|Hayfields at Willowview Hill Farm, Stamford NY.|
Our rather well-educated eldest son has always expressed that it is important to have a 5 year and 10 year plan in place. For businesses that can mean an exit strategy, for individuals it can mean easing into retirement or finding time to follow a passion that you've always held close to your heart but always been too busy with family life and obligations to others to follow.
I count myself as extremely blessed to have arrived at a 'new normal' partly by design, partly by hardship and partly by accident, over the past 30 years.
My advice is to embrace change and move forward and adapt with good heart. Re-imagining is hard work but it can also be extremely rewarding. It can happen many times in your life for many reasons and while it can be scary, that's part of what makes it fun.
For over 25 years my husband Paul and I worked in an incredibly cut-throat, high pressured job at an international freight forwarding company based at JFK. As a result for 10 years when the kids were young we had zero vacation due to work commitments.
My job developed into an executive position, and my college knowledge in writing and PR/marketing came in handy; corporate finance that I learned on the job was accompanied by being able to do everything from move pallets around with a forklift to completing every possible international document needed for air or ocean, export, import or customs needs.
Alongside long hours at the office we somehow managed to maintain our passion for horses. In fact, in the early days of our marriage it was our saving grace. The stress of the week could be cantered or galloped away together across the 1500 acres of Caumsett State Park, Long Island, or trail riding in the Hudson Valley.
When we bought our small homestead in Dutchess County, NY in the early 1980's and were able to bring our horses home from livery and put in our outdoor arena, Paul's longstanding education in all things dressage was literally brought home to me.
And so it began. The development bit by bit, step by step, of a warmblood breeding farm.
Necessarily our dressage training also took us off to Europe, and while we imported horses from the Elite Verden and Vechta auctions and took intensive 'retreat' trips for training to Germany and Switzerland, our work life meant only one or other of us could go into the wide world at a time. The other spouse needed to stay home to manage work, children and the horse farm.
|Paul Schooling With An Olympic Rider|
Over time we began to share the knowledge and competition experience we enjoyed abroad with others and gradually built a business of dressage students and began offering clinics both with us and with Olympic level riders and trainers. We collected buyers for our home and abroad produced horses. We also added an Equine Division to the forwarding business to export and import horses.
|We developed the international forwarding biz to incorporate horse transport|
For myself, my passion for writing also led me to write for horse periodicals and magazines about what I knew. Horses and rural lifestyle. Something that was to become more important than ever later.
There is often a watershed event that changes your life forever.
For us, as for many others, it was 9/11.
Our small freight forwarding firm that had survived various industry challenges was finally put out to pasture. When Vice-President Al Gore, determined that all freight must be x-rayed and that all vendors/shippers must be visited in person and vetted in person by the forwarder, this onerous change left the advantage squarely in the hands of the airlines and large integrators such as Federal Express and UPS. Mainly because the latter organizations were exempt from the requirements, and the airlines were the only ones with the availability of providing x-ray services. The new transparency between forwarder and carrier, whether it be air or ocean freight, meant all customers data was shared. This gave the airlines and the large consolidators the opportunity to access the shippers, and the small forwarder was instantly cut out of the equation.
The small freight forwarder's freight was last to load, their prices artificially made higher by fees for x-ray services and the 'big boys' played havoc with the new data, outbidding the small guy at every turn until they had successfully lassoed the shippers right out from under them with promises of better rates and expedited service.
Small companies like ours tried to reinvent themselves but the damage was done. As the large integrators pushed small and medium forwarders to the curb, they then increased their rates. They now controlled the market and manufacturers were left with a new issue of increased costs. In part, this encouraged even more of the manufacturing industry to move to China.
So now we found ourselves in the middle of this mess. Aside from losing many work colleagues downtown at the World Trade Center on 9/11, where Customs was housed and many oceanfreight and insurance companies were located, the business we had worked so painstakingly hard to develop was in trouble.
