stick to It. Maintenance and planning is the key to protects your grazing and facilities for both new and existing clients. It is no good adding extra turnout time to keep clients happy in the winter if they are then complaining in the spring and summer there is no grass, or for clients to want to lunge in the school and then complain about the condition of the arena surface when its all churned up. If you make decisions regarding use of facilities and maintenance of grazing or stables then explain these to clients and the reasoning behind it that it is for the long term. Most clients should be happy with this and understand that facilities and grazing have a lot of variables that can affect their availability and they should respect any decisions you choose to make with regards to this.
Friendships on the Yard. Whilst its great to invite friends to become your clients, or to make good friends with clients, it is important to maintain a strictly professional relationship where business is concerned. Not only that but close friendships with clients can often leave other clients feeling left out or that others are being given favourable treatment or thinking they may be receiving reduced or free services and benefitting from the friendship. The same should apply to yard staff as well, and for you to ensure boundaries are kept if they are friends with liveries outside of the business. Whilst its fine to socialise on the yard, have a laugh and a cup of tea, hang out and ride together make sure you try to involve others too and don’t exclude other clients. Unfortunately, friendships that also involve business relationships can turn sour because business boundaries are not maintained and that can be hard on all involved. For that reason, it’s important to keep the two aspects separate and avoid carrying out ‘favours’ or offering discounts- however small- for friends, and ensure everyone is treated one and the same.
Good Record Keeping. Many yards are all about the horses but, as boring as it is, paperwork is important as well. If you’ve asked clients for copies of horse details, passports, insurances etc then make sure you see them. Don’t delay asking because it makes you feel bad when in fact a shortfall in any of these could directly affect yourself or other clients and horses on the yard. Make sure you keep a file on each individual horse on the yard and their relevant paperwork. This should be put in a folder with a copy of the contract and anything else important and related to the horse such as details of the horse itself, or emergency contact details for the owner. Make sure you have a good record system for invoices and any services that should be added- such as keeping them noted in a diary- so you know these are included correctly and in full on the relevant invoices. Nothing like realising months down the line you’ve been forgetting to add things to bills. You should have a good filing system whereby you can find out any information as soon as possible, yet this should also be stored safely considering data protection rules ensuring they can only be accessed by yourself or your yard staff if necessary. Make sure you are kept up to date with insurance renewals for clients and note their expiry dates so you can request a copy of their new certificate. A collective area in the yard is good such as a small space with a diary and whiteboard for any notes, messages or service requests. You can then request all clients check this daily and make it easy to remind them of worming time, farrier visits or other important messages such as field or herd changes. Make sure all clients receive important messages and deadline and do not rely on messages being passed by others. If there are important messages make sure you contact, and speak to, the client directly to avoid any confusion or issues. Its also a good idea to have important numbers noted on the yard such as each clients emergency contacts, farrier, vet and the like which can be accessed by anyone on the yard in the event of an emergency.
Knowing When to Get Involved. We all have a way that we like to look after our horses, but others may not be the same. Every horse owner will have a different idea of what is best for their horses in its day to day routine, management and exercise. But what is hard is knowing when to step in if you feel this is not right and how much input to have if the horse is not yours. If an owner is undertaking something that could be dangerous or seriously detrimental to their horse or could affect others on the yard it’s important to intervene and politely explain why you think this is wrong. But if it is just a case of thinking they are doing something incorrectly, you can of course mention politely in passing but sometimes it is best to leave owners to their own devices and, if you are right, they will learn in their own time. Many horse owners will not take kindly to other people criticising their ways, however incorrect their current method may seem to you! On the other hand, if you feel an owner is ignoring serious advice with regards to the care of their horse, not visiting enough, not taking necessary action for farriery or veterinary care or deemed to be neglecting the animal, this should be confronted immediately as anything deemed a welfare issue could cause a problem to you as the owner of the yard where this is taking place. If serious issues continue and you feel the horse is not being cared for in the correct manner or is being neglected by the owner then you may need to get welfare associations such as the RSPCA involved, seek an abandonment notice or serve notice to the client if possible.
There’s No Harm Introducing New Things. If you have an existing yard but have overlooked contracts or want to implement new rules or change livery services or increase your charges don’t be afraid to tell clients. Have an informal yard meeting or send a letter to all clients advising them of the reason and include a copy of the contracts, new price list or details of the changes you plan to make. Whilst a yard meeting is best- as they can sign there and then and ask any questions there and then- this is not always a possibility. Give clients a deadline to return any contracts by which will also give them the opportunity to read through and raise any questions with you. If existing clients are not happy with proposed changes, or do not want to sign the contract you can let them know there is the option for them to terminate their existing contract within your standard notice procedure.
Be Firm with Debts. Sometimes, through no fault of their own, clients will find difficulty in paying their livery bills. In the first instance, it is important not to be too lenient when it comes to monies being owed. One client paying a bit late on one occasion and telling you so beforehand is fine but when this becomes every month, or numerous clients following suit its important to reiterate the payment rules. If you have a payment deadline after bills are issued make sure this is adhered to and if you have repeat offenders consider bringing in a warning system or a late payment charge which should get them back on track.
