Equestrian Ashley Johnson offers advice to riders and other athletes on making a successful business in your sport
Last weekend I got the opportunity to visit the beautiful Roebke’s Run Horse Trials in Area IV. There was a Town Hall meeting on Saturday night after cross country. One of the repeatedly voiced concerns was the sustainability of the sport from all perspectives. The equine industry is a tough industry. Horses are ‘the Sport of Kings’ As one of my friends says, ‘we will truly be financially successful when our barn managers can afford to buy a house from their salary.’ I am not to that point yet, but I do own my own farm, pay a monthly mortgage, and own two FEI (International Equestrian Federation) competitions horses that I pay to compete on my own dime. There is so much talk about prize money and sponsorship to help cover expenses in this sport. Frankly, that rubs me slightly the wrong way. The way that I see it, the business model at home needs to be working. I am certainly in favor of anyone who wants to be a part of my team, but I have never been one to feel that anyone else owes me something. I worked in the real world before the horse world which has helped shape the way I do business. Here are some of my thoughts.
Most riders are not terribly good at marketing themselves.
You need to diversify. Running a barn is not just about your talent as a rider. It is actually running a small business. As the business owner you have to wear many hats. The equine industry is a client based business and as such there will always be a bit of ebb and flow. For example, in Ocala, it is much more likely that I am going to sell an upper level event horse in the winter, when the population has doubled, than in the summer, when the circus leaves town. Horses do sell in the summer, but they are usually different types of horses. As a result, I aim to prep and market my upper level sales horses in the winter and in the summer I focus more on flipping young project horses. I also diversify by taking horses in training, coaching, traveling to teach clinics, staying involved with the United States Pony Club (USPC), and running a small breeding program. By doing this I create sources of income in a variety of areas so as one area gets less busy another area heats up.
Say Yes! There is a Jim Carey movie called ‘Yes Man’ in which Jim Carey says yes to every opportunity that comes his way. I think in the horse industry it is a good idea to at least consider everything that comes down the pipeline. This is predominantly a word of mouth industry, so there have been countless times when I have taken one horse in training or coached a student and then a friend of that client has come to me for help as well.
You do not have to be a top level rider/competitor to run a successful business in this sport. It is a multi tiered system. I was talking the other day to one of my girls who is a very talented rider. I had watched her coach her little sister who was a beginner and she had done a great job. I encouraged her to start teaching more and she said, ‘I’m just not sure I know enough.’ Guess what? If we didn’t have lower level riding instructors in the industry, how would most of us have learned to ride? You don’t have to be the best, period. You have to be the best at what you do.
You need to create a brand and know how to market yourself. In this industry the trainer IS the brand. Last winter a younger trainer based in MN came to stay with me for a few months to compete in Ocala. She was shocked at how professional all of the professionals looked. Yes. I don’t wear T-shirts or tank tops to ride. I wear polos, with clean britches and a belt. Every day. My horses are turned out well. My equipment is clean. At shows I keep my stall area tidy. All of this is a reflection of me as a trainer. Another sort of my own personal brand is that I am friendly. I make a point of smiling and saying hello to people, and treating people with respect even if I don’t know them. This is part of who I am.
Aside from how you represent yourself as a person in the industry, the other side of branding is of course the basic business side. When I started my business I hired a web designer. I spent several weeks putting thought into the text on each page of my website and what images I wanted on my website. Your website is a foundation by which people can get to know you and find out basic information about your business. I also created a logo and ordered business cards. I had flyers made detailing horses I had for sale and highlighting what services I offered. I started a Facebook page and Instagram page.
Most riders are not terribly good at marketing themselves. This is no excuse! We have learned many other skills along the way. Learn to market yourself. Learn to think more like a business person. Try to put yourself in situations that will expand your knowledge of the industry. Maybe it is getting involved in a different way, like joining a committee or volunteering in some way with a local horse show. This expands your network of other people in the industry and allows for collaboration. The first year I lived in Florida full-time I was asked to help coordinate a Florida Region Pony Club fundraiser gala. It was a blast and I met a lot of great people who I am still connected with. Networking is a fantastic way to market yourself.
Also, this should go without saying, but act with integrity. The horse world is a small world. Being honest and accountable is the way to be. And return your phone calls! In the real world this is a no brainier, but in the horse world it is an anomaly. I can’t tell you how many of my clients comment that they appreciate that I return my phone calls.
Remember that people choose to work with different companies in the real world because the companies add value for them in a certain way. It is the same in the horse world. If you are an Olympic rider, that is part of the value of your program. If you are a lower level trainer part of the value of your program may be that you are (Instructor’s Certification Program (ICP) certified. Adding value is not a one and done thing. Look to continue your education both on and off your horse. In the photo I included this week, I am participating in and ICP co-teaching workshop with several other top-level and Olympic level riders. It is incredibly refreshing and a great learning experience to see how other professionals do things! This workshop was open to auditors, and many trainers came to watch and take notes.
Lastly, surround yourself with a great team. None of us could succeed in this sport or in life without our team. In 2011, I was able to listen to Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy speak about his business philosophies. He said you want people on your team who are riding on the same bus and going in the same direction as you are. In other words, you want to work with people who have the same basic mission and philosophies that you do, and you want to work with people you trust! Cultivate your team carefully. Another thing Dan Cathy said that struck a chord with me was to praise in public and criticize in private. I have been very lucky to work with some amazing leaders. One of the things these leaders have in common is their ability to inspire. I think that we could all take a lesson from that. Part of our job in this business every day is to inspire.