Getting Involved

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For business owners wearing multiple hats, time is a precious commodity. And lack of time is cited most often as the reason they are not more active in civic, business, conservation and equestrian interest groups. They are usually too busy, training, riding, working with clients and going to shows, they say, to sit in on meetings or work on events that aren’t directly related to their business. And even if they did make the time, who wants to deal with all the politics and bureaucracy? What difference can one person make anyway?

Plenty, say those who work with their local governing bodies, trails and open space advocacy groups, and civic organizations. “If you don’t show them you’re a partner,” says Michael Vena, owner of Arabian Knights Farm in Willowbrook, Ill, “it’s hard to stay in business. You have to network.”

In fact, getting involved with local planning and zoning issues is one of the best ways to make sure that you stay in business, says Kandee Haertel, executive director of the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource in Galena, Ill. Getting involved can be viewed as a simple matter of self-preservation.

We are facing challenges from urbanization, animal rights people and environmentalists, says Eloise Joder of Joder Arabian Ranch in Boulder, Colo. “If we want horses to be part of our heritage and culture in the future, we need to act now,” she says. “We need to stand up and be counted.” If we don’t support each other, she believes, horse businesses could be legislated, taxed and regulated out of business.

Joe Dotoli, general manager of the Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien, Conn., not only sets aside time to work with his local government but is also very active in several equestrian interest groups. “If you make a living in a sport, it’s important to try to give back,” he believes. “Otherwise, you have no right to complain about the governance of that sport. Get involved or get out of the way.”

Those who find the time to become involved with local, state or national groups that affect their businesses (see box) cite six basic reasons why they do it.

1. VISIBILITY

How high or low is your business’s profile in the community? Does your local community even know your business is there? Joining your local Chamber of Commerce is an excellent way to participate in local business promotions, get yourself on your town’s business map and on its Website. You can make your business known to local parks officials and raise the profile of horses and riding as a valuable recreational asset in the community.

2. GOODWILL

Participating in fund-raising and other volunteer efforts guilds friendships and partnerships that may mean vital future support from the community. Joining local service groups such as Kiwanis or Rotary can help build long-term goodwill, too.

3. NETWORKING

We learn from one another. Networking is often cited as one of the most important benefits of becoming involved. Local civic groups give horse business owners the opportunity to discuss management issues with other business owners. Every business faces the same problems with employee benefits, promotion, financing and insurance. Discussing specific issues like water quality and immigrant labor with landscapers, kennel owners and dog groomers may spark new approaches to solving problems.

Networking increases the number of your business’s community contacts and that can lead to new customers, new suppliers and new supporters when issues crucial to your business come up for debate. It can mean the difference in having supporters speaking up for the value of horses and your business in the community when voices are raised that would like to brand horses as a nuisance.

5. STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

Joining a large group such as the local Chamber of Commerce or a regional business owners organization can give small businesses access to health insurance and other services they would have difficulty getting on their own.

Greater numbers also translate into greater legislative clout. When horseback riders join with other trail-user groups such as hikers and bicyclists, their collective voice makes it easier for politicians to hear their requests.

6. EARLY-WARNING SYSTEM

Participation in local civic and service groups can be a vital “early-warning system” that helps horse businesses track issues that can affect them. As suburbanization continues to put pressure on open space and trails, being involved at the local and state levels can be critical to understanding how the political winds are blowing and what action may be necessary if they are threatening the keeping or use of horses in your area.

The biggest challenge is getting horse business owners to become involved in the first place. The following is a look at what several horse professionals have done to stay involved and what the consequences might have been had they watched from the sidelines:

Making A Difference: Michael Vena, Arabian Knights Farm, Willowbrook, Ill.

When Arabian Knights Farm opened for business as a training and showing facility 20 years ago, its 10 wooded acres were in an unincorporated rural area west of Chicago. When the town of Willowbrook annexed the land, Vena realized there was no sense fighting the creeping suburbanization that had swallowed up the fields around him. Instead, he decided to work with it, taking on the formidable task of educating the town fathers about the horse business and adapting his business to meet community needs.

“The town had no knowledge of horses or agriculture,” Vena says. To them, the stable was a non-conforming commercial property and potential nuisance in what had become a residential area. It took Vena three years to convince them that a 60-horse facility with multiple arenas and ponds could be both a good neighbor and a valuable community asset. He got the special use permit that allowed Arabian Knights Farm to stay in business.

Vena didn’t stop there. He joined with 22 park districts within a 15 to 20-mile radius to offer riding programs to children and adults, making the stable a valuable recreation asset in the community. He also recognized that changing times meant changing his business. “You can’t be just a horse farm, just a stable, and survive in suburbia,” he says. So Arabian Knights Farm developed an entertainment division. An old indoor arena was converted into a banquet hall and the farm began hosting country weddings, birthday parties (complete with ponies), corporate events and festivals for local churches and groups. “We are now dug into the community in many ways,” Vena notes.

