BY ELYSE SCHENK & PIPER KLEMM
We’re told from childhood to choose a career that we’re passionate about. But the idea of doing what you love and making money while doing can be a dangerously seductive concept. Blinded by passion, we may refuse to see the real obstacles within our career paths. It’s an unfortunate reality that some industries are only lucrative for the particularly business savvy, well-connected, or already wealthy.
Horse professions almost exclusively recruit passionate horse people. This passion is necessary for success, but running a successful horse business takes more than even the strongest horse obsession. Instead, take your passion for horses and focus it into passion for entrepreneurship. Be enthusiastic about your role as a businessman or businesswoman. Research, plan and hold yourself to the highest standard of professionalism. Let your horse passion inspire you to be practical in order for your horse business to stay profitable.
To start, understand these frequent fatal flaws too many professionals in our industry make:
Mistake 1 – Poor budgeting and investments
A common example of this mistake is neglecting to buy farm supplies in bulk. The initial price tag may be reasonably intimidating, but with a low cost per unit, you should save money over time if you store your supply with longevity in mind. Pay attention to when prices are low and then buy in bulk—especially for hay, grain and bedding (your biggest regular expenses).
Take hay, for example. Hay is least expensive right after spring harvest and the cost increases towards the fall to then sky rocket in the winter. Plan your budget so that you can afford to write a big check early in the year for a bulk hay investment. Then store your hay so it remains fresh. You’ll save money for the months to come.
Similarly, buy concentrated products for frequently used items like disinfectants, or seasonally used products such as fly spray which should cost less in winter seasons.
Mistake 2 – Misunderstanding where your profits and costs are coming from
So, you made more money this year than last. Why? To accurately answer this question, you need to keep track of revenue streams and expenses. Understand and document where your money is coming from as well as the prices of your spending.
Did you make more this year because you sold more horses, or because hay was cheaper? Profit is either circumstantial or earned, and understanding the difference will help you manage your budget and grow your business. Otherwise, you risk spending money you don’t have or lose cash you should be saving.
Mistake 3 – Over-specialization
This might seem slightly counterintuitive. In other industries, you’ll generally find success by focusing on your strongest asset and marketing yourself as a specialist. The horse industry is different. Putting all of your eggs in one basket can be risky, as the industry is notorious for being “reliably unreliable.” Don’t depend too heavily on one source of income, as too many factors and unforeseen circumstances affect horse farm profitability.
For example, perhaps don’t limit your business to something like boarding, exclusively breeding, or only training show clients. Instead, consider hosting clinics. Teach lessons. Sell horses. Offer board if you don’t already. Rent your arenas. Evaluate all of your resources, property, and skills to decide what you can offer to diversify. Generate more out of your horse business by enabling income from a variety of sources.
Mistake 4 – Ignoring (or being oblivious to) waste
Attention to detail is critical in horse care. Most horse people are admirably observant of their horses’ needs and well-being, but many don’t apply that same attention to detail to subtle wasted resources.
Are you delivering your twice-daily feed such that handfuls of hay and grain aren’t lost each time? Can you reuse leftover water to replenish your pastures or landscaping? Are your light bulbs energy efficient? Check for leaks, keep electricity use to a minimum, and add nozzles to water hoses to block leakage. Rather than paying for someone to pick up your manure waste, consider composting, spreading manure over fields, or allowing a local farmer to pick up your manure for free.
The same holds true for wasted labor. How efficiently are your employees working? You can certainly expect efficiency without coming off as an overly demanding boss. Let employees know if there’s a streamlined system for preparing feed or turning horses out, for example. It will save everyone’s time and maximize the value of their labor, to potentially require fewer workers overall.
Take the time to assess the daily operations of your farm. Note the areas that can be sharpened. Each individual loss might seem insignificant in the grand scheme, but waste accumulates over time into a silent killer of profitability.
Mistake 5 – Credit card debt
Not unique to the horse industry, but certainly not spared from its fangs either, credit card debt is another silent killer of horse businesses. This is not to say that charging to credit cards is an automatic mistake. Credit cards effectively help provide farms a necessary cushion for emergencies and are essentially required to run a business at all. However, credit card interest is a huge burden that threatens livelihoods. Pay your monthly statement in full if at all possible in order to avoid interest and staying out of “the hole”.
Mistake 6 – Careless spending
Being conservatively selective with your purchases is easier said than done. Advertising works. Marketing tactics are increasingly clever, and most purchases are easy to justify one way or another. With that said, a few practical tips do work to avoid overspending.
First, negotiate! Don’t submit to the listed price. You’d be surprised how often people prioritize selling at all over achieving their asking price. Regardless of whether or not you can bring down the rate, it can’t hurt to barter a bit. Also try to work out deals, or collaborative exchanges of services (when appropriate) as an alternative to outright paying for something.
Second, buy used items. Scoring a bargain consignment product that’s in working condition is worth any effort of searching used tack Facebook groups. Utilize Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and various used tack Facebook groups, or websites like Equivont to browse secondhand items.
Third, be knowledgeable about what the horses need and what the product actually provides. For example, many horses are overfed concentrates, especially those who receive only light work or no exercise at all. Horse owners ultimately overspend on expensive grain because they feel they need to “cover the bases.” This is not to advocate for cutting corners, but rather an encouragement to continue your research and communication with your veterinarian about what your horse truly needs to thrive.
Mistake 7 – Too many horses
It’s advice no equestrian wants to hear… you can’t afford that horse. Tragically, one of the leading causes of horse farm failure is hosting too many personal horses. There’s no way around it, horses are expensive—even if you own your own barn.
Mistake 8 – Not Getting Paid
It sounds obvious, but too many equine businessmen and women accumulate stacks of outstanding invoices. No one wants to nickel and dime their clients or have a reputation of being stingy. However, it’s completely reasonable and necessary as a professional to charge for your services and time and be insistent on receiving payment. “Time is money”, even when helping your beloved clients. Too many favors will seriously cost you. Reasonable clients will understand that, as long as your invoices are clear, organized and consistent.
About the Author: Piper began her tenure as the Publisher of The Plaid Horse Magazine in 2014. She received her B.S. with Honors in Chemistry from Trinity College [Hartford, CT] in 2009 and her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 2012. She is an active member of the hunter/jumper community, owning a fleet of lease ponies and showing in adult hunter divisions.
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