We had just acquired our 80 acres of farmland in Upstate New York and were in the throes of building our house, stabling and indoor arena. And when I say building, hubbie and I were literally spending every spare minute constructing the house. From pulling concrete and pouring concrete forms, to siding the house and installing everything from burner and boiler to kitchen sink. Now we took to construction work 24/7/365 and threw ourselves into it with all we had, while we pondered what to do with the freight business that was taking up less and less of our time. Customers dropped aside after decades of us servicing their needs. Customers like Harrods and John Lewis of London, IBM and Intel, and smaller clients that imported fashions from Italy, export accounts like Biltmore Textiles and NYC fashion design firms all fell away.
It was time to re-imagine our lives again. So in 2006, when the house was finally habitable, my husband started an online equestrian store. It was a natural fit as it utilized our experience in all things international; letters of credit, insurance and shipping. This time not of general cargo but of horse products. This knowledge in worldwide sourcing gave us an edge in the market and we successfully developed a niche audience that repeat purchased from us for many years.
While we had initially purchased the 80 acres that consisted mainly of hayfields to produce our own horse hay organically, (based on my experience haying when growing up in England), the excess thousands of bales soon became a source of additional and much needed income to fund the new tack company.
|One of our early ads for hay..|
The business continued as an online tack store for 12 years. But, as we know, everything changes.
When the disruptive forces at play in the internet world left us at a severe disadvantage with the disappearance of net neutrality and other tack shops became more online venues than bricks and mortar, larger companies soon swallowed up larger and larger parts of the equestrian market. With MAP polices in place, the small tack shop owner found themselves competing not just with NASDAQ tack retail companies, but also with the manufacturers themselves. As the manufacturers were forced to compete with the tack retail giants who began making their own lines of clothing, horse blankets and tack. Something in fairness, we had already began with bridles and halters.
The realization that now our small company was competing directly with the very companies we had helped make popular online, meant it was time to develop some new streams of income.
Paul and I had learned over the many years to breed, train, compete and develop dressage horses from start to finish and had worked with many name trainers. One of the most influential for us was Herbert Rehbein, and during our dressage career we had also bred many Donnerhall horses. We had given symposiums on international horse transport, provided clinics and lessons for riders at many levels in the dressage world and developed a loyal clientele on both sides of the Atlantic.
Our trips for trade abroad to source equine industry manufacturers and artisans also included time to give lessons and take instruction. As far back as 1997 we were producing ANCCE and Lusitano horses in Spain through our own breeding mares. Our dressage training had shifted to the Iberian peninsula.
|Paul and I in the Algarve, Portugal - a frequent stop on our clinic circuit|
We decided to develop our training and clinic program and as we had both worked for over 30 years together training and developing horses and riders. Hence our "Grand Prix dressage duo" was born.
Paul and I give clinics together. His expertise leans much toward training the rider to train the horse, while mine leans more toward the horse and how he is responding to the rider and how better his feelings, obedience and understanding can be managed. This probably stems from my experience as a horse breeder and study of equine biomechanics, and Paul's strong talent for training horses in the saddle and frankly, his more diplomatic nature with people.
As the dressage clinic business developed I found myself being invited to write for magazines and sourced by publishers for column and blog writing from folks attending our events. Our clinic schedule grew to include many regions in the USA and Canada and abroad too in Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Portugal and Spain. The clinics showcased areas of misunderstanding of the training scale by riders. We would see and fix common mistakes that could be easily prevented if the riders had more knowledge. We saw many talented horses that were being rushed or misunderstood the riders' aids or attempts to gymnastically develop them. This all became material for my articles.
I'd always loved to write and to share knowledge. My first article had appeared back in the early 80's for a $70 fee in the heralded, Dressage & CT. The second had published in The Chronicle of The Horse the same year and I had worked weekends for the latter in the '80's covering dressage shows in the North East USA for some years too, with our newborn twins and 3 year old son in tow. Now it was all coming back around.
