A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

How do I price a foal?

Reading through sales ads, I often get the impression that people price their horses based on what others price their horses.  In other words, no one really has a clue.  The problem is, that many of our buyers don't have a clue either!

As a breeder, I make my income off of horses.  This means that if I am going to make a new horse, I need to be able to at minimum recover the money I invested into that horse.  If I can't do that, then it would make more sense for me to go buy horses for strangers and give them away.  (Plus it'd put a lot of horses into some good homes who deserve it).  You see, many people think that you put the stallion with the mare, and get a "free" baby... but that's not the case for ethical breeders.

There are 2 basic ways to price a foal.  You can cover THAT foal's cost, or you can cover the farm's costs.  I'll explain that as I go along.

To cover the cost of the foal is pretty easy, but you have to actually calculate the costs of the foal.  First, there are the vet bills.  For many breeders, the first vet bill is checking out the mare before she is bred.  Is she cycling yet?  Does she have any uterine issues?  It's a good idea to get a pre-foaling ultra sound done on the mare before you breed her.  If you're breeding by AI, it's a must - so that you know when the mare needs to be inseminated.  Cost for Ultra Sound - $36

From there, you get to look at the stud fee.  If you own your own stallion, you still have to calculate this in.  You see, if you're running a business, that stallion has to pay for himself, other wise your business is taking a loss.  If you're running a hobby farm, sure, you can take this loss (by just calculating the cost of the foal, not the cost of running the farm, I did say this would come in later).  You can either set this as a base cost, or calculate the cost of keeping the stallion for a year.  I prefer the later.  If you're breeding to an outside stud, the cost of the stud fee is simple.

For me, I know that my stallion is pretty cheap.  He costs me about $60 in grain, and $45 in hay each month, plus farrier care which we do here for free.  At $105 dollars a month, he costs me $1260 a year to keep.  I divide that by 4 (my average foal production) to get his stud fee.  $315

So far, that baby has cost me $351, and isn't even conceived yet!

From there, you need 2 more ultra sounds (minimum) to determine pregnancy, and check for progression of the pregnancy.  $72

Running total - $423

Your mare is going to need a set of pneumabort vaccinations at the 5th 7th and 9th months of gestation.  This costs roughly $15 dollars each, so adds $45 to the cost of the foal.  $468

In the last trimester, the mare will need additional grain/feed to give to the foal.  For me, this is approximately $30/month for 3 months (and again, my costs are exceptionally lower than most).  So add another $90 bucks, for a total of $558.

30 days before the foal is due, you should give the mare her full set of vaccines.  This transfers the immunity to the baby, and is kinda like giving the new born its first vaccines.  The 5 way costs about $25, rabies costs $17, we skip West Nile because it can cause complications but do give a dewormer around this time which costs $9 dollars.  So we add another $51 bucks to the cost of the foal, for a running total of $609.

Then there's the foaling prep.  You will need straw for the foaling stall.  I average about 2 bales of straw per stall, and have to add more every 4 days.  This means I go through about 15 bales of straw for the pre-foaling watch, since I like to put my mares into their foaling stall a month early and let them get comfortable before labor.  That's about $90 dollars, for a total of $699.

In the last 2 weeks of gestation, I like to give my mares alfalfa for the increased calcium.  I use roughly half a bale a day per mare, at $14 per bale (one thing that isn't cheap here!).  That's about 7 bales of alfalfa that costs me about $98 bucks.  Total for foal: $797

Then the big day arrives, but the baby's costs aren't done!  Once the foal is born I need to give a tetanus antitoxin (because the tetanus virus is native in our soil) and do an IgG test to be sure the baby got enough colostrum.  That's $18 for the tetanus, and $28 for the IgG test, costing me $46 bucks on the big day.  Baby now costs about $843 just to get on the ground.

But I run a farm.  This means that the breeding herd has to pay for itself.  I do not breed my mares back to back, so that the ladies can have time to recover, have other jobs, and be pampered and loved on.  Since most ethical breeders do this, that means that they have brood mares who are sitting open, and not paying their own way.  Assuming that for every mare that is bred, there is one open, and that the mares are earning some income to pay their expenses (my mares cost me about $105 per month, and make roughly $75 per month) that's $30 per month that needs to be added onto the cost of the baby.  That's roughly $360 each baby has to pay for, for a total of $1203.

This means that if I sell a foal for less than $1203 dollars, my business just lost money.  That's equivalent to the average person taking a job that pays $50 and spending $75 in gas to get there.  Few people would do it, but so often this is exactly what breeders do!  No wonder people say you can't make money in horses!

I didn't even include the costs of the farm itself.  Mortgage, utilities, insurance, horse insurance, wages and such add on top of all of that.  Since my farm has many streams of income, I am able to pay those bills through things like lessons, training, and sales of our Second Chance horses, so don't add them in.

But lets think about it.  We all sell horses to make a PROFIT. This means that if I sell the above baby for just $1500 dollars, I've only made $300 bucks for a YEAR of work.  That comes out to merely $25 bucks per month.  That doesn't even pay for my groceries, let alone the web hosting, cell phone, driving miles to and from the stores, and other things that the average person does.  And this is only talking about the cost of getting the baby born.

Once the foal is on the ground, I have to pay for additional feed for the mare (which she shares with the baby one way or another), farrier for the baby, vet bills, deworming, a share of the web site for the sale ad, online advertisements, and of course, grooming supplies.  As a hobby farm you can absorb those costs because it's enjoyable.  As a business, I can not.  I do not have an outside job to pay for my breeding, so it has to pay for itself.  All of those things can easily run upwards of $500 bucks in the 6 months it takes to wean the foal, resulting in a cost to me of over $1700 dollars.

This means that I ask a nice round number for suckling foals, currently it is $2500 per foal.  That covers the expenses both direct and indirect, and allows me to keep doing this for one more year.  I only breed the number of horses that I can afford to keep (because not everything sells) so that I am not pressured to lose my shirt (and home) in a passion that I love so deeply.

My personal opinion though, is that if you can't sell the horse for the amount it costs to make it, why are you breeding it?  If it isn't worth its own expenses, than is it really worth adding it into this world?  You see this all the time on Craigs List... horses offered for a few hundred bucks, from a breeder who is going to just keep pumping them out.  If you want to be a quality horse breeder, you have to know what your foal costs to make, and be willing to pay for it!

Yes, this is a risky business.  Not all horses are going to sell for their asking prices, and not all births will be a simple one.  The profit margin of each foal born should have enough padding in it to cover the unexpected, and to pay the breeder for the WORK they put into that foal.  We spend time socializing and training them, and while we enjoy every second of it, we still can't just give it away for years on end.

And sure, there are times when taking the loss makes better business sense than trying to earn the cost back.  As the market changed I moved out of Appaloosas and into the Sugarbush Drafts.  My Appaloosas are not worth the money I invested into them (as I've owned them for many years) and hence I will lose money on them.  I am currently selling a few light horses at well below their cost to me, but by finding them amazing homes I can both sleep at night, and have more cash to invest in the horses that are paying the bills (plus my pets... I do have a few of those!).  But, I do have to remember that the business must make money, or I don't get paid.

Unlike most breeders, I make my entire living off the horses.  I have no outside job to bring in cash for the bad months.  I have to calculate the cost of everything, and produce enough profit to protect against the "what ifs".  I am not rich, nor likely will I ever be!  I work long (but rewarding) hours, and do my best to balance the hard calculations against those brown eyes each spring.

So before you gasp at the cost of a horse listed for sale, stop and think about what you are paying for.  My foals will come to you bathing, clipping, loading, standing, easy to catch, and with no known health problems (unless disclosed).  They are well socialized, and have known nothing but love for their entire life.  We breeders want to make it as affordable as possible, but we can't give them away and keep caring for our horses with the same level of care that buyers want.

The irony to me, is that most buyers will try to save a few bucks and end up rewarding the very people they despise.  By paying poor breeders you are reinforcing that their horses are desirable and encouraging them to breed the next year - often at the risk to the breeding stock they still own.  We all understand limited budgets (hey, I'm there too!) so if you're interested in a quality horse, but worried about the price, try contacting us.  We're happy to talk about our babies, and usually willing to work with buyers on the price and payment options (often before the horse leaves the property) so that you can have the horse of your dreams, our babies can get amazing homes, and we all end up happy.

