A simple definition of business could be any type of organised system in which revenue exceeds expenses. In other words, when you measure the profits against the costs, the end result is earnings. This versus the antithesis known as debt. Sounds simple, but anyone who owns a business is familiar with the convoluted chasm that exists between those two polarities.
I had my own business before I intended, or realised, it was in fact a business. Necessity is the mother of invention and I needed money. I began accepting rides on horses belonging to others. I’d ride anything available. When I accumulated enough rides daily, it evolved naturally into a proprietorship.
Starting out, I traveled to four different barns everyday. The track was my first stop. I’d arrive in the dark and ride 6 or 7 head. On the way back to my barn, I’d stop along the way at two neighbouring farms. One was home to a middle-aged thoroughbred mare who hadn’t had a job since arriving home from the track several years prior. When I jumped her for the first time, her exciting career as a jumper burst forth before my eyes. But I quickly sighed. Resignation singed at the crevices of my heart, for I understood it would never come to fruition. (As suspected, I plead my case to the owner who smiled, nodded, and carried on.)
The other farm was home to two fox hunters. One an absolute stalwart, the best of the best, and the other bay gelding was fresh from Ireland. That in itself should tell you everything you need to know about him. He was the kind of Irish that was pretty, reluctant to hack yonder, and chuffed at every opportunity to smear me against bark.
By noon I’d have ridden ten horses. Arriving at my barn after that, I’d muck eight stalls, and finish my day riding my two aspiring event horses. Eventually, another barn recruited me to ride an assortment of horses-young stock, fox hunters, those rehabilitating from injury, or horses for sale. It wasn’t as many rides as the track offered, but the variety was great, and they paid twice per head.
I followed the money.
After my first year “in business,” I engaged the local accountant to prepare my taxes. By my estimation (using my dutifully logged roster in my check-book), I surmised I shouldn’t, wouldn’t, owe any taxes. How could I when all I managed to eek out, after expenses, was less than $10,000 in profit? That money is what paid my rent, food, and health insurance.
I’m sure the expression on my face registered poignant when she held out her hand and said, “That’ll be $700, please.” Plus $50 for her services. Stuttering, I composed myself, and questioned her math. How was it even possible? And the fact was, I didn’t have it handy. This was the moment I learned the nebulous chasm, between the post of revenue and the pillar of expenses, existed the quagmire called “hand-to-mouth.”
Standing in the accountant’s doorway, I weighed my choice in life, the biggest and most influential one so far as a young adult. For the first time, I wondered whether my well-devised strategy for guaranteed success—working harder than everyone else, riding as many horses as I could get my hands on, with the most minimal of living expenses—was actually going to float, because it surely didn’t feel like it as I forked over a check void of consumption. (I would go on to have this same thought every year at tax time for the next fifteen years.)
There is nothing more foreshadowing than writing a fraudulent check to Uncle Sam the first time you pay taxes as an adult.
This is the plight and incongruity of small business. The goal, to make the most profit possible, while simultaneously tallying every expense, legit or not, in order for the bottom line to reach as close to zero as possible, so the tax liability follows suit. This is the tacking, sawtoothed edge of capitalism (competition) and socialism (regulation), the handsaw buttressed against the soft innards of every entrepreneur, masquerading as a promise at times, otherwise as a warning. This blade made me its bitch, slapping me hard across the face.
As much as running my own business happened by default rather than by design, an ember still burned deep, drowning any caution and common sense. It was inextinguishable, this desire, like a restless blackhole, the endless suck of bottomless determination to be the best rider I possibly could.
I dug in, leasing a barn. Twelve paid board, seven of those I rode daily, and I competed as many as three in one-day events, all of this solo. I was the business owner, the rider, the trainer, the groom, the stall mucker, the vet tech, the transporter, and the competitor. This experience, and the lesson it held, was not lost on me: When you are your own boss, you are not only the CEO, but the CBW (Chief Bottle Washer) and everything that stretches in between the mucky gamut.
I learned quickly boarding was a losing proposition. They would be consigned to training board or they were out. This postulation is widely accepted within the industry, and for good reason, the lesson for me being some money was better than no money (an empty stall), but more money was exponentially better than some. Compounding is a fiduciary phenomenon, even when it comes to chump change. Nimble, it also lent stickiness to my business, the parts held together loosely in the web it spun. My business began to grow some legs. (I can’t help but envision Deadpool sitting on the couch in his Crocs. This analogy is, unfortunately, a snug fit.)
