BY CATIE STASZAK
Dave Conlan is a proud horse show father. He had his daughter Blair on a horse’s back before she could walk, recalling the enjoyment he got out of playing polo for the University of California, Davis. He placed her with a top trainer in John Charlebois and got her well mounted on a reliable equitation horse and a junior hunter. He transported her across the state of California for horse shows.
But when he got on the grounds, like all horse show dads, the hurry-up-and-wait game that plagues horse show venues got to him.
“I would stand around horse shows, never knowing what was going on,” he said. “I wanted to know: What’s happening? Where’s the trainer? What classes is my daughter entered in? Why is the ring delayed?”
Conlan, who spent decades working in the technology sector for companies like Oracle and HP, set out on a hunt to get the information he so often lacked. He discovered a myriad of horse show data websites and quickly logged a lengthy list of options. However, he found that each venue offered a drastically different and complicated system. When he spoke to fellow horse show parents, he discovered a frustrated group.
“I heard the same thing over and over: ‘We have no idea what’s going on, and it’s very frustrating,’” Conlan explained. “Confusion at the ingate—not knowing when your child will ride or where—is like changing gates at the airport. There is no answer outside of bothering the person working the gate or the trainer.”
Conlan decided to take matters into his own hands, recognizing in equal parts a business opportunity and an opportunity to improve an integral part of the industry. He launched the BackGate app this year, connecting riders, trainers and horse show families alike directly to the ingate at horse shows.
“I was in the middle of developing a business to save horses from slaughter and re-home them into organic fertilizer farms, but I ran into a wall when someone told me that if I bought from the kill pens, I’d simply be supporting the very organizations I’m trying to put out of business,” Conlan said. “Then I realized that everyone who shows complains about the same thing: No one has any clear idea what’s going on at shows. Moreover, there is no barn portal where trainers can easily do everything that they need to do for showing.”
So, Conlan decided to invest in building a next-generation horse showing application.
“If enough people signed up, we would create a social network to intercept the horses to fertilizer ranches before they end up in the kill pens,” he explained.
The app is currently being utilized at the Desert International Horse Park for electronic credentialing as well as electronic stall booking and reservations. Conlan has agreements in place for next season with West Palms Events and Langer Equestrian Group, covering a substantial amount of west coast shows. BackGate also recently partnered with the horse show management software HorseShowTime.com to offer a live front end to all shows using that platform.
“It’s a coming of age for the industry,” Charlebois said. “It’s got to happen, because—now more than ever because of [the COVID-19 pandemic]—people don’t want to spend time in the horse show office [seeking information]; they just like to look at a bill, go over it and pay by their phone. There’s a tremendous need for it during this time. Dave is on the right track.
“I have to take my hat off to him,” he added. “He wants to get involved in a business that his daughter is passionate about. We’re one of those barns that is very family oriented. He’s a terrific guy, and Blair is a really good rider and has all the right work ethic. Dave has gone the extra mile, and I respect that.”
BackGate is not a horse show management system; it’s designed to bridge the gap between exhibitor and ingate—“a TeamSnap for horse showing.” A platform like HorseShowTime will serve as the primary system until the night before the horse show. Then, BackGate, which is connected to the show office, takes over. Trainers log in and can check their students into classes in a fashion that best suits their schedules. On show days, the ingate can better manage their many tasks with BackGate, thanks to the app’s Kanban board technology, a simplified task management system. If a horse loses a shoe or a trainer conflict disrupts their order of go, they can drag that card either to the back of the lineup or forward in the lineup.
“The core of the app is a barn portal which makes the lives of trainers and exhibitors much easier. It’s essentially a show barn portal, which also has live day-of-competition queue management for those shows which want to offer their customers an easy-to-consume live show status,” Conlan explained. “No one likes to wait at the ring. [So often], you tack up and walk up there, and ring is delayed 40 minutes. Do you walk back? Well, it’s a 20-minute walk back. So, you end up with 40 to 50 people with horses standing there for 40 minutes. But the horses don’t like to wait! So, you have your horse ready to go, and you know your course, and then your horse is antsy. With COVID, you can’t [congregate at the ring] anyway!”