But sadly, making more horses isn't something that is free.  To do it right, you have to spend money, and you need to know how much money you really are spending.




Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I know I've been away, but I haven't forgotten

It's been ages since I've managed to find the time to blog.  I haven't lost interest in it, but I have lost the free time to do it.  Many people have had a hard time understanding the crazy hours I put into the last of the SDHR push for the Foundation Program.  Let me explain it a bit.

I evaluated countless horses over the last few years.  Each evaluation takes about 4 hours to complete and write up.  At the peak, we were receiving 10 horses a day (or so) to review.  I began to get further and further behind schedule.  While this was going on, I was also trying to manage my own farm, and getting behind on that as well.  A typical day here was roughly 18 hours of work, with an hour of relaxation, and then a few hours of sleep before I started it all again.  The further I got behind, the more I worked to catch up, and the less time I spent with my own family and pets.

I've been doing this - not quite as intensely, but still - for 5 years now with out a break from it.  I've been on call all day, all night, every day.  The idea of going to a movie meant advanced planning, lets not even talk about getting out of town for a day or 2!  And so, as of January 28th, I took a month of vacation... from the SDHR.

Sad to say, that doesn't mean I'm truly on vacation!  I still have Iron Ridge to run, horses to train, stalls to clean, and those sorts of things.  I am not complaining though!  I'm now working a more reasonable 8 hours a day, and doing the things that I wanted to do when I got into this line of work (horses).

The upside is, that I again have time to write.  I have a few topics that I plan to put out there, and hopefully some of you will enjoy and learn from them.  Since foaling season is coming up, you can best that a good part of my topics will be based on the horse business again.

So sit back, and prepare for a new and consistent stream of blathering from me.  From discussing the daily activities of the farm, to the business side (tomorrow's post is how to price a foal) I have lots lined up, and am ready to start getting on my soap box again.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Debates (Critiques), and why they are so important

Don't Panic, politics have nothing to do with this topic!

That said, I think that debates, and critiques (which are kind of like a one sided debate) are one thing that is so undervalued in horses, and horsemanship.  We all want to be perfect, and no one likes knowing they aren't, but how much will we progress if we convince ourselves that we're the best of the best?

Not much I'd bet.

Horses: 

I'm one of those rare few people who actually likes a polite debate, and enjoys a thoughtful critique.  Sweetie up there has been the poster child for critiques, and she's actually the reason I thought of this.  You see, Sweetie did not exactly grow up all "pretty".  When she was a baby, she was simply lovely, but as a yearling, 2 year old, and 3 year old, she was... well... fugly.  She grew fast, and her ugly duckling stage lasted for ever!  I had so many people make rude comments on her, but I was rarely upset.  What they were saying was TRUE.  She was gangly, and hip high, and out of proportion.  Even when I posted this photo, someone made the comment that they hoped she grew into that head of hers (but said it much nicer than I would have).  A friend was upset for me, and that made me start thinking.  Should it be offensive to mention the negative things?

See, I don't think so.  Sweetie was rather ugly at some points in her life!  Her parts didn't match, her head was HUGE, and she kinda resembled a baby moose.... with spots on her hip.  Looking at pictures of Sweetie when she was younger, I can easily see how people would assume that the SDHR is only concerned with color.  That's about all she had going for her as a yearling!  But horses grow and change, and I know her breeding, so feel confident that she will grow into the horse I expect her to be.  She is already showing it.  So, I'm not offended when someone politely points out her flaws, and then questions the decisions of the breed (since I am a prominent breeder for the SDHR).  The natural thought process, and the habits of most people, make that a reasonable leap of logic to me.

And not every one can see conformation.  So politely pointing out that she is less than ideal is ok.  Being rude is never ok in my book, and is a completely different topic.  But having the guts to be the one to say something that everyone may be thinking?  Yeah, that's not an easy thing to do.  Saying it with class and kindness.... that always deserves praise in my mind.

What if Sweetie hadn't just been in an awkward stage?  What if she really was an ugly moosey looking horse?  What if I didn't know the difference, and bred her, and then her foals were a part of the limited SDHR lines, with names on their pedigrees to entire other owners/breeder.... and then horrible conformational traits became the norm, and not the exception in the SDHR?  All of that could potentially happen, simply because I didn't want to get my feelings hurt.

I often hear people say that a horse is pretty because it is kind.  That doesn't make sense to me.  Oh sure, all horses are lovely simply because they are horses, but that doesn't mean they are breeding quality!  Look at Poko here.

Poko has about the shortest neck I have ever worked with, but he has an amazing back and an open shoulder.  His coloring sure doesn't help his look any, but his conformation isn't stellar.  Does that mean I can't love him?  Does that mean he's a horrible horse?  NO!

All it means is that Poko does not need to have babies.  Saying he's ugly simply removes one potential job from his future, not his ability to be the most trusty trail horse I've ever ridden.  Pointing out his straight shoulder and short neck doesn't mean that he's ready to be made into dog food, it simply means that I shouldn't expect him to perform upper level dressage.  Knowing his weaknesses allows me to give him a job he's suited for, that will not cause him discomfort, or allow me to become disappointed because his body won't allow him to move in certain ways.  Knowing his limits makes me love him MORE, rather than less, in my opinion.

You see, if I expected Poko to be a grand Prix dressage horse (yeah, rather hyperbolic, but you get the idea) then how frustrated would I end up if I tried to take him in that direction?  I would get resentful, I would love him less, and I might even become short tempered and take it out on him.  None of that is fair to the Poko pony.

Riding: 

But the same is also true for riding.  here's me getting back into the saddle after my injury.  I had so many fear issues, and assorted problems, that simply putting a leg on either side of the horse was all I wanted.  Knowing that, this picture is a success!

But, if I was looking at my riding and thinking, say, western pleasure... oh boy.  My chair seat, turned out toes, bad hands, clasping at the reins... it's all just a mess.  And before you ask, I had forgotten my helmet, and it was put on my head a few moments after this picture was taken.  One of those "oh, I knew I was missing something" moments.  I stand by the excuse that the damage to my brain inhibited my thinking!

(I really do ride with a helmet at all times now, thanks to a few concussions, but I'm pulling out all the "bad" pictures to prove a point here.)

But with a bit of self confidence, lots of support from my friends, family, and fans, I became more relaxed in the saddle, and have been working to regain my own riding skills.  I know that even this picture is not a perfect example of riding, but it's much improved from the above image, and I'm on the same horse.  If someone pointed out my flaws here, I'd simply take them as free advice, and work to integrate that advice into my next riding session.

Nothing about pointing out that I have my hands too high would make me a bad person.  It doesn't mean that I eat puppies, or am a failure.  It simply would be a free bit of education.  And at the cost of riding lessons now-a-days... that's a good thing in my mind!

But like I've said, I have always been able to take criticism well.  Many years of dance in my youth ("that's WRONG, do it again, I know you can get it right!") has made me realize that learning doesn't mean I'll be perfect.  Taking pride in the change is so much more important than taking offense at the help.

Training:

And we can't forget training.  We all know that sometimes training horses doesn't go perfectly.  Here's an example of Scorch as a baby.  I think I was asking him to reverse, and he wanted nothing to do with that.  It sure looks like some crazy lady yanking on her horse's mouth, and terrifying him with a whip.  Since we all know that people DO train like that, and think it's ok, well... I wouldn't be upset if someone mentioned that.  Granted, there's about 300 pictures in this set that prove I'm not doing that at all, but from this one image, it'd be hard to tell.

My point isn't that picture are mere snapshots in time (which is true) but rather that if you don't know, that doesn't mean you should just be quiet.  This weekend we had a clinic with Rod, for the IPHDA, and I learned a TON!  I didn't learn it by being a wall flower though (which is not exactly in my nature).  Rather, I learned a lot because I debated with poor Rod.  I said "this is how I learned, why don't you do it like that" or "why is your way better than doing it like this?"  In the end, Rod was able to handle most of my questions with grace and ease (a few with equal amounts of snark, but I deserved it every time!) and I came away with more knowledge.

