Articles Written 3
Article Views 9,817

Juli Hutchings-Sebring

Achievements

Become an Eventing Nation Blogger

About Juli Hutchings-Sebring

Latest Articles Written

Running a Horse Business: Truth and Lies

Juli Sebring is owner of Appleton Equestrian, a 5-star rated equestrian facility in Fair Hill, Maryland. Juli is the author of two novels, “A Horse to Remember” and “A Horse to Treasure.” She has been featured in numerous magazines and currently runs Appleton Equestrian while eventing with her horses and students.

Some students who came out to support me at the 2017 YEH Championships at Fair Hill. Photo by Juli Sebring.

What could be better than waking up every morning and going outside to feed your colleagues? Unlike your office colleagues, these work buddies are always happy to see you, they don’t talk back, and they only smell a little bit. Most of them recognize that you are the boss — some will try to run all over you, but a four-legged bully is no problem for you in the long run. You can handle this.

As boss of your horse business, you set your own hours and you aren’t behind a desk all day. There are a lot of pros for a money making scheme like this. Here is what people will tell you: If you’re going to make a job out of horses, you’d better be head over heels in love with them. There is truth in this, but at the same time it’s a little more complicated than that.

One of five summer kids camp weeks photo from 2017. Photo by Juli Sebring.

For me, a horse business is about much more than loving my horses and making sure the passion is there. Since I can remember, I have lived and breathed horses. I started making money from lessons when I was 10 years old, co-teaching lessons with my sister. I loved teaching and I loved horses. At 14 I had my own lesson program teaching kids on my childhood pony. A couple of summers in high school I made more money on one week of horse camp than my friends did all summer long. I grew this business and added a couple more lesson horses before I went off to college to explore other options.

Students after a Jumping lesson. Photo by Juli Sebring.

I taught lessons at a barn during college, evented my two horses, bought and sold horses, and even worked at a barn teaching after college. I did try the office jobs. I was a property manager, a certified life insurance sales agent, a freelance graphic designer, a writer and publisher, an au pair in Ireland, a social media and graphics specialist for a law firm, the list goes on. I was never entirely happy, and the horses were always my main form of motivation to make money. So why not combine your passion and your business?

As a young business owner, I’ve spent the last three years building my current operation from the ground up. When my now husband and I moved into our farm, we made the switch from self-care boarding to full-care boarding. The change in price (and ownership) caused almost all of the boarders to leave our farm. The first winter seemed hopeless to make my rent each month, but now we have had a boarding wait list for two years and not a single open stall.

A student and I announcing at one of our horse shows. I have a bad habit of scheduling shows on days like this! Photo by Stephanie George.

The farm in the winter. Photo by Juli Sebring.

I went from just a few lesson ponies and a handful of boarders to running lessons seven days a week, managing assistant teachers, show teams, and horse shows just about every weekend, pony parties, camps for kids and adults in the spring, summer and winter, trail rides, leasing programs, horse boarding, horse training, horse sales, managing farm workers, managing my accounts, ordering barn supplies, and upkeeping the business social media.

Day in and day out, what I have found is that the horses are rarely the problem. Sure, we occasionally have the horse that gets grumpy in the summer heat and wants to buck off a student (or lay down and roll in the ring). Or a horse that was perfect for six months and has a personality switch overnight (kicks your student in the face) and no amount of ulcer meds or vet diagnostics can account for the sudden change in her performance. But there are always more horses out there, and these problems we can, and have, overcome.

Adults cooling off after the Wednesday night dressage lesson. Photo by Juli Sebring.

It has never been a question for me of whether or not I really have the passion to keep going everyday. Rather, it is like any job — the people that you work with can be the real problem to running your business. Let’s face it, if you dislike the people you have to work with, getting up and going to your job everyday is a real chore.

For the first couple of years, I taught seven days a week, bringing in as many new students and money as possible. I taught all of our spring, summer and winter camps, and was the sole instructor at my farm. I had trouble saying NO to people and whenever they wanted me, I was there.