Since more was better, I expanded to 24 horses in training, and hired two employees to accomodate the load. It was still a blast, made better with company, but the physics of business taught me another important lesson: When profits compound, so does the workload, and more worrisome, so do the expenses, almost entirely unilaterally. Not that I didn’t expect some of that, but as fast as it came in, even the more of it, the faster it went out (also, more of it.) The equation I hoped to improve by having more didn’t change in any significant way.
My business had baby legs, but unlike Deadpool, it seemed incapable of growing adult ones.
Later, as better horses showed up, I shrunk everything down to four paying horses and teaching 25 lessons or so a week with one employee. I had two horses competing advanced after a ten-year hiatus highlighted with average horses. Sometimes that’s how long you must be patient in order for the golden goose to show up under your shed-row. It was the best of times and the hardest of times.
My next business lesson: Advanced horses take two or three times as long in man-power hours daily than lower-level eventers or young horses. In other words, advanced horses are a losing business proposition. By the time you ship to a gallop, ship home, ice them while they wear their magnetic blanket, get them massaged, or hack them for an hour before they do dressage, or drag them to a jumping lesson, drag them home, put them back in ice with their magnetic blanket, and hit repeat every week, you’ve lost money on horses whose owner’s are paying top dollar for the services provided. Having advanced horses was the goal of my entire career, but when they arrived, the experience was definitely bittersweet.
At this time, I didn’t have a single horse bill of my own. I had good owners and good sponsors. I did own a horse, JB Star, but JB didn’t just have one sponsor. He had two. A thin-skinned thoroughbred with a bejewelled handbag of idiosyncrasies he carried with him at all times, it was a lot of work, and expense, to keep JB placid and happy. JB was administered a tube of Gastroguard everyday, sometimes one at morning and one at night at the events, to keep his aura serendipitous. Sound excessive? JB’s formula for success was carefully devised through experience over time. When I found what worked, I stuck with it, and did not deviate, despite what a vet might whisper in my ear (“Ulcerguard is just as good.” I can tell you it’s not, not for every horse anyway, and as a good owner, it is your job to know which category your horse fits, and to advocate for him as such, doing what is in his best interest, and only that).
At this time, the expenses I was responsible for were minimal. I rented a room in a friend’s house for $600/month; paid an employee $450/week; rented her a room elsewhere for approximately the same amount of rent; paid for four stalls at $250/each per month; paid for the grain, hay, shavings, tack and equipment (even though I had a sponsor to help offset some of it), paid for my health insurance; and paid the truck and trailer insurance and its maintenance.
Yet, my rent check still bounced regularly.
My past career is branded with incredible hard work and sacrifice, streaked with moments of luck. This did not differentiate me in any way from the other diehard professionals fulfilling their own journey. Perspective is the lingering gift on offer after the storm has passed. It was only as I pulled my shingle down did I realise my “success” was no more than a series of lucky breaks that occurred at the beginning of my career, providing momentum in the right direction at an opportune time.
The first barn I leased charged me well below market rate for rent. They did all the repairs and mowing necessary, and sold the hay they cut on site for $2.50 a bale. If they had cared to charge me appropriately, I’d have been out of business before I purchased the first pitchfork. Unfortunately, still wet behind the ears like a newborn puppy, my misinformed ego took this lucky break as a product of my inborn success. It believed working my ass off was indeed…working.
I had many epiphanies, after I left the horses, which is probably by nature’s design (otherwise we would never try or risk anything as humans). First, by all accounts, on paper, I never should have “made it” as a rider. I didn’t have the credentials, the pedigree, nor the backing or support to do so. This is a massive generalisation, but persons with these characteristics, bound together by their overflowing love of the horse, usually land in groom’s positions. I should have pursued grooming in the landscape of horses, but like a stubborn weed, I clawed through the crevices with what little ingredients I did have, determined to learn to ride well.
This epiphany is not meant to incite grooms. For such an indispensible role within a stable, you often don’t get paid enough, and sometimes do not receive the respect you deserve, for all the gifts you bring to the owners, the riders, and most especially, the horses. I just didn’t have my sights set on this, and it never occurred to me that my work ethic couldn’t override the operational and logistical barriers I faced, entering the industry as the person I was.