Conlan has also all-but eliminated crashing or freezing on the app by having it operate on a cellular network. The entire system is designed for mobile devices and the constant on-the-go nature of horse show exhibitors.
“The Wi-Fi [is poor] at a lot of horse shows,” Conlan said. “BackGate is cloud based, with bank level security and AWS encryption. And it’s mobile optimized.”
Conlan started development of BackGate just two years ago, and as the app navigates its Beta phase, it continues to add new features. With the global COVID-19 pandemic having changed the landscape of horse shows and limiting access to the horse show office, BackGate is managing all the credentialing of riders on site at Desert International Horse Park; Conlan also designed the electronic stall reservation system for the venue. For other shows that don’t currently employ the ShowgroundsLive.com software, BackGate’s patent pending app offers the ability to do online signups, see live ring status, COVID credentialing, stall reservations, post class results and allows for the adding and scratching of classes, as well as interactive venue maps for new visitors and exhibitor family members. Conlan says the app is also transferable to other sports like swimming, track, racing and others.
“Simplifying is key. [Horse shows are] a lot more complicated than they were, 15, 10, even five years ago,” Charlebois said. “It’s not just the hunter-jumper world, either; it’s true for reining horse shows and others. The paperwork is astronomical now. It will help the industry to simplify the navigating of it, from eligibility [for specific classes], to time schedules, entries, and stabling. It’s inevitable that the technology has to change to keep up with the sport.”
The next phase of development involves integrating information on all of the memberships required to earn points in classes at the horse show. Future goals include creating an entire horse show social network, where exhibitors can buy tack; keep track of their horses; and view horses for sale at a particular horse show and what classes they’re entered in.
“Knowing whether or not a rider is eligible for all the medals is very important, so there is no grey area. It’s something that any rider could check out, rather than the trainer,” Charlebois said. “No one wants to break the rules, but there are so many medal classes that [the qualification process, points and rules] can be hard to follow. Sometimes you have to have a computer just dedicated to that! Having that in the app would be tremendous.”
“I want to create a horse-specific social network,” Conlan said. “Research shows that 30.5% of American households contain a horse enthusiast, so 44 million people. That’s a market.”
Two Businesses in Parallel
In true entrepreneurial fashion, Conlan will tell you that there’s more. In fact, BackGate is built on the premise of a greater social purpose.
Blair adopted a rescue horse named Ellie, whom Conlan describes as, the “smartest horse we’ve ever had.” Ellie’s journey from kill pen to now a loving lesson program in Northern California had a profound impact on Conlan. He wants to use BackGate to end horse slaughter.
“I want to make the kill pens go out of business,” he said.
And he believes he can do it, giving even horses fit only for pasture life a chance at a new career by establishing fertilizer ranches, as horses produce a manure that is ideal for organic farming.
“Scientists began realizing about last year that eating conventionally grown food causes insulin resistance,” he explained. “We can rescue horses and get them re-homed into ranches in a very efficient way using government assistance. All we’ll ask of the horses is to eat as much as they can. There’s new technology that gets rid of alfalfa seeds, so we can easily convert the manure into fertilizer.”
Conlan wants to use the app to intercept horses before they are sent to slaughter by creating a network where individuals can identify and bring awareness to at-risk horses.
“We’re gaining traction at the larger shows,” he said. “We want to add value [to the app], save people’s time, and make it easier to do a horse show. We hope the app will spread, and then we will have a big enough network that we can have an at-risk horse alerting system.
“It’s two businesses in parallel,” he added.
Conlan’s goals are big, but so too are the waves BackGate is generating on the backsides at west coast horse shows.
“One thing I’ve learned about horse showing, if a person fell off a horse, the rumor about it would spread before they hit the ground!” Conlan exclaimed. “The app has spread like wildfire.”
Originally from the December 2020 issue.