Piper Klemm: A Force
Looking to the future of our industry
By Sissy Wickes
Coming home, I step into my kitchen, where I see Piper Klemm sitting at the counter rapidly typing on her computer. She is unmoved from when I left, though that was many hours ago. Not completely unmoved – no, she is now sitting on her left foot, whereas in dawn’s light, it was her right. She is surrounded by a tangle of cords, devices, screens, and a gigantic cup of black coffee that has been sipped upon all day and must be tepid by now.
I closed the door to the chill morning air and asked, “Have you moved at all?” It’s not instinctual, she actually spends a moment considering the events of the last few hours.
Not only has she probably not moved, it is possible that she has not raised her eyes from the computer. She clicks through several tabs and asks if she can carry more things in from her car. Her reaction time purposefully slow, she presses both feet onto the ground for the first time in hours, stretching like a cat. She steps over a dog or two and pads out to her car.
In a few minutes, Piper settles back onto the chair, the chiming of the texts, emails, and other disturbances drawing her glance. She peers up to ask my opinion about something. These questions range from what Fiona the hippo at the Cincinnati Zoo ate for breakfast to an equine medical question she didn’t understand to the meaning of educating people.
She arrived at dusk last night in her BMW station wagon with 250,000 miles on it. She drives the mileage of someone who lives on the edge of civilization. Which, some might argue, is the definition of Canton, NY. Piper opened the kitchen door lugging a duffel the size of a body bag, gave hugs hello, and sat down at the island in the kitchen to work. My house is a thoroughfare for a variety of loud animals, louder children, and unannounced friends. The chaos is absorbed by Piper with amusement and the occasional funny quip. I muse about the difference in decibels and disorder between my farm and her quiet house where she does not have even a plant. But, Piper has no preset expectations of the world, as that would limit her imagination. Ever the observer, she is more receptor than instigator, more narrator than actor.
When Piper gives lectures or pep talks to young people, she always preaches the importance of saying “yes.” As a default response, say “yes” to opportunity, get into the mix, be game, and see where it takes you. She practices this response herself in micro decisions as well as macro decisions. Most interactions take the following form:
“Do you want some food?”
“Is there anything you don’t eat?”
“No. I like pretty much everything.”
“Would you like some wine?”
“Red or white?”
“Whatever we’re having sounds great!”
She never asks for anything, although there is a visible restlessness in the morning until the first cup of coffee kicks in. Her pop-up office gravitates towards outlets. As the day progresses, she has two to three more mugs surrounding her computer than seem absolutely necessary. As with most things in life, she’s quick to claim she’s gotten better. (“When I first moved in with Adam, I had to run the dishwasher with only the top shelf loaded.”) And (“I am starting to learn to cook. Kind of.”)
I observe her with her messy, blonde ponytail, some sort of TPH sweatshirt, and a pair of LL Bean over-fluffed slippers that she pulled out of her purse, and I am amused. She is younger than half of my four children and she is my boss. She is a multi-layered enigma. Let’s start with earning a PhD in Chemistry from the #1 Chemistry program in the U.S. (UC, Berkeley), and finishing first in her class. Disillusioned and burnt out with the world of science, she decided to take some time away from academia and revisit the joy of her youth – the horse world. Armed with a camera and enthusiasm, she began to freelance as a horse show photographer and journalist. With an uncanny acumen at reading systems, she identified a need in the industry for a different media platform that encompassed a broader perspective, appealed to a wider audience, and tapped the wildfire of social media. The Plaid Horse, a newspaper print, provincial magazine, was acquired in 2014 and has grown to become the largest hunter/jumper magazine in the United States. With no real experience in journalism or media, Piper answered her own questions with her default response, “Yes.”
Jumping back into the horse world with both feet and eyes wide open, she is a committed activist for issues such as education, opportunity, and accessibility. Through The Plaid Horse magazine, social media presence, and podcast, she has built a formidable platform from which to support her agenda and that of those whose voices were previously too faint to be heard. Piper Klemm is a visionary and a force for the future. In her words, “I believe that we should be educating and lifting up the next generation in our sport to be better than we are.” The idea of better is not limited to riding skills, but rather horsemanship, horse welfare, education, sportsmanship, and community. The Piper Klemm long term plan is as ambitious and formidable and purposeful as is she.
TPH: One of the most unusual things about your resumé is the degree to which your pursued one career track (science), and changed course to end up in the horse industry and the media business. What trajectory led you to go as far as you did in one field and then change tracks to end up at The Plaid Horse?
PK: I give a lot of credit to my liberal arts education and going to Trinity College. Growing up, it was always valued that I was well-rounded. I always studied a lot of different subjects in school, I had a lot of different interests. When you have a good foundation in everything, you can do anything and pivot pretty easily. That is the aspirational goal of the liberal arts education.
TPH: Your parents are very academically oriented, both having taught in Ivy League schools at the post graduate level. Do you think that had a great influence on your pursuit of a PhD?
