University of Vermont AAHS

LITIGATION CORNER : Large Lesson Barns Can Be Management Nightmares

Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

[reproduced from Spring 2003 issue of Caution:Horses]

Large lesson barns can be management nightmares.  It makes no difference what type of barn it is--whether it is a private show barn with several instructors, a private summer camp or a non-profit summer camp, or a boarding, lesson, and training stable.  It can be of any discipline.  Often the Owner or manager believes that the instructors are all independent contractors.  Too often that will turn out not to be true.

When a serious accident happens it is too late to clean up procedural shortcomings and the part of management that should have been the barnís best defense may turn out to be itís biggest problem.

When the instructors represent management, or the owner, or the deep pocket, and it is best to assume that the instructors will represent the management, consistency is of the utmost importance.  What must be consistent is the riding program throughout.

One hopes that there is a trainer or senior who sets out the program.  It should be clear to each instructor what is being taught so that the instructors who are teaching the same level are teaching the same thing.  It makes good sense to have the program outlined by lesson plans in the office.

If the students are given written material it needs to agree with what the instructors are being asked to teach.  A ridiculous situation arises when students are given written material that does not agree with what the instructors are teaching.  The situation gets sillier if what the instructors are teaching does not agree with the written material with which they were provided.  In a single program there is a potential for three different versions of the same material.  It has happened.

Staff meetings to discuss horses behavior and students progress are a good idea so that everyone stays on the same page.  That way the program does not keep a horse that has had an incident or may be developing a problem without looking into the problem.  The program also has a procedure for keeping an eye on student progress and problems.

A formal procedure for fitting and assigning saddles to each horse is a good idea.  It will prove that it has been done.  The same goes for a regular inspection and repair schedule.

All of these things are issues that come up in cases time and time again and too often people say, ďOh, we do that almost all the time.Ē  The problem is that after the serious accident it is too late to develop a procedure that should have been in place all along.

The same procedure will not do for all places.  As a guideline it is good to remember that if the instructor does not teach elsewhere, and she does not pay the facility a usage fee, he or she is probably not an independent contractor.  If there are several instructors there should be some documented coordination of the program by the management.  Someone needs to be keeping official tabs on the school horses, not to record incidents but to make sure that they get enough R&R and that no horse that exhibits unexplained, bad behavior is kept in the program.

An up-to-date procedure manual and a formal lesson program are two of the best things a stable can have in the event of an accident.  This is particularly true if the procedure manual and the program has been written in such a way that each instructor knows what criteria management expects a student to meet before that student is allowed to increase the risk of the activity either by a faster gait, jumping, moving to a larger riding area, or leaving the enclosure altogether.

If everybody knows the drill and follows it then when the accident happens the instructor will be in the position to say this is the criteria that we use and the student demonstrated it so I had every reason to believe that he could safely attempt the new activity.

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