Creating Your Own Crystal Ball

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Is it time to sell some broodmares or is this a good time to buy more?

How is development around me going to change the way I do business?

Should I start catering to kids instead of adult clients?

Should I make my barn a multi-discipline one or change disciplines altogether?

Which new services are most likely to attract and hold my target clients?

What business owner wouldn’t like to have a crystal ball that predicted the future? That person could plan to meet the changes ahead and turn them into opportunities. That business owner would have a tremendous advantage over competitors who simply wait until market conditions force them to change or go under.

Spotting trends means becoming proactive rather than reactive. Professional trend spotters use sophisticated surveys and sampling techniques. They pore over reams of data, analyze the numbers and make their predictions. No small business owner has the time, money or energy to do that.

There are, however, some simple seat-of-the-pants surveying techniques that anyone can use to help them stay ahead of the game. A bit like the “soft eyes” concept of Centered Riding, they require becoming conscious of what’s going on within your peripheral vision while you stay focused straight ahead. It’s a matter of becoming continually aware:

  • observing any change or shift, large or small, that might affect your business.
  • keeping an open mind and taking in information without judging it at the time.
  • being willing to change your perspective so that you can see a situation as others might see it rather than as you usually view it.
  • constantly asking “what if” and being curious about how any shift you’ve spotted might eventually affect your business.

As you start becoming more observant, you’ll begin to see patterns. When a pattern changes, it could be the start of a trend.

Fad or Trend?

As you begin noticing changes in old patterns, it’s important to distinguish between a fad and a trend. A fad usually bursts on the scene and builds momentum rapidly. It also tends to burn out just as rapidly. Because it’s a short-term phenomenon, you can often ignore fads without jeopardizing the long-term success of your business. A fad seldom has a lasting impact on your core business unless you bet the ranch on it. Color fads, for example, have come and gone in many horse breeds.

A trend, on the other hand, often begins as a very quiet, very subtle change. It’s easy to miss the early signs. A trend builds slowly, but because it tends to last for a much longer period of time than a fad, it can cause dramatic changes in your core business. Trends are hard to stop because they’re usually based on some fundamental underlying change that can’t be put back. You ignore a trend at your peril.

For example, if you look back over the past 75 years, you can see how trends in horse industry leadership developed. By the 1920s, horses were no longer used for basic transportation but they were still in use as farm animals. Prosperous farmers and horse breeders led the industry until World War II made horses obsolete on farms. Then gentleman hobby farmers who had made their money in other industries took over the reins— until the 1980s, when tax law changes made it more difficult to write off losses from livestock enterprises. Horse trainers stepped in to keep the industry running and horse shows grew in number and popularity. As we approached the millennium, amateur owners whose money keeps the whole show game afloat began demonstrating their eagerness to take a turn.

Doing Your Homework

Horse business owners tend to focus first on the day-to-day needs of their animals. If they have any spare time, they might scan equine publications related to the niche they operate in or gossip with friends about breed or sport politics. In order to track trends, however, they need to broaden their perspective.

Your facility may provide lessons and horse training for amateur reiners, for example. It’s important to track your own niche. But you should also pay attention to what’s happening in the racing world, the pleasure horse world, English Olympic sports, and other segments of the horse industry. Trends could start there that will eventually affect reining horses.

Besides reading your breed or sport publications, subscribe to regional and national equine publications that cover other breeds and sports. They will often do trend research for you. For example, Equus runs an annual feature on trends. If you’d filed them over the past several years, you could start comparing them to look for signs of a long-term shift.

“Baby Boomer riders are fed up with high-strung horses. They want sane animals they can ride on while talking to a friend...”

Look beyond the horse industry and remember that you are part of the business community at large. You need to pay attention to what is happening locally, regionally and nationally because, eventually, everything will trickle down to your business. For example, if your community starts talking about crowded schools, you know the population of youngsters is growing. If you think of yourself only as a horse facility, you might ignore the significance of that bit of information. If you think of yourself as a recreation business or a youth sports center, you might see future opportunity.

Tracking trends is a constant effort. “You have to look at everything,” says Mike Vena, owner of Arabian Knights Farm in Illinois. You have to track national news, community news, watch demographics and look for clues anywhere you can. Then, says Vena, “You take the sources and facts you have and ask, ‘What action do I need to take?’” After a while, this conscious effort becomes almost unconscious. But the person willing to stop long enough to evaluate whatever statistics and information come their way can stay a step ahead of the trend and the competition. For example, as Vena watched suburbia engulf his farm, he used the information he’d gathered to create new recreation opportunities for his new neighbors and new revenue streams for his farm.

Sara Vaessen has raised Quarter Horses in Montana long enough to observe that trends in the horse industry tend to go in 8- to 10-year cycles. She also manages Northwest Equine Sales in Bozeman, which gives her a ringside seat on auction sales trends.

