Nadia Heffner’s dream had long been to own a stable and work with horses professionally. When she found the right facility to house Double H Horse Farm in the summer of 2006 in West Point, Indiana, she’d already had another passion of hers, massage therapy, blooming into its own business on the other side of the county since 1998. Determined to share her love for horses with others, she’s making both businesses work.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of other equine professionals are in this same situation—having full-time responsibilities on the farm while also working off the farm. Some do it because, like Nadia, they have talents in different areas. Others are just working for some extra cash to make immediate on-farm improvements. And many more are working both jobs to make ends meet, especially in the start-up stages of business.
Those who manage to run their farms in addition to working elsewhere really have a lot to juggle. Here, four equine professionals share their advice on how to do it all.
1. Enlist help
Whether it’s by the grace of friends, family, boarders, or full-fledged employees, horse businesses rarely operate with a one-person workforce. When you’re working both on and off the farm, having help is essential.
Kathy Hopkins and her husband own Southern Trace, a Thoroughbred breeding and training facility outside Lexington, Kentucky. Hopkins is also the full-time equine operations and education director for the Kentucky Horse Park (KHP), and her husband is a vice president for Novartis Pharmaceuticals.
“I manage and run the farm. I have a full-time employee who handles the daily care of the horses and stables. My husband and I handle the mowing and pasture management with limited outside assistance. Due to the scope of my duties here at the KHP, my riding/training time has been greatly reduced, so I have a very talented young rider assisting me now,” Hopkins says.
Managing your business is like caring for your child, and it’s often difficult to let go of some of the responsibilities, especially those that you really enjoy. “You have accept that,” Heffner says. “Learn where to draw the line and say, ‘I really can’t do that,’ because of lack of time or experience,” whether that be cleaning your own stalls or doing your own marketing.
2. Trade for services
Working off the farm, you’re spending valuable hours that could be dedicated to cleaning stalls and feeding and bringing in horses. Luckily, there’s rarely a shortage of people looking for ways to afford their horsy fix.
While Deb Weiler of Lebanon, Ohio, was gung-ho about her family taking care of their year-old Willow Creek Stables boarding operation themselves, medical issues sidelined Weiler from both the farm and her full-time sales job. Now, a boarder with two horses cleans stalls during the week in exchange for one horse’s board.
Weiler says she plans to continue this arrangement even when she’s back to work. “It’s definitely going to allow me to concentrate on my other job more, and that helps fund the farm,” she says.
3. Tailor your duties
We all have our own idea of the perfect stable operation, but what’s perfect and what’s reasonable aren’t always the same. With the picture of perfection in her mind, Weiler cleaned the stalls before she went to work, and her 14-year-old daughter cleaned them after school. “We quickly learned that cleaning these stalls twice a day is nutso,” Weiler says. Now they’re cleaned once a day and operations run much more smoothly.
Heffner offers training, lessons, colt starting, and boarding at Double H Horse Farm, but her real desire is to work with young horses. She brought in a part-time instructor to teach most of the lessons, so now her time on the farm is more efficiently spent managing the overall operation, riding—and working with young horses.
Likewise, on days when cutting horse trainer and NCHA judge Scott McKinsey is tending to business at Scott McKinsey Cutting Horses in Gallatin, Missouri, he dedicates himself to getting more than just the daily chores accomplished. That helps to make up for the time he spends on his part-time job installing outdoor wood-burning furnaces.
4. Choose your outside employment wisely
“If you’re going to work two jobs, you need to find a second job that’s flexible,” says McKinsey. The bulk of his off-farm work takes place during the fall and winter, when there are fewer major cutting events that he needs to attend. His employer allows McKinsey time off and even adjusts installation schedules around McKinsey’s equine commitments.
Heffner notes, “I’m self-employed [in my massage business], so I can say I’m not working on certain days.” But in any business, it takes time to establish that kind of flexibility, she points out.
When taking time away from your on-farm responsibilities, also consider the financial trade-off. If you’re making a relatively low wage in your off-farm employment, ask yourself, could your time be better spent building your equine business?
5. Be up-front
Especially if you’re offering boarding, you don’t want to surprise clients with your outside commitments after they’ve signed a contract. “I try to tell people up front that that’s my schedule. I’m not here 24/7, but there’s usually someone around,” Heffner says.
“Keep the lines of communication open between you and your boarders. Make sure they have a way to contact you in the event of an emergency,” Weiler says.
6. Be organized
The more steady a system you have in place, the easier it is for others to follow it in your absence, and even for you to follow when you’re in a rush. “I make lots of lists,” for herself and for others on the farm, Heffner says.
“We’ve got it down to a science,” Weiler says. Her system involves scooping evening feed in the morning and vice-versa, so if someone’s in a hurry, at least feeding will be done properly. She also has an order of turnout for the horses.
All of Weiler’s boarders are educated about the system, so they can fill in if her family is unexpectedly unavailable. She also educates them on other areas of horse care through a newsletter. She points out that you can’t just assume that they know how to recognize emergencies or understand proper feeding and management. Plus, emergency information for all of the horses is clearly posted, so any boarder can make the proper calls if they notice something amiss.
7. Commit to making it work
“This is not for the weary,” Heffner says with a laugh, as there’s nothing easy about handling this much responsibility. McKinsey seconds that; with approximately 20 horses to ride on any day, he and his family might finish riding at 1 a.m. during the warmer months. “You do what you got to do to get things done,” he says.