In 1993, brush fires swept through Ortega Canyon, a rural area of Orange County in Southern California. Horse owners were forced to evacuate their homes, frantically loading horses onto volunteers’ trailers. The horses were taken to boarding facilities throughout the area to wait out the fire.
One of those stables was Serrano Creek Ranch in Lake Forest—a boarding facility with such a bad reputation among certain horsepeople that a number of horse owners refused to allow their homeless animals to be taken to the facility.
Ten years later, Serrano Creek Ranch has a nearly one-year waiting list for stalls. Horse owners in Orange County clamor for the opportunity to board their horses at the facility, which boasts a 100-percent occupancy rate of 200 boarders.
What happened in that time to change the stable’s reputation? The answer: a dedicated, hands-on owner with a degree in economics and a profound sense of business acumen transformed the Ranch.
If you want to experience the essence of suburban Southern California, all you need to do is drive down Trabuco Road in Lake Forest. You’ll see fast food restaurants, health food stores, grocery store chains and gas stations galore.
Located just behind a Ralph’s grocery store is the driveway to Serrano Creek Ranch. Tucked behind the mega-market and adjacent chain drug store, and situated next to a massive self-storage facility, the stable occupies 7.2 acres of city-owned land.
Serrano Creek Ranch, currently owned by 44-year-old Matt Rayl, had its beginnings long before grocery stores and fast food chains sprang up in Lake Forest. Established in the early 1970s, the stable was constructed on farmland. It was originally intended as a training facility and named after the adjacent Serrano Creek waterway. Won in a lawsuit by a local businessman who knew little about horses but viewed the stable as a potential investment, Serrano Creek Ranch served as a place for young riders in the area to learn the art of horseback riding, and as a boarding facility for local horse owners.
Eventually, the businessman became frustrated with the stable as an investment—it required a lot of work in upkeep and management, and offered very little financial return.
Enter Matt Rayl, a former employee of the owner who worked for him doing political fundraising. Rayl held a bachelor’s degree in economics and knew little about horses, but had a strong interest in the stable.
When Rayl was laid off in the 1980s, he started his own construction business. Work was slow for Rayl, and the stable continued losing money for his former employer. By 1993, the former employer had had enough.
“He came to me and asked me if I wanted to buy the place,” says Rayl. “I knew it needed a lot of construction work, and that it was failing because there were too many layers of management. I did the numbers and decided the place could make money. At that point, it had a lot of vacancies. The stable was 50 percent empty.”
Engineering a Turnaround
So Rayl became the owner of Serrano Creek Ranch. First, he hired a stable manager to handle the day-to-day needs of boarders, something sorely lacking under the former owner.
The two large arenas and small turnouts needed new footing, so Rayl brought in 4,000 cubic feet of dirt for regrading during his first year of ownership. “We put it all in by hand,” he says.
Rayl did most of the barn’s much-needed repair work himself. After he finished, the stable was a pleasant, well-maintained barn waiting for new boarders to fill the empty stalls.
Rayl’s management philosophy emphasized motivating his barn workers. His first step was to put all his employees on an incentive program. “I gave them a vested interest in the horses,” says Rayl. “Each of the guys was given a section of the stable to care for. They received a bonus for every new horse that came into their section, and they became very good at cleaning stalls. It was taking them until 5 p.m. to clean stalls before the incentive program. After it was implemented, they were finished by noon and would start working on sweeping the aisles. They developed pride of ownership in the business, and their productivity went through the roof.”
Rayl quickly developed loyalty among his employees, providing them with medical insurance as part of their compensation package, as well as a retirement program to which both Rayl and the employees contribute.
“The guys who feed the horses are the most important people at a stable,” says Rayl. “When boarders see that it’s the same person feeding and cleaning their horses’ stalls, they appreciate that. It’s important to keep the same workers on staff.”
As a result of Rayl’s management style, his four stable workers have been with Serrano Creek from the very beginning. “I’ve never had to hire anyone to feed and clean the stalls,” he says. “Which is great because the guys I have come with 80 combined years of experience dealing with horses.”
It took a while for Serrano Creek’s image to improve, since the stable’s initial reputation for poor management and ill repair was well entrenched throughout the local equine community. It wasn’t until the stable began hosting shows in the mid-1990s that word began to quickly get out about how the place had changed.
“We started holding shows here because we wanted to service our clients, many of whom were in training with resident trainers,” says Rayl. “Our office manager at the time was willing to organize the shows, so I thought it was a good idea. It was a huge effort, and required us to make some changes to the facility by adding bleachers, a judge’s stand and a speaker system. If I was going to do the show thing, I wanted to do it right. It turned out that the stable got very good exposure because of it.”
After several years of holding both schooling and rated shows, Rayl returned Serrano Creek to its original role as a facility strictly for boarding and training. “Holding shows was fun to do for a while, but it got old,” he says. “It was exhausting and was the least profitable aspect of the business.”
Rayl decided to refocus on making Serrano Creek Stables a place where people could go to forget the stress and competitiveness of their 9 to 5 jobs. “I want this place to be like a monastery for people,” he says.
Today, Rayl has a stable packed with boarders, five resident trainers on staff, a tack and feed store, and an equine veterinarian’s office on the premises.
An Owner’s Work is Never Done
Although the barn is successful and has a great reputation, Rayl still faces ongoing challenges. “Federal water quality regulations are the biggest challenge we face, and is something that all equine facilities need to worry about,” he says. “The government is cracking down on stables because they tend to roll horses in with other livestock. They don’t know anything about horses, and consider horse manure a bio-toxin even though it is very different from cow manure. If you are naive about this, the government will mow you down. The only way to combat it is to get involved.”
And involved he is. Rayl not only works to educate government officials about the realities of water runoff from horse facilities, but also regularly attends city council meetings and hearings on local projects and topics that could potentially affect the stable. “I try to make the stable a valuable member of the community,” he says. “That helps ensure that we’ll still be here as the area continues to be developed.”
Rayl points out that although he’s not getting rich, he makes a decent living and loves what he does. “The key to success in this business is to be a Zen master,” he says. “You have to have Teflon skin, as well as good management skills.”