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Essential Business Boundaries

Riding and instruction is a labor of love, and when you do something you're passionate about it can be hard to say no. But failing to set boundaries in your equestrian business may set you up for headache and heartache down the road.

A lack of boundaries can wreak havoc on your business and your well being. Keep reading to explore four essential boundaries for a thriving business, and get tips on how to set--and maintain--them.

woman walks horse english saddle blue barn

What Are Boundaries?

Boundaries are guidelines for what behaviors you are willing to tolerate from others, what you aren't, and what will happen if someone does not honor your boundary.

Boundaries differ from rules in one important way: boundaries are all about you, not other people. Rules tell others what they can and cannot do. Boundaries, on the other hand, are your expectations for how others treat you--and what you will do if those expectations aren't met. Ultimately, it's up to you to communicate your boundaries, and the other person, or people, to understand and respect them.

Setting Boundaries

How to Set Boundaries

Set boundaries that are firm, simple to understand, and not ambiguous. Remember: clear is kind. The kindest thing you can do for your business, yourself, and your clients is establish clear boundaries and make sure your clients are aware of, understand, and agree to those boundaries.

When defining your boundaries, try asking yourself these questions:

  • Am I communicating my boundary as simply as possible? Could I use fewer words, or simpler words?

  • Is there any space for misunderstanding or ambiguity?

  • Have I clearly outlined what the boundary is, and what the consequence is if the boundary is not met?

  • Am I being overly defensive or explanatory? (Remember: boundaries describe the 'what', not the 'why.' You don't have to defend or explain yourself.)

Why Boundaries Matter

Clear boundaries also keep your students, your horses, and you and your staff safe. When clear boundaries are in place and being honored, your attention can be better spent on the horse and rider in front of you, and less on avoidable stressors like lack of payment, inexcusable behavior, or constant texts from other clients. The simple act of refining your attention can help you and your clients have more enjoyable and productive lessons and training sessions.

Boundaries also help your clients understand what is expected of them to have a safe and enjoyable experience. No one likes being called out for doing something they didn't know wasn't acceptable. Barn rules are non-negotiable, but your clients can't follow the rules if they don't know what the rules are.

Four Essential Boundaries

As you begin creating and establishing new boundaries for your business, consider these four essential boundaries as a starting point.

1. Availability

If you're a riding instructor or trainer, you can likely resonate with the feeling of always being 'on.' You're either teaching clients, training your horses, cleaning the barn, or--when the day is done--responding to messages about lesson schedules, new client inquiries, horse care concerns, and more. You may struggle to remember the last time you truly had a day 'off.'

Setting boundaries around your availability is crucial for your mental and emotional well being, and can help you avoid burnout. Determining when you are available for different needs, including lessons, communications, show coaching, or clinics, can help you regain control over your schedule, even if you are still doing it all alone.

This boundary might look like:

  • "I teach lessons between 4pm-6pm Monday-Wednesday, and 9am-12pm Sunday and Monday. I am not available for lessons outside of those times."

  • "I will return rescheduling requests within 24 hours."

NOTE: It's easy to make exceptions to your schedule 'just this once' or 'just for this client.' We all have that one student we'd move mountains for, and couldn't possibly say no to. When setting boundaries regarding your availability, consider what you can reasonably hold yourself and others accountable to. And remember: the more consistent you are with enforcing your boundaries, the more consistent your clients will be with honoring them.

2. Payments

Are you tired of chasing payments, tracking who's paid what, and asking clients to please pay on time--for the thousandth time?

You're running a business, and your ability to feed the horses, pay the bills, and keep your business afloat depends on prompt payments. Few instructors have enough overhead to comfortably let payments slide. But even if you did, why should you?

They key to getting paid promptly isn't nagging your clients more, it's setting--and enforcing--a clear boundary regarding payments. Your clients need to know what you expect, and know what the consequence is for failing to pay on time.

This boundary might look like:

  • "Payment is due at the time of service. Late payments will incur a $5 fee for each week they are delayed. More than 3 late payments may result in removal from the lesson program."

  • "Payments are deducted automatically on the first of each month. A failed transaction will result in a $15 fine."

NOTE: If you're having a hard time setting boundaries around money, consider this: put yourself in the shoes of a salon stylist, or a baseball coach. Try to imagine either of these professionals letting clients pay weeks or months late, or letting them return for another haircut or practice before their previous bill has been paid. Hard to imagine, right? Why should your business be any different?

3. Late Arrivals and No Shows

Is there anything more aggravating than a client who consistently arrives late, or who doesn't show up for their scheduled lesson? The issue with tardiness or no shows isn't just the annoyance: it's a sign of utter disrespect.

When clients don't put as much (or more!) effort into the time you're giving them than you are, they're sending a clear message that they don't respect your time--or you. Setting firm boundaries regarding your time isn't just important for running a well-oiled business: it's a sign of self respect.

Set boundaries that outline how you expect your clients to show up for you for the service you are providing. After all, it's your time and expertise they're paying for. Plus, if you consistently showed up late or didn't show up at all for lessons, you can bet your clients would find a new instructor. Just like they wouldn't tolerate such disrespect, nor should you.

This boundary might look like:

  • "Arriving more than 5 minutes late for your lesson will constitute forfeiture of the lesson. No refund will be given."

  • "The first no-show will be given a verbal warning. No refund will be given for the missed lesson. The second no-show will result in removal from the lesson program.

4. Cancellation Policy

Cancelled lessons happen. Sickness, injury, weather, and a host of other challenges can force you or clients to cancel lessons. Sometimes it's unavoidable, but without clear boundaries, cancellations can become problematic.

When establishing boundaries for your cancellation policy, consider the different scenarios that might cause you or clients to cancel, and how to handle those different situations. For example, weather is unpredictable and unavoidable. But who makes the call to cancel based on weather--you or the client?

On the other hand, if a client cancels the day of a lesson, do they still owe the payment? Remember: you're running a business. Not many service-based businesses will let a client cancel day-of without having to pay for the service. Your time is too valuable to waste with last minute cancellations.

This boundary might look like:

  • "I reserve the right to cancel lessons in the event of inclement weather. In that case, a credit equal to the value of the lesson will be applied to your account."

  • "You will be charged in full for cancellations within 24 hours of the scheduled lesson, except in the event of illness or injury."

A Final Word

You're running a business and providing a service. You should feel free to set boundaries that outline the kind of behavior you are willing to accept and what you aren't. These boundaries form the framework by which your clients learn to conduct themselves in the context of your business.

When you encounter a challenging moment with a client, whether it's late payments or unacceptable behavior, ask yourself this: would this behavior be tolerated if it were any other sport? Would the coaches allow a chronically late teammate to play? If a family doesn't pay for soccer camp, can they still attend?

Managing equipment, keeping horses healthy, and maintaining a facility place tremendous burdens on trainers and instructors, yet equestrian sports have long been managed differently than other organized sports that have often have clear expectations regarding attendance, payment, and performance.

If you've never set business boundaries, it can feel uncomfortable at first. Just remember: you treat people how to treat you. If the way you're running business now is frustrating, or if you feel burnout creeping in, try setting some boundaries to help regain control over your business. In the end, boundaries are good for your clients, your horses, and you.

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