2017 Christmas gift for my boarders — name plates for their stalls. Photo by Juli Sebring.

It took a couple years of running my farm for me to realize a few valuable lessons.

Lesson #1: Work Hard AND Smart, Not Just Hard

The first is that I can actually work less and make the same amount of money as when I hustled 24/7. Today, I have four assistant teachers, all of whom are either my own students who work off lessons, or my boarders working off their board. It’s a mutually beneficial way for me to teach fewer lessons while making more money. My students are happy because they get free lessons, and my boarders generally pay a couple hundred dollars less each month. Winning!

My students having fun … maybe a little too much! Photo by Juli Sebring.

Lesson #2: Choose Your People Wisely

The second valuable lesson I learned over the years was I can choose who I want to work with. So that mom who always wants her child on the same pony every week and complains bitterly behind your back? “Dear trash talker, either buy the pony for your child, learn to share, or get lost.” No, I didn’t really say that. It went something like, “I think you would be happier at another barn.”

What about the one who doesn’t understand the increase in lesson prices? “Dear cranky pants, you try feeding 20 horses in the middle of winter. I have enough business so I think you can pack your bags and bark up someone else’s tree.” Just kidding, that one also began, “Here is a list of other barns in the area that I think you may enjoy with more affordable lessons.”

Choosing who I want to work with has made all the difference. And, just like the horses, there are always other people out there who you WILL enjoy working with. THIS is a sustainable business model, to not only the success and happiness of the business for myself (and possibly my husband who has to hear me complain), but even more so for the longevity of relationships with others around you.

Leading my students on a course walk. Photo by Julia Battaglia.

For my boarders and students who see horses as their hobby and means of escaping the drudgery of their jobs or inevitable problems that we all face in everyday life, they don’t want to come to the barn and be brought down by another person. The barn is their happy place. So even that barn manager who can’t find the time to smile and be happy to the clients — time to find another job. Or the boarder who wants others to gang up and be unhappy too … bye bye drama.

A good rule of thumb I have come up with: If I can’t envision sitting down for a cup of coffee with someone, chances are I probably won’t enjoy them as a boarder. That hypothesis has proved true on more than one occasion.

Precisely what my night looks like after a typical barn day. Photo by Juli Sebring.

Lesson #3: Take a Day Off (Seriously)

The third very valuable lesson, and one I was advised from the beginning to follow, you really do need to take a day off. My family had counseled this from day one. You’re going to burn yourself out, they said. But when your students want lessons seven days a week, and you really want to pay your rent what do you say? I’m actually not a robot who eats sleeps and breaths horse manure. Sure enough when I finally decided to take Mondays off, I still had those same students asking — “I know Monday is your day off, but….” Let’s just say it was easier said than done until I actually took a day off horses.

Photo courtesy of Juli Sebring.

To bring my point full circle …

Some TRUTHS of Being in the Horse Business

  1. You need to be capable of handling people just as suavely as you do your horses.
  2. Your passion for riding will decrease … it becomes a job to get on your own horses after eight hours teaching others.
  3. You’ll envy that cozy office desk when its 20 degrees in the wintertime and for some reason your students still want lessons.
  4. You’re working outside day in and day out — say hello to wrinkles forming more quickly than your friends in the office.
  5. On your day off, try to get out of those breeches for awhile and see the inside of a mall for a change of scenery.

Jill Henneberg Clinic at the farm. Photo by Juli Sebring.

My farm has been an absolute dream come true for me, even with the inevitable struggles to keep everyone happy in a business. Some days it’s hard to remind myself of this, but I am so lucky to have formed some long lasting bonds with my clients, and met some amazing people (and horses) who make a successful business possible. And with all the good, the bad, and the ugly, I always remember I’d never be happy any other way.

Lizz Leroy and Markie Mitchell, members of the 2016 adult eventing team thrilled after two clear XC rounds. Photo by Juli Sebring.

My dogs posing in the new ring. Photo by Juli Sebring.

In the barn with my horse Venture. Photo by Lizz Leroy.

