If you love horses and working outdoors, running a livery stable could be the right career choice for you. Our practical guide will help you start up and run your livery stable business.
- Research your target market
- Types of livery service
- The livery yard
- Decide which services to offer
- Price your services
- Draw up a contract for livery services
- Promote your stables
- Buy an existing business
Research your target market
Establish your customer profiles
Your customers will be local horse and pony owners who do not have the land, accommodation and, in some cases, the time to look after their animal themselves. Depending on their requirements you will be able to offer them a package of services that suits them. This might range from the total care of the animal, seven days a week, to just providing grazing, supervision and shelter.
Although your customers will be of all ages and from a variety of backgrounds it is likely that many of them will be children who will want to be heavily involved in the day to day care of their horse or pony. Bearing this in mind it would be worth making sure that everyone coming to the yard on a regular basis is aware of any rules you may have so that things are always put back in the right place, lights and water switched off when not in use and so on.
Establish whether there is enough demand in your area for your livery stables business. You should be aware that many farmers have diversified into this type of activity because of the downturn in farm incomes. As they already own land and may have suitable buildings they are in a strong position to compete with a stand-alone livery business.
A browse on Yell.com and other similar online directories under Stables and Riding Schools will give you an idea of how many establishments currently offer livery services in your area and give you an idea of the range of activities and services they offer. Also do an online search for competitors.
Make sure that your area has lots of 'horsey' people and activities. Are there many local equestrian events? Are there lots of bridleways and opportunities for off-road riding such as moorland, woodland or beaches? Is there an active Pony Club? Is the area well provided with saddleries and tack shops, and vets with expertise in equine matters? As part of your market research you could talk to other businesses (such as farriers) about the local horse population and how popular riding is in the area. If possible, visit other livery stables to find out:
- the range of livery services they offer
- the fees they charge
- if they're British Horse Society (BHS) or Association of British Riding Schools (ABRS) approved
- whether their yards and stables are well laid out and maintained
- how busy they are - do they have a waiting list or do they have many vacancies?.
Why will horse owners choose your livery stables?
You need to make sure that enough clients will choose your stables rather than your competitors'. It may be that your market research has shown there is a gap in the market that you can fill. For example, perhaps no one locally provides a floodlit arena and jumps (useful during the winter months) or offers breaking and schooling services. Be wary about competing mainly on price - horse owners are generally prepared to pay for the provision of a good quality service from well maintained and secure stables.
Becoming BHS approved will reassure potential customers that you aim to provide them with the highest standards of service and conform to the latest health and safety requirements. You will also be able to reach a wider audience for your business by promoting it through the BHS website and publications including British Horse magazine, the UK's highest circulating equestrian magazine.
Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues
Types of livery service
Livery stables are used by horse owners who do not have the facilities or time to house, feed and care for their animals. Many different types of arrangement are offered, depending on the requirements and resources of the horse or pony owner.
This is the most expensive type of livery because the stables has responsibility for every aspect of looking after the horse - feeding, grooming, regular exercise, attention to health, and so on. The horse is made ready for local events and competitions and, in some cases, is transported there in a horse box. All the horse's owner has to do is mount, enjoy the ride and hand the animal back to the stables at the end of the session.
This arrangement suits horse owners who have time to ride several times a week but do not have the time or inclination to attend to the everyday care of the animal. The stables is responsible for feeding, grooming, mucking out, any additional exercise needed, shoeing, and so on. Full livery may include turning out and bringing in seven or five days a week, depending on what the horse owner is able to do themselves. Generally, shoeing and vet's fees aren't included in the fee.
This type of livery provides for the stables to accommodate the horse but the horse owner retains the responsibility for caring for the animal, including feeding, grooming, turning out and exercising it. Usually the stables sells the feed and bedding to the owner but the owner does all the work. Sometimes DIY livery is provided at weekends in conjunction with a full livery package during the week.
The stables accepts the horse for supervised grazing. Some form of shelter is normally provided as well as access to a water supply. The horse owner can leave the tack and any supplementary feed in a secure store.
