One of the reasons I liked Laura so much is how frank she was about the ephemeral nature of success in the eventing world. I liked that and found strength in her willingness to be open about struggles as well as successes. She learned from what has worked for her and what hasn’t, and she is brave enough to share those lessons with us. It feels like she’s offering a shortcut! Here she passes on tips to running a successful equine business and talks about looking up to Phillip Dutton and feeling grateful for Buck Davidson. I hope I get the chance to sit down with her again in the future. I found her inspiring, encouraging, and tremendously helpful in the business arena. I hope you do too.
Q. How did you become such a successful eventer?
A. I don’t know if I’m as successful eventer! I have successfully completely supported myself. I do this 100% as my living. I’ve lived off of it and made a living from it for the last ten or twelve years. And the eventing is what I choose to do. It’s more the business of having the horses and the training programs for the owners and competing the horses. My parents are 100% supportive of everything I do but they’re not financially wealthy. Everything I’ve done I’ve had to figure out how to run as a business.
I have a business background from Cornell. You see teens trying to decide whether to go to college. College gave me the confidence to do this. It wasn’t my only option but I certainly use that education on a daily basis. It’s less about riding the horses than about running the business. Contacting the owners, keeping the customers happy, and in the end the expenses have to be less than the income! All the accounting and billing and budgeting. I do think that in the end you have to be able to ride. If you’re going to make a living at it you’ve got to be able to produce a product. That’s one thing I can do: take these young horses and produce a good product. Whether they go back to owners or get sold.
But I’ve never ridden at [Rolex]Kentucky. I ride Advanced but have never had all huge advanced horses. But I have made a lot of intermediate horses that I’ve sold and gone on. I take them and train them and then they go home to their owners. If the owners are successful with horses it feels a little bit like you give back.
It’s about getting good people to work and help you. And you need someone who’s going to do the billing. It’s time management. Phillip [Dutton] is organized with his time. His time riding or teaching is very focused. What things actually happening in the barn that are actually brining in money? If you’re teaching, riding, and doing horses: What things are actually bringing in income versus what’s part of just the daily management expenses? I spend a couple hours every morning doing billing and invoicing and keeping track of expenses. I also want to put a plug in for everybody returning phone calls; that’s a big thing. I don’t carry my cell phone all the time how can you ride when you’re answering the phone? Now you’ve been on that horse for an hour and a half and haven’t gotten done what you wanted to get done. Don’t answer the phone every time it rings but try to answer calls by end of the day. It’s customer service. If you’re going to call and you get a voice mail it’s like calling the bank and getting the answering system. You want to talk to a person. Other people are waiting to get their stuff done and they’re waiting for you and they’re getting frustrated. I know you can get away with it but in the long run it drains your business. I promise no matter how much business you think you have, you’ll lose business.
The website stays current but I can do a lot of expansion without it having to get redone. There’s anther thing: the whole pr and advertising and having someone do Facebook. A lot of people are figuring it out. You probably used to be able to just ride horses but now you have to have a website and Facebook and all because they want to follow it all. If they’re not following you they’re going to follow someone else. That’s a whole time consuming thing there too. You could spend a lot of time doing things that don’t really gain you anything. Where can you discuss this stuff? What are common salaries? How much do you pay someone to muck stalls? What a market trends? Advertising? Other businesses have that all the time. But as a professional in this sport it’s hit or miss. There’s nothing business-wise to point me in the right direction.
photo by Xpress Foto
Q. What is needed to run an equestrian business effectively?
A. A good accounting program on your computer. Expense sheets for all the horses. I do see more of some people starting to do pr stuff. That’s fantastic. Are some people willing to do billing? Somebody that can hone it specifically to eventing: there would probably have big market for that. I have a person who helps me with the books and billing and then an accountant who does taxes. I don’t know what other people do. That’s the thing. If you were in a another business there would be software for that business. There’s not ton of it out there for the horse business.
Q. I know you’ve worked with a lot of big names in the equestrian world. Some of the eventers you work with now include Phillip Dutton and Buck Davidson. Tell me about what they’re like.
A. I worked with Phillip for a long time and he was much more of a mentor to me than he even realizes. Most of it is his focus. He’s incredibly focused on what he wants to do. If he says he’s going to get something done he makes it happen. I rode with him for a while and then started riding with Buck. At the time it was a big switch. I had been riding with Phillip and was struggling with my confidence. At this level it’s very hard to consider yourself successful. You forget that all you were trying to do was an advanced horse trials because now you’re trying to qualify for a three or four star and by the time you get to that point you’ve already set new goals. It’s hard to realize what success you’ve actually achieved. There’s not a lot of measures of success, and the ones that exist are so fleeting. They, in general, don’t change your life. It’s more the course of the journey. It’s the daily stuff that has to make you successful. When it comes it’s so fleeting because it’s not like to the rest world it even happened. I remember when I rode a horse and he was a tough, tough horse with tons of ups and downs. At Plantation we won the Advanced division. We had a good test, clear showjumping, and clear cross-country. The owner had left and no one was left on grounds. I went to pick up the ribbon and nobody is there and nobody cares! That’s it, too. So what? It wasn’t even that big deal.
When you’re riding against such fantastic riders it’s hard to determine success on a daily basis. You can walk away feeling like a failure. I was having a hard time. That’s something Buck helped me with. He gave me a lot of confidence. In the end you’re only as good as the horse you’re sitting on no matter how good a rider you are. I was just talking with Sinead [Halpin]: you can have all this stuff right but if you’re going to spend your time focusing figure out how and where to get the horses. That’s being spoken by someone who wished I could have realized that twenty years ago. Buck’s helped with that. He’s a fantastic teacher, very positive, very high energy, and motivating.
I hope you’ ve enjoyed hearing from Laura VanderVliet. I was there when I interviewed her and I’m still hanging on every word! Don’t hesitate to check her beautiful website for more information, pictures, and ways to be involved with her team at www.lauravandervlieteventing.com.