When is a horse facility not just a horse facility? When it’s Normandy Farms and Stables, Inc. (www.normandyfarmsandstables.com) located in Littleton, Colo. By the ruler, it’s a 32,000-square-foot equestrian complex, but it’s also much more, one founded on basic human principles of ethics and camaraderie.
Stan and Christine Penton, Normandy’s innovative owners, both hail from a hospitality background, primarily hotels: operations for him, marketing for her. Some principles still apply at Normandy.
They knew horses and rode while in California, but weren’t “professionals.” You won’t find them coaching a Grand Prix rider, but if you have questions about building a successful business, they’re your team. Since 1995, when they bought the four-acre farm for “just shy of $400,000,” they’ve gotten to know horses and the ever-perplexing horse industry very well indeed.
These two savvy entrepreneurs have also learned to negotiate and deal with the often-unrelenting “red tape” that comes with making changes. The place, as Stan describes it, was in “a bit of a state” and was ill equipped to be a full-service, user-friendly equestrian facility that could endure annual Colorado winters.
Not so any more: The Pentons abandoned their original thoughts of fixing “a little here, a bit there,” and went for it, with overhaul and renovation to the max. They wrote a business plan and stuck to it—usually. The couple hired a well-connected urban planner and developer who successfully interfaced on their behalf, acquired funding from a company that “really understood a mixed-use suburban concept,” located an appropriate architect, and didn’t look back. You’re wondering about the price of “barn improvement?” It topped off at approximately $1 million, reports Stan.
The Pentons are here to tell you that, no, this hasn’t been one easy cakewalk in the horse park, but rather that making the transition to a “revenue-producing business” meant learning by doing. “In retrospect, we might not have made some things quite as grand. We’re zoned commercial; our property taxes are killer,” Stan shares. School bond or fire protection passes on the ballot? Normandy feels the pinch in its pocket.
Still, the face of the place has changed forever and for the better and now features an all-steel heated barn and 190’ x 185’ clear-span arena; the outdoor is 72’ x 165’. The barn also has many amenities to keep horses and people happy and healthy, including three heated wash racks, lockers for clients, Nelson automatic waterers and matted box stalls or stalls with runs.
Normandy hosts a plethora of events, with weddings, parties, meetings and more finding a unique home at Normandy: A professional boardroom/classroom set-up awaits the most discerning corporate clients. “Team-building” has become a morale-building buzzword in corporate America, so Stan implemented a program using horses to get employees out of the office and near a fuzzy nose. “Equines are an educational modality that inspires communication,” he affirms.
Hear Your Clients
Riding still wins first place at Normandy, but it too has changed with the times. The clientele was originally more “mixed,” self-care types, doing all different disciplines, according to Stan. Now it’s matured to mostly hunter/jumper. In keeping with the success that comes with finding your niche, the Pentons have done just that: They formerly had dressage clients who wanted a clear, open arena, but numbers eventually dictated otherwise, as hunter/jumpers prevailed.
The Pentons did run a riding school, but “it wasn’t materializing to the bottom line,” Stan reflects, and he now owns just four horses. In 2002, lessons made $80,000 a year, but “after feed, bedding, farriers, vets,” the answer was clear.
Now outgoing professional Cynda Dyer runs her own sales and lessons business while paying subsidized board. Many students find a horse out of the program and end up boarding it in the barn, Cynda reports. Trainer Randie Culbertson lives on site, while teaching jumpers. Normandy hosts hunter/jumper and dressage clinics, and other non-traditional classes, including Pilates for Horsewomen, Stan says. The farm has also hosted vaulting championships.
But as for three-day-or-longer shows? Not in Normandy’s cards, because “the level of intrusion” just isn’t worth it. The Pentons do host charity fundraisers or schooling-type shows, but bigger facilities nearby are better suited for larger events. “We used to do a dozen schooling shows each summer, and we didn’t make a ton of money, plus it was inconvenient.”
To thine own self be true: Stan shares that it’s been crucial “to develop programs in line with our goals and not be disruptive.” One major success was the non-profit Pegasus disabled program, Normandy’s for four years until it outgrew the facility. Now moved to a new location, its positive impact is still felt at Normandy, with disabled-accessible bathrooms and office space.
Normandy is also a veritable kid’s zone, and Stan and Christine have designed innovative curriculums just for the youngest set .
Camps remain a great moneymaker, says Stan, who hosts up to 80 children each summer, with the help of Cynda and her school horses. “People will pay whatever’s necessary for their children,” Stan notes, plus some children stay on and become boarders.
Birthday parties, complete with pony cart rides, bring youthful smiles, but age is no impediment at Normandy. “Whatever we do, we integrate horses into it,” Stan says. The farm gives tours or lunches for mobile nursing-home residents too.
All in the Normandy Family
Boarders are still Job One, but no whiners please. Stan hangs a replica of a Churchill Downs sign for all to ponder: “Please tell your friends
what we’re doing right, tell us what we’re doing wrong…You have our good word. Can we have yours?” Troublesome, negative or “serial” boarders are not encouraged. “They’re welcome to go down the street,” suggests Stan. The Normandy vibe remains upbeat, and boarders love it.
Normandy fan Robyn Thurber, who’s been a client for five years, has experienced the joy of the place through her children, both successful hunter/jumper campaigners. “I like that Normandy is family-oriented. The Pentons listen, rather than trying to be such an ‘elite’ facility, and it’s like home. The indoor arena is the best; the footing is superior to other barns. I marvel at how they’ve done it all. It just works.”
Charlotte Meade, a professional trainer who’s been there eight years and oversees the “Life on the Farm” program, applauds the sense of community. She cites the Pentons’ take-charge, philanthropic efforts following the horrific Columbine High School shootings. “They set up therapy sessions here and encouraged parents to bring their kids. It was wonderful.”
She embraces Normandy’s quality of care as “so individualized. They will do anything for a horse—each is treated as well as the next.” Her horse, now 27 and suffering from repeated colic, gets the same atten-tion as a fancy new blue-ribbon jumper.
Cynda Dyer values Christine Penton’s “big heart,” and vouches for the “morals, values and excellent environment that makes folks want to come here. I don’t envy their jobs…being owners, but they’ve made it work, with a system of learning and leadership.”
With so much going on, one might wonder when Stan and Christine take a break—he also manages a successful health club in Denver. And the couple has three children: McKenzie, their own 13-year-old boy, and Analessa and Spencer, adopted from Russia, both five.“Analessa is the only one who’s interested in horses,” explains Stan. The budding gymnast is also showing vaulting promise, “since she pulls herself up on to a 19-hand horse with no problem. She loves her pony, too,” says her doting dad.
If you can dream it, you can build it. Do your homework, stick to your plan, ask questions and listen to the marketplace, and never be afraid to innovate—within reason and budget. Don’t hem yourself in, but use common sense, too. You can’t be all things to all people, but you sure can be many good things to many appreciative customers…those who ride, and those who never will.
Just ask the Pentons.