PK: For sure. Also, my parents have changed careers and pivoted many times themselves, and are very comfortable with that. They have always been willing to start fresh and begin something new. They are not single-minded or tunnel visioned – which is a great example for me.
I give my parents a lot of credit for teaching me that life is not easy. The world doesn’t owe us anything. This [TPH] is going to work because I don’t expect anything to come easily. We have a lot of issues to fight for, and it is going to take a long time. It’s not glamorous; it’s not immediate. It is a long haul, and I am in for it. It’s not day-to-day change, but it is day-to-day fulfilling.
TPH: You were very involved with horses at a young age and then took 7 or 8 years away from the equestrian world as you pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees. Most young people have a hard time pulling themselves away from this world and walking back in. Would you recommend this path to young women who are grappling with the end of their junior riding careers and looking ahead?
PK: It was the right move for me. You know yourself the best and should make your own call. I needed to establish my identity outside of the sport; I needed to go out and do things. I groomed and rode and did everything I could with horses, so I missed a lot. I missed every Friday night, I missed every other hobby, I missed free time activities. For me, I needed to go to college and figure out who I was. I wanted to go to bed at four instead of getting up at four.
TPH: And, yet, you came back to equestrian sport.
PK: I kept thinking that I would find something that I liked as much as riding and horses. I tried so many different things. One time, I decided I was going to be a skateboarder. So, I bought a skateboard and learned to ride it. I just never enjoyed riding a skateboard! (She laughs)
I don’t enjoy the learning process of anything else as much as I enjoy the process of riding and training and being around horses.
But, it was very important for me to know that this was my passion. This is a hard industry and the people can be really tough. The dilemmas we face can be really tough. Dealing with a living, breathing animal complicates things, and to take on that challenge, I had to know that this is what I want to be doing.
TPH: You and I are friends and have talked about some tough experiences you had as a young teenager at the barn, things that were very injurious and damaging to you. I bring this up because I am hoping you can give advice to young people who may be going through the same thing.
PK: What it came down to is that I was bullied at the barn. The barn was always my sanctuary away from school and family and whatever else was going on in my world. So, not to really feel safe there was tough. And, we put so much of ourselves out there physically and emotionally in this sport. Being bullied doesn’t make anyone a better athlete or a better horseperson.
TPH: How do we change this culture?
PK: It starts with the trainer setting a good example. It doesn’t all sit on the trainer’s shoulders, but their attitude and behavior can make a big difference. Educating current trainers and upcoming trainers to have the tools to deal with this behavior would go a long way. What to do with a negative group dynamic, that kind of thing. Back then, sports psychology was not as popular. I really could have used someone to help teach me a variety of skills to deal with what was going on at the barn. It’s about building a better model of behavior.
TPH: That comment represents so much of what you support through The Plaid Horse: building a better model of horsemanship, of education, of sportsmanship, of business ethics. What changes would you like to see in the equestrian industry and the sport?
PK: We need everyone feel valued and wanted. There is a huge part of our culture that tells people that if they don’t have enough money, they are not useful. That attitude is unnecessary to a successful sport.
I am glad that the local shows are doing so well, but I think it creates a further cultural divide. We need to bridge that gap with more opportunities for the talented kid.
Our goal should be to educate the public more broadly about the sport. If more people understood how it worked, they could find the right path for themselves. No one plan fits everyone, so we need to get information out there about what the expectations and possibilities are.
Right now, a new non-horse family getting into equestrian sport is totally overwhelmed. It is turning people away.
TPH: So, who gets the information out there? USEF? USHJA? The Plaid Horse? Who is it?
PK: Everyone. I would love it to be USEF – but they don’t seem to be stepping up to the plate. And that hasn’t changed. Unfortunately, all of the responsibility falls on the trainers, and they may not be the ones to best handle the outreach. We all need to step up to the plate if we want to see the change that we need. I am talking about accessibility and broadening the base of the sport.
What we see are two types of successful kids in this sport. One is kids who have buckets of money and the other is kids whose parents are in the business and have found ways to create a path for them. This is a very limited group and perhaps a barrier to families coming in. If new parents could evaluate opportunities for their kids, it may encourage them to join in.
As much as I agree with programs like EAP, I do not think it is enough. I would not have earned that opportunity, because I did not show at 3’6″ that much. I did not have the horses. How many other kids are in that same situation?
This is one of the reasons that I support Pony Finals so much. It is an event that is inclusive and levels the playing field. Every year some kids have the rides of their lives on ponies that did not cost the world, and they are in contention. I love to see that happening.
TPH: What are the five issues in the industry that concern you the most right now?
PK: Horse welfare. And, I am not talking only about drugs and medications, but about the hardships that we impose on the horses. Smaller stalls at shows, longer show schedules, footing issues, lunging – all of these issues. This year, Harrisburg was less than par, shows in general are more congested, risk of injury is higher. It leads us to questions the things we ask of our horses.