That doesn't mean I always agree with him though.  As an example, he has super light mouthed horses in shanked bits.  While the bits aren't cruel, it seems like a waste to me.  Why add more leverage when the horse doesn't need it?  I don't think he's being cruel, since I understand that many disciplines require a curb for specific levels.  Rather, I think that is one part of his system that I don't need, and hence I toss it out.

When I asked Rod why he chose those bits, he had an answer.  I can accept his answer as being correct for him, and not important for me, and no blame to either of us.  This doesn't mean that I'm doing it wrong because Rod has more experience than me.  It doesn't mean he's wrong because he uses tack that I feel is unnecessary.  It simply means that through understanding, asking questions, and lots of debate, I have learned that aspect of Rod's riding doesn't apply to me.

The same is true of many trainers.  When I rode with Jake, I plagued the poor guy with questions.  He didn't always have the answer, but he also doesn't have the years of experience Rod does, of dealing with that annoying person (ahem, that's me) at his clinics.  Jake never answered anything wrong, I just felt rather unfulfilled that he didn't always have an answer that explained things to me.  Doesn't mean that Jake lacks knowledge, though.  It could simply be that he doesn't have the experience of verbalizing it, he never had to think about it, or that his personality and mine aren't the best match out there.

And Rod isn't perfect either, our personalities are just such that I can accept his jokes, while he accepts my skepticism. If I disagree with Rod, I know I can ask, and if I feel he's way off base, I know that I can tell him I won't do that.... and neither of us will be offended.

Conversely though, I have a friend with a very different personality, who was almost offended by some of the things that Rod said.  His ego (er, confidence) came across as patronizing to her preferred training method.  Jake works with her, and incorporates her chosen method into his training style.  Her comprehension of Jake's descriptions works - he speaks in ways that make sense to her.

So that begs the question, should I stop listening to Jake?  Should she stop listening to Rod?  I don't think so.  I think that, to quote Buck, "it's all just more tools in the toolbox".  The more we know, the more options we have.  We can pick and choose what works, what sounds right, and what makes us feel comfortable.  We go with that, and in the end, we make our OWN style of working with our horses.

I will never be Buck, or Rod, or Jake.  I will never handle a horse the same way they do.  My legs will never be the same length, my weight will never be balanced the same, my personality will never be a carbon copy of theirs, and my horses will always have their own personalities.  By using what works, and discarding the rest, I am making allowances for the fact that I am me, and my horses are also individuals.  I would never treat Katy the same as Scorch, so why would I expect to be treated the exact same, trained the same, and held to the same standards as Rachel, Kris, Leah, or others?

The only way I can learn more, and become a better horseman, is to get more questions.  I need to learn things, thinking about those things, and then debate and critique them.  To grow as a horseman, I can't just accept what someone else told me, I have to understand it, and believe it.  if I can't defend it in a debate, then I need to learn more.  If I can't get answers, then the person trying to teach me needs to learn more - and that's not a bad thing!  Learning is the whole point of working with our horses!

We want to know how to feed them, care for them, create/breed them, ride them, and get results from them.  We can't do that if we're fumbling in the dark looking for hints from the universe.  We have to learn how to do all those things.

So what's the point?

We've all seen that people get their feelings hurt when something less then stellar is said.  What I wonder is why they are hurt.  I love Katy's color, so when someone says they don't like it, does that mean it's bad?  Or could it simply mean that they prefer other colors?  I hate palominos, so does that mean that I feel all palominos are evil?  Not on your life!

My whole point, is that debates are the best way for us to grow as horsemen.  We should relish them, and engage in them.  People always talk about winning and losing debates, as if they are a competition. They shouldn't be!  Instead, it's a chance to learn, to grow as a person, and to take something away that you didn't have before.  Whether that's understanding the fear of the other political party (had to, since it's a debate night) or finally understanding why rope halters are the new fad, it's knowledge.  I can use that knowledge to sympathize with my friend that politically disagrees with me, or I can use it to determine if a rope halter would work better for a specific horse.  Even if I "loose" the debate, it won't change the sympathy or the knowledge I gain.

If it's a critique of my horse, then it gives me another view of what people see when they look at her.  I can use that knowledge to make better decisions for her future.  If it's a critique of my riding, I can use that knowledge to improve... MY way.  And even if I come across as a complete moron in the discussion, well... I own horses.  I'm used to looking a bit foolish!

My point is, we should worry less about who is right and wrong, and worry more about being better horsemen.  We should worry less about what others think of us, and worry more about what our horses think of us, and what we enable them to do.  We should embrace knowledge, even the type that comes from that idiot on facebook (you all have met someone who that fits, I'm sure) and allow it to make us better, for our horses.

Because when you get right down to it, we can all learn something.






Saturday, August 18, 2012

Why the new style of trainers confuses me

Saturday, I was privileged to work with a lovely young trainer named Jacob Bowman, or Jake.  He is from the Buck style of training, which I think falls into the "Natural Horsemanship" category.  I'm pretty sure I'll be told if I'm wrong (please!) but this is my understanding of it.

I have always ridden English.  I started out jumping, and then moved to dressage.  For those who know about English riding, flat work usually comes before going over fences, but well... lets just say my early years weren't with the best trainers.  I spent many years in dressage, learning how to fix the problems I had been taught.  I learned some VERY bad things, from unsafe riding, to less then stellar horsemanship.  I also learned how to fix both of those things.

I also started in horses with cheap ponies.  Not bad ponies mind you, just ones that I didn't pay a lot for.  My first horse was a 4 month old colt (intact).  Yes, he got gelded, but still, it was an interesting learning experience.  My second horse was a "she can't be broke, so we'll make her a brood mare" Thoroughbred, who was the best jumper I ever rode.  Can't be broke?!  I climbed on her back the second week I owned her, and have been riding her for over 13 years now.  From there, I worked with rank untrained horses, what I call "domestic mustangs".  These are the horses that were bred by a less then stellar breeder who wanted babies, and wanted money, but didn't think they had to DO anything to get it.  By 4 years old, they still hadn't even had a person pet them, let alone halter or pick their feet!  Riding?  Yeah, not in the near future.

Together, I think this background gives me some unique insights on training horses and riders.  I am NOT the best trainer in the world.  I also do not think there is "one right way" to do anything.  I do think that raising a horse and rider team is a lot like raising a child - each one is different.

So I went to this clinic (I'm going to call it a clinic for lack of a better term.  Basically it was a lot of lessons back to back, with questions and answers, but not the typical clinic format).  I had a ball, spent time with friends, and learned many new ways to do things.  I also saw a lot of things I just don't get.  I want to talk about some of that, and my impressions on it, because I know with my reader base, I'm likely to have someone out there able to explain it.

I have to say here, that I am not saying any of this is BAD, I am simply saying that I don't understand it.  I asked a lot of questions, and got answers, but the answers didn't necessarily fulfill my overwhelming desire to completely wrap my mind around the concept.  I have always been a "why" learner, and the clinic, while enjoyable, left me confused.  Is Jake a good trainer?  Yes, I think he's completely average.  He does nothing mean to the horses, and I trust his skills enough to let him work with my horses.  With that said, until I know more, I probably wouldn't give him free rein, because I don't know that his techniques could achieve what my end goals are.  He's a nice guy, and I think that I learned a few things from him, but I still have questions.

The tack:

I think the first question I asked was about the rope halters.  Why are they used?

For those who don't know, a rope halter is more severe then a larger width nylon halter.  The thin diameter of the rope, plus the knots along it, all give more pressure with each command (or tug).  With a hard enough pull, rope halters can actually hurt.  The entire process was described as "kind and gentle" type training, and yet the fact that using a severe training aid was the first tool required kinda struck me as odd.

Let me put this another way.  When I start my young horses in a bridle, I use the mildest bit I can.  Often it is a rubber snaffle, or a hollow mouth, large diameter snaffle.  I prefer a French link, to reduce the chance of the "nut cracker" effect, and O rings, to "blur" some of the rein signals.  Some horses don't like that bit though, and so I work through my choices to find what works for that horse.

Some horses like a thinner mouth, so they get a clear signal with out heavy pressure, or don't feel as if they are gagging.  Some horses like a simple snaffle, so they can lift it with their tongue when not engaged. We increase the "severity" of the bit (the amount of pressure and signal given to the mouth with a single pound of pressure from the hands) only when we have no other option.  This is considered to be a "good" method of training in the industry.