Vena has become active in both the Downer’s Grove and Willowbrook Chambers of Commerce, serving on the board of its annual business expo and donating to local causes. Hosting occasional Chamber meetings gives Arabian Knights Farm an opportunity to raise its community visibility. “We try to show we’re partners,” he says. “If you’re not, it’s hard to stay in business.”

Making a Difference: Vikki Karcher Siegel, Snowbird Acres Farm, Long Valley, N.J.

Snowbird Acres farm sits on 70 rolling acres in New Jersey’s Morris County just about a 20-minute drive from Gladstone where the United States Equestrian Team calls home. Vikki and Martin Siegel and their family have offered a hunter-jumper riding and training program there for 23 years. The facility is currently home to 68 horses.

While many would consider this part of New Jersey solid horse country, it hasn’t always been that way. The Siegels understood that to keep it that way, they needed to educate and work with the urbanites fleeing more crowded counties closer to New York City. Vikki has served on the Washington Township zoning board and Martin on its planning board. Vikki notes that many of the newcomers have little knowledge of either horses or agriculture and have been known to demand unreasonable relief from the problems associated with any agricultural business, such as requesting that barns be whitewashed every six months or that farms use germicides and pesticides without understanding the consequences of such choices. When they tour a horse facility, however, and understand the care that is taken to be a good neighbor and see how clean a well run facility is, they realize that some demands can be unrealistic and even end up being worse than the perceived problem.

She recalls a time when West Orange in Essex County decided that horses like dogs should have annual licenses. They passed a law that required a $25 fee. Vikki pointed out that frequently owners of horses did not even live in the community. She ran the numbers and realized that what seemed like a small tax, added up, and would dig deeply into the pockets of the horse businesses in the community. She pointed out to the the township that if they wanted to equate horses and dogs they would be required to give horses free immunizations and provide the services of a “horse catcher” as well as a “horse pound” for abandoned horses. When this was brought to the attention of the Town Council, the horse licensing law was quietly rescinded.

Snowbird Acres Farm also builds goodwill in the community by volunteering its facility for local fund-raisers like barn dances for the local Land Trust. They also provide pony rides for local events and participate in parades and festivals at the local schools.

Vikki was appointed by former Governor Whitman as Commissioner for the Sire Stakes Program that monitors New Jersey harness racing, and played an active role in the passage of the New Jersey equine liability law, because she recognized that without liability limits, insurance costs would put many horse businesses out of business. She also serves on the Leadership Committee of the National Federation of Independent Business and made sure that their slogans include farmers with small business. The NFIB has been in the front of the efforts to eliminate the estate tax that puts all farms in jeopardy and they offer all small business effective health insurance plans to cover farm employees.

Vikki admits that community involvement may not be right for every horse professional, “It can help and it can hurt,” she says. “If you are tactful and can participate pleasantly, people will see that you and your farm are a valued asset and you build a lot of goodwill.” If you don’t have the temperament, however, she advises you let others do the contact work. Both a sense of humor and an ability to listen to and address people’s real concerns are important.

Making A Difference: Joe Dotoli, Ox Ridge Hunt Club, Darien, Connecticut

“We’re all busy but you have to make an effort,” says Joe Dotoli, general manager of the Ox Ridge Hunt Club. Dotoli obviously makes the effort. In fact, the litany of his volunteer activities makes one wonder how he finds time for anything else in between the conference calls and meetings. He serves as a director of the Professional Horseman’s Association and as a board member of USA Equestrian (formerly the American Horse Shows Association). He is also vice president of the USA Equestrian Hunter-Jumper Council, chairman of Zone 1, chairman of the Safety Helmet Committee and sits on the organization’s overall safety committee.

He developed the New England Equitation Championships into the premier equitation finals in the country with 200 youngsters now competing in a class that once had fewer than 20 entries. Regions around the country now copy Dotoli’s popular prototype. They have also picked up two other popular competitions pioneered by Dotoli—the Challenge of States, in which teams of young riders compete for their state, and the three-phase Horsemanship Competition, which tests youngsters on written theory, practical horse management skills and riding skills.

He is also proud of the recently enacted helmet rule requiring juniors competing in hunter-jumper classes held under USA Equestrian auspices to wear approved safety helmets. Dotoli hopes that the practice will gradually migrate from the hunter jumper division into other divisions and that adult riders will begin emulating the juniors.

