Barn Politics: As the Muck Cart Turns

by Toby Raymond

When you board a horse, you are signing up for stall space, feed and turnout time, you may also be getting a ration of barn politics thrown in too. I know this from prior experience, having been involved in my share of high barn drama.

My friends ask the same questions I once posed, “I pay board to be treated like this?” Or worse yet, “have my horse live in these conditions?” all philosophical discussion goes out the window when you reach for your horse’s halter and it’s gone, or he’s standing in an un-mucked stall, not to mention dirty aisles with rakes, forks, shovels or brooms leaning up against the wall blocking passage. And what about the hose left uncoiled that you almost trip over?

Then, just like herd hierarchy, you might find yourself trying to avoid petty jealousies as you gingerly step around the know-it-all who persists in dominating by intimidating – they literally grab the lead rope out of your hands. Or the boarder who “borrows” everything from a hoof pick to your new spurs – forgetting to ask and forgetting to return them. Or the drama queen, the suck-up, the troublemaker … the list goes on and on.

I’m not suggesting that the majority or even a minority of facilities are run irresponsibly or are rife with political intrigue, but it’s been my opinion that when you put a disparate group of people together bound by one common and intensely passionate thread, it’s practically a given that at some point there’s going to be a certain amount of posturing and head tossing. That’s why I figured I’d check around to see – if between all the possible permutations of barn dynamics — is there a way to ward off potential conflicts harmoniously?

By way of answering my question, Mindy Darst, owner of Lochmoor Stables, shared her insights on how to make the whole thing work.

“Having a written agreement with everything spelled out clearly, even if we never have to refer to it is essential,” she began. “But, more than anything,” she continued, “I think the reason we’re successful is because our employees are politely unyielding to bending the policies, and are extremely consistent with their responses; we don’t play favorites, and we don’t give in,” she stressed. “We feel our rules are fair and need to be adhered to,” which she highlighted below, in addition to including her personal pet peeves:

— Unsupervised children

— Pets brought to the farm

— Inappropriate attire (staff and clients)

— Unsupervised jumping (forbidden)

— Riding without a helmet (forbidden)

— Not adhering to barn hours

— Not cleaning up the grooming area, horse’s manure or not putting brushes away or tack back in the tack room, unclean

— Not properly putting up the horses after riding

— Smoking on the premises (forbidden)

How does she deal with “borrowed stuff”? “I buy all the necessary supplies and divide the monthly costs by the number of horses in the barn,” she explained. “Now, there’s no complaining because we replace/refill whatever is empty/missing; it works great.”

Quarterly barn meetings also contribute to our success. “We have an open forum to discuss problems in addition to announcing upcoming events and congratulations. It’s a good way to get people together and bring everything out into the open,” she pointed out. “The key, as an owner/manager, is to be thorough in the care of the horses and the property, to be willing to listen objectively when a client has a complaint, and to be impartial yet unwavering with the barn rules.”

As for personal conflicts, she concluded by saying, “The solution here is to resolve them quickly — either privately or through arbitration — and move on.” Easier said than done? Well, I think the jury’s still out on that one.