On the Side

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The economic meltdown has fostered a resourcefulness that has enabled many equine professionals to establish new sources of income. Several such enterprises have been thriving to the point where they are now indispensable to the core operation. “As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention,” says Deb Weiler, Willow Creek Stables of Lebanon (Ohio). That’s what led her and her daughter to start a blanket cleaning and repair business.

It started simply enough. Weiler took note when a boarder asked where to get blankets washed after this past spring, “which was particularly muddy.” Weiler checked with the local laundromats and found one that would accept horse blankets, which got her thinking. One thing led to another, and what started out as a service she performed for her barn has led to a region-wide endeavor. “And, it’s only since March that we’ve been at this,” she says.

Weiler credits her immediate success to filling a void in the market, and even more significantly, to doing her homework. Her recommendations: First and foremost, you’ll want to have adequate liability coverage should damage occur. To set herself apart, she uses only horse-friendly products, which she claims make a big difference and are worth the extra money, especially when it comes to blankets that cover sensitive horses.

Attention to detail in this business is critical. For instance, Weiler relies on a heavy detergent with a stiff brush to scrub mud from the straps, which she then rinses off before the blanket goes in the washer.

Another tip: She suggests creating a competitive price list for the area in which you live. “Check around to see what the market will bear. You can’t charge California prices if you live in Ohio,” she says. “In addition, be sure to include costs for leg wraps, saddle pads, and fly masks, which oftentimes can fit into one load, making them cost effective for you and convenient for your clients.” Lastly, she recommends that you get payment in advance, “to avoid misunderstandings.”

Washing is a labor-intensive job. Weiler averages 18 to 25 blankets at a time, which take about nine hours all told. “But the profits are sizable,” she claims, “and it’s just a weekend’s worth of work.” Repairs became a natural extension of the cleaning work, and also have netted considerable revenue.

Patricia Ruff, whose website www.CleverHorseWomen.com offers coaching, insights and information on “all things equine,” is a direct outgrowth of Ruff's Ranch, in Poulsbo, Wash. She often consults on ways to make extra money. “If you have an idea and you think it could be viable, you will have to invest time, money or both if you want to set yourself up for success,” she says. “Become an expert in your field of interest. Take an e-course; look into whether you’ll need a license, or if you have to charge sales tax, and set up a bookkeeping system, for instance,” she advises. “Potential clients most likely prefer to do business with a business over ‘someone wanting to make extra pocket money.’”

She adds, “There’s no such thing as making a quick buck in the horse biz, but with a little imagination, there are ways to minimize your risks and costs. Tack cleaning and conditioning is one example. The start-up expenses are relatively minimal—just good leather cleaners, conditioners, silver polish, brushes, rags, etc., and you could do your work in the evening while watching TV.” And, as it has been for Deb Weiler, there is room for expansion in the way of minor leather repairs.

Ruff also emphasizes the importance of research. “Study up on the different types of leather and conditioning methods. Visit saddle makers, shoe repair shops, tanners, etc,. to get as much information as possible,” she says. “You certainly don’t want to ruin a $3,500 saddle.”

She then suggests that you contact larger stables, where trainers and barn help have little time to spare on daily tack cleaning. “You may even want to offer to clean the trainer’s bridle for free to get your foot in the door. Once you’re up and running, you can do further promotion by networking with your local feed store and tack shop, as well as by giving demonstrations on leather maintenance at 4-H and summer camps,” Ruff says.

She ends by saying that, whatever idea you come up with, “start small, but have a plan to broaden your horizons and allow your new business to grow. A clever idea can lead to having a profitable business with 10 employees in a few years.”

That’s how it was for Pam Swing, who started Wonderhorse Design in Brookline, Vt. Poring over medieval literature on behalf of her two young sons who were fascinated by knights and jousting, she noticed the saddle pads used at the time, was intrigued, and decided to make one out of a madras table cloth she found in a drawer. “That’s all it took,” she says, “before I became a regular at the local fabric store to accommodate my friends and their friends.”

From there she made contact with a manufacturer in India to handle the rising wholesale orders from owners of the Baroque breeds. “I eventually came to realize that having my designs produced overseas was much more cost effective, and the finished product was far superior to what I could accomplish.

“It was an evolutionary process, however,” she recalls. “I never thought this would become a full-time business; I was a stay-at-home-mom looking to make extra money.” Now, in the thick of it, Swing is turning her sights to the online retail market with a collection of saddle pads that are designed for all breeds and disciplines.

Catherine Cloud of Sea Cloud Morgans created a side business that has taken off—a holiday bazaar. A trainer/instructor at Paramount Equestrian Center in Arlington, Wash., she recalls that “we had the idea one November after the show season ended and the holiday was coming up. To make the most of the slow time, we decided to rent out space in the indoor to anyone with stuff to sell.” They charged a flat fee for a 10’ x 10’ area to house booths or tables, and spread the word in their barn newsletter, the local paper and through friends.

The response was tremendous. “People brought the most amazing things—hand-made saddle racks, quilts, artwork, used tack; and the people who came to buy, well, we ended up with a parking problem because there were so many.” As it turned out, the bazaar was so successful it became a tradition, and was the precursor to yet another event that also took off: An all breed horse sale. Again, they charged a flat fee, provided stall space, printed a catalog and hired an announcer. “It was a triumph, and quickly developed into an annual event as well,” Cloud says.

Cloud’s advice: “Use the resources you have at hand to help keep your expenses down, and charge a reasonable fee to encourage participation. The best advertising is word-of mouth, but it is worth spending the extra money to advertise locally, too, especially in the beginning. As for the event itself, be organized, and anticipate how to handle an influx of people—parking, bathrooms, etc.”

On a more individual scale, one idea that has found traction is to provide freelance stable help; it has worked for me. I target barns that typically have a small staff, and offer to take care of everything from stall, paddock and field cleaning to feeding and turnout. This is especially valuable during show season when everyone is likely to be away. I have also added barn ‘detailing’ and ‘organizing’ to my roster of services. Do your clients need the medicine chest overhauled? Can you run barn-related errands? Can you stay overnight; for the weekend? The more you offer, the better it is. It’s a great word-of-mouth business with your calling card being your reliability and experience. Check around to see what type of fee structure would work best—by the hour/day or by the task, and be flexible.”

Making horse treats can also be worthwhile; come up with something a bit different, or employ a novel approach, such as developing a signature shape, and keep in mind that charging for them means you’ll need to make sure your product is consistent—no burnt cookies! Factor in the ingredients you use, and if baking is involved, the utility costs, plus your time. Packaging and distribution expenses—driving to neighboring barns or to your tack shop, for instance—are also expenditures, and need to be added into your pricing.

The take home message here is to think outside the box and get creative. Pay attention to what type of product or service you need or would like to have for your operation, and then capitalize on it. Something as simple as coming up with stocking stuffers for your boarders during the holidays can open the door to a possible business opportunity.