Part livery arrangements vary according to the owner's requirements, but typically the stables provides accommodation, grazing, feeding and mucking out while the owner is generally responsible for exercise and grooming.
This arrangement is more commonly found in riding schools - the livery fee is reduced, but in return the school can use the horse for a number of hours per week for riding lessons. The owner of the horse is usually responsible for the cost of shoeing, worming and vet's fees.
A variety of other services may be offered alongside the provision of caring, feeding and accommodation services for the horse. For example, you might offer horse and rider training, schooling and breaking liveries. Some stables look after horses which are for sale - this involves keeping the horse in good condition, advertising it and showing it to potential buyers. It is a good idea to be as flexible as possible so long as the services you offer are producing enough income for the business.
Livery may be offered for both short and long term stays.
The livery yard
In order to offer a full range of livery services you will need:
- stabling that is well constructed, lit and ventilated. British Horse Society (BHS) and British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) standards specify a minimum size of 10ft x 10ft for ponies, 12ft x 12ft for horses, and larger animals should be given an extra 2ft of width (either 10ft x 12ft or 12ft x 14ft). They also recommend that the height of the stable should be between 9 and 11 feet, with a minimum of 3 feet of clearance from the roof. You can download the Code of Practice for the Welfare of Horses, Ponies, Donkeys and their Hybrids from the Gov.uk website. This contains detailed guidance on stable sizes, pasture, fencing and other accommodation matters
- dry and secure storage for feed, hay and straw. Think about how you will keep rats and mice out of feed stores. You'll also need to make sure thieves don't steal hay and other feed - this has become more of a problem as the price has risen
- a secure store for owners' tack and other equipment
- one or more heated rug rooms
- a muck pile/storage area
- a yard where horses can be washed down and groomed
- toilet facilities for both staff and horse owners
- grazing. The amount of land you will need will depend on whether it is to provide total grass keep or supplementary grazing. However, BHS guidelines specify at least one acre for each horse. Good pasture management is essential. (You can download the Pasture Management advisory leaflet from the BHS website.) Think about providing a shelter from the elements and also how you will provide a water supply
- parking facilities
If you have enough space and resources, consider providing a floodlight arena and/or an indoor school. This provides an opportunity for riders to exercise during the winter months. Also consider kitting out a rest room with drink and snack vending machines.
Decide which services to offer
As well as offering livery services on a variety of different terms (full, DIY, grass and so on) there are many other services that you might consider offering, depending on your resources.
It will help attract horse owners to your stables if you can offer them something extra.
For example, where will horse owners ride during the evenings in the winter months? You might provide a floodlit arena with jumps or an indoor school. You could even generate extra income by hiring out the school for other activities.
Your clients might welcome the opportunity to have some riding lessons to improve their technique. If you do not have the qualifications and experience to offer these yourself, use a freelance trainer.
Think about becoming involved with the British Horse Society (BHS) Participation Project which aims to get horse owners more involved with their horse and with horse activities. Centres that participate offer horse owners theory and practical training courses, for which they charge a fee.
You could offer horse 'B&B' to visitors to your area who would like to bring their horses with them. You could participate in the BHS Horses Welcome scheme - the BHS will inspect the horse accommodation you offer and include your details in their online Find a Horses Welcome establishment directory.
If you have the expertise you could offer a range of other services such as:
- clipping and plaiting
- breaking and schooling
- riding demonstrations
Your customers might welcome a full tack cleaning or rug/bandage washing service.
If you have the space, consider selling tack, grooming equipment, rugs and so on, not only to your livery customers but to any horse owner. You could also see whether other horse owners with their own land and stabling would be interested in buying feed, hay and bedding from you.
You might be prepared to sell your clients' horses for them, keeping a proportion of the sale price as commission.
Price your services
The number of stables you have and the acreage of your grazing land will inevitably limit the number of horses you can accommodate at any time. And you may not be 100% full all the time although some well-run establishments are so much in demand that they have a waiting list.
