BY ELYSE SCHENK
Those willing to pursue the unforgiving business of horse boarding aren’t in it for the promise of easy success. Only a certain type of entrepreneur will endure the risk and often thankless role of running a horse farm. These horsemen and women regularly prove themselves selflessly and whole-heartedly dedicated to horse care and client satisfaction.
Maybe the selfless resilience already required to operate a boarding barn has prepared the boarding industry for the unprecedented effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While other shut-down businesses (understandably) panic in desperation from drastic loss in revenue, most boarding barn managers are handling the chaos nobly by concentrating on the continued high level of care for the horses while they sympathize with temporarily horse-less horse owners. You won’t find self-pity in this industry. Boarding barn operators are humbly and bravely rising to the occasion.
Katie Colfer-Reece of Colfer Sporthorses LLC closed her Harbor Springs, Michigan facility to boarders on March 23rd. When asked her biggest fear right now, she first lists the wellbeing of her clients.
“I have a number of older clients who are high risk,” Colfer-Reece explains. “I am of course worried they or my parents won’t be able to get the care they need, or that any level of care won’t be enough.” Katie worries for clients, as their fate is out of her control, but she feels confident in her ability to continue quality care for her clients’ horses, despite the tight state restrictions.
“Nothing has changed for the horses in regard to their care. I was already running on a pretty minimal staff for the amount of work, so we haven’t changed anything there,” says Colfer-Reece, adding that horses are getting training rides as a substitute for regular client lessons. “The only thing [the horses] probably noticed is that they are getting a lot more riding and grooming from me and that their ‘treat fairies’ (owners) aren’t around.”
Heaps of demanding tasks are part of just another day on the farm. Barn managers like Katie Colfer-Reece humbly accept a tremendous workload already, every day, with or without a pandemic.
“I started my business during our last fiscal crisis, so I feel a little prepared to manage things going forward,” Colfer-Reece adds, proving again the durability of horse farm operators. Similarly, Willow Acres Farm has faced worse crisis before, and they’re flexing those hardship muscles during the COVID-19 crisis today.
Stacy Dietz, owner and operator of the Indiana horse farm, states “this is not close to the hardest time I have had in 30 years of operation. A bad drought scared me. A severe storm that wiped out a bunch of fence, barn roofs, and such, was stressful. In 2012 I lost half of my clients at once [due to the poor economy]. That was frightening.” As a barn manager, Dietz is accustomed to adversity.
Similarly, New York-based Pam Lyon of Pine Plains Equestrian Center explains that her business has been through and recovered from worse times than these.
“I broke my back at the end of April, but still had a business to try to bring along as well… despite the challenges and unknowns we bounced back and prospered!” Like many other tough barn managers, Lyon has resilience on her resume. She’s wielding it as a weapon in the face of COVID-19.
As for the strenuous demands of the pandemic on daily management, Lyon and her crew are far from shell-shocked.
“With 32 horses on the farm, it’s a lot of work, but we’re used to it!” Despite the extra labor, the Pine Plains team is using this time for barn renovations and other “surprises” for their boarders. Impressively, client satisfaction remains a priority during the pandemic. The Pine Plains crew goes the extra mile to provide emotional reassurance to owners through photos and videos of their beloved horses. Lyon and her team are facing these hardships with positivity and selfless consideration for clients.
Thus, instead of dwelling on the current unfortunate circumstances, Lyon states that “I see COVID-19 as more of a delay and time to refocus and build further. It is a challenge, but one to be faced and used to become better.”
Wyn Farm’s Jordan Irwin-Kroll admits many challenges the Michigan-based facility is facing. Between economical and emotional stress, they’re trying their best to work through the uncertainty.
“[Between four staff members], we are currently riding and lunging around 12 to 15 horses each day,” Irwin-Kroll describes. “Our horses and our boarder horses are accustomed to a regular work schedule and this keeps their brains and bodies occupied so they do not become unruly or dangerous to handle. We are sending our boarders and lesson clients pictures, videos and updates as well. This makes for a very long and busy day, but it seems to be working well so far.”
The Wyn Farm team is working tirelessly to keep business afloat. “[We] immediately cancelled public lessons to reduce the amount of traffic to our farm. This was a huge financial hit, as our lesson horses earn their keep by giving these lessons,” states Irwin-Kroll. She mentions the additional stress of potentially having to cancel their annual on-site horse show in May.
“These shows are very important to us financially as a farm, and we rely on that income. Not only that, but we have spent a lot on capital improvements last year that we are looking to begin to recoup…such as two new show stall barns. If they sit empty, that would not be ideal.”
As a serious businesswoman, Jordan Irwin-Kroll has identified all of the dangers this virus poses to the success and survival of the farm. However, that same professionalism is allowing the Wyn Farm team to plan accordingly and remain as optimistic as possible. “[A lot] of disappointment is headed our way I’m sure, but we are trying to stay positive.” Through bravery, they are adapting and overcoming.
Jordan adds that “this is a profession that cannot be infiltrated by fear, as horses have that uncanny 6th sense of knowing exactly what we are feeling”. She perfectly sums up the unique ability for horsemen to overcome crisis. “In a way, working with horses has better equipped us to face this pandemic.”
Barn managers Katie Colfer-Reece, Stacy Dietz, Pam Lyons, and Jordan Irwin represent the boarding industry with bravery, compassion and professionalism during the chaos of this pandemic. Yet, they aren’t the only ones making the best of this situation. According to poll data, 87% of boarding barn managers and owners are optimistic that their farms will survive this crisis, and 70% describe the business shut-downs as manageable.
To boarding barn managers, thank you for continuing to fight for our horses’ care. To scared owners, trust in your horses’ caregivers— they have a history of doing everything within their power for you and your horse. These selfless horsemen are warriors in the battle against COVID-19.
Wondering what you can do to help? Consider sponsoring a school horse at a lesson program near you.
Elyse writes with a passion to inspire and inform the equestrian community. After two decades of riding and competing on the hunter-jumper circuit, she now focuses on transforming her love for horses and the equestrian community into words. Most of her time is spent caring for her two kids, riding whenever possible, and writing. Follow her on Instagram @equestrianwriting to learn more.