Like many other horse facilities in the region surrounding New York City, Ox Ridge has become an island of open land in a residential sea. So Dotoli also finds the time to stay active in town government. “It’s important for the Club to have a presence,” he says. He recently participated in a town task force on leisure time and recreation and never misses an opportunity to remind local officials of the importance of open space.

Making A Difference: Connie Schmidt, Twin Star Ranch, Warrensville, Ill.

Teacher Connie Schmidt has a waiting list for the small five-stall boarding barn she has run in Chicago’s western suburbs for the past 18 years. She recognizes that unless she and other trail riders work with local communities and other trail users, the trails—or the right for horses to use them—could disappear.

As a past president of Trail Riders of Dupage (TROD), Schmidt has served on the group’s board for many years, working on trail stewardship and a range of community service projects. Members help with the annual cleanup along the Illinois Prairie Path, a rails-to-trails project that crosses three counties in northern Illinois. The group also lends a helping hand to local districts of the forest preserve system that rims suburban Chicago. TROD sends out brush-clearing parties and donates time each spring to pull out old barbed wire fencing and metal posts. “If there is ever a positive opportunity to be involved in work parties or stewardship activities, take it,” she advises.

Community goodwill and relationships take time to build, Schmidt says. She notes that she went to meetings of town committees for 10 years as a TROD watchdog, sometimes raising her hand to ask questions, sometimes to say thank you. Now, she says, residents call her about issues that could impact horses.

TROD is a partner with other trail users such as bicycle groups, runners and birders working with the Conservation Foundation Trails Project on regional land preservation issues. “Urbanization is a reality,” Schmidt says. “We have to share the trails.”

Making A Difference: Eloise Joder, Joder Arabian Ranch, Boulder, Colo.

Eloise Joder and her husband Bob run a busy 80-horse boarding and lesson facility outside of Boulder, a city with a population that has grown dramatically since they first opened their doors 27 years ago. Eloise is acutely aware that issues at the local, state or national level are threatening horse businesses in her state. She has been a member of the Colorado Horse Council for 25 years and became it’s president in November 2000. “I took the job because I realized the importance of representing the horse industry at the local, state and national level,” she says.

The Colorado Horse Council (CoHoCo) acts as a legislative watchdog and recently instituted an award for the state legislator it considers most horse friendly. The Council has added a new section for boarding stable managers to give these business owners greater opportunities to network, something Joder encourages horse businesses to do through their local Chambers of Commerce as well. CoHoCo is currently working to prevent legislators from changing the status of horse operations from agriculture to commercial. That move, Joder notes, would raise her taxes 300 percent.

At the local level, the Joders belong to the Boulder County Horse Council that led a major campaign six years ago to prevent the county land use office from passing regulations that would have limited the number of horses on one property to 12. Boarding facilities such as hers, Joder says, would have been forced out of business unless they could afford a special use permit costing thousands of dollars.

Both CoHoCo and the Boulder County Horse Council also promote community goodwill by working on trails and by trying to bridge the knowledge gap between ranchers and new horse owners with no experience in land stewardship.

Joder is also active in the local League of Women Voters. She has used some of the League’s techniques for organizing legislative campaigns and incorporated them into the Colorado Horse Council’s information program. “We need to do all of these things because if we don’t, horses will be the next endangered species,” she says. “We’ll all be regulated and taxed out of business. That’s the bottom line.”

The Challenge of Change

Many horse businesses exist in communities that are rapidly shifting from rural to suburban or even urban. Suburban horse businesses seem to be searching for their business identity, awkwardly straddling the agricultural industry and the recreation industry. On one hand, they want the tax and zoning benefits of being an agricultural enterprise (indeed, they often need them to stay in business). On the other hand, they tend to form cliques and often do not fully integrate with other agribusinesses in their state. They also want to be valued as an essential part of a community’s recreational and open space assets and to partner with other small business owners and recreation providers in their community, but again, they are just “different” enough that it can often be hard to find common ground to become partners with other small businesses in their area. —BK

Where to Get Involved

At the Local Level:

  • Chamber of Commerce
  • Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club and other
  • civic groups
  • recreation, parks, open space or trails groups
  • town or county government committees, boards, meetings
  • county extension service board

At the State or Regional Level

  • horse council
  • Farm Bureau
  • state or business councils
  • open space or trails groups

At the National Level

  • open space groups such as Equestrian Land Conservation Resources, Nature Conservancy
  • trails organizations such as Rails To Trails
  • professional groups such as Professional Horseman’s Association, United Professional Horseman’s Association
  • committees and boards of USA Equestrian (formerly AHSA), sport discipline organizations, breed organizations
  • horse business groups such as the American Riding Instructor’s Association, the Dude Rancher’s Association, the Carriage Operators of North America