This is a subject that I believe most professional horsewomen will experience sometime in their career. It is probably one of the most difficult areas to talk about because if you have ever experienced a friendship gone sour because of a business decision it will hurt unlike any other pain you have felt before.
The horse industry is unique in so many ways. Many people who run their own barns also live on the property and so the only people they come in contact with daily are their clients. Your world can become extremely small is you let it and it happens often to many barn owners. It seems only natural to want to become friends with your clients and because you both love horses it seems like a perfect match.
I now believe in order to have a solid and healthy friendship with a client you really need to both understand the boundaries. After all the barn owner is still running a business and the boarder/friend is still paying the board each month. It may sound simple but it can become complicated extremely fast especially when there is money being paid out for horse care. This can happen in every part of the horse industry.
As a barn owner and a woman I love to talk with my boarders. I have become close to a couple of them over the years but I have also been on the receiving end of a friendship that has taken a bad turn. People change and it happens in all walks of life but when it is a paying client who happens to be a close friend the situation can become much more challenging to repair.
When issues come up When a friendship develops between the barn owner and a client there are a few things to think about to protect the relationship. The first one being that whenever money is being exchanged on a monthly basis for services provided between a boarder and a barn owner it will automatically create a business relationship between the two and that will always be part of the relationship. The two people can be good friends but it still will put a reminder in the boarder's mind that they are a client and the barn owner still needs to run their barn like a business. It can and will be difficult for many people to separate the two.
What makes it even more challenging is when the boarder has to talk to the barn owner about an issue they are having and the friendship becomes stressed. The conversation could be about another boarder or a problem with their horse in a particular herd or even a complaint about the hay or bedding for the stalls. Anytime the barn owner is questioned by a boarder that is also a good friend it can create anxiety for both people and personal feelings will also play a part in the added anxiety.
The same would be very true for the barn owner who needs to talk with a boarder that also happens to be a good friend. This area is extremely challenging and it can easily put the friendship to the test. I have been down this road a few times and it is just as painful for me to talk with the person as it is for them to hear it.
When the horse is the problem There is nothing worse than telling a boarder that you are having an issue with their horse. It always becomes personal and if that boarder is also a good friend then it can take it to a whole new level. Whether the horse is the one causing the issues or the horse is getting hurt due to other horses in a herd, the problem will need to be addressed and if the barn owner needs to make a decision that is not popular with the boarder there is a good chance it will strain the friendship. The fact of the matter is that it is a business and as the barn owner you need to do what is best for the entire barn and business. This is not easy for everyone and it can become very personal if the boundaries were never put into place.
Ways to protect the friendship Over the years I have learned a lot about running a horse business and how friendships play a part in all of it. The people who I have become close with also had a very good understanding of the need to keep things separate. When I am working at the barn I don't always have time to talk and many days I am pretty busy. I have many clients and horses to take care of everyday. It would be no different then me going to their work during the day and trying to talk and hang out while they work. Learning to separate the two takes skill and common sense is a huge part of it. It is definitely a balancing act at times.
Important! - Don't miss this part! I believe one of the best ways to protect the friendship is to never play favoritism! It will only hurt you in the long run. If you have barn hours then everyone needs to follow them including your close friends. Don't say yes to special requests because they are a friend when you have said no to other clients many times before. You can laugh and have serious talks about life but the rules don't change for the friendship. Don't offer something for a friend that you can't offer for your other clients. If you charge for certain services than you need to charge everyone even your closest boarders. If you can handle this part of your business with friendships as part of it then your friendship with a client has a much better chance of survival.
I have been very lucky that I have had a couple of people throughout the years that have been wonderful friends and clients but we both equally understand that it is a business and there are going to be times when I need to make tough decisions and it might involve them. I also need to understand when they are having a problem and they want to talk to me about it. I believe it is rare to find the perfect combination of two women that can work through the issues that a barn owner/boarder will have from time to time but it can be done if both people can let things go after the discussions are over and things get back to normal.
I must say that I prefer to hang out with people away from the barn where I can just be me and not the barn owner or businesswoman. Then we can just be a bunch of crazy women enjoying friendship, laughter and life.
Can you have a close friendship with a boarder? I think on rare occasion you can become close friends with a client but it will have many challenges along the way as your business grows and changes. If you have been hurt by a friendship that went sour and maybe even lost a boarder from the situation, I encourage you not to give up. We are all learning and growing together. It is a much more delicate relationship as long as they board at your barn but once in a while it does work. I have been lucky that I am still good friends with boarders that have moved and do not board with me anymore.
One more word of advice - Having a friend who happens to be a client is great but you really need to separate the business from the relationship. The best thing you can do as a business owner is to keep the business out of the conversation. I have made this mistake over the years (because I love to talk) and it has come back to bite me in the butt. Hang out and have fun but remember there is a time and place for everything. I have found it healthy to get involved in something outside your horse business even if it is once a month. Having friends that only know you as you and not the barn owner or trainer is a good thing.
There are no guarantees how a relationship is going to turn out between the barn owner and the boarder but it doesn't mean you stop trying. Enjoy all your wond