5 Tips for Building a Successful Equestrian Business With Doug Payne

Erin Lassere stands next to a bay horse wearing a black bridle

By Erin Lassere

You’re finally ready to take the next step in your equestrian pursuits. You’ve made the choice to pursue equestrian sport not only as a lifestyle, but a career. So, where do you start? How do you navigate owners, sponsors, and a dynamic business model while staying healthy and balanced?

In order to get more information on this elusive topic, Ride iQ hosted Doug Payne for an episode of Office Hours. As an Olympic event rider, Grand Prix show jumper, coach, and judge, Payne has extensive experience and offers his guidance on building a successful equestrian business.

Find Owners

We’ve all been asked if the chicken or the egg came first. Here’s a harder question: which came first, the horse owners or the equestrian’s business?

Owners are often imperative to building a successful business, but it can seem impossible to find them while you are still in the beginning stages of your career. Seek out people who are willing to invest in your idea and your career. To be clear, you cannot just wait for the phone to ring: be proactive. 

In order for people to share your dreams, they need to get to know you and trust you. It’s incredibly important to build strong relationships within the community. When building relationships with potential owners, find commonalities beyond horses. You can talk about other sports, interests, or hobbies, too.

It’s very helpful to start with a horse before looking for potential owners. If you don’t have a horse, you can get creative to find that ride: lower level riders or people who don’t have the time to keep their horse(s) going may be willing to hire you. Being able to demonstrate your abilities through a horse’s progress or competition results builds interest and excitement. You will give more credibility to your aspirations through demonstrating your ability to be successful rather than simply talking about it. 

Prioritize Your Health

We do everything we can to ensure our horses stay in top physical and mental shape, and it’s important to match that same energy in maintaining our own health.

When it comes to equestrian sports, being in optimal physical condition is necessary for your safety and success. It will keep your horses safer, too. 

Maintaining physical health and fitness includes avoiding injuries. It can be tempting to agree to ride any and every horse you are offered, especially when you need the money and experience. However, there are some horses that aren’t worth the ride. With a trip to the hospital, potential time out of the saddle, and any lingering ailments, the cost outweighs the payment if a horse is not safe to ride. Because staying healthy is the key to success, the ability to say “no” is critical.

With the right owners and clients, you will get more support in the end if you are fully honest about their horses and the situation.

Take on Sponsors You're Passionate About

You’re approached by a company that sells a product that has not worked for you or your horses. They want to sponsor you. It might seem intuitive to take on as many sponsors as possible, but it is in your best interest to be truly passionate about the products or services you agree to promote as a sponsored rider.

“Buy it, use it, like it, then pitch yourself to the company.”

Make sure you 100% believe in what a company is doing before entering into a sponsorship agreement. Be careful about committing to brands that approach you first, especially if you aren’t already familiar with their product or service. If you don’t think the product works, or don’t know if it works, it is dishonest to campaign it to others. The product should be exactly what you say it is.

Make sure you understand that sponsorship is a two-way relationship, as well. You need to help your sponsors by making your best effort to sell or promote their brand, and they will help you through products or services and sometimes additional payment. 

Set Yourself Apart

Let’s face it: there are plenty of people who have a dream that’s similar to yours. It’s your job to differentiate yourself from those people. Find ways to make yourself unique. Jump at as many opportunities as you are given, even if they are outside of your comfort zone.

“You have to have a lot of pots on the stove. Any small opportunity that presents itself, explore all options within it.”

This could be within your sport or outside of your sport.

Within your sport, it’s a good idea to commit to standing out in a niche. That could be working with a specific type of horse (like eventer Elisa Wallace, an advocate for American Mustang Adoption), getting your technical delegate or judging license (like Doug has), working toward a large sales business (like Caroline Martin’s) or approaching your craft in an innovative way (like Lucinda Green’s XC Academy). Show potential owners and clients why they should invest in you as opposed to other professionals.

Pursuing interests, hobbies, or education outside of horses can also benefit your equestrian business. Of course, financial and other resources can limit extracurricular opportunities, but the important takeaway is that you don’t need to be working with horses every minute of the day to be a successful horseperson. Participating in or learning about things outside of horses will only make you more well-rounded. Plus, being able to chat about something other than horses is a good thing for building relationships with owners and clients. One of Doug’s hobbies outside of horses is being a pilot. Buck Davidson likes to golf, Kyle and Jen Carter are marathon runners, and Liz Halliday-Sharp is a former professional racecar driver. 

Build Strong Relationships

Like in many industries, equestrian businesses are all about relationships. You need to develop strong ties with owners, clients, sponsors, and other professional riders. Behind every successful operation is an entire network of people.

Some tips building strong relationships:

  • Always be working on your conversation skills.
  • Find ways to relate to people beyond horses.
  • Be honest with your owners and clients, even if it puts you in an uncomfortable position. They will appreciate your transparency.
  • In the case of sponsors, be sure to give their brand as much exposure as possible. Remember, they rely on you as much as you rely on them.
  • Build friendships within the community of riders. Don’t approach other riders’ owners with bad intentions. Other professionals are putting in as much work as you are, and positive relationships with them will only work in your favor. 

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