Finding That Niche

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No one can be all things to all people. At McDonald’s, you don’t expect lasagna or fried rice. So don’t serve yourself up as an equine business buffet. By trimming down the menu of offerings at your facility, you can focus on what you are truly good at and ultimately be more profitable.

Don’t “Mix It Up”

Lisa Derby Oden of Blue

Ribbon Consulting (www.horse­consulting.com) shares relevant case examples.“One client began in combined training, then evolved into dressage. Okay. Another did hunters and jumpers and now does just jumpers. That makes sense,” says Oden. “But another did Arabians, Saddleseat, natural horsemanship and then he started with dressage and is eyeing reining. He’s said for 20 years, ‘I need to do something about my focus and my marketing.’ ”

When it comes to finding the right niche, Oden advises that horse professionals first consider their backgrounds and what they are good at. One of Oden’s clients said adamantly, “I do Western Pleasure, but there’s more money in hunter/jumpers!” To which Oden replied, “If you’re obviously uneducated, you’ll turn customers off.”

Oden cites a Morgan barn as another example. The facility “did some endurance and some dressage.” The owners decided to hold small two-phase events at elementary and novice levels. “They never contacted a combined training person, but set the courses with changes of direction across the diagonal, backwards,” says Oden. Word got around quickly, and the word wasn’t good for business.

“This is the age of specialization within specialization,” says author, teacher and trainer Don Blazer of www.HorseCoursesOnline.com. Blazer notes that in any profession, “it’s incumbent on us to take time to keep abreast of what’s new in our chosen field, our niche. Look at doctors—general practice is basically gone.”

Listen to your customer base, advises Blazer, who remembers a Southern California barn owner whose profits lagged at her mainly-trail-riding facility. “Turns out the ladies who didn’t work wanted a place to sit and have coffee in the morning and just talk more than ride. So the manager set up tables and umbrellas and stopped trying to accommodate horsewomen for horse activities. Her niche was to be part trainer, part social organizer.” And it worked.

Blazer’s daughter, Cathy Hanson of San Juan Capistrano, says clearly on her website, “Our focus is on fun, families and making champions.” She targets youth and amateurs and chooses Trail as her prime discipline. Her message is: Ride here and work toward the World Championships.

Both business experts also stress that besides taking a good hard look at your own strengths, always be aware of the likes and dislikes of those you cater to. Maybe you have a nice indoor arena in the Northeast and want to do dressage and hunter/jumper? Consider that dressage riders generally crave quiet, empty arenas—just the opposite of a space filled with line-diagonal-line fences and eager two-pointers.

How to Succeed in Business

If you start out in one discipline, never veer off track, and luck is always on your side, then you know who you are and what you do. But talk to many stable managers or trainers, and chances are you’ll quickly identify someone who’s reinvented him or herself along the way. “It’s a question I revisit every New Year,” says Virginia Heckert of Mahatango Acres Equestrian Center, near Herndon, Pa. Her stable is a home of “classical riding for all disciplines.” Her description is broad because Heckert has taken into account that her location is very rural, and it’s rare that a very established rider comes knocking.

A CHA-certified instructor, Heckert starts people in “a balanced seat and effective communication,” utilizing principles of centered riding. She’s ridden Western, hunt seat and combined training and is happy to lay the groundwork for her students. She also understands the value of networking. “When a student is ready to accelerate to a more advanced level, you want to connect with someone above you,” admits Heckert, even if it means sending that person on.

Your facility can definitely dictate your direction, says Greg Sulliger, owner of Longacres Farm in Eugene, Ore. Sulliger also only teaches centered riding—English, Western or Australian seat—to mostly beginners, ages 6 to 60, using 12 horses. He started out as a breeding farm in the mid-’80s “when Arabians were selling nicely,” but investment law changes put a dent in that business. With a small 60-foot x 60-foot arena, he created another outdoor arena and partnered with a trainer. “Without a huge arena, we wouldn’t attract very skilled riders,” he explains. But now he’s successful serving the newcomer niche.

Even some barns that appear to accept everyone have found their niche. “All breeds and disciplines welcome,” reads the website for Evelyn and Christopher Avery’s Beaumont Farm, Inc., in Canton, Ga., which has one indoor and two outdoor arenas, plus trails. While the Averys do claim to diversify, their clientele does not—their boarding business is “90 percent hunter/jumper with some dressage and pleasure,” Christopher explains. His over-fences trainer visits to teach “mostly adult professionals and a few teenagers.”

In Durham, N. H., Heather Smith of Sunrise Bay Farm counsels that “if you can figure out what direction to go early on, you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches.” Her property “is on the bay, very low,” she says. “I’m limited by this as it’s very wet until the end of July.” She once held local three-phases or Pony Club events in August and September, “but I figured out I would need to invest a lot more money into drainage and footing.”

Her property, combined with that of other relatives’, is 37 acres total. “I’m best situated as a small, private facility where I can cater to my boarders,” says Smith. Without an indoor, most of her business happens April through October and then she moves to a local indoor arena with her serious riders for the winter.

Still, Smith diversifies to challenge herself: She’s a popular course designer and is a USEF “r” Technical Delegate in dressage. But her main bread and butter is her small, hands-on facility.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

Margaret and Walter Fuchs of Canfield, Ohio, are partners in Saddle Creek Farms. Margaret is on the NRHA trainers’ roster and the farm stands stallion Missin James. Margaret is a 20-year horse-industry veteran who shows at bigger, aged events and maintains a clientele that also enjoys smaller weekend shows. She came up through the pleasure and halter horse ranks, showed hunt seat, but while working for a cutting horse trainer, she found her love lies in reining. Once she decided, she kept her eyes on the career prize and made it into a viable business.

For those just starting out, she suggests working for someone with a reputation first. “And not just for a year,”?she says. “Learn a specific discipline from a specialist from beginning to end, knowing there are several different ways to do it.” Once you strike out on your own, you can put your own imprint on your program.

The old adage, “You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time,” holds true in the equine world as much as any. Finding your niche takes some research, some soul-searching and a hard dose of reality. Knowing when to adjust is equally critical. Keeping abreast of trends, listening to clients and discovering a strength you never knew you had could put you on a new path of profitability. The alternative of an I’ll-do-anything program will only hurt your credibility and your career as a horseperson.