BY JESSIE LOCHRIE
Careers in the horse world are known for long hours, low pay, and a high rate of burnout — so how do the professionals we admire manage their careers in a sustainable way? We reached out to some of our favorite people in the equine industry to find out. Today we’re talking to Katha Gatto, owner and founder of Shadow Creek NY, a boutique sales business focusing on importing horses from Europe for the American amateur market.
How did you get started in horses, and what led you to your particular path in the industry?
I was fortunate that both my parents were involved in horses. My mother was a very successful amateur rider in the seventies and eighties and my father was a foxhunter. I grew up on a horse farm, we did Pony Club, my mom always had some wonderful Connemaras or Thoroughbreds in the backyard. In high school I decided to focus on the hunter/jumpers and I was fortunate that I was able to do that at the A shows.
I wanted to be a working student and my parents said, “We love you, we’ve been extremely supportive of you, but if you are not going to college and doing horses instead, you have to do it on your own.” I tried it for six months and it was eye-opening. Eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sleeping in a stall was not 100% what I wanted, and I realized I wasn’t the best rider in America and there wasn’t anybody who was going to give me horses to show.
I went to school and I stepped out of horses for the majority of my college career. What spurred me to get back into horses was my father being diagnosed with cancer. I was working as the head of marketing in an economics department, and I left that job to care for him. He said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t waste your life not living a life you really like. If you’re passionate about something, do it.” When he told me that, I realized that I had a wonderful life, but I missed horses. I decided that rather than go back to a normal job, I would try to do horses in a different way.
I have an MBA and a master’s degree in international marketing. What I was familiar with was the power of social media and the power of marketing and the power of good business ethics, and that was what I wanted to bring to the horse business. I wanted to import, and I wanted to build a really boutique, really transparent sales business.I took basically all of my savings and invested that into the business, buying and importing 3 horses. That was 5 years ago and we have grown to selling between 40 and 50 horses a year.
What was the most difficult part of starting your career?
I think it’s difficult for a lot of young professionals to accept that there’s a hierarchy, and it’s not a bad thing. There’s people that have been doing this for a very long time and have amassed significantly more knowledge than you have. You can’t expect to show up and ride great and have everyone want to work with you and buy a horse from you. There is a lot of tradition and respect in this industry, and a huge part of breaking into the industry is paying your dues.
I had to start really slow and I had to begin small enough that I knew I could do a good job and earn people’s trust. One of the most important parts of being a successful horse dealer is people trusting you. I had to be extremely cautious and never allow myself to put success before my reputation.
What does a typical day or week in your life look like?
I normally work at least twelve hours a day. I don’t ride as much as I used to, especially in Florida because I am spending more time at horse trials and with clients, which is probably a little shocking to people. In the summer I’m able to ride two or three horses a day.
A lot of what I do is oversee. I luckily have a team that I can delegate to: I have a barn manager who deals with a lot of the day-to-day, and my fiancé, Garrett Warner, is our head rider. I am busiest in the winter when we’re based in Wellington. I get up at six, go over emails, go over the day’s schedule with Garrett and go to the barn. Then I’m going between trials off property, trials at my farm, and going to the show to help Garrett with our horses. It’s a lot of running around, to be honest!”
One of the hardest things about a life in horses is that it’s nonstop. They always need you, and you’re never not thinking about them. Something that both my partner and I decided in the last six months is that we’re going to really prioritize taking time off. So I do try to take half a day off a week.
Do you feel you could remain in this position for the next 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?
I don’t have any desire to leave this business. I only have the goal to get better. I do not mind working way harder than most people want to! A huge goal of mine is to be an owner in the sport. I’d like to be owning top horses and that goes hand in hand with the path I’m on now.
If you weren’t in horses, what would you do?
I could always go back to the marketing world. I would love to be in the marketing or publishing side of the food business. I’m really passionate about food. I love to cook, I love to entertain. That would be something that I would be super passionate about.
Has any aspect of your path in the industry surprised you?
The most surprising thing is how much you can create for yourself. There’s no set-in-stone progression that you have to accomplish in order to reach goals in this industry. For example, a huge goal of mine was to own a grand prix horse. I didn’t see myself being able to do that as quickly as I was able to. It was surprising in a wonderful way to find that I worked hard and I got to that goal faster than I thought I would.
Something that has surprised me through the years is how different every horse is. Even as you keep getting better, you realize how little you actually know and how much you have to learn from horses. It’s the inherent nature of the business. We have chosen to create our entire futures and careers around living, breathing animals that cannot talk. Every year there are new challenges and new surprises.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in your career path?
I am a broken record telling everyone to go to college. I think one of the best things you can do is get outside of your comfort zone, force yourself to do something that’s difficult, and also make a lot of connections.
I’m really in a customer service role so you have to really love that part of it. It’s a people pleasing industry, you have to love talking to people and being with people. That’s something that people don’t think about enough, in terms of horse sales and horse dealers. A lot of it is human interaction!
One of the best parts of my path has been the relationships that I’ve made with people. I’ve made wonderful friendships with people that do the same thing as me. I have peers and mentors from all over the world, from all walks of life, that I would have no reason to know if we didn’t have this shared love of horses. That’s something that’s not celebrated enough, I think.
You have to be passionate about the horses and be committed to doing right by them. Doing right by them doesn’t always mean doing right by your bank account. You’re going to have an easier time going to sleep at night if you have your priorities straight and you put the horses first, always. You can find Shadowcreek NY at http://www.shadowcreekny.com/ and https://www.instagram.com/shadowcreek_ny/.