I remember when I heard someone remark, “Anyone can make it in business when the economy is good. It’s the true measure of a business if they do well when the times are bad.” It stuck with me and made all the sense in the world. The best strategy in building a horse business is to build one that can survive, and even thrive, in a down economy.
Ask horse businesses during the current economy how they are faring, and many respond that they’re hanging on, while others are concerned about going under. A small handful share stories of growing or expanding.
It’s no secret that the horse industry relies strongly on discretionary income, so one key to growth lies here. Horse businesses reel from the loss of their customer base due to job layoffs and savings loss. The key here is not to look for the old customer base to return, but to look at new needs that have arisen and emerging markets that are taking shape as a result of the economy. This type of economic climate sends consumers looking for more bang for the buck. It sets the stage for people to break old cycles, dump one-sided relationships and try something new if it provides greater value.
Kassie Schuerr owns and operates A-Schuerr-Thing Horse Training and Riding Lessons as well as Kingman’s Healing Hooves in Kingman, Arizona. “Earlier in my life I earned degrees in Animal Training and Animal Psychology, and then set out to fulfill my dreams of training dolphins. During this time, I still had my horse and continued practicing my training skills on land animals. After acquiring two mares, I got back into horse training since they both needed work. As a result, my daughter was able to use them for her 4-H projects. So, I opened my horse training business during the summer of 2009, and through word-of-mouth have a training horse each month. Even in the down economy, people will spend their hard-earned money on what they want. With that in mind, I wanted to make sure my clients felt they had invested their money wisely with me.
“I found a niche in the market with people who were scared of their horses, which typically results in a horse taking advantage of the situation. Lots of people also want to raise baby horses, but don’t understand what ‘monsters’ they can become by spoiling and inadvertently reinforcing ‘cute’ behaviors, which turn into dangerous behaviors. And a lot of people want to rescue horses, and then when the horses put on weight they feel better and start becoming unruly,” says Schuerr.
So how does her program work? “We offer one two-hour training session at no charge each month while the horse is in training so the owner can understand what cues and behaviors the horse has been taught. I encourage everyone to watch as many training sessions as they like—we put in 50 to 60 hours of training with each horse and there is always an open door for the owner. Our clients also receive weekly e-mail updates with pictures, and sometimes daily if we have made a great improvement. We want the owner to be a part of the horse’s schooling.”
So how does Schuerr’s business grow in such an economy? By finding her niche: “My business has grown because the owners cannot believe what their horse has turned into. We’ve even had horses come directly from other trainers whose expertise lies in other areas compared to the training we can give them in the same timeframe. We also offer ongoing lessons with the owner, since horses fall back into bad behaviors if training is not reinforced at home.”
Ever exploring new opportunities, Schuerr realized that her talents could be put to use with therapeutic riding. “This year we have also opened our doors to a Therapeutic Riding Center and we have been able to help several people through their horses. My reward is seeing marked improvement with our disabled children and adults.”
In the end, Schuerr has this to say about her business: “Horse training is a difficult business to make a living at due to the ups and downs of the economy. But in the long term, it will be profitable if you take care of both your horses and human clients.”
Expanding and Diversification
We hear a lot about how hard it is during this economy for small businesses to find funding to expand, even if they are positioned to grow with a new market or offering with great promise. Business advisors counsel to develop a strong credit rating while you are doing well and to borrow small amounts even when you might not need it in order to establish a strong rating. This is a strategy that has worked well for Nanette Levin at Halcyon Acres, Rushville, N.Y. With a combination of loans and grant funding she expanded her facilities and in doing so discovered new niches. At its core, Halcyon was a breeder of Irish Draught Sport Horses. But the operation soon became so much more.
“Three years ago, Halcyon Acres invested in fencing and providing shelters for an additional 26 acres—a move that had people scratching their heads,” says Levin. “While we thought we’d earn back the costs with turnout board, we discovered the improved accommodations served as a major inducement for those considering training services. Training clients are more profitable than boarders, so we adjusted our strategy—we allocated three of the pastures to client horses and turned out most of the farm-owned horses 24/7, which freed up stalls for training clients.”
This move had several other benefits, as well: it took the farm’s breeding operation out of the red during this challenging economy; and Halcyon Acres discovered a growing market in competitive trail riders. “Surprisingly, many of these folks are also backyard breeders of one foal,” says Levin. “For starting projects, we reduced our board rate (these breeds tend to eat less than the Draughts) and offered lessons on their horse pro bono as part of the package. We’re also looking into making the facility available for riders to condition their horses in preparation for competitions.”
For Levin, diversity is key to her operation. “The horse business owners I know that are surviving and thriving do so because of diversification. If Halcyon Acres depended exclusively on our breeding operation for profits, we would have been forced to shut our doors when the economy went south. We’ve been starting horses under saddle for more than 25 years, but we’ve had our lean years there, too. You need to be nimble and creative if you want to succeed in the equine industry.”
Laura Kelland-May is a judge, instructor and certified coach in rural Ontario, Canada. In 2002, she recognized the need for her students to get out and experience the rigors and exhilaration of the show ring as a means for seeing how they were doing. She wanted to take them to shows, but she had concerns about the transportation costs. Keeping this in mind, Kelland-May decided to host her own shows and developed Thistle Ridge Skill Builders Show Clinics. This series is held at her farm where riders show their horses, develop their ring savvy and don’t have to leave home to do it. The series has since developed a network of dedicated horse people who recognize the need to develop showing skills. Local competition stables also come to the low-key Skill Builders with their green riders and young horses.
Key to her success has been the use of the digital world (www.thistleridgestables.com). Kelland-May explains, “I’ve just expanded this concept of skill development with online outreach. I offer video segments about what the judge is looking for, as well as product reviews and other tips for hunt seat riders and horse owners. I also have virtual horse shows where people send in their photos and are judged that way. This new outreach has partially resulted in this being the busiest summer I’ve ever had. More people are riding in the show series, and I’m judging more than ever before.”
These three equine operations demonstrate the wisdom behind not cutting back on marketing during a down economy.
(Lisa Derby Oden is author of “Growing Your Horse Business” and “Bang for Your Buck: Making $ense of Marketing for Your Horse Business.” She can be found at www.blueribbonconsulting.com.)