Most people, she says, watch the wrong end of a sale—the tail end—and make breeding decisions based the prices different ages or types or colors of horses bring. “When babies start bringing good dollars, they start buying mares to produce more babies,” she says. Then comes the inevitable glut and prices drop.

Sara prefers to watch the front end of a sale. She takes note of how many babies, yearlings, older mares or geldings are being consigned. “When you see increases in the number of babies consigned,” she says, “then you know there are starting to be too many on the market.” Regardless of the prices the babies fetch, this is not the time to breed every mare and increase the broodmare band.

Sara started out breeding performance horses, then shifted to racing Quarter Horses in the 1980s when horse racing was popular in Montana. Then the state legalized poker machines. Sara saw the writing on the wall and shifted back to performance horses. She admits that predicting trends and staying ahead of them isn’t easy. “You have to pay attention. It’s a hard thing to do.”

But it pays off. Some 10 years ago, Gladys Fox reinvented Wetherbee Farm in Boxboro, Massachusetts, changing it from a boarding stable to a barn catering to adult riders. She had noted that there were many adult riders looking for a facility that offered riding opportunities including evening and weekend lessons that fit into their busy lives. She also saw that these working women wanted a fitness alternative to aerobics, so she developed the Fitness By Riding program.

Now, Fox is reinventing the farm again. She has grandchildren, her instructors have children, and the demographics are changing around her. So she has decided to begin a children’s program. “You need to know when to let go and when not to let go,” she says.

Fox also runs Wetherbee Farm Real Estate, an enterprise that helps her take the pulse of the local economy and stay in touch with what kind of recreation opportunities newcomers are seeking. “All of this trickles down to the horse industry,” she notes. Fox feels that there is an adjustment every 10 years in both the real estate industry and the horse industry. “People get burned out,” she says. They decide to switch riding disciplines or make some other change to keep their interest up.

One trend she sees right now is that Baby Boomer riders are fed up with high-strung horses. They want sane animals they can ride on while talking to a friend without worrying about what their horse is going to spook at next.

Change is a Challenge

Trends, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad. How they impact you and your business may be good or bad, however, depending on how you react to them. Trends mean change, and many people find change threatening. When you spot a trend, you can choose to dig in and buck it, or you can choose to embrace it. When you do the latter, trends can become opportunities to reinvent your business.

For example, increased housing development might increase a barn’s costs for dust and fly control, manure management, and taxes. But it also brings more potential customers close to the barn’s door. If the housing is attracting young families and your barn caters to kids and beginners, that could be very good for developing new business.

Change arrives on our doorsteps whether we invite it or not. Staying ahead of the trends, rather than being blindsided by them, is the name of the game. If you don’t track trends, you’re going to get left behind.

Putting Your Antennae Up

Where does a smart trendspotter train her attention??Several places:

• Scan local and national newspapers. Skip the sports pages and look at the lifestyle and business sections.

• Scan consumer magazines that target the clientele you want to reach to help you understand what motivates them.

• Scan the horse media—not just your own breed or discipline publications but also those covering horse sports and breeds in general. If you ride Western, subscribe to an English riding publication and vice versa.

• Join and participate in advocacy groups such as your state horse council, the American Horse Council, the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource, or local open-space groups.

• Join and participate in your local and/or national sport organization or local and/or national breed organization.

• Attend trade shows and conferences.

• Become active within your local government or in your local Chamber of Commerce.

• Pay attention to annual changes in new breed registrations and transfers as well as total breed numbers.

• Watch local real estate prices and trends.

• Track local school enrollment if your business targets children.

• Pay attention to changing recreation options in your town and region.

• Keep track of auction prices even if you don’t breed horses.

• Drop in on Internet chat groups to see what people are talking about.

—BK

How Will These Trends Affect Your Business?

Here are several trends that may be affecting your business right now. How can you respond to the challenge they represent?

• Aging Baby Boomers are reaching an age where their child-rearing years are behind them.

• The sons and daughters of the Baby Boomers are creating their own “baby boomlet” that is working its way through school systems and youth organizations.

• The number of families with both parents working continues to rise.

• The perception of horses as livestock, an agricultural commodity, is shifting toward a view of horses as pets, a recreational commodity.

• In the show world, amateurs are demanding a greater voice and are no longer second-class citizens.

• Breed and show organizations keep adding new classes to broaden the opportunities for more participants.

• Vegetarianism is rising among American youth.

• Animal rights activists have become more sophisticated about influencing educators, the media, and other information gatekeepers.

• Reining is the first Western discipline to gain Olympic status.

• Western-style riding is on the rise among Europeans.

• The Internet has become an inexpensive and effective marketing medium for selling horses, selling horse equipment, and finding equine businesses.

• Environmental restrictions to preserve air and water quality are increasing.

• “Adventure travel” is on the rise.

• Americans are becoming more fitness conscious.

• More and more Americans are turning to alternative therapies to resolve health problems.

• Suburban sprawl continues to put pressure on the rural fringes abutting metropolitan areas. —BK