This is a great question and it is something that I believe most barn owners will have to deal with at one time or another. The interesting thing I have learned over the years is that every person will have a different opinion on when to call a vet or not. I never gave this subject much notice until I was the barn owner and had many horses in my care. Just this subject alone has taught me so much about people and running a horse boarding facility.
Over the years I have only have a couple of times when I have had a boarder that avoided or refused to call the vet. In both those situations I finally needed to put my foot down and not give them a choice in the matter and they finally did. This is a part of barn management that is not easy but it is a real part of running a barn. The bottom line is that as the barn owner it is your barn and your rules. Truly I don't believe these times will happen that often if at all in your career but you need to be prepared if a situation arises where you need to make a tough decision as the barn owner.
Be direct and very clear
I am asked often by other barn owners how do you make a boarder call the veterinarian? The answer is simple. I don't give them an option. I am very nice but extremely direct when I tell them they don't have a choice. They might even tell me they want to wait a few days but if I feel they need to call the vet now, then they need to call the vet now - not a few days later! You might be stepping out of your comfort zone as a barn owner or manager but if you are direct and very clear when you make that decision, you most likely will not have any issues from there. Taking control of the situation is not fun but it is necessary if the boarder is not doing anything to help the horse in a serious situation.
You might lose a boarder
Be prepared because if you use your authority to make a boarder call the veterinarian out for their horse, there is a good chance you will lose a boarder. They are going to be upset and you need to be able to handle that. Does it mean you don't call the vet? Of course not. If you feel that things are serious enough that a vet needs to see a horse immediately than do what is right for the horse. In a situation like this it is probably much better if the boarder leaves your facility if they won't be responsible with the care of their horse.
When money is an issue
Sometimes the reason a client won't call a vet is because they don't have the money to pay for the bill. This is a part of horse ownership that comes as a shock to most people when they first purchase a horse and the last thing they want to spend their money on. The truth is that if you have a client that refuses to call a veterinarian in a serious situation because they don't have the money, than they should not own a horse or they need to find a less expensive place to board. If you have a situation like this and money is the issue than you need to be very honest with the person about your thoughts and educate them on the options. The veterinarian still needs to come out and you will need to strongly urge them them to figure out how they will pay for it later especially if time is crucial. Some veterinarians will allow payment plans for clients and many people don't know this is an option. In this situation the best thing you can do as the barn owner is to keep the communication open with your boarder. You need to keep cool, calm and collected even under a stressful situation but more importantly you need to stand your ground and stay firm on your decision.
Have a good boarding contract
As the barn owner the first and most important thing you need is a good boarding contract that covers this subject in depth. Make sure you have a lawyer look over your contract and this part needs to be written correctly for your state for it to hold up and be valid. You also need to understand from your attorney what you can do and not do when it comes to care for a seriously injured horse at your stable. If a client refuses to call the vet and the situation is extremely serious you might need to call the proper authorities that handle these kind of matters if it is deemed negligent. Above all else make sure your boarding contract covers all these types of situations and has been looked over by a lawyer that is very familiar with equine law in your state.
Common sense goes a long way
As the barn owner you need to really have a good understanding of when something is serious and when it is not. You can't panic and insist that your boarders call the vet for every little thing that happens. The more you educate yourself and the longer you do your job the more you will grow in leaps and bounds when it comes to this issue. If you are not sure than I would strongly suggest getting a second opinion.
Finding a balance
With so many clients and different views on care for horses it can become very complicated when it comes to an illness or lameness of a horse. As a barn owner the longer you run your barn the more experience you will gain when it comes to dealing with people and horses. The bottom line is that you will be part of many decisions made regarding many different horses at your barn. You probably won't come across the issue of someone refusing to call the vet very often but if you do, remember that you have the final word. If you see a horse suffering in your care because a client refuses to call the vet than you need to step in. It is a difficult part of barn management but a part of it you will never regret if you do the right thing for the horse in a stressful situation. Above all else remember that most of your clients will be wonderful and this will not be the norm. You might even go your entire career and never have to deal with this kind of issue.
If you would like to read about very real barn management issues and how to problem solve even the most uncomfortable situations, please check out my book, "The Total Horse Barn Management Makeover." It will truly be the most honest book about barn management and you won't find another book that discusses these types of issues in a very real and positive way to resolve them.
Thank you for the great question,