A Bit Of Advice
By Sarah Evers Conrad
Offering an equestrian program can provide a rewarding and enriching experience for campers, but there is a lot to think about when planning such a program. One major factor is having quality facilities for campers to interact with horses and staff members.
The CHA Connection
The Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA), the largest certifying body of riding instructors, camp staff, trail guides, and barn managers in North America, has created a set of standards for equestrian programs that can help management staff determine how to build and/or renovate equine facilities. In addition, the association accredits equestrian facilities, program operations, and program management, according to its manual, Standards for Equestrian Programs. CHA site-accreditation lets potential customers know that a facility adheres to industry safety standards.
Aimee Canterbury of Birmingham, Ala., a CHA Certified Master Level Riding Instructor, has worked with camp equestrian programs for more than 20 years. An experienced equestrian program manager, she is also an American Camp Association (ACA) member, ACA Standards Instructor, and ACA Lead Accreditation Site Visitor.
Canterbury says that safety and usability are the most important factors when building or renovating an equestrian facility. “If you are unsure of the safest way to build a barn, arena or pasture fencing, refer to the CHA Standards for Equestrian Facilities and Programs. “A safe facility will not only make it safer for your horses and students, but will instill confidence in the participants’ parents that safety is important in the program as well as the facility.”
Tim Alderson, Head Wrangler at Pine Cove in Tyler, Texas, is also a CHA Certified Instructor, a lifetime CHA member and former board member, and the 2009 CHA Volunteer of the Year. Alderson oversees Pine Cove’s four barn facilities, located in East Texas within 4 miles of each other. Pine Cove offers trail rides, arena lessons, obstacle courses, a trail class, cattle roundups, and team penning lessons. “Following CHA Standards avoids many, many pitfalls,” says Alderson. He says the “Pine Cove Way” is heavily influenced by the association’s standards and educational material.
Think About The Program’s Needs
Alderson says that facilities can make or break a program. “You should build or renovate your facilities with your program in mind. One example—we feed and tack and ride from the same place. It saves us space, money, and time, but it does open up issues of horse aggression and barn sourness. We just have to take steps to avoid or correct those as they come up.”
Alderson says that separation of horses and people is important and that horses need their own space. He suggests the focus should be on the horse’s housing, feeding, and tacking areas. “Then the other things can happen over time,” he says. “The arena can happen over time. Until then, you can do a trail program.”
He also emphasizes the need for an enclosed area where campers ride, and also an area where campers get ready and do demonstrations on a white board or with tack, etc. “It doesn't necessarily have to be a classroom, but it needs to be an area free of horses, where the horses have their space and the humans have their space, and then the wranglers choose when those two elements come together,” says Alderson.
According to Canterbury, “The first thing to think about when building a new equestrian program at a camp is growth,” she says. “So many camps have built equestrian facilities with the intent of only using them for six weeks in the summer, only to tear them down a few years after they were constructed because the program grew or changed. Will you have room to build an additional barn or an addition when and if the need arises?”
Alderson describes how Pine Cove experienced this exact problem when wanting to expand a barn. “One of the hardest things to amend is a roof line,” he says, recommending that the barn’s size and roof are big enough for future growth and then inside features can be added as the budget allows.
When building or renovating, hiring an architect or other expert can also save money in the long run and avoid some pitfalls. An architect can guide each decision and usually saves people money by knowing the ins and outs of building.
Alderson shares how Pine Cove built one facility in a patch of land that had already been cleared so there was not the expense of clearing trees and other hazards. However, it was not a money-saving tactic. “It just so happened to be where all of the water runs, so we have spent a lot of money after the fact trying to divert water from going through the barn,” he says. “Probably as much as if we would have committed to clearing the land and building it on higher ground. It wasn't obvious that all of the water was coming in this direction.”
Both Canterbury and Alderson recommend that camp owners and managers visit other equestrian camps and lesson barns to determine what might work for them. “You will find something useful and something not ideal at every location,” says Canterbury.
Canterbury recommends that camps focus on the bones of the facility first. “Finishes and aesthetics can be changed, upgraded, or added later, but the foundation needs to be designed to last a century or more,” she says, adding that usability and longevity of materials are important. By using quality materials, a camp can save money in the long run, and there are still ways to get discounts on materials. “Shop around and tell the companies what you are doing and why,” Canterbury advises. “Many locally owned companies will offer discounts of the cost of materials if they know you are providing a service to the community.”
Alderson has seen the benefits and disadvantages between various roofing materials. “We have two barns made of wood, and two barns made of metal,” he says. “With the roof system, it takes a lot of money to insulate a metal roof for the sound of the rain, whereas a wood roof has natural dampening properties in it where no extra insulation is needed. With metal, you don't have the termite issues, and it is cheaper than wood. Because of that, if you insulate the roof, you have some protection from heat and sound from the rain.”
Pine Cove has created a more natural experience and saved money on its barns by having dirt flooring, except for using concrete for the bathroom and tack room. However, dirt flooring can be high maintenance in order to maintain levelness. Alderson emphasizes that he and his staff work hard to keep the facility as clean as possible, lessen the odor, and reduce soil erosion.
When building arenas, Canterbury suggests building a multipurpose arena suitable for all abilities and disciplines. When one facility at Pine Cove didn’t have the funding for an arena, Alderson explains that the organization opted for a round pen instead to keep the trail horses engaged and fresh by giving them some variety in their work.
Renovating Existing Facilities
Canterbury says that renovating a property is a perfect time to bring everything up to current building codes and equine-industry standards. “Use the character of an older facility to your benefit,” she says. “Can you turn an unused hayloft into a classroom? Can you make minor changes and use the barn as an event venue?”
Alderson says that it’s important to clean, organize, and effectively use what is already in place before deciding what to renovate. “Organization and cleanliness are the foundation on which a program is built. Then the staff can relax and focus on what's actually important, which is horse condition, camper safety, and relationships. If those foundational stepping stones are not in place, it adds a degree of stress, and it affects the relationships.”
Canterbury shares that sometimes small changes can make a big difference in the happiness and comfort of staff members and/or campers. Such changes may include adding a refrigerator for drinks, making one room in the barn climate-controlled, or simply adding a covered seating area where campers can wait before they ride.
Canterbury notes, “Those who work at the facility will be able to tell you what can be improved to make their life easier. The tack room may need a wider door. The solid walls between the stalls may need to be changed to bars for added visibility of horses and participants while they are in the stall.”
For more ideas on creating safe, effective, and fun facilities, check out the CHA Standards for Equestrian Programs and the Certified Horsemanship Association at www.CHA-ahse.org.
Equestrian journalist and digital marketer Sarah Evers Conrad recently combined her love of horses and her experience in writing, editing, digital marketing, and PR when she founded All In Stride Marketing. In addition to being published in horse magazines, she is now the editor of CHA’s The Instructor magazine, and her career includes stints at The Horse magazine, Equestrian magazine, and as the Director of E-Communications for the United States Equestrian Federation. She can be reached at SarahConrad@allinstridemarketing.com.