Why then wouldn't we do the same with a halter?  Use the mildest, and work up to a more severe if and only if it is needed?

I was given an answer that barely satisfied me, but made more questions the more I think about it.   Jake's answer was that the halter doesn't give unnecessary pressure unless it was used, but then if he needs it, he has it.  Ok, that makes sense to a point, but the more I think about it, it really doesn't.

If I put a twisted wire snaffle in my horse's mouth, I could say the same thing, right?  If I don't USE it, then it doesn't matter how severe it is!  If I'm on a loose rein, well, I just have it in case I need it, right? And yet, most people get a bad feeling about this.  We always say we should only move up in severity when we NEED to, right?

Shouldn't we reward the horse for responding lightly?  When working Katy in a rope halter, I actually found her to be LESS responsive.  Granted, it wasn't a fair test, since it was also her first time away from home, first time working with this man, and first time being asked to do these moves.  Would she have reacted the same in her normal halter though?  No way to ever know!

And hence, I'm looking for an answer as to why we accept the use of more severity in some cases, but not in others.  No, really.... Any one know?

I also asked about working a horse in the bridle.  I have always gotten my babies to wear a bridle about the time we start ground work (roughly 2 - 3 years of age) and quickly moved to doing all of my work from a bit.  Jake said that he didn't like this method, because it could desensitize a horse's mouth.

Sounds good at first, but again, I can't stop thinking, and ended up with more questions!

So, if that's the case, then why do we pull the horse's head around to flex them, when we are riding in the bridle?  Isn't that dulling their mouths too?  Is that pressure in any way different from what I use when lunging?  Is it because I do things slowly, that Jake and I are speaking completely different languages?  I honestly don't know.

What I do know, is that by the time I have a horse lunging, I am giving all signals lightly, from the bridle, and the horse then understands the concept asked when I am in the saddle.  I ground drive, and teach the horses to give to pressure, both from the sides, and for the halt.  I have only ever had a horse run out on me, on the bridle, once.  I simply let go, so as not to crack her in the mouth.  In most cases, I correct the behavior before the horse runs out, with simple and soft touches on the bit.  Just as you would do in the saddle.

So why then, is using the bit for ground work a bad thing?  Isn't it the handler that makes the difference, and not the tack?

The Human:

When working with horses, there are 2 parts to the team: the horse and the human.  It doesn't matter if that is on the ground, or in the saddle, the human is always a significant part of the equation.  This clinic had my friends riding.  I'm going to pick on some, because I know they won't be hurt.

First thing I noticed, was Rachel.  She was riding Moon, and trying to get her mare to accept contact with the bridle.  Moon has been improving, but she still tries to evade the bit.  Rachel is NOT a showman, and she gets nervous when all eyes are on her.  Things were no different that day.  Her first few laps, her body said "uh oh, every one is watching ME!" and was stiffer then she normally rides.  We all understand, since none of us really want to be the center of attention... we just want to play with our ponies.

Rachel's nerves resulting in stiff hands and arms though.  As she asked Moon to take contact, she would alternate between mildly chucking her girl in the mouth, and dropping all contact.  Her contact was stationary, not elastic (no harm came to the horse, this was all a very minor oopsie).  Jake never commented on this though.  I'm not sure if it's because he knew she was nervous, or if it's because his experience is training horses.

Which is where I again get confused.  If he trains only horses, then why wasn't he on the horse, teaching the horse, and then giving it back to the rider?  If he doesn't care to or isn't confident enough to train the riders as well, then he needs to remove them from the equation.  Conversely, if he does train humans to ride better (or handle better) then why didn't he tell her simply to relax her arms and hands?  She obviously wasn't aware she was doing it... other wise she wouldn't be doing it!  There are few people who make riding errors on purpose.

In another situation, he was helping Heather (yes, another one) back up her mare.  Piper is a large, green, and very strong girl.  She was avoiding the bit by locking up.  In other words, the more Heather pulled, the less Piper did.  No flexing, no moving her feet, just "I am a stone draft horse, and you little humans can not move me".  Piper sometimes is passive aggressive like this, and she knows she is bigger then us.  Having worked with her, I know how to stop that, but this was Jake's first time with Piper or Heather.

Jake never once encouraged Heather to shift her wight though.  He only focused on the bridle, and the horse's head.

He did that a few times actually.  All of his concerns seemed to be on the horse's head.  Now, I mentioned that I'm from an English background.  I was always taught that we ride the horse from back to front, and the head "sets itself when you do it right".  Which leads me right into the next topic.

Differences in technique:

The way I was taught to ride and bring up a  young horse is very different then the way that Jake does it.  As an example, I was taught that straightness and rhythm come first.  Jake works on flexion and elasticity.  I was taught to solidify the foundation before moving on, while Jake works on showing everything to the horse, and then improving the parts.

I am not saying that one of these methods is better then the other.  I'm merely pointing out that I am aware we do things differently (to help show my reasons for confusion).

I heard Jake say a few times that you need to get the horse's head down.  The horses he was talking about here not high headed, just not dragging their noses either.  In reality these horses were hollow through the back (see Moon, the black and white paint, above).  Jake never even tried to discuss engaging the hind end, he simply had the riders bring the heads back to the chest.

Later, after I left, my mother asked something similar.  Jake said (according to mom, so this is well through the grapevine) that in order to attain collection, the horse has to have its' head brought back to its chest.  NO!  No no no no nononononononononon!  Collection has nothing to do with "head set" (that's actually a very dirty word to some riders) and everything to do with ROUNDNESS through the back.  You have to get the horse impulsion from the hind, lift in the fore, and acceptance of the bridle.  Not a single bit of that has anything to do with pulling a horse's head back.

Now, if you're riding a trained horse, then you can "set the wall" for the horse, and drive them into their head from the hind, resulting in the back rounding.  These horses understand it though, because they are broke.  A young, green, or novice horse will not get that when you try to set the wall.

Again though, none of this theory was discussed.  I'm not sure if Jake ever explained "collection" (it's a hard thing to explain, almost as bad as "half halt") but I do know that my friends didn't walk away with much large scale theory on riding, just tips and tricks for specific things.  That's not a bad thing!  The fact that my friends found ways to improve their riding, and to ask questions of their horses that result in the right answer... that's wonderful!

My point, is simply to question everything, and learn as much as I can from it.

Overall Impressions:

Here's the part where I may upset my friends.  It's not intentional, and I hope I don't offend those who really like his style, but I was unimpressed.  Jake is a good trainer, but a weak instructor.  He works well with the horses, but he needs to work on explaining riding, and putting more emphasis on the riding aspect of the partnership.

In a lot of ways, I felt like he was speaking empty words and platitudes to the others.  The horses are improving, but the riders are not.  This results in the horses taking the brunt of the mistakes in chucks to the mouth, whacks to the ribs, and signals that confuse the horse and set the horse up for failure.  The clinic gave me the feeling that by allowing the riders to see the changes in their horses, he was fueling the rider egos, and there by forming a bond with them.

Now let me explain what I mean there.  When you get a positive response, you get an endorphin release.  This feels good (like a high) and makes you strive to repeat it.  It's how human brains work - well most mammalian brains actually.  The riders got the THING they asked for, but did not get the foundation in their riding to repeat it well on their own.  In some cases they did, but not all.  This is a false sense of accomplishment, as the rider is learning pieces of how to ride, and not a natural flow of how to ride.

In other words, I might learn that to move the horse's hips over, I use the outside leg behind the girth.  This doesn't help me understand how to do a half pass though, because the concept of moving the horse away from pressure, and separating the horse into parts was never discussed.  The information necessary to make the leap from "disengaging the hind quarters under saddle" to "half pass is a disengagement of the hips and shoulders in the same direction" was never made.  For many riders, the idea of "over" being the same as "around" is not a natural jump.

Now, with that said, I also understand that Jake only had a limited time with each of us.  He's young, he's vivacious, and he's oozing with potential, but he isn't quite there yet.  Like I said, I'd call him a completely average trainer at this point.  He's great at interactions with the horses, but he needs to research the theories and concepts (that evil book learnin' part) behind riding.  I also know that I'm a complete dork, and will ask the questions that so few others would even think of, but as a trainer, you should either be able to think on the fly, and find an answer, or inherently know why.  If not, you should admit it, and Jake didn't do that.

