Surviving the downside of the horse industry is all about how not to be just a one-trick pony. Diversity can go a long way in keeping a business afloat, just like a diversified financial portfolio can carry an investor through tough times.
Offering what clients want and learning to be flexible can attract customers and keep them coming back, says Jacquie Bosch of Bosch Farms, a breeder of Dutch Warmbloods and a training centre near Red Deer, AB. “It has to be give-and-take. People have to give a little bit more. Keep the customer happy,” she explained. “Some people only think about one thing and that’s making money. They charge the customer for every minute they talk to you.”
Jacquie and husband John are in the finishing stages of converting their dairy farm to a state-of- the-art horse complex which includes a hot walker, indoor and outdoor training rings, spacious stalls, and wash stands. But they are not just after high-end clientele.
“Whatever someone wants to accomplish with their horse, we will help them along. If they just want to come and learn how to ride better, that is okay. We help them deal with the horse they have and see what they can make of it. Not everyone can afford an expensive horse. If you give good service and make people happy, they will come back.”
The Boschs came from Holland 18 years ago, and brought with them a European approach which includes flexibility in handling horses and clientele. They encourage riders to seek input from other riders and trainers. “You don’t learn from just one person,” said Jacquie. “People are free to approach any trainer and rider for help. That is how it is in Europe.”
A “unique” factor also is crucial in increasing a business profile, so the Boschs made their new facilities wheelchair accessible. “Sometimes grandparents like to come and watch their grandchildren ride,” Jacquie said.
By importing live animals and frozen semen from Europe, they also can provide proven bloodlines, so customers don’t have to travel to Europe to find quality horses.
Business owners have to be able to offer something not easily found elsewhere, said Jacquie. And they have to promote what they are selling. Her daughter Femke trains and competes in show jumping, a way of showing off the quality and athleticism of their horses. Good business plans rarely sprout overnight. The Boschs had the idea of expanding their horse stables 25 years ago, and toured farms in Holland to fine-tune the project.
Diversification also is at the root of the 7P Ranch near Longview, AB, where Jesse and Elyse Thomson began their colt-starting business seven years ago, expanding into breeding three years later. They now have two Quarter Horse stallions and about 20 broodmares. The young couple also run cattle and offer clinics, and private and group lessons from beginner to advanced. They have a focus on the working cow horse, but will start and finish any horse for any discipline.
Versatility is the key to much of their success, from their training to breeding program. And it is what has carried them through the down times, said Elyse. “We don’t deal with just one discipline. Jesse shows cutting and working cow horses, but we get everything in here from Warmbloods to Thoroughbreds to Quarter Horses to Friesians. That means ranch horses to English to roping horses. We stay very diversified. Some people do strictly cutting or reining, but that’s hard for these times.”
While many trainers will take in older horses to fine-tune or train for a specific discipline, few are prepared to put in the time and patience required for breaking colts, said Elyse. Starting colts, however, allows the Thomsons to accept any breed. “It doesn’t matter what discipline you do. All horses need the same start, whether you want to do Grand Prix dressage or basic riding.”
Like the Boschs, the Thomsons also want to breed and provide quality horses in Canada so that customers don’t have to travel to the U.S. for a good Quarter Horse. But with North American breeding numbers down, they are careful about which horses they breed. “If we were only riding show horses, we would not have made it through,” she said. “There’s more to a horse than what’s on paper.”
In Canada, where there are few large purses, it makes little sense to spend $50,000 to $60,000 for a top broodmare, because it could take up to eight years to make a profit, said Elyse. “To get $10,000 to $15,000 for a yearling is tough. Then you have the training on top of that. It’s not long before you’ve spent $30,000 for a $10,000 purse.”
So the Thomsons hunt for a horse that has about $15,000 in show earnings. “What I want is a good bloodline, a good mind and good conformation. That’s what goes into our breeding program.” The result is usually an all-around versatile horse which is suitable for ranch work, trail, 4-H, English or barrel racing, Elyse said. “With people not wanting to spend a lot of money right now, you have to be able to offer that all-around horse. I don’t want a horse that can only cut, because then I’m stuck with it. I want horses that can do anything.”
And if need be, prices have to be dropped. “A good horse will still bring a good price, but the average horse is bringing in way less money.” Young horses that once fetched between $4,000 and $5,000 are now going for half that amount, she said. “You have to be realistic in your prices and value of the horse. You have to offer horses in all price ranges.”
Because fewer horses were bred in the economic slump, Elyse predicts in a few years there will be a shortage of good horses. And that will prove positive for their business. “You will start to see better quality animals, and prices will start to rise again. At least that is what I am hoping for, and we want to be ready for that.”
Dewy Matthews of Anchor D Guiding and Outfitting couldn’t agree more that variety brings value and helps pave the road to success. “It’s huge,” he said. His business, west of Turner Valley on the border of Kananaskis Country, offers a wide range of horseback trips from a couple of hours to a day trip to a week-long vacation. There are also rental guest cabins, hunting trips and sleigh rides in the winter. Switching tracks is also a must, he noted. As the market demand changes so must your business or else you will be left behind, he said. “You have to grab a glove to get in the change.”
When the economy slumped, Matthews recognized people were booking shorter trips, so he adjusted his work crews so he wasn’t spending wages on half-booked trips. “Seven-day trips used to be the big deal, but not anymore. People still want to take their family and do a mountain ride, but the two to three hour trips are what is now getting to be big.”
While visitors from the U.S. have dropped, Matthews has marketed his horseback vacations in Central Canada, recognizing that many people in southern Ontario have relatives in Alberta. And he also promotes within his own backyard. Almost half of tourism in Alberta is intraprovincial, he said. “So I get a lot of people from all over the province. And there are a lot of new Albertans.”
In the outfitting business, it’s all about giving people “a good day,” he said. “That means good food, a variety of it, a lot of it, and having it served well. And people need a good night’s sleep. They don’t want to be on the ground. And they’re in a guest tent so they have some time to themselves.”
Being savvy to what people want, and not being afraid to shift direction when trends change is smart business, he said. “You’ve gottodothetapdance.” t