I worry about losing the sport. We keep catering to the top few people with more and more money, and there aren’t that many of them. If we lose one or two, it will have a devastating effect on the show world. In any sport, this is not a sustainable model. It is scary and unnecessary. Accessibility and broadening the base are essential.
Horsemanship. Pony Club was designed decades ago when kids had horses in their back yard that they needed to learn take care of. That is just not the case anymore in our industry. Most kids have horses in boarding facilities that are cared for by grooms. I get it. I have expensive ponies and wouldn’t want an eight year old wrapping their legs. And, I understand the time constraints that go with lessoning and training. There are only so many hours. So, how do we teach horsemanship and horse care to the next generation? We need to put some thought into this because there is so much more to horses than just riding them. We have priced ourselves out of practicality.
Broad based education of riders is an important issue. I want more people in our sport to be college educated. Education produces a comprehensive, knowledgeable human being that is equipped to handle a business. The days of deciding to become a trainer and winging it are over. As a sport, we need to encourage young professionals to get an education and learn about accounting, billing, marketing, and money management. Access to mentors is key. I loved when Andy Kocher stated that on our podcast. It is so important to find a mentor and equally as important to mentor young people.
TPH: You are a prolific mentor and very involved with the 12-to-17 year old population.
PK: I sure am! A group of them often stays with me at horse shows and it’s fun. Driving to the shows in the morning, we have discussions about things like the history of the sport. They have great questions and are really interested. We need to have more people in places to help them learn and carry the sport forward.
TPH: One of the directions you have gone – other than the magazine – is that you have an undetermined number of ponies that you lease out. Explain your business model and why it works financially and personally for you.
PK: I love being a part of the pony divisions, more so than the horse divisions. I became involved with breeding and studying bloodlines. It is so interesting, and really cool that most ponies are still bred in the U.S. I can drive from my house and look at young, furry ponies in a field and pick one out. I love to be a part of the process of bringing them along.
TPH: I find it interesting that you aim toward the middle of the market instead of the top level. Perhaps your immediate profit potential is less, but it seems to be more sustainable.
PK: With both the pony business and the magazine, I need to be practical in a hurry. I don’t have a safety net to absorb mistakes. With the magazine, I can make one big mistake a year and be fine. Some years, I make two big mistakes and end up scrambling!
With the pony business, the most important ingredient is my business partner, Emily Elek. She has as high a success rate as is possible in that business. She is fair, knowledgeable, and ethical – a great partner. Emily always puts the pony first before the paycheck. That’s good horsemanship and good business because we like our ponies to be happy and healthy for a long time.
TPH: This is year four of owning The Plaid Horse. You have a huge social media presence and a successful podcast. What does 2018 and beyond hold for the TPH empire?
PK: 2018 is very exciting. The magazine was profitable when I bought it, but I had no idea what I was doing. So, I thought I would change nothing for one year while I learned it. Well, it took two years, and then I started to make some changes. We went from newsprint to glossy; we started to hire more people. With every step we have grown in size and quality in the level of work we are doing. At the beginning of a project, you have to say yes to everyone and everything. We are now at a place where we can make some selective no’s.
Our team has a strong foundation and everyone works well together and respects each other. Each member has learned her role role in this project that is like concept art. Things are always growing and shifting. In today’s media world, if the plates aren’t shifting under your feet, you are standing still.
TPH: Is a magazine sustainable in the current world?
PK: Yes. People will always want to hold a print magazine in their hands. Advertisers want more options and we provide them with ideas about what will work best for their products. We share all of the information we have with them. Will the magazine take the same form that it always has? No. But, a small, quality magazine is sustainable.
TPH: The podcast has been very successful. How do you forecast the future for The Plaidcast?
PK: I love podcasts. I have been listening to them since 2006, longer than most people. At the time, I was struggling with anxiety, depression and insomnia, and they really helped. I was beating myself up for not being productive, and podcasts were a great way to think. They are a super outlet, especially considering how much time we all spend in the car. I would like to grow ours and continue to build a following.
TPH: What is your vision of the future for The Plaid Horse?
PK: Bigger, better, more inclusive. We will stand up more for the people that support us. One of the problems in this industry is that people want to boil everything down to black and white, right and wrong. When I think about the people and the horses and the day-to-day decisions that we face, I realize how complex our world is. I want to provide context and information about what is going on in the grey areas.
Most people don’t think about anyone else’s perspective. What did the course designer go through to design the courses? How did the vendors decide on this horse show? What did the judge do this morning? What does the trainer’s day look like? What is that junior going through right now?
Victory takes a lot of different forms. Let’s acknowledge and celebrate accomplishments. I had what I thought were victories for myself this year that would not have been victories for someone else. We all have different amounts of time, money, and talent to devote to this sport. All levels and all participants are valuable. I want to support, educate, include, and promote members of the horse show industry.
About the Author: Sissy is a Princeton University graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a USEF R rated judge, a freelance journalist and an autism advocate. Her illustrious resume includes extensive show hunter and jumper experience. She lives with her family in Unionville, PA and Wellington, FL.
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