Have a Life Too. Most employees work 9-5 but running a yard can be a 24-hour business. However, at the end of the day, you still need time to yourself and time away from work. If clients have a tendency to arrive at the yard earlier or later than you’d like, or to text you in the middle of the night with last-minute services requests tell them it’s not on. Make it clear to clients when you are ‘open’. Include this in your contracts and yard rules. It is not unreasonable for clients going to events to need to be later or earlier in the yard but as an exception. With services give a deadline that these can be requested and an additional late fee if this is not adhered to. If you live on site it can be all the more harder as you are ‘always there’. If your house is out of bounds to clients let them know this- you do not want to be woken up at 7am or have the door knocked at 10pm unless it’s absolutely necessary, even if its “something quick”. If youhavee the day off or are on holiday, make sure clients know this and tell them who is their point of contact in your absence. And when you are on the yard, don’t spend all day working if you don’t need to. Make sure you have enough time to enjoy your own horses and get enough time to ride or spend time with them undisturbed. As long as clients know the boundaries there should be an easy way to maintain sensible ‘working hours’ whilst balancing this with day to day life as well.
Don’t Become the Minority. On a large yard, and as a single yard owner or manager, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed should clients ‘gang up’ with complaints or demands. Make yourself an open door if people have any problems they would like to discuss or any issues they have with your services, facilities or routine. One of the worst things is when a whole group of clients are aware of other clients issues before you are! Do not be intimidated by your clients, and have the confidence to deal promptly to any complaints, demands or criticism of services or facilities and deal with each person directly rather than for it to become a yard discussion that you are not part of. Whilst many yards now have social media groups they discuss yard matters on, its not always helpful for issues to be aired in the public domain, even if this is just a private group between your clients, as you may then get other clients jumping on the bandwagon and it can soon turn unfavourably. It may be an idea to have a regular yard meeting, or send out a monthly newsletter or email acknowledging any issues or advising of any important messages such as new horses arriving, herd changes or worming routines. Make sure on each and every one that you state people should come to you directly if they have any problems or things they’d like to discuss. This way you are maintaining a line of communication that should be reciprocated with clients.
Preventing the World and His Wife Turning Up at the Yard. Whilst clients like to occasionally have visitors to come and see their horse, or use external instructors or other services, it is important to keep a check on who is visiting. Especially important if this is your home as you do not want strangers turning up all hours of the day and finding yourself acting as a receptionist for your clients! Have a visitor policy and stick to it. You don’t want large family groups arriving on a busy yard bringing with them small children, or strangers on the yard handling horses you are supposed to be taking care of. Make sure you limit numbers, and possibly even ages, of visitors to the yard. Detail this on your contract and make sure all clients are aware and that these rules are adhered to. Also, make sure that you are made aware of anyone who will be coming to the yard to undertake services and, if necessary, request to meet them beforehand and also ask to see a copy of their insurance. Another thought is clients who intend to share or part loan their horse to a third party. This opens the yard up to another user who will be present on the yard using the facilities and equipment, as well as handling the horse in question. Whether you wish to have a say in this is important as you need to ensure that anyone coming onto the yard on a regular basis knows and respects the rules the same as any other livery client. Ensure security is maintained at all times, visitors are always supervised unless otherwise agreed and make sure visitors are not freely able to access certain areas of the yard such as feed rooms or tack rooms. See our advice on Visitors to Your Yard here.
Seek the Respect of your Suppliers. If you have several horses to cater for, that will be a substantial amount of feed, bedding and forage you need to source and pay for. Make sure any suppliers you use respect this and provide you with a good service to retain your business. Point out to them if you are a high spender or a regular user and see if you cannot get a small discount or another advantage such as free delivery. Same as vets, farriers and other equestrian services who need to provide a timely and efficient service. Its no good having a horse need the farrier or vet if their version of an emergency visit is three days down the line. If a supplier cannot fulfil your needs and cannot supply the right quantities or deliver on time then look for an alternative. If it disrupts your business, do not allow a supplier to hinder your management or supplies and advise them as such.
Don’t Let Others Run a Business from Your Yard. If you offer services to your clients, then you should be the one undertaking these services. There should be no money changing hands between clients for them to do services for each other if they are ill or away. Even if they use a third party service provider, such as a freelance groom, as yard owner you need to be satisfied that anyone handling horses on your yard, or using the facilities is suitably experienced, competent and insured to be doing so to cover everyone in the event of an accident or injury. You and your staff need to have a level of insurance for Care, Custody and Control to care for and handle the horses on your yard, and the same should be expected of anyone else carrying out their services. Not only that but if you already offer these services to your clients, do you want other people coming onto your yard and charging your clients when the income could have been yours? If this is something you permit, any clients should check with you first if they plan to use a third party service, and should certainly provide you with the details of the person covering their services as well as providing a copy of their insurance for your peace of mind.
Don’t Stop Advertising. If you have a full yard don’t rest on your laurels it will always be that way. You never know when you may have vacancies arise so its always better to advertise continually and have a waiting list, than have empty stables whilst you wait for responses for a new advert. Set up a Facebook page or a website which will give you continual online presence. If you have enquiries it is always worth showing people around the yard or taking their details even if you are full as you may have a surprise space come up and they are in the position to move immediately. Having a waiting list also allows you to pick and choose your next clients, rather than settle for the next one to come along or wait with an empty stable for someone who suits the yard.
And most importantly….. You are THE BOSS. Whether you own or manage the yard, with regards to the day to day management of the horse you have the final say and nothing should be “up for negotiation”. Whilst livery clients are welcome to give their suggestions and ‘constructive criticism’, you have no need to action these unless you feel they would be genuinely beneficial to the yard and its management. If you have clients mentioning the same issues then it may be worth considering, but particularly if you only have one or two clients who keep mentioning issues, it may be more that they do not suit your yard, rather than having to change your yard to suit them.
We have lots of useful templates, guides and information relating to the day to day running and management of livery yards and the equines who reside there. All of these are completely free to download on our Equine Guides page.