Building a Profitable Public Riding Program
By Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
If you want a nice home business doing your most fun thing—working with horses—a small public lesson program can be tremendously profitable. And you cannot be replaced by a computer or someone working somewhere overseas. In the mid-1960s, I made what would be a six-figure income in today’s dollars on a small property with half a dozen horses. So I know it can be done.
I also know it is a hard thing for most people to do. That is because they think of themselves as part of the horse industry first and as a horse business owner second. Instead, they need to see themselves in a business specializing in riding lessons. Their only goal should be running a really neat little riding school. They need to forget about everything else in the horse industry altogether because buying, selling, breeding, showing and all the other things horse people like to do just run up expenses and eat up your profits.
Many people in the horse industry give riding lessons but they do not think of riding lessons as the best way to spend their time. They use lesson programs to attract clients toward their real goal of participating in all the other activities in the horse world. When you visit their barns, you will see horse trailers sitting all over the place. They may be selling trailers and horses and saddles and horse-related stuff. They are probably training horses. And they are boarding the horses in training and running boarders to shows and charging training fees at shows. They drive pickup trucks and they wear fancy boots and silver buckles or some other horsey costume. Everything at the place looks really busy and important but they are probably not making much money.
Setting up and running any profitable business requires sitting down with a paper and pencil or computer to calculate an operating budget. You add up all of your expenses—and that means all right down to the last lead rope. Then you estimate your potential income—how many horses times how many lesson per day plus summer riding camps and other income possibilities. If the difference between the two is positive, you make a profit and have some income to live on. Over a series of fits and starts in the horse industry, I figured out that the activity that brought me the most profit and the steadiest income was a small lesson program that emphasized the relationship with the horse.
Most people interested in riding really want the opportunity to build a relationship with a horse. If you build your lesson business around this need, around the concept of enabling people to have fun interacting with horses, you can make a living and have fun doing it yourself. You do not need to spend a lot of money to create your lesson business. But you do need to plan.
Consider your riding school’s location first. Ideally, you would locate on an acre or so along an access road visible from an interstate highway so you are visibly advertising to every passing car. Acreage will be cheaper (and zoning issues less problematic) where development stops but balance land costs with accessibility. Customers are willing to drive just so far for their fun and they like to have nice roads to get them there. Locating your barn at the intersection of two roads increases accessibility.
Do not invest in more acreage than you absolutely need. That may depend on zoning and other considerations but anything you own needs maintenance. Remember that you are running a riding school, not a farm. The essentials for your riding school include a small barn that will hold five or six horses and a riding arena 50’ x 100’ or 60’ x 120’. You can even start out with a 60’ x 60’ arena and plan to expand it as your cash flow builds.
Pole construction keeps building costs down if local zoning codes allow it. For your customers’ comfort, pave the parking lot and make sure it is easy for parents to get in and out. Do not let a muddy parking lot be the first thing they see when they drive in. Locate a nice lounge between the parking lot and the arena to give parents a place to sit and watch lessons through a window. This also reduces the likelihood that they will talk to students and interrupt lessons. Put changing rooms with rest rooms on either side of the lounge, one for gals and one for guys. Make the lounge a clean, comfortable place where parents can wait and stay clean. Do not allow dogs because dogs like to jump up on nice clothes or lick people who do not like being licked. No hairy barn cats, either.
Limit customer traffic into your barn area. It can be hard to supervise things and keep your program running on time when parents can wander in and kids can play while you are tacking up horses or taking different horses in and out of the riding arena. Extra supervision takes staff and staff raises your expenses. A lot. Without a lot of people traffic, the horses can enjoy some quiet time between their lessons and there is less chance they will be fed things that are not good for them. The concept is to keep the horses safe from the people.
At lesson time, you bring the horse into the arena to the student, maybe discuss what kind of day the horse is having with the student, and then hand the horse over so they can start enjoying their relationship with that one horse that day. If you and your horses understand the concepts of heeding (see Training Articles at www.meredithmanor.edu), you can teach the horses all sorts of patterns that make group lessons easier to manage. You can heed all the horses into line, control their gait and direction, and keep everything safe. Heeding is based on working with horses in rhythm and relaxation. When everything stays rhythmic and relaxed and comfortable, a lesson horse can do his work in the morning and still feel fresh to work again when the kids arrive after school.
Plan your riding program around your students’ interests. You can use a developmental program that ranks students as their riding ability increases. As they move up through the ranks, they are allowed to do more things or ride different horses. You can offer lessons for moms and retirees in the morning, kids in the afternoon, and working folks in the evening. You can run horsey day camps during school breaks and summer vacation. You can schedule special weekend lessons early or late in the day for parents who want to ride with their kids. You can run weekly or monthly Sunday ‘shows’ for students. We used to have a New Year’s Eve sleepover for kids. We made a game of learning the parts of the horse, horse tack, and other horsey information. It was highly paid babysitting that both parents and kids loved.
You do not need to buy fancy horses for a program like this. To kids, every horse is important and they do not care how expensive the horse was to buy. However, every horse should have a story that helps kids build their relationship with him. Sam loves fizzy soda and peppermints. Misty is a neat pony but she loves to play tricks if the rider does not give her full attention. Sharluck is a rescue horse that likes to have his neck scratched in a certain place. You personify the horses and help the kids have fun.
Plan your lessons to have fun as well as teaching skills. Kids love to jump but they also love to play all kinds of games on horseback like ring spearing, musical chairs, relay races, etc. Games not only add variety for the students but they also keep the horses interested. Plan lessons that keep the fun fresh whether you are working with walk-trot riders or more advanced students.
Making your riding school profitable requires close attention to expenses. Dress neatly but do not worry about wearing the most impressive horsey costume. Insist that kids dress neatly and wear helmets and safe footgear. Otherwise, they can keep their expenses down, too. You do not need a pickup truck and trailer because your horses live at the school and stay there. There is always somebody with a horse trailer you can hire if needed. Never buy a horse just because someone is offering you a good deal. Only buy a horse—or anything else—unless you really need it. Do not go recreational shopping at tack stores or feed stores or expos. Every dollar you do not waste buying something you do not really need is worth several dollars in your pocket.
Keep it simple. Keep it small. Buy just what you need when you need it. Pay attention to your students’ needs and find ways to meet those needs. Keep it fun for them and you can make money doing what is fun for you—working with horses.
© 2011 Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre. Instructor and trainer Ron Meredith has refined his “horse logical” methods for communicating with equines for 50 years as president of Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre (147 Saddle Way, Waverly, WV 26184; 1-304-679-3128; http://www.meredithmanor.edu), an ACCET accredited equestrian educational institution.