Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Equine business rises on changes, trends

Things looked grim for a while. After hitting a peak of about 25 million horses in the U.S. in the 1950s, the equine population went into a steep decline, hitting the bottom in the 1970s at an estimated 2.5 million.

"That's only one-tenth of the peak population of horses," said Robert Miller, leading equine veterinarian and father of the imprint method of training.

Historic changes affecting horse business.

Speaking at the recent Equestrian Lifestyle Expo, Miller explained that by the 1950s the full effect of mechanized agriculture, transportation and industry had made horses obsolete.

But several curious things have since happened.

The number of horses has slowly made a comeback.

"Today there's an estimated 9 million horses in the country," he said. "It's different now. Most of the horses in the country are used for recreation. Very few horses are used for work."

Adding to the comeback in equine interest are education, mass communication and women.

"For the first time in human history, women dominate the horse industry," Miller said. "Why is that important? Because most women have strong nurturing feelings and are inclined to adopt new methods of learning and training."

Education and mass communications play into the rise of the horse business too. The majority of horse owners today are educated, Miller said, something that wasn't true historically when everyone had to have a horse to get around, work the farm and haul cargo.

Methods of mass communications have made it possible to share new techniques quickly among an educated group of horse owners.

The concept of "natural horsemanship" has also come into play.

Miller said he has spent his entire career in the equine business, and he believes more horses than ever are being humanely trained.

"There have always been people in the population who understood a horse's mind," Miller said, "but the common methods of training were very harsh. We'd call people in the ranch business ‘bronc busters' with all the implied violence that term has. Training horses that way wasn't because people were necessarily cruel, but we just didn't know any better."

Miller said new, more humane methods of training horses began to spread based on the rise of a more educated audience inclined to learning, the ability to distribute new methods of training widely through new media and the surge of women taking over the equine business.

"Of all the species of animals, there are only a dozen or so humans have domesticated," Miller said. "Of the domesticated animals, the horse is one of the only animals with a flight instinct as its primary defense mechanism. Its inclination is to run away."

Yet, of all the animals, a human can take a completely wild horse and in a few hours be on the animal's back. But to safely and successfully train a horse requires the rider to understand how the horse thinks, he said.

The arrival and growing acceptance of natural horsemanship based on the understanding of what makes a horse tick instead of brute force has significantly improved the safety and enjoyment of the horse, he said.

"I quit my veterinary practice in 1987 to spend all of my time working with and talking about natural horsemanship," he said. "And I'm still going strong."

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Equine liability laws go only so far

Yvonne Ocrant

Forty-six states, including Illinois and Wisconsin, have equine liability statutes. The laws are intended to shift many of the responsibilities of taking part in equine activities away from stable owners and back to the participants.

States value the social and economic benefits of equine pursuits, so laws are on the books to protect and enhance horses businesses, said Yvonne Ocrant, attorney with Chicago law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson.

But states' love for horse businesses goes only so far.

"What the state gives, the state can take away," Ocrant said during a seminar at the recent Equestrian Lifestyle Expo in Grayslake, Ill. "While the equine liability law shifts risk to participants, there are exceptions. It's not a zero-liability law."

A hallmark feature of the law is its signage requirement. Signs must be posted where they are clearly visible and where equine activities are taking place. The language, explaining that participants ride at their own risk, must be the exact words of the law and posted with one-inch black letters, she said.

"There's really not much ambiguity about the signage posting requirement," Ocrant said. "Saying ‘the horse ate the sign' isn't going to cut it."

Everything in the law also is subject to interpretation. If there's trouble, defining an equine activity can become an issue. Who is doing what and where can become suddenly important.

"Is mom standing by the door watching her daughter take a lesson a ‘participant' in an equine activity?" Ocrant said. "The law generally doesn't apply to spectators or bystanders."

Owners and managers of equine stables and businesses are encouraged to have contracts with all participants, clients, spectators and anyone else using their property for any reason. A properly drafted and executed written liability release can reduce liability exposure.

There are five major exceptions to liability protection for stable owners: Faulty tack or equipment, mismatched horse and rider, dangerous or latent conditions, willful or wanton disregard, and intentional acts.

"You're required to keep your tack and equipment in good working order," Ocrant said. "It's a good idea to have a schedule of equipment maintenance. Keep a record of when the tack is cleaned and examined and replaced."

Equine professionals have to properly match horse and rider. A poor or inexperienced rider paired with a horse known to have a bad attitude is a liability wreck waiting to happen.