The hay business was another area where I had 20 years hands on experience and there also I saw countless mistakes made by others in hay selection and curing hay specifically for horses. I heard horror stories from the clientele that came up the driveway to buy our organically grown product regarding their experiences with other hay sources. Naturally, that also became fodder for my writing.
Over the years we had also accumulated much experience in all sorts of tack and equipment; personally built many horse barns; installed arenas; built fences; and learned much about all kinds of products. From our kind product sponsors during our competitive times in Europe, clinic event planning and sponsorship handling, and our personal daily use of everything from medical innovations to contoured bridlewear ~ writing on pretty much any equestrian or pet topic was what I knew.
My PR/Marketing and feature/blog writing business took off and today I spend much time doing just that for companies and magazines, large and small.
In direct consequence of the development of the media side of my life, my husband is redirecting his business into a media production hub. Also based on the equestrian and pet industry.The time had come to exit the online tack shop industry and stock was sold off at a major discount.
Paul also manages a publishing company that produces books, both in print and digital media, servicing a broad band of authors. He also kindly underwrites the expenses for an imprint magazine that serves as a community resource for the equestrian in the North East USA.
Paul's talents in IT make him the perfect partner for our media efforts, and with all the changes going on he is busy working on new websites and hiring new staff for his media hub business and for our farm, to address the other changes that have taken place recently.
As time has moved along we made the decision to retire from the horse breeding side of our business. Our lives were now full of travel and clinic giving which can become tiring, two months a year of even harder work haymaking, and our kids were through college and off living their own dreams. We couldn't wear all these hats any longer!
|The mare Versailles WVH aka Annie with Gambol's Georgy Girl|
Leaving foals and youngstock to the care of others in our absence, daily training routines needed to start youngsters when we needed to be able to travel, plus the major issue of the declining health of my father in the UK, convinced us to sell off our mares so we would have more freedom to be where we needed to be at the drop of a hat.
And that was all going swimmingly until Covid19 hit.
My father died over Christmas 2019 and we had to wait on the closures due to the holidays for a post mortem before a funeral date could be set. Our travel in January allowed us to attend his funeral and spend a brief two weeks with Mom, before returning home. Within a few months lockdown ensued in New York, and we found ourselves home on our mountain top. Unable to fly back to visit Mom as planned to support her with the probate paperwork and unable to be with her in person to offer support to help her navigate the new normal for her life has been a very difficult time for all of us.
Our clinic schedule was shut down and all the heavily booked dates of the entire 2020 were gone..both here and abroad. In response we have offered our hosting barns free virtual help/reviews of their training and many have taken advantage of the service.
For anyone else wishing to engage us for a virtual training session we welcome the opportunity, and are donating ALL proceeds from these sessions ($50 per review) to www.nokidhungry.org to help the larger community.
My father taught me many things about life and one was to never look back but to embrace change and always move forward. He was my mentor in business for my entire life. I am sad that he has passed away, but I am also glad he did not have to live through the worries of these times.
|My wonderful father always enjoyed our horses and visiting our farm in NY|
Notwithstanding Covid19 and all the stress we are all enduring, we are grateful to be safely ensconced on our peaceful farm. Blessed that to date we have not lost a family member or loved one to this virus, despite arriving home with a 'bug' that has not left us.
We did not imagine that 2020 would be this way and neither did anyone else. While we are not all in the same boat, we are all sailing the same sea and weathering the same storm.
Mother's Day yesterday was full of zoom meetings with the kids and grandkids and virtual hugs and chink of glasses heard only through microphones. But the love was apparent, virtual or not.
A snowstorm the day before left us with 3 inches of snow and blossom on the trees frosted. Everything has changed. Even Mother Nature seems confused.
When this is all over. And it will be. Life will be re-imagined for many of us whether we want it to be or not. I urge everyone to stay positive, be kind to others and look for their own silver linings. They are there to be found. I promise.