Granted, I wasn't there to pick him apart, and I didn't push even when I didn't feel completely sure of the answer, because I don't want to be 'that person' who sounds like a know it all.  But I do know a crap ton.  I dedicated my life to horses, and I'm a walking "Cliff Claven" of horse knowledge.  It's a rather useless trait to have at parties, I might add.

I would gladly let Jake work with any of my horses though, but I would not trust his techniques for my own riding improvement.  It's not the discipline either.  I found Rod (Of the IPHDA) to be a much more aware and concise riding instructor, who could improve ME, and thus improve my horses work.  Jake is a "colt starter" in my mind, while Rod is a finisher, though, and maybe that is the difference.  Jake understands how to fix a lack of understanding, while Rod knows how to communicate the finer details with the horses.

And yet, I can't help but think that Jake's style of training is like a toxic relationship.  Not how he trains the horses mind you, but how he handles the humans.  He makes the humans rely on him, not become self sufficient, and thus increases his chances for another lesson (fee).  The riders believe that he's the answer to their problems, and forgets that they are that answer.

I don't train many of my friends.  Few of them take lessons with me, and I am certainly not about to push lessons on them.  I don't like to put the riders in a position where they do not feel confident, and so I do things slower (and charge less to compensate).  At the same time, I offer tidbits of advice when we ride together, but I'm not about to stop MY enjoyment of my horses to give a free lesson.  Most of my friends get this, and don't hold it against me.  I get so few chances to just PLAY with my horses, that the times I do get are priceless to me.

I also encourage my friends to explore every trainer they can (who won't hurt them or their horses) and take what works, and discard the rest.  I know that Leah felt guilty for being excited about this clinic, because she has always looked to me to learn from.  I'm THRILLED that she went, and so happy that she learned things, that I almost don't want to post this, asking so many questions.  Kris has found so many answers to her problems from this trainer, that she's gained confidence in leaps and bounds.

But, I also want people to see how I choose what works, and what doesn't.  I'm not some super uber horseman.  I ride at lower levels, I know what I know, and know how much I need to learn.  I do question everything though.  To me, this is a part of expanding ones self as a horseman, and gaining even more from the lesson then just the time in the saddle, or at the end of the rope.  Jake answered a few questions for me that I had been stumped about (disengaging the horse's shoulders from the ground, and asking for side passing or half passing from the ground) and I feel that I learned a lot.  I also ended up with as many questions as those that were answered.

It's my opinion that a great horseman always has questions.   With out questions, you have little room to learn.  If you wonder, and then seek out the knowledge to those ponderings, then you are improving.  As horsemen, we owe it to our partners, the 4 legged ones, to always work to be better, just as they do for us.

Overall, I really enjoyed the clinic.  I took a week to write this up, because I wanted to think about it, before I verbally vomited on the blog.  I'm hoping that some of my friends, maybe even some who were at the clinic, maybe some who use this type of training elsewhere, can help me wrap my mind around the bits that don't make sense.  Even though I am an English rider first, I am not a discipline snob!  I think all riding is good riding, so long as the horse is happy.  A great horseman doesn't care about the saddle, the clothes, or such trivial things... they care about the communication with the horse, and strive to understand all aspects of it.  ALL aspects of it, and I hope that I'm always able to learn.







Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The money game

The first thing I had to do when I started my business was to write a business plan.  What did I want to do?  How much would it cost to do it?  How much could I realistically expect to make doing it?

When I wrote my business plan, I was very conservative.  I increased my costs, and expected to make little money.  I mean, how many horses can I sell in a month?  Not as many as I will be feeding and caring for!  And so, I found my "needed" points for utility costs, hay, grain, shavings, mortgage, and such.  I worked backwards, looking at the average cost I would want to pay for boarding or training, or a horse, and making the property expenses fit that.

Many people know, and I'm not ashamed to admit, that we got a steal of a deal on our place.  We bought just a month before the economic meltdown.  The property was about to hit foreclosure, and mortgages were still easy to get.  We had one snag that almost lost us the place though.  My Agricultural loan wouldn't cover a property that is in the city limits.  Uh oh!  A few days of freaking out found us a local bank that would cover it, especially after evaluating the property value compared to the sales price.  We were paying about 1/3rd of the tax value.  That makes getting the mortgage MUCH easier.

And so, I have low over head, and plenty of acres of land.  This means I have a lot more freedom to implement my "Walmart" mentality, because losing one client doesn't mean I'm in dire financial straits.  I currently am producing about 4 foals a year, and expecting to sell those horses when they are about 4 years of age.  With my low bills, the cost of making one of these horses is about $500/year (plus $1008 while in utero).  I am able to reduce the cost per horse, by increasing the income of the herd.

So, lets talk about how much a horse costs to get all grown up.  For most people, they look at the expenses THAT horse cost them.  This is a mistake.  Sure, you might spend $20 on dewormer, and $150 on vaccines, and such, but what about the whole herd?  If you're in business, your goal is to make a PROFIT, not to pay off one horse.

So, for me, I currently have 8 brood mares.  I have 4 foals a year, so that each mare gets time off. In some years, I have less foals then that (market matters, if I have horses that aren't selling, then I make less new babies).  So, this means to make a profit, I have to pay for the mares, the stallions, the babies, all their vet needs, and consider the lesson horses and property costs too.  Each foal has to be able to bring in that value, other wise, I might as well buy people horses and give them away. If my babies can't pay for themselves, then I have no business making them.  If the public is not willing to pay for what it costs to make them, then there isn't enough of a market for them.

Now, horse buyers are wondering why they should pay for me to keep up with my other horses, right?  It's because good ethics say that I don't breed my mares back to back and make them nothing but baby factories!  These horses get time off, they get training, and they get love.  You can't expect me to keep my horses in the most desirable fashion, and then only support the cheap crappy pony mill breeders, and THEN wonder why no one is doing it "right".  People cut corners because buyers want to be cheap.

If you get a horse in need (rescue, rehab, or upgrade) then sure, go cheap.  You don't want to pay someone money for doing it WRONG.  But if you want a good solid horse, understand that you have to pay for the quality care those horses get.  If you don't, then we ethical breeders close our doors, and just have our "pets".

So, the cost of my foals is set by their age, and what they have to pay back to the farm.  It costs me $1008 dollars per foal to get a foal crop on the ground.  This means I can sell weanlings for $1500, if I have a crop of 4 babies.  If I keep the foals, then I pay their share, and do not pass that cost onto buyers.  That's what I did this year.  My other mares, who have done their time and no longer are useful to my program (Such as Dove here) are being offered for sale at lower prices, to get them into good homes.  Those lower prices then roll back into upgrades for the business.  These mares are already paid off, hence their value is that of a high quality home (and my profit from them pays off the baby costs).  It's complicated, but it keeps the prices low and fair.

So, by the time a horse is 3, and starting under saddle, it's worth about $2500 to me.  I charge $100/month of training (since care costs are taken out elsewhere) with an expected 6 months to get the horse ready for sale.  This means that for $3000 you can get a nice, solid, consistent, novice friendly young show prospect.  Not bad at all in this market, I'd think.

And I'm able to get those prices.  So far, I've been breaking even.  Some years are bad (we have savings for that) and some years are good (money goes into savings) but we end up writing a lot of low numbers on the IRS forms - but positive numbers.

The thing that many people don't understand though, is that if Iron Ridge Sport Horses makes no money (according to the IRS) then we've covered ALL of our bills.  This means care, mortgage, utilities, advertising, new tack, etc.  Most months we pay the bills just fine, but don't have the money to spontaneously go out to the movies.  Some months, we have enough to buy new computers (a business expense by the way).  So if you're thinking about getting into horses, don't expect to live the same way you did BEFORE you start a horse business.

Besides, you won't have the time for it.

I am NOT a morning person, but I'm awake by 6am, and in the saddle by 8am.  I have to be.  I spend 6 hours inside working with the SDHR and doing my Iron Ridge (IRSH) paper work.  I then head out again by 7pm, and am at the barn until about 9 or 10 pm.  That's a 14 hour day, and I do that 6 days each week.  On my "day off" I simply wake up at 8am, feed horses, and goof off until the next feeding time.  I still feed 4 times a day, I still have to water and clean stalls and move horses around.  I can't leave a pale skinned horse outside just because it's my "day off".  So when do I head to the pool?  When do I go out of town?  Uh... never.

