This article explains everything you need to know about setting up your own livery yard and its maintenance. The information given here can also help you establish a strong market position for your yard.
Before letting passion rule reason, there are some fundamental issues to consider. You need to:
- understand the business and the market for livery services
- have savings that can be used as capital
- be or at least know someone who is 'handy', otherwise you will pay through the nose for maintenance
- be both a horse person and a people person.
It is advisable to have an equestrian qualification, as this reassures clients as to your soundness to look after their horse. It also means you can charge more for training, exercising or riding lessons.
Some costs are fixed and therefore unavoidable if you are to go into business, others are variable and depend on how many clients you have.
Your fixed overheads will include your mortgage or rent, business rates, insurance and property maintenance costs.
The large majority of your day to day running costs are mostly variable, including electricity, water, hay and straw, and of course wages. While your bills will be lower with fewer clients, there will still be a minimum level of costs to stay open.
You should also factor in some reserve for any emergency costs, such as a payment of excess on insurance or a one-off building repair.
You may need money to extend the facilities. For example, it might be necessary to seek planning permission to build the yard from scratch, or extend even small outbuildings or install a ménage.
Between you and your clients, there should be a legal livery contract drawn up. This protects you against damage caused to your property, either willful or through negligence. It also protects you if the client decides to sue for malpractice, as it would state your responsibilities compared to theirs.
There are means of reducing costs.
Buying hay and straw in bulk is highly recommended. Find out how much it would cost to rubber mat the stables; a one-off payment now means less straw or shavings on an on-going basis (and this also reduces the time it takes to muck out).
As with every business, shop around before purchasing for equipment - though, be mindful of your target client, as anyone paying upward of £60 a week will not appreciate a skimp on quality.
Reduce your electricity by posting 'Switch Off' signs around the yard - it only takes one forgetful person to have the bills mount up!
Limit heating costs: supply a kettle, and most clients will happily warm themselves up on hot drinks and forgive you if the tack room is stone cold. Unless you are providing a high-end service, you shouldn't need to provide central heating.
Importantly, the yard must be close to where you live. You need to be able to get there quickly in an emergency.
Additionally, you do not want the commute adding to your running costs.
Preferably you need to be within ten miles of a town to attract as many clients as possible. But you also need to be somewhere that isn't already 'saturated' with yards already. Read more about what clients are looking for when finding a livery yard.
Taking over livery stables that are currently running can be advantageous - you should already have clients, a pricing structure and facilities established.
If this is the case, you do need to investigate why it is up for sale or lease to ensure it wasn't running at a devastating loss!
Establishing a Unique Selling Point (USP) should help your business distinguish itself from other yeards, and reduce your direct competition with them. Your USP could be the type of livery you offer, or the type of training expertise, the facilities, the access to off-road hacking or the distance to local venues.
Avoid undercutting your competitors (i.e. a USP based on price alone). You may run at a loss or fall short in quality if you can't make enough money. Low prices are important to many people, but there are often factors that are more important, for which they will happily pay. This might include something you don't directly influence, such as the proximity of your yard to their home.
Once you have decided your USP and have established the business, you must advertise it.
Place adverts in local feed shops, tack shops, riding schools, newspapers or even shop windows. Don't be afraid of leafleting at local shows.
Network with local vets and farriers, as they will spread the word for you. See if it is possible to do a deal whereby they will shoe or vaccinate horses at a lower cost on one call. Clients appreciate these type of deals.
It depends on you and your circumstances.
You need to decide whether the yard is going to be your main source of income and, thus, your full-time job. This decision will dictate what type of service you are going to offer.
For someone who wants a small place where they can keep their own horse and make some money from renting the spare stables, then a DIY yard is advisable. You are responsible for the maintenance of the place; they are fully responsible for the horse. You do not have to provide a state-of-the-art service at a DIY yard since most of your clients will own horses for leisure: sometimes, a small schooling area and access to quiet lanes/bridleways will suffice.
DIY liveries seldom charge more than £40 a week, depending on facilities, and the client-owner relationship is usually quite 'casual' with cash payments per week and shorter notice periods for departure. 'Casual' relationships shouldn't mean that your attitude towards the business is casual - the yard still needs to be run as a business. We recommend using our DIY livery agreement template for 'do-it-yourself' arrangements.
There are some clients, don't forget, who are happy to hop between every DIY yard in the area. DIY yards work best when the owner isn't under financial pressure to fill every stable and can be selective about who they allow on the yard; this means you have people there you trust so that you do not feel like you have to be on-site all the time.
The larger the yard, the greater the time commitment will be for you and the greater the expenses. It is important to do the maths and determine how many stables you need to fill at what price in order to break even. If this is high, DIY might not be an option.
Part livery involves you caring for the horse's daily needs at least some if not every day of the week. You can charge between £70-120 for this per week, and it is essential to know what other yards in the area are charging so that yours matches what clients are willing to pay.
The time cost of caring for the horses may require you or someone else to live on-site. Grooms can be given accommodation on-site with rent deducted from their wages (use a service occupancy contract); however, most grooms are young, ambitious riders so you will need to manage them and provide a code of practice to ensure they act professionally.
Full livery also requires you to provide an extensive service, including exercising the horse.
If you have expertise and qualifications in a particular discipline, then providing training is a credible option. You can offer training packages that mean the horse is housed on-site for a particular length of time, to either prepare for the upcoming season or to progress their career. This package comes at a premium rate and is often more profitable.
However, this will mean having a regular cycle of clients so you may choose to restrict it to only one or two 'slots' until you have built up a local reputation and therefore a client base.
Clients at part and full liveries expect more in terms of facilities. At a minimum, you should provide adequate toilets and changing facilities for them, a proper floodlit ménage and access to off-road hacking for their horse.
A clean and professional look is also essential. Everything must be well maintained, including adequate fencing and good muck heap management.
It is highly recommended that you seek BHS Approval - this comes at an added cost, but it shows you are willing to undergo inspection without notice and meet all the BHS' standards for a livery yard.
Lastly, once the yard is set up, do not let something small ruin its reputation.
Ensure that all the horses are thoroughly vaccinated, wormed and free of common viruses such as strangles. Make sure all areas are securely locked. Make sure all maintenance work is complete and therefore everywhere is safe. Ensure the grooms are trained and understand the routines.
It only takes one unfortunate slip-up in the early stage for the word to spread like wildfire, since the horse business runs largely on word of mouth. It pays to be extra vigilant. One way you can help protect your business is to use comprehensive legal contracts. A good contract will make clear your responsibilities, the responsibilities of the horse owner, and help protect you in claims against you that were negligent in your duties of care.