So you will need to consider:
- how much income you need to earn to cover all of your operating costs, including your own drawings
- how many horses and ponies you can accommodate
- how busy you are likely to be - your utilisation rate
- the costs you will incur per horse such as bedding, concentrate feeds, hay, and so on
- what other expenditure you are prepared to include in your livery fee
This will help you to come up with a tariff for the different types of livery you offer. Although you must base this on your own costs, you will need to make sure your fees are broadly in line with your competitors. Visit as many livery stables websites as possible to get a feel for what other businesses charge, and what they include in the fee. The Farm Management Pocketbook by John Nix contains useful information about typical livery charges. You can order a current issue of the Pocketbook from the pocketbook.biz website.
The British Horse Society (BHS) produces a guide to the cost of keeping a horse or pony which includes typical monthly fees for different types of livery. You can download The Cost of Keeping a Horse or Pony from the BHS website.
Special offers and discounts
You might be prepared to have promotional special offers from time to time. For example, free straw or hay for one month when a new customer signs up.
Some livery stables offer discounts to owners who have more than one horse at livery - but make sure you are still making a reasonable profit if you do this. If the livery fee includes feed, hay and so on and costs go up, your profit margin may become too small.
It can be worth offering an incentive to existing customers if they introduce another horse owner. This might be a small discount for a few weeks, some free bedding or feed, or the provision of a free service, for example clipping.
Draw up a contract for livery services
Because there are a number of different livery arrangements, and different owners have different requirements, it is important that you draw up a contract that clearly sets out the services included in the fee and the services or items for which extra charges will be made. Also outline any rules you may have, such as hours of access, where clients may safely leave their vehicles, responsibility for removing droppings from the yard, and so on.
Matters to consider when drawing up a contract include:
- which services you will provide and how much they will cost
- when the fees are payable - some liveries request monthly payments in advance
- who is responsible for veterinary charges and other expenses such as shoeing and worming
- what equipment will be provided by the client; for example, grooming equipment, buckets and haynets
- which vet or farrier to use and whether these can be called out at the stables' discretion
- who has responsibility for inoculations - it is important that all the horses you care for have up-to-date flu and tetanus vaccinations
- the insurance cover for the horse itself and for any damage it might cause in the yard. Each party should be clear as to their respective responsibility
You can access a draft contract for livery services from the British Horse Society (BHS) website.
Promote your stables
The right image
Horse owners will want the best they can afford for their animals, so make sure that your stables, yard and pasture are well maintained and smart. Keep fences and gates mended and secure and make sure your grazing land is kept free from poisonous plants. Your staff should be well trained because a good working relationship with your customers is vital.
Promote your business
Whatever the range of livery and other services you decide to offer, you'll need to make sure your potential clients know about you. Of course, word of mouth recommendation is one of the best ways of getting customers, but there are a number of things you can do which will promote your business:
- advertise in your local newspaper and any local leisure directories
- establish good relationships with other local horse businesses such as vets, farriers, farm suppliers, feed merchants, saddlers and riding schools, so that they refer people to you
- contact local riding clubs and perhaps sponsor an event
- gain BHS Approved Livery status to benefit from a listing in their directory
- set up your own website highlighting the quality service you offer - it's a good idea to include plenty of photos of the stabling, the yard and grazing
- use social media like Facebook and Twitter to tell clients about events - for example, dressage clinics. Short videos of customers using your ménage and other facilities might go down well on YouTube
Buy an existing business
You might decide to buy an existing livery business rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that the products, customers, regular sales, staff, premises and equipment are already in place.
But buying a business can be a hazardous, expensive process unless you have the right skills and experience on your team, including legal and financial know-how. Establish the genuine trading and financial position, so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.
- the state of the stables, yard, equipment and so on. Will you have to spend money refurbishing or replacing assets, or installing new amenities like an indoor arena?
- the quality of the land - will you be able to accommodate a sufficient number of animals without the pasture deteriorating?