For me, I like living like this.  I'm a home body.  I traveled when I was in my teens and twenties, and I've seen the world.  Now, I can be happy with sitting at home, making dinner with Jae (he cooks, I do dishes) and splurging on a $1 video.  For anyone else, well, a day away from the farm means you have to pay for help.  The cost of a pet sitter is about $25/day/horse.  I have 34 horses on the property.  You figure out what a day away from the farm costs me!

But now, I'm trying to fit in time with the SDHR as well as IRSH.  That's like working 2 full time jobs, during the same hours, all week long.  I've come to the decision that I need to slow down (I'm tired of not getting to see Jae, even though we work together!) and so I'm looking at ways to keep the property making money, while doing less.

Naturally, this means less horses.  The less animals I care for, the less money I spend.  If I have more outside horses and less of my own horses, then that means more profit.  Here's the kicker though, how can I do it all, with less horses?

I refuse to sell off my older horses.   I have some retired oldies but goodies that have places here.  Keeley and Ash are 23.  Both had hard lives, so it's a LONG 23 years for them.  Keeley has arthritis in her lower back, hips, hocks, and pasterns.  She's foundered on the fores.  That old lady can pack around a kid at the walk, but that's about it.  Besides that, she "earns her keep" by baby sitting the weanling fillies, and making the pasture look nice.  Ash is still riding a bit, but she's got cancer.  She has a tumor on her neck the size of a grape fruit (melanoma) and there's really nothing we can do about it.  Removing it will only result in another tumor growing to fill the space.  She's happy, but she's not as zippy as she once was.  I goof off with her on the weekends, and it helps to keep her old joints from creaking.

Then there's the boys.  Quagga here is in his late teens.  He's still looking good, but he has old injuries that limit what he can do.  Basically, due to a broken stifle in the past, Q can breed mares, and get love.  With the way my program is going, he'll be doing less breeding, but he's Jae's personal horse, so he gets pretty spoiled.

Spot is the same.  An old fetlock injury resulted in him not being show sound, but he's trail sound.  He has a hitch in his gait from a fused (but pain free) joint.  Because Spot is no longer what I need as a stallion, he will be gelded this fall, and retired to pasture and trail riding.  That's 4 horses who aren't making me money, but who I owe it to them to keep up their way of life.  I can not even imagine doing any less though, so they are just budgeted for.

But, with a planned brood mare herd of 10 mares, and 4 stallions (to keep genetic diversity because the SDHR is pretty line locked) That's still 14 horses who do nothing but make more horses.  My stallions can not be lesson horses.  Showing is a great way to advertise horses, but it does not make money.  The foals produced from those show horses is where the money comes from.  Stud fees are not the money maker that most people think.  I rarely sell outside breedings, but do sell a lot of foals.  I then need a group of horses for riding lessons.  Some of these horses do double duty.

Midnight is a good example of this.  She is a tentative brood mare for a future SDHR foal (she is older, so won't be having a ton of babies for me) but she is priceless as a lesson horse.  This mare can pack around the largest riders, and the youngest riders, and does all that is asked of her.

I have a few other horses coming up into my lesson program from the breeding string as well.  Shadow is a top quality Appaloosa, and has the sweetest personality of any of my horses.  She's always forgiving, and will do anything for love.  When she's done, she will be one of the best lesson horses I have.  And she'll be able to add some refinement into the SDHR lines if it's ever needed.

So all total, I keep about 25 - 30 head of horses here.  My brood mare herd is very young though (most under the age of 6) and so they just can't be ready for working in lessons.  I don't think a horse is ready for a novice rider until it has more then 3 years of regular riding.  This lets the horse see the crazy things that happen (like those evil plastic baggies that are always flying on the wind) and learn to ignore it.  As my breeding herd gets more experience, I will have less need of non breeding horses to work in the lesson program.

Now, some of these horses are "pets".  I have enough time, space, and money to keep a few just because I can't imagine life with out them.  Cayenne is one of those.  We've tried to sell her, and it didn't work so good.  She's back now, and came back with an injury to her back that took over a year to work out.  This little horse (she's 14.0 hands with her shoes on) will ride out lovely with just a lead around her neck. She's small enough I can climb on her out in the pasture, and she's sweet enough that I feel "ok" doing it.  She's also the first baby Jae and I raised.

We got Cayenne as an orphan, and we joke that she's our "first child".  She's spoiled rotten!  She's also a boring bay AQHA mare of moderate breeding (2 gens back is the first horse of any name) but she's great for anything.  Why sell her, when I'd have to pay 10 times what I'd get to have a kid's horse this predictable?  Since she costs me about $50 per month to keep, I figure it's an acceptable rare for a small lesson horse.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it!

But that just shows you how easy it is to get in over your head.  Cayenne will likely be listed for sale, but listed at the price it would cost me to get a horse this good.  If she doesn't sell, I won't cry.  If she does sell, then it will be into a home that is going to use her for what she's good at (uh, not breeding) and love her.  But I can make almost the same argument about most of my horses I have here.  I need to keep this one because.... I need to keep that one because....


And then I'd have a ton of horses, and no way to pay for them.  If I want to stay in business, and do this for a living, then I have to limit my pets.  I allow 2 pets per person.  Jae has Dee and Cayenne, and I have Ash and Oops.  Those horses are allowed to be "not for sale" if the person chooses, even if the horse is "useless".  I figure, most families have a horse or 2, and they don't expect to make money with them, so we get the same luxury.

And the more I type, the more I realize that slimming down my herd is just something that is going to take time.  I can't cull the lesson horses yet, because my girls aren't old enough to hold down that job.  I can't sell some of the mares yet, because they still have babies at their sides.  I currently have only 2 horses that are "for sale" right now, even though I own 29, because I'm in a weird transition phase.  By this winter, I will have a total of 8 horses for sale, but I can't move some until others are ready.

I think that for what I'm doing, a herd of about 20 horses is perfect.  That's 14 breeding horses, some doubling as lesson horses, and 6 to 8 young horses growing up to sell.  I don't want more then 8 horses in my riding string at any one time (including tune ups for lesson horses) because it's just me doing all the riding.

Yes, I know, I'm taking the long way to get around to making a decision, and pretty much vomiting on my blog about it, but it IS helping.  I feel a bit over horsed, or like I WILL be over horsed soon.  My goal is to be able to love what I do, be good at it (profit and ethics) and be able to keep the business running for many MANY years to come.  To do that, some times I have to think out loud a bit.

What is it really like to "be in the business"?

I don't know why, but recently there has been a subtle topic around about those of us in the horse industry.  From comments on Facebook about "morons" who try to get into the business, to other blogs and news articles about the horrors of breeding your horses, it seems like there's this mentality that the 'average' person will never ever be able to make a living in horses.

I'm here to tell you that is NOT the case.

Now, hold up, and don't go rushing out to make your millions in horses.  There's more to it then meets the eye, and many people are shocked to learn what all I have put into this, but let me explain, and if you really want to live your life this way, I'm always happy to help anyone do it the best they can.

You see, I pay all my bills with money earned through horses.  Am I rich?  OH NO!  In fact, we live on a shoe string, work 18 hour days, 6 to 12 days a week (what do you mean there aren't 12 days in a week... come visit, I'll show you!).  But seriously, it's LONG hours, it's hard work, it's emotionally devastating and rewarding, and you are guaranteed to be broke most days.  So why do I do it?

Well, Jae has a saying that sums it up pretty well:  "I'd rather be busting my ass like this, then selling my soul for a few dollars".

We honestly love what we do.  We feel like we're making a difference, and we're happy with that.  It's hard work, but it's good honest work.  Instead of waking up, rushing away to do someone else's bidding all day, and trying to steal a few hours for my own pleasures, well, I have all day for my pleasures, and try to scrape up a few dollars to pay my bills.

My horses though, they are covered.  I'm the person who writes a $1200 check for feed, and thinks it's a good deal, but $11 bucks at Subway is highway robbery!  I also have never wanted to be rich.  It's just not in my plans.