"And if someone falls off a horse and gets hurt you're probably going to learn about this exception," Ocrant said.

Dangerous or latent condition exceptions are difficult to define. Snow piles up on the arena roof; it warms up during the day and then during youth lessons slides off with a loud crash. What happens next can introduce you to the nuances of the dangerous and latent condition clause, she said.

"And willful and wanton disregard?" Ocrant said. "Act reasonably."

Contracts and proper insurance are the best way to extend risk management for the operator of an equine business. A legal contract should contain the exact wording of the equine liability law in every case. Additional details are then spelled out based on the nature of the business covered by the contract.

"Insurance is important to be sure even if you win your case you don't lose the farm," Ocrant said. "You're still going to have to pay legal costs and attorneys' fees to defend yourself."

Seek some professional legal help when selecting insurance and writing contracts, she advised. Often the best defense is preparation and awareness of potential risks and using the resources available to minimize risk exposure.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Staying sane in the horse boarding business

Not only do you have to know about horses, you better have the people skills and self preservation instincts to successfully manage a boarding facility. If you can keep the boarders from driving you nuts, you stand a pretty good chance of making it in the business.

Sports psychologist, Ann S. Reilly, said there are two tricks to staying sane in the horse boarding and lesson business: do your best to screen potentially troublesome boarders at the start and then learn to build a protective "bubble" around your own self interests.

"Develop a professional relationship," she said. "Start out with a screening interview when you’re considering new clients. Make sure you understand their expectations and that you carefully explain your own stable policies."

It’s perfectly acceptable to ask prospective clients about their reasons for considering your stable and it’s also good to follow up with references and other professional contacts. "Barn hoppers," people who frequently change stables, are often an immediate concern and you do have the right to decline service.

"You can just tell people right at the start that you don’t think they are a good fit for your barn," Reilly said. "And keep in mind the kind of operation you want. If you have a specialty, then you need to keep that in mind when screening potential new clients."

In tough economic times it’s tempting to accept any new client that shows up. But Reilly cautions that having a negative experience in the barn can cost you far more than keeping a stall empty for a period. "Have some faith that a good boarder will come along. One bad boarder can drive other good customers away," she said.

Go over your written contract policies in person. Make sure all financial policies are explained and understood. Point out your policies on behavior and expectations for conduct while people are using your stable. If you have business hours and are closed one day a week, make it clear to the new boarder there only are exceptions in case of emergencies.

"How important is horsemanship and courtesy to your operation? Spell it out as much as possible right down to use of such things as cross ties," Reilly said.

The relationship with a new boarder then tends to go through phases: the honeymoon when everything is wonderful, a middle phase where the relationship is working day to day, and finally an end phase when a boarder begins to think about leaving.

"The ending phase, if frustration has set in, is sometimes like a divorce," Reilly said. "From a psychological standpoint, you need to manage the ending phase so it goes as smoothly as possible."

While it’s probably not practical to think you can treat each boarder the same, you should have a standard of treating each customer with the same level of fairness. Fairness includes not talking about your clients with other boarders and maintaining standards for boarders and people using your barn to do the same.

"Avoid ‘triangle’ situations. Go talk to someone else about your frustrations and don’t confide in one of your boarders," Reilly cautioned.

 "If you have a situation with a boarder, have a private, professional conversation with the person. Listen actively if you have a boarder come to you with a compliant but keep these issues to yourself," Reilly advised.

Troublemakers in a barn generally fall into several personality categories as described by Riley: The border line personality, the narcissist, the obsessive compulsive, the dependent type, and the negative personality. "Try to limit the number of each in your barn as much as you can,""she said.

A border line client has a crisis all the time and everything is a crisis. The narcissist cares only about themselves and has limited regard for the feelings of others. An obsessive compulsive worries about everything and seeks perfection that’s always out of grasp. The dependent will follow you around always seeking assurance. A negative personality is just plain negative about everything.

"Once you recognize one of these you need to build a personal ‘bubble’ around yourself. Remember, you need to take care of yourself. Take a day a week off and stick to it. Some people can just suck the energy right out of you," Reilly said.

Dealing with each personality type takes some coping mechanisms. The main piece of advice is to not get caught up in the personal issues of each client. If a behavior becomes an issue for the rest of your clients, then Reilly suggested having that personal chat with the person in question and reminding them of your policies and rules.

"A verbal battle usually isn’t productive," Reilly said. "It’s perfectly acceptable to point out that if the person isn’t happy in your barn perhaps it’s not a good fit."