Case History: From Backyard Fun To Real Money

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I’ve worked as a part-time riding instructor since my college days. I love saying, “I work for myself,” almost as much as I love saying, “I work outdoors with children and horses.”

At first, my business idea seemed too fanciful for reality, but it made for a nice project in a college course on Equine Business Management. Ten years later, I have my own freelance lesson business. When I first began, I actually went through my old notebooks and pulled out the brochure I designed for my fictional business.

My first teaching experience was in 4-H, assisting my leader with younger riders. I worked in the stable of an elite summer camp during college, where instructors often complained about their jobs. One day I offered to trade mucking stalls for teaching a class, and the director found I had a knack for it.

Summer camp led to an instructorship at St. Andrews College (Laurinburg, N.C.), teaching lessons in the community riding program. After graduation, I landed a (barely) paid internship at a prestigious horse magazine. Worried about making the rent, I visited a nearby farm and asked if they needed riders taught or horses exercised — they did. I was not afraid to honestly state my experience and skills, however meager, and to name some strong references. My freelance lesson business began.

The simple fact is that good riding instructors are hard to find, and there is a real need for safe, quality instruction for lower-level riders. I tapped into that market successfully. I’m fortunate that I apprenticed under top-notch instructors for several years. I was able to borrow from their methods and activities as I built my own system of instruction. I minored in equine studies, so I had a solid foundation in riding and teaching theory as well as stable management. Reading, observing others, and continuing to take lessons myself keeps me fresh and current.

I am amazed at the number of customers who come to me with horror stories of past instruction. I also meet students who have paid faithfully for private lessons for years and yet ride no better than novices. Parents constantly tell me, “We didn’t know any better. What did we know about riding and horses'”

I found that teaching riders who owned their own mounts was easy (I could show up and step into the ring), but it limited the number of students. I needed to have access to school horses but was in no position to purchase my own string.

I found a businesswoman with two horses that needed hacking. Soon, she offered to let me teach lessons with them. After a few months I leased an additional horse, bought some used tack and printed business cards.

Word of mouth works like a charm. This woman introduced me to another whose daughter rode at a stable in dire need of an instructor. When the mother approached me, she thought she was offering me a weekend job. She actually gave me entr?? into the local horse industry.

At that beginner-type barn, I inherited six students from the retiring instructor and soon recruited a dozen more through referrals. I re-schooled lesson horses, met riders who wanted lessons at home on their mounts, and began getting my name out.

I taught for all I was worth (and endured a lot of barn politics), but I enjoyed it. Soon one father called me and said, “My girls have gotten serious about riding. I just got three ponies up here from Florida, on trial. Will you come out and look at them' And would you be interested in teaching some lessons at our farm'”

He wanted a lesson program on his farm; I wanted to graduate from the beginner barn and manage my own program. We put up an outdoor ring and a jumping field. Within two weeks, I had a waiting list.

My goal is to create educated, effective riders who strive to ride with the animal in mind. When I’ve taught them everything I know, I want to send them on. I want them to continue learning and developing.

I’ve also had to educate myself to stay one step ahead. I had to learn about release forms, safety plans, scheduling strategies and instructor’s insurance. I learned to deal with parents and riders who did not respect my time and expertise, who didn’t attend lessons regularly or were delinquent in payments.

Because I didn’t own my own farm, many failed to see me as a professional. I learned to become more formal and businesslike. I standardized program procedures and created a set of program policies that customers read and sign.

I had false starts, made mistakes and worried about failure. But I believe that my “fortune” is due to perseverance and sincerity. Because I always gave 100 percent to teaching, people gave me opportunities to build my business.

At one point, I drove to four or five different horse farms weekly, while still attending school fulltime. Because I was desperate to build my clientele, I taught students who sometimes didn’t show up or rode dangerous horses, which was probably not that bright.

Now I teach in two barns and can afford to be selective. I focus on students who plan to own a horse and ride competitively, or do so already. I give clinics, judge shows and advise customers on horse purchases.

Riding lessons are helping put me (and my husband) through graduate school. They’re also providing me with an antidote to academia — a good excuse to breathe fresh air and smell horsehair. Even with a Ph.D. in hand, I plan to continue in the horse business.