Most of my work is done sitting right here, at a computer, mashing on keys.  I get up in the morning, "commute" all of 10 feet to my desk, and sit my butt down.  Email is answered with my first cup of coffee.  While I do that, Jae heads to the barn and throws out the morning grain and water.  From there, I check Facebook (yes, it actually is a part of my job) update my farm page, check on the breed page, and then head outside.  Some days it's lessons, others it's saddle time, and still others it's just ground work, or working on the property.  But I get my butt out there while the weather is decent, and try to get some real work done.  When temperatures hit "oh my god it's hot" then we pack it in, feed the horses again, more water, and head back inside.  At this point I sit down at the computer while Jae makes lunch (often Gator-aid is my lunch, I'm a cheap date) and get into the SDHR work.  I do conformational reviews of horses, I work on the web pages (both my farm and the SDHR) and other non horsey work.  I usually hit up Facebook a few more times through out the day, occasionally even chatting with friends, but I always have something going on in the back ground at the same time.

 Usually, this paper work requires me to do some research.  Whether that is genetics based (checking up on modern science, which seems to pass me by more often then I like to admit) or business based (tax laws, contracts, etc) there's always something I need to do, and often a need for a better way to do it.

I have a written business plan, and I do my best to keep it up to date.  It's a hassle, but I have to say, it's the most eye opening hassle I have ever done.  I thought "oh, a horse business, that will be EASY".  Uh, no.  When I did the business plan, I had to research and write out the numbers.  How much I would make, how much I would spend... and I ended up broke!  I adjusted the numbers, and adjusted again, until I was scraping by.  With out that business plan, I can honestly say I never would have made it this far.

But that business plan told me that breeding horses would NOT make me money.  I'd be lucky to pay for what I did.  I added boarding, training, lessons, and sales, and now I can live decently.  Not poshly, not wealthy, just decently.  Going to the movies is something we budget for!

And before I started boarding, training, or giving lessons, I had to have those skills myself.  Luckily, I had a few of them.  Boarding I am more then qualified to do.  Lessons, well, I will not overstate my own skills.  I can teach a rider to be safe, and start them in the right direction, and I know when to tell them I can't help them anymore!  That is a skill that many people refuse to learn - the whole thing of taking the money offered to you.

For me, no one income stream is the one I need to keep the business afloat.  Each sale means I worry less about lessons.  Each boarder means I worry less about sales, each riding student means I worry less about boarders.  And then I have my "feel good" Second Chance program.  I take in horses that need homes, and they do good things for me.  Those Second Chance horses bring me new friends, clients, and such.  Each of those is an income stream potentially.  I rarely make any money FROM the Second Chance horses, but I usually make money because of them.  Even better, I also know that I did good for the horse world while I am at it.

But how do I keep the income going in THIS economy?  I don't overdo it.  I don't have the nicest barn in the world, but I might have the cheapest.  I have my own property repair guy (Jae) so I don't have to pay a welder, a mower, a fence repair/builder.  Jae does all of that, plus he keeps the cars, trucks, tractors, and trailers in working order.  As a side benefit, he also knows "geek" and helps me with the technical problems I always make.

Another thing I did, was I seriously looked at my market.  I simply do not have the skills or the accolades to make it in the top level sport horses.  Now, I love the Olympic caliber horses, but I don't have the investment dollars to get there while doing it right.  I also don't care for that scene.

I stopped and looked at the type of people I actually LIKE working with.  For me, it's adults, typically novices or amateurs, with limited interest in making a career of horses.  I lovingly refer to my market as the "middle market".  Middle aged, middle income, middle of experience, middle weight, middle.... well you get the idea.   Most of my clients are not the bottom of the barrel, nor the top - nor do they want to be.  These are people who want a horse to love, want to play with some fun horsey things, and want to have a good time (not a good income) doing it.  They spend fairly, but not exorbitantly.

And, to keep with that market, I had to make sure that I can produce what they want (a good all around sport horse, with the mind to work with a novice, and the conformation to go all the way) within their price range (under $3000).  My research gave me all this data too (Tx department of agriculture keeps some amazing information on averages).  My market is the largest market of horse owners, and interestingly enough, still growing.

But now, this market isn't looking for babies!  This means the horses I breed will usually be sold about the time they are doing a nice walk, trot, and canter under saddle.  So, how to get a horse to about 4 years of age for under $3000?

Yeah, I bought a cheap place.  My over head is LOW.  From mortgage through utilities, I keep my own costs down, which leaves more room for profit.  I do this by making wise and well informed choices (remember all that research?) and by buying a LOT of things in bulk.  Bulk grain, bulk chaffhaye, bulk everything.  I do business kinda like Wal-mart.  I sell more, work more hours, and keep costs in a range that real people can pay.

My riding lessons are only $25/hour.  In my area, that's just about half price of what most people charge, but I make sure to tell students that I can only take them so far, and I do my best to be upfront about all that.  My boarding is cheaper, because it costs me less.  So I have a handful of students and a handful of boarders, all thinking they have a great deal.

AND, this is the most important part, I don't loose sight of the forest because of the trees.  One rotten apple can ruin the whole thing.  No one likes to be the meanie, but it's what I get paid to do. I have NO problem kicking out a boarder, or telling a student I can't offer them lessons anymore, if that person is going to disrupt the harmony we have here.  Our little barn (and it is OURS, not just mine) is a haven where we all go to have a good time.  That whiny nag of a person who kills the mood is also a great way to kill my income!  Loose one client to keep 9?  Yeah, that's a pretty good deal to me.  So far, I've only had to do it once, but I know that I can kick out a person when I have to.

My point is, that you can make money doing the horse thing.  It's a wonderful life to live, but a hard one.  I probably work harder then most of my friends with a 'real' job, but I wouldn't trade it for the world.  I love what I do, and I love that I am able to do this.  I've talked before about all the skills I never knew I'd need to have in order to run a horse farm (web design, photo editing, videography, typing and grammar, etc) but improving myself to improve my business is so worth it.

Before I run off at the mouth, I'll stop here (I have lessons in a few hours and really should sleep) but I'm on a roll with this line of thinking.  It's also helping me make a few decisions about the direction my own business is taking, and how I plan to get there.  I want to downsize, and focus my work a bit, but I'm not sure how to do that yet.  I hope that by blogging about what I need to do, I can find out what I am wasting my own time with.  So, hopefully my readers will enjoy the ride, and those who always dreamed of getting into this type of work can see what it takes to get here.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Transparency Ain't Easy

First off, if you think this is about politics - you're wrong.  Instead, I'm talking about making my own farm operations public.

When you get involved with a rare breed of horse, people tend to learn the horses.  When you happen to have the largest "collection" of those horses in one place, you kinda end up in some enthusiast's spot light.  No, I'm not special - but my horses are. 

But here's the rub.  I'm also not perfect, and I know it!  I own 2 mares from Everett Smith's lines, KatyDid and Sweetie.  I own 3 Foundation SDHR mares, Jinx, Nazar, and Midnight.  I co-own one Foundation Stallion, own 2 Stonewall Sport Horse stallions, 2 Appaloosa stallions, and now I have a semi-rescued Percheron stallion.  I have a total of 29 horses that I own, and a full time farm operation to manage them.  We're not a "large" operation by any means, but for most people, this set up is mind boggling.

This also means that I'm always making plans, changes to those plans, and evaluating my herd.  Our current plans include reducing the number of stallions (My senior boys will be gelded and retired to the life of pasture with the old mares) and of course next year's foals.  There's training, and farm renovations, and more that we have in the works.  There are good days, and bad ones, sales and retirements, and always a few client horses hanging around to keep things exciting.

But how much of this is, or should be, public information?  Think about it for a second.  Do you tell the world when your puppy has an accident on the floor?  What about when your horse decides to make a mess of something?  Do you tell the world about farrier day or vaccinations, or dewormings? 

Would you do that if you had more horses, and each was on its own schedule?  And telling your friends is much different then posting information to your business website, or registry facebook page.  There's a line that we humans tend to keep between our private lives, and our professional ones, but in my situation that line gets very blurry.

This is something that I think about every day.  You see, the more information I put out there, the more chances there are that someone will take that information, twist it around, and make it into something negative.  This could be anything from taking my herd of horses and morphing me into a "hoarder" to dubbing me unsafe because I have 6 large "aggressive breed" dogs, including Pit Bull mixes.  Maybe my style of training is "bad" because I use a bit (aka torture device) or a photo of a horse shows it ducking behind the vertical for a second and now I'm guilty of rolkur.  Rarely is it the case of one person being hateful, but usually it's due to the downside of the information exchange.  We've all played the game "telephone" or "grapevine" and giggle at how different things are at the end of the line.

None of those things have happened to me, but I know that they could.  Like anyone, I have feelings, I love my "babies" (those with 4 feet and hair, plus Jae) and I really do want to do the best I can.  I rescue horses when possible, I sell my horses only into the BEST homes I can find for them, and I have a financial plan that is secure.

So recently, I announced that one of my mares shows every sign of having slipped her foal.  Midnight is teasing, and appears to be open, but we are waiting on the vet to confirm that (and postponing that until payday to be honest).  Two other farms had mares end up open, or suspected of being open (one confirmed, the other also scheduled with the vet).  We know that many fans are excited about the upcoming foals next year, and so we feel an obligation to the people who have helped this breed become so much more public.  We announced the sad news on the SDHR Facebook page.

With humans being human (I know, novel though, right?) the public began to try to help us figure out what is going on.  That's wonderful, and we really do appreciate it, but naturally some negative accusations got thrown around. 

Was it that Sugarbush Harley's Classic O was having problems settling mares?

Seems like an innocent question, and probably was supposed to be, right?  But, this accusation could potentially make people wary of breeding to that stallion.  Who wants to breed to a stallion that might have trouble settling mares?  All that time, effort, and money wasted!  But, the mares in question were not all bred to this stallion.  One mare, a known "hard breeder" was, but "O" also has other mares still in foal.  The other 2 mares were bred to different stallions.

Was it that the daughters of "O's" line were having problems conceiving or maintaining the pregnancy?

This could make buyers nervous about investing in a potential breeding horse of that line, thus reducing sales and the popularity of the breed as a whole.  Again though, this is not the case.  The only daughter of "O" in foal this year, is still very safely in foal. All 3 mares who came up open are Foundation SDHR mares, and all are being bred for either their first foal, or first foal after a long break (known to be problematic).

Of course other information came out, such as stories of mares being harder to breed this year across the country.  Many fans offered well-wishes,  or kind thoughts to the mare owners.  So, I'm not saying that announcing this was bad, just pointing out where potential hazards to us, the farm owners,lie because we try to be transparent.

And of course, there's always the problem of our breed's transparency.  The Sugarbush Draft Horse started as a cross between a Percheron and an Appaloosa.  We admit that!  From there, the breed grew, expanded, and was carefully crafted to be something very different then just a Percheron/Appaloosa cross.  Belgians, Clydesdales, Friesians, and more breeds were used to get the desired traits, and Appaloosas, Knabstruppers and Mustangs have been used to add the color back in as needed.  Each breeder brought something to the breed in the past, and Everett Smith took the sum of the parts, and made it into an amazing whole.  He always bred for color, but never shunned those horses without it.  Having talked to Mr. Smith many times, he was adamant about the use of "solid" or solid appearing horses to bring back the dramatic color of the breed.  Genetically he's right, and science supports his theories.

But, the more we share about our knowledge of the breed's early days, the more we have someone come in and say "those are just mutts".  You can't blame any of us for getting a bit annoyed at that!  We could have said "oh look at what we found" and used that horse as the start of a breed, never admitting that this horse was bred to be "different".  None of us thinks that is right though, simply because it lacks the transparency and honesty we so desire in the SDHR. 

Look at the history of other breeds, and the romanticized backgrounds they share.  AQHA doesn't mention that most of their horses were Thoroughbreds or mutts.  ApHC doesn't talk about the influence of any known breed under the sun (hyperbole for those who don't know) during the early years.  The Rocky Mountain Horse doesn't talk about how the first horses were found at a ranch that bred grades with a gait.  Why?  Because it doesn't really matter.  The horses who resulted from those programs are truly different.

The Gypsy Vanners are the perfect example.  They have a story that is very romanticized about how the horses were treasured and bred to perfection by a subset of people, and pedigrees were kept by the breeders.  In reality, that sounds a lot like what any grade horse breeder here does too.  "I crossed Bob to Fancy, and they gave me Dotty.  She was such a nice horse that I spent the money to breed to that stallion down the street, "Doc".  Their colt was then bred to ..."  And yet, you can not look at a Gypsy Vanner (or Cob) and say that it's just a {insert breed of choice here}.  They look like no other type of horse, they breed true, and they have a following of people who like them.  Isn't that all that a breed is?  Isn't that exactly what the SDHR is?


And so every day I am forced to debate what information to put out to the world.  Do I talk about Darwin's rehabilitation?  Do I mention my training program with Katy?  Do I discuss the injury to Doodles?  How much do I owe my fans, and the fans of my breed, and how much do I keep to myself because it could be twisted into something damaging?  And what happens when I do make a mistake?  Do I share that and allow people to learn from it?  Do I just keep that private?


I'm not sure I'll ever be able to know the right answer to all of that, but I do want to be transparent.  I am not ashamed of what I do, how I do it, or the goals I am working toward.  I always hope that I can help to shape the horse industry into something better, even in a small way.  I propose rules to the SDHR that no other breed has supported before, simply because I think they make sense for the betterment of all horses and horse owners.  I donate time (and lots of it) to offering free conformational evaluations for the Foundation horses, and I share any knowledge I have gained over the years - including financial planning and business advice - that I think could be useful to someone else.  I do all of this because someone else once did it for me.  I hope that those I share with will also pay it forward, and in a few years, the horse industry will be a better place for it.

At some point, this will bite me.  I know it.  But is the risk of being honest and open about what I do greater then the consequences?  Will I make a mistake?  Of course!  I'm only human after all.  I only hope that I will never regret being so open and honest about what I do, and how we do it.

Yet for me, none of that makes it any easier.  It's hard to remember to inform the public.  It's easy to celebrate with friends and family, and to mourn with them as well.  It's never as easy to share the bad news. 

People often forget that when a farm announces a tragedy, that the people involved are devastated.  In the past few years, I've had more then my own share of it.  For every loss I've had, I've been heart broken.  I don't want to tell the world, for fear that saying it will make it real.  I remember my loss each time I read the condolences.  Months later, I still shed tears over those who are no longer with me.  From my aged dogs through the sudden and shocking loss of Indira to a snake bite, I always wish I could just roll back the clock.  Yet, I do my best to share what I can, so that maybe, just maybe, someone else can learn from what happened to me.  If telling the world about Anvil's death from eating onions and garlic helps to save a dog, then my own pain will be worth it.  If sharing the news of how fast my horse was lost from a snake bite gets a vet to a horse faster, then it will be worth it.


And what brought this up you might ask?

Last night, my darling puppy Jango (right) woke me up crying.  He was cuddled beside me, not moving, but whimpering as if in pain.  Jango doesn't usually cry when he's hurt, so this was even more terrifying for me.  The boys have been doing their best to kill themselves on a daily basis, because, well, they are puppies, and I was sure that this time, it was going to be the bad one.  I was wrong, thank goodness.

After checking him, trying to get him to cry again, I decided it must not be too bad.  Just as I was about to sleep, he whimpered.  For an hour I was a mess.  He whined when I petted him, he whined when I kissed him on the head, and he yelped when I tried to pick him up - otherwise, he seemed completely normal.  No palpable pain along his neck or back, he liked me rubbing on his belly, his legs all seemed pain free.  Finally, he crawled next to me, and fell into what seemed a quiet sleep.  Me, I slept poorly.  Through out the night I thought about anything from what it could be, to dreading the worst, and how I would tell everyone what happened.  That naturally made me think of this topic.

This morning I believe I know what Jango's problem was.  Before I hauled him to the vet, I checked him over one last time myself.  My poor baby is teething.  His left top canine tooth is discolored, and loose.  When I touch it, he whimpers.  Yesterday, he had been playing tug o' war with his brother (using everything they could get their mouths on, allowed or not!) and I think he may have damaged the root of that tooth.  A few ice cubes, and some watered puppy food later, and he's again acting like a very happy, and quite normal, puppy.

Thank goodness!