The Boss Mares Blog

How to Build a Barn Family

It can be a place where students feel loved and supported at all stages of their education. It can be a place where lifelong friendships are formed. It can be a place where children and adults want to spend their time.

When we first considered starting a lesson business, we really only had two goals.

I don’t think we fully realized at first that we were creating a whole new family. That most of our very first students would still be part of our barn family fifteen years later, with or without an actual barn!

Or that the real secret to a long-lasting equine business is quite simply a barn family that stays connected FOREVER.

To create a barn family, you need to get all of your clients together and unite them with a common goal

barn parties

We think there is no better way to do this than by hosting barn parties.

Each party follows a basic formula: group project -> potluck meal -> free ride or play session with the horses. Attendees who want to ride are divided into groups, with beginners riding on the leadline first and advanced students who want to canter going last. The arena is set with one to two jumps, bending poles, and another fun obstacle or mounted game for students to share.

All riding is done under our supervision, with a briefing on group arena etiquette and consideration for the hard-working school ponies! If the weather is too nasty to ride, we substitute ground work, an interactive trick-training demo (our painting horse was the star of this show), or make horse treats (and stuff Christmas stockings).

horsey girls using power tools
Real horsey girls use power tools!

We’ve had poop parties where everyone – parents included! – got in on the paddock-mucking fun. We’ve had rainy-day tack cleaning parties with horsey movies and hot chocolate. We’ve had birthday parties for our horses complete with cake and ice cream. Our annual fall barn party, which fell before our huge in-house schooling show, included repairing and painting all the jumps – and teaching girls how to use power tools! We’ve had potluck dinners followed by a night ride under the arena lights, and we’ve invited working students to stay overnight and go on an early morning hack. For our 10th Anniversary barn party, we invited all of our former students – some of whom gave pony rides to their children on beloved old lesson horses!

Aside from creating camaraderie, these gatherings are a great opportunity to hand out newsletters, make announcements, and publicly award Levels ribbons.

Whenever possible, try to schedule an afternoon barn party on the same day as an income-producing morning clinic… look for a future LLPro post on creating community and generating revenue with Level Up Clinics!

ground buddies
We want our beginners to feel included and our more advanced students to become positive role models. One way to do this is by using Ground Buddies. This Big-Little system pairs our inexperienced or young riders with an older mentor who helps show them the ropes. Our Ground Buddies assist in catching, grooming and tacking up. They leadline during parties, camps and shows. They demonstrate skills for us during lessons and clinics, and help keep young riders hydrated during our long, hot summers. Ground Buddies often end up with a fan club, which further encourages them to set a great example and to cheer on their protegé’s progress! There’s an art to training and using Ground Buddies – and to making them feel appreciated and valuable. There are also a few safety practices and legalities to consider. You can read more about Ground Buddies in the introduction to our Rainbow and Red Horsemanship Lesson Plans, as well as an upcoming blog post.

Besides, having a thriving Ground Buddy system in place comes in handy during…

In-house schooling shows

At our small-town barn, located an hour or more from most reputable show venues, very few of our students had the means to join the show team. But they absolutely could afford $5 a class to ride school horses at home – especially knowing that all their friends would be there as well.

Organizing a schooling show is a lot of work and if you are hiring a judge and keeping entries low, probably not your most profitable activity. But we found it can be one of the most important events each year in terms of PR and strengthening a barn community. Students get to practice showing in whatever attire they can afford, without the costs of travel. They get to spend a whole day hanging out with their friends and favorite horses. They win ribbons – with participation ribbons awarded in large classes – and get their picture taken by volunteer photographers. Parents bond as they work together to keep score, man the in-gate, and direct parking.

And because you are running the show, you can set it up any way you like. Our Not-Your-Typical Schooling Shows often included timed mounted classes, or cross-country events with dressage seat equitation and equitation over fences. Just Jumper shows included fast and furious hobbyhorse rounds – for children and adults! Our Spring Fling and Trick-or-Treat mounted games competitions included a leadline division which often filled as soon as entries opened. You can use your imagination and have fun with your shows – and your students will have fun, too.

show teams

Your students that can go to outside shows? Send them there as a team.

Show teams can include unmounted Ground Buddies who play groom for the day, or consider requiring your prospective show team recruits to fill this role before joining the team as a competitor.

Set up a carpool or trailer pool, and coordinate hotels and restaurants to maximize the time your team spends together on the road.

It’s always nice when a student brings home a blue, but our hearts are just as full when we witness students walking each other down to cross-country, or working together to groom a horse to perfection.

working students

Events are fun and exciting, but experienced equestrians know that they all depend on the daily routine. We want our students to learn the not-so-glamorous realities and the quiet joys of the barn routine – and we think it is much easier to accomplish when our students aren’t learning alone.

Hosting regular Working Student gatherings allows students to bond through shared experiences, like learning to check for black widow spiders under the water troughs. Provide participants with a variety of activities – if they only muck stalls, they’ll be less motivated to keep coming back.

Teach students that if they work hard, they can play hard, providing free riding opportunities for qualified students or arena playtime. (Trust us on this: even teenagers can happily spend hours playing over jumps on their own two feet!)

Then foster a supportive environment to keep your barn family together

Implement a strict no-drama policy in the barn and arena, and uphold it yourself. Speak kindly of everyone, and teach your students to encourage instead of critique. When students come to you complaining about others, check your sources. Avoid absolutes, such as teaching students that there is only one right way to train a horse and all other ways are wrong.

Horse people often have a reputation for being judgmental and difficult to get along with, but your barn doesn’t have to be that way! It can be a place where students feel loved and supported at all stages of their education. It can be a place where lifelong friendships are formed. It can be a place where children and adults want to spend their time.

students showing an old lesson pony some love

Hopefully, it will be a place your students will think fondly of for years to come!

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We have been blessed with many talented photographers over the years: students who voluntarily stood out in a sweltering/ freezing arena – or slogged up and down our hilly pastures – capturing lifelong memories of camps, clinics, and shows. We’re grateful to all of them!

One such student, Delaney Witbrod, is now a professional photographer with a gift for animal portraits – see more of her fine work here.

You’ll also find illustrations throughout our online courses and printed materials (like study guides) graciously donated by Rhonda Hagy, who is a student and lifelong friend. Contact us for information about her work.

Are we lucky or WHAT?!

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