Another epiphany I learned upon retirement was the quality of horses I had at the end of my career were what I needed in the beginning. This is just a fact. Even if you’re riding a sewing machine trot, if it jumps all the big jumps, it comes with a certain amount of quality that’s necessary to train your muscle memory at that higher level. You can envision riding well at Advanced all you want, but the experience that sticks, good and bad, happens in the irons. Those horses did eventually land in my barn through the generosity of owners, and they could even trot a little by then, but I was creating all this new muscle memory at the advanced level, at the end of my career, instead of the beginning.
I simply ran out of time.
Looking back, I wish I had been kinder to myself. In the same way I viewed my luck as nothing more than my hard work paying off, I also discounted the role luck played in my peer’s careers, believing they were much more successful due to their talent and skill. Some definitely were better, but it was easy to convince myself I was a failure when I gave everything I had to my mission, making huge sacrifices such as ending my marriage, friendships, and holidays with family, but I still wasn’t good enough to really compete against “the big boys.”
The fact is, some people are born with more luck, also known as privilege. I don’t begrudge this reality, but regret wielding it against myself like a club, beating my self-esteem and worth into a bloody pulp. In my mind it translated to not only were they better riders, but they were just better in general. They were better at business, relationships, and life. They were playing the hell out of their hand just like I was, but the foreboding sense they were all doing it a lot better, made me go home at the end of the day wanting to chew my leg off, breaking free of the snare that staked me in place.
All this aside, I didn’t need perspective to know I was incredibly lucky to choose the challenges I faced. I signed up for it and brought it onto myself. This is entirely different than unexpected challenges thrust upon you. Those can conspire to feel like a life of dodging bullets from out of nowhere, such as facing food insecurity, the unexpected chronic health issue, or the inability to educate your way into a better life.
But I did live at the nexus between the two, and it was cause for considerable amounts of stress, but not before the worst day in my brief life. I haven’t written about the loss of JB because I really don’t have the words, or the emotional bandwidth, even now, to share it with others. What I do want to share is the irony, after a career steeped in debt and scarcity, is the financial security I have in my life now, ten years later, is due to JB.
Being that I owned nothing of value back then, except for this incredible athlete someone gave to me out of their field, I insured JB. This was the second part of his sponsorship as a competing athlete. I couldn’t afford to pay his insurance myself. A wonderful woman pledged her support to my riding, offering to cover expenses for equipment and anything pertaining to my competitive riding kit. This wasn’t nothing by any means, but I asked if she would consider covering the cost of his health and mortality insurance instead. She said yes.
In October of 2010, I was left shellshocked, with a huge hole in my heart, and in my barn, holding the most money I ever had in the palm of my hand. Not having any idea what to do with it, I sought advice from the father of a friend. He asked me how much I had. Throwing his head back, he snorted at the number. With a smirk he said, “Ohhh, that’s not enough money for anyone to handle…not anyone I know anyway. I don’t know what to tell you to do.”
He shrugged his shoulders and turned away, signalling the conversation was over. Shame poured over me. I was so embarrassed. It was the most money I had ever seen in my entire life, a low six-figures, that belonged to me, and I was still a joke, an ignorant fool, not good enough, even then.
Today, I’d still call that a lot of money, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, but by Middleburg standards, it was apparently laughable. Thanks to the advice from a couple of friends, as well as educating myself, compounding is no longer the tail that wags the dog that it was in my business. Now that bitch pulls its own weight in my harness.
It has taken a long time to stop squabbling with the chip on my shoulder. I had to wear myself down to a nub before I could understand weaponising my strength and fighting back weren’t truly resilience. Compassion and acceptance are what lead to critical breakthroughs. I granted it to the horses without a thought, sometimes to other people (albeit judiciously), and now, at times, finally to myself.
Even as I’m writing this, I question why. What is the point? What am I hoping to accomplish? To convey? It’s all water under the bridge after all. But I think it can take a while to reconcile the choppy parts of your past, the painful parts. I hope someone reads this and takes away the fact they are good enough, and they aren’t a failure, because they haven’t amassed the same accomplishments, at the same rate, as their peers. You have to own what you bring to the table, but don’t let your shortcomings destroy your sense of self. If hearing this brings a sigh of relief to just one person, then this post is worth the words recorded.
One more thing.
It’s ten years later, and I’d still trade it all for JB.