Oldie but Goodie: In Praise of the Aging Packer

Juli Hutchings lives in Fair Hill, Maryland, on her farm, Appleton Equestrian. She has ridden to the FEI levels of dressage and eventing and denotes much of her success to her horses. She brought us this touching tribute to a special horse named Fling last week. You can find her best-selling novel, A Horse to Remember, online or in book stores.

Fling awaiting the award ceremony at the 2008 CCI2* at Jersey Fresh. Photo by Anna Davidson. Fling awaiting the award ceremony at the 2008 CCI2* at Jersey Fresh. Photo by Anna Davidson.

In terms of horse shopping, the well known phrase “oldie but goodie” is a rarity. I find that most trainers, riders and horse enthusiasts would agree the most common attributes shoppers are on the look out for are “young, safe and sound.”

In terms of my students, I often hear they don’t want to look at horses over the age of 9. They want something to compete, but it has to be young and within their price range. With this budget most are left with off-track Thoroughbreds, six to 12 months off the track with little to no show miles.

I applaud the OTTB organizations that have given new life to thousands of homeless thoroughbreds. However, the hype has led some young and green riders who are still in the learning phases to buy an OTTB they aren’t always ready for.

A student of mine was recently in a similar situation. She was leasing the horses in my eventing program at Appleton Equestrian in Fair Hill, Maryland, and gearing up to compete them in her first recognized Novice. She came upon the funds to buy a horse of her own and wanted to keep the upward slope of advancing her riding.

With her budget, the OTTB was all she was pulling up to go see, and most had yet to compete. We found some promising ones, and she went to see a couple on her own, but I didn’t get the feeling it was what she needed in a horse.

After watching her work so hard to get herself to the Novice level, I had hoped that her new horse would continue to further her training. After a discussion in the tack room one night (our “Come to Jesus” as I saw it), she said she realized that it would be a lot more work than she wanted. She agreed what she needed to find was a packer, and for us, age was not going to be a factor.

buddy

Buddy showing young rider Milla Kleyman around a schooling course. Photo by Suzannah Cornue.

A week later we brought home Buddy, a 16-year old-gelding with miles at Prelim and a solid Novice/Training packer. The two picked up next week with a recognized Novice event, Buddy already being fit and ready to go after packing a young rider around this previous year. And the best part? He was a less than half the price of her original budget.

As a trainer, I could not be happier for my student. Whether Buddy gives her three years or five years, she will progress steadily up the levels with the extra funds going toward some maintenance to keep him comfortable. After his time, maybe she will find an OTTB to pay forward the wisdom learned from Buddy. 

In terms of older horses, I am perhaps biased. Just last summer I took Guido, a 19-year-old dressage horse owned by my mother, Kate Hutchings, in my very first Third, Fourth and Prix St Georges level dressage tests. In one short summer, Guido taught me tempi changes, correct half passes and pirouettes. Now I can take this understanding onto teaching my future horses.

Today Guido is leased to a young rider who has consistently earned the High Point Champion for Third level at three different shows. One day too perhaps this young rider will pass on her knowledge to other horses or students.

Guido in my first Fourth level class. Photo by Barry Koster Photography.

Guido in my first Fourth level class. Photo by Barry Koster Photography.

Another oldie but goodie came in the form of a gelding named Fling, a Prelim packer. We were both 16 when he took me to my first Prelim. My favorite memory with Fling is receiving the Traveler’s Memorial Trophy at the Jersey Fresh CCI2* in 2008, awarded to the oldest Thoroughbred to finish the event.

I lost him at 19 years old. Even had I known how short our time together would be, I would never go back and trade those three years for any other horse. Fling taught me more than any person ever could

Now that I am a trainer and fortunate enough to run my own farm, I can only give so much to my students. A large portion of the learning curve comes from the horses you’re riding. That is why, for my program, I have Training level event geldings who have been there, done that. They are point and shoot at the jumps, and for kids and adults coming to me with confidence issues, or just looking to move up the levels, these packers are everything they need.

Of these event horses, the most popular schoolmaster on my farm, is one that doesn’t jump at all. Verbena is a 24-year-old Oldenburg mare, former seven-time broodmare. Bonnie Mosser, a well known event rider and friend, did all of the mare’s training. She once attributed her success as a rider to Verbena, owned by my cousin Ellen Sheppard McKee.

“Verbena made winning easy,” said Bonnie, who won the DeBroke Trophy aboard Verbena in the mid ’90s. The mare was also named USEA Horse of the Year for the Preliminary level. Due to a tendon injury after many Intermediates, Verbena was put to pasture and served as a broodmare for 10 years.

Bonnie Mosser evented Verbena to the Intermediate level in the 90s and did all her training. Photo by Ellen Sheppard McKee.

Bonnie Mosser evented Verbena to the Intermediate level in the ’90s and did all her training. Photo by Ellen Sheppard McKee.

In 2011, Ellen Sheppard McKee gave Verbana to my mom to use as a broodmare. After one beautiful foal, Verbena was unable to reproduce the following year. We struggled with our options. I decided to give her a test ride and see what she could do. The mare hadn’t skipped a beat in 10 years. 

When I settled in on my new farm in Fair Hill, Maryland, my mom gifted me Verbena to use in lessons. Almost one year later, we all refer to the mare as the Queen. It is an honor to ride Verbena.

“Verbena is the ultimate horse,” says Julia, 27, of Elkton, Maryland. “She gives me the feeling that I could ride any dressage test and nail it! She is like riding on a cloud. She makes all of her riders look great and builds our confidence.”

Lisa Morgan, 47, of Wilmington, Deleware, says, “When I am riding Verbena, there is never any doubt that I am the beneficiary of a lifetime of experience. What I have learned from her in a summer has accelerated my growth immensely as a rider.” 

Gabriella Lehman, 14, of Elkton, Maryland, says, “Verbena makes learning dressage easy.” 

With all these riders learning and adapting to better themselves, the most ironic thing of all is that the horses are just doing their job, something they were taught during their early years of training and continue to do for us every day. 

Thus I see it as a circle that should continue to circulate: Good training leads to good horses, and good horses make good trainers. 

I hope for all my students and riders alike that they may be so lucky to learn a thing or two from an oldie but goodie, like Buddy, Guido, Fling and Verbena.

After all, some of the best words of wisdom can come from a horse that has no words for us at all. 

A Million Dollar Horse

Juli Hutchings lives in Fair Hill, Maryland, on her farm, Appleton Equestrian. She has ridden to the FEI levels of dressage and eventing and denotes much of her success to her horses. She is the author of many articles written for the Chronicle of the Horse, Sidelines Magazine and most recently EN. You can find her best-selling novel, A Horse to Remember, online or in book stores.

Juli Hutchings and 18-year-old Fling receiving the Traveler's Memorial Trophy at Jersey Fresh in 2008. Photo by Shannon Brinkman. Juli Hutchings and 18-year-old Fling receiving the Traveler's Memorial Trophy at Jersey Fresh in 2008. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Three, two, one — GO!” Fling went; Fling always went. No jump was too wide, narrow, tall or tainted for Fling to get to the other side. No matter the length or level of the cross country course, he always finished just like he began: his small ears pricked forward and his eyes eager with love for his sport.

 When I first met Fling I was 15 years old and had competed through Training level. I met him after my older gelding fell on me during a lesson with Phillip Dutton, solidifying the fact that I needed to find a new partner.

It was thanks to Phillip and the crew at True Prospect Farm that Fling found his way to me. His owner, Gil Phillips, had left him in their hands, and over the years he’d become a seasoned one-star horse at their barn. When he came to me, he’d been off for a year due to a mysterious injury but had come back sound and needed a rider.

For months Fling drug me to the fences as though insisting he knew much better than I. I couldn’t argue most days, and I recall once we nearly careened over my mother who stood in the gymnastic line to help slow him down. I knew I had a busy winter ahead of me and filled it with lots of lessons to learn how to ride him better.

I was still in Pony Club at the time, and I’ll never forget our clinic with Scott Hassler at Hilltop Farm. Amy Jackson, a racehorse trainer and my friend, was watching our lesson and couldn’t contain her excitement when I pushed Fling into a trot. She came bounding out into the arena and flung her arms around Fling.

