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.