Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Coming to the End of the Trail -- my article

There are probably a few edits that were made before this made it to print, but this is the final text of the article submitted to the Sonoma County Horse Journal magazine and published in their Winter issue Just wanted to share it in a way that did not require scrolling through a PDF.

Hope you all enjoy, or at least think it is worth reading. As always, comments are welcome!

Coming to the End of the Trail

Retail business going from brick and mortar to online-only, or shutting their doors completely. Rising feed and board costs. The sad increase of abandoned and surrendered horses from owners at their financial limit. It’s all evidence of the toll the economy has taken on the horse community. Existing rail riding facilities are among the horse businesses struggling to stay afloat, and the opportunities for new facilities are few.

"If you are coming into this business fresh, having to pay for a facility, insurance, gear--all on top of normal overhead--you won't be able to cover your costs," says Jonathan Ayers, owner and operator of the Armstrong Woods Pack Station in Armstrong Woods State Park. He and his wife Laura have been leading trail rides through the Redwoods for 30 years. They have been getting through the latest downturn by cutting costs and continuing to do all the work—including shoeing the horses—themselves.

Even with low overhead, some businesses are looking at rising insurance costs and refocusing, welcoming people to come and stay—but bring their own horses. “What this could turn into is only rich people being able to experience horses,” says Ike Bunney, owner of Slide Mountain Ranch in Tuolumne City. Ike and Cheri have run a guest ranch for nearly 25 years, inviting people from all over the world to experience adventures on well trained cutting and trail horses. They decided this year to cut out lessons or trail rides on their horses when their insurance went up again, and are retooling their business to be a place for horse owners to vacation, trail ride, and learn to cut.

“We had a good thing with teaching cutting and running the trail rides on our horses, but the bring-your-own-horse focus seems like a good option for us for right now,” says Cheri. It will allow them to work with their newest batch of cutters and tend their two granddaughters as well, but non-horse owners have one less choice for grand horse adventures.

It comes down to costs and volume.

When Jonathan Ayers started, he charged $12 a ride and ran four trips a day. He says his horses told him that was a little much so he raised his prices and dropped the frequency until he got to where he is now, running two rides a day (10:30 a.m. – 1 p.m., and 2 – 4 p.m.) at $80 per rider. He’s making the same amount he always has, and it allows him to keep a smaller string of horses and manage his costs better. The Bunneys calculated the actual number of rides they’d have to do just to cover the insurance costs and decided the overhead was too much for now, especially with everything else on their plates. And many people thought $100 for a 2 hour trail ride was too high.

Horse owners understand is that even $80-100 per ride barely covers the monthly cost of keeping that horse trained, sheltered, and healthy, but that still puts the activity out of the budget for many folks right now. Non-horse people don't see how much it takes to run a successful trail riding business—suitable horse property, stock, tack, equipment, and insurance. Plus the time and staff to care for it all. Add a mortgage and taxes for said property and the costs spiral quickly.

Some costs, like a mortgage, stay fairly fixed, but insurance costs have increased as the carriers react to the soaring costs of litigation. A new business can get insurance, but, “If you don’t have a track record, it is exponentially more difficult to get coverage,” says Tom Sawyer, an insurance broker in Sebastopol. Existing businesses have the track record, but still get hit with increases. Slide’s insurance more than doubled this year, despite never having an accident. According to Sawyer, when the number of businesses within a specific risk “pool” shrinks, costs go up for those remaining to keep minimum reserves in place—required of the insurance companies by law. Sometimes, that's the straw that forces a change.

What is the big deal? What are we losing?

Like many, my first experiences with horses were pony rides and simple trail rides—sitting on a sturdy trail horse, taking in the sights and smells around me. Trail rides are a great way for non-horse owners to experience horses and enjoy the great outdoors without the daily commitment ownership requires. My family has taken rides over granite-pocked trails in the Sierras and pineapple-studded fields in Hawaii. We might have even stayed non-horse owners without Slide Mountain Ranch. Their well-trained and responsive horses offered a refreshing change from earlier trail riding excursions. Once we dove deep into horse-ownership, trail riding on vacation seemed silly, so until we went to Armstrong Woods to meet the Ayers, we hadn't been out on other horses.

That brought home what will be missing without these businesses.

The ride with Jonathan was completely different than one we would have taken on our own horses—more on the leisurely side. “I like to see what I’m riding past,” said Ayers. For the horse owner, it was an unexpected treat. For the experimental rider, it could open doors to a new journey—or a new perspective.

Losing businesses like these and not having replacements will change the horse landscape. All bias on the table? That's a real shame.


Grey Horse Matters said...

Congratulations on being published! This is a great article on a timely subject for all of us. I'm hoping the economy will turn around soon.

Buckskins Rule said...

Very well written, Jessica. And, sadly, very true. A few years back, Ken McNabb told me the statistic was that only 8% of folks in the horse world make a living from it. The rest of us foot the bill. The cost of horse ownership amazes me at times. And shows no sign of improvement.

I known far too many people who "got into horses" with absolutely no idea what they were getting into, and then utterly failed to educate themselves. They end up with crappy horses, no ability to ride, and then decide that "it's not for them". I generally don't care about the people, but I feel for the horses.