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Small Business Success in the Saddle

Small Business Success in the Saddle

Office? Barns, with a laptop on her bed. Workday? 14 hours, every day. Challenges? Constant. But entrepreneur Erika Eckstrom wouldn’t have it any other way. At the age of 5, Eckstrom knew she wanted to spend her life working with horses and wrote her plan to own a stable by 25 in crayon. Today, Painted Bