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.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

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.


  1. Good post!  I had to slap some reality into DH - he see's board income but was clueless about expenses until I started listing them out.  You can do a bit more than break even but it has to be your full time job. 

    I'm not ready to leave corp america - and he's not committed enough to MY dream to make it work.

  2. THis is a very hard at work life .....  but it beats a 9 to 5 job any day....  though i kinda do both with the hope and dream to do what you do .  It makes me happy !!!  i have learned alot tonight reading on this sight. and about the possibility of a breed dieing out..... You have my best wishes and warm thoughts... I hope you acheive your goals.  I do have a question now about the LP gene. I have an old red dun AQHA mare that was givin to me last year. SHe has these small dots all over her body though not tons of them...but they are there. SHe does have the appy eye... she has a blaze that goes all the way down onto her lips. She also has white  on her back left foot  little on the right..... i read some were that these are possible markers for the LP gene......   your thoughts  ?