No one could understand what was going on until she managed to push away her tears of joy and explain that she had trained Fling as a 3-year-old at the Fair Hill Training Center and had raced his mother too. Thirteen years later, she’d known it was Fling only by the way his hind legs plaited as he walked.

After the lesson I called Fling’s owner, Gil, to tell him of the encounter with Amy. He sent me a DVD of all Fling’s races, and it was no overstatement that he was an outstanding racehorse. In nearly every race Fling led the pack from start to finish. In only one did he break badly for the gate and hug the rear only to burst to the front in time to win the race in a three-horse photo finish. The announcer’s words were, “Look out for the big gray machine coming up on the outside; I told you he was the one to watch!”

Fling’s years as a racehorse must have made him the world’s fittest horse. In my events that spring, Fling skipped around like a kid on a playground. We began calling him the Iron Horse, and without a doubt he lived up to the name.

He taught me this: Just point, kick and hold on tight. In my first season of Preliminary I was his protégée, clinging for dear life over jumps larger than us and allowing Fling to be my eyes, ears and protector.

The year after, we worked as a team and took away a ribbon at our very first one-star. I learned the hard way how ties were broken, and after dropping three spots in a tie I stopped letting Fling go his rather speedy pace on the cross country and learned to regulate his gallop to finish nearest the optimum time.

Our work paid off, and that summer we represented Area II as individuals in the 2007 North American Junior & Young Rider Championships. The coaches had decided that with Fling being 17, they were taking a chance on his soundness and couldn’t jeopardize the others in putting him on the team.

Fling proved his worth by finishing better than all the team horses, just missing the 10th place spot for the country’s best young riders. It was two pesky rails that pushed us behind the ribbons. The only downfall I could ever place on Fling was that sometimes he got lazy with his feet. That was until we tackled Intermediate.

Fling shocked us all with three clear stadium and cross county rides between the red flags. My mom knew how hard I had worked, and she and I were both nearly in tears after my first big win in the Young Rider’s Open Intermediate at Plantation Field. In an eight-horse division, Fling was the only one to leave up the rails in the show jumping and finish without time faults cross country. We had come such a long way.

In 2008, we finished two CCI2* events at Fair Hill International and Jersey Fresh. I still remember the chills at Jersey when Fling’s name was called during the awards ceremony. Alongside top horses and riders, Fling and I walked to the middle of the ring to receive the Traveler’s Memorial Trophy for the oldest off-track Thoroughbred to finish the event. At 18, it was no wonder cheers erupted in the grandstand in tribute to such a noble horse. To this day I believe Fling understood he was being recognized; he had never looked more proud.

When the end of summer hit far too quickly, Fling accompanied me to college. I couldn’t leave him behind yet and planned to return him to Amy Jackson the following year. Gil, Amy and I knew retirement as a pony horse at Fair Hill was exactly what Fling would want.

In the meantime Fling spent a happy and healthy fall and winter in South Carolina. My college friends would often visit him at Full Gallop Farm in Aiken and I’d let them take him around the fields, ride double, even pop over a few jumps with me. Laura Anderson, who owns the farm, called Fling a saint of a horse.

After a final jump school one January night, Fling was fit and ready for our in-house event the following week. The phone call at 7 a.m. the next morning put our plans to rest and with it so did my dreams.

Fling was gone. In the awful cold and rainy morning, I drove down the long sandy lane as I had so many times before, only this time, instead of grazing under the 300-year-old live oak beside the lane, Fling lay still and lifeless beneath it. He must have had a heart attack; he was unscathed and peaceful on the ground.

When a man came to take him away from me, he comforted me in saying, “He will be in good company. There are some million dollar racehorses buried where he’s going.” Through my tears I had to smile. I stroked Fling’s soft gray fur one last time and said, “That’s good because he was a million dollar horse.”

Fling taught me more about riding and the sport of eventing than any person ever could. I was so fortunate to have had him in my life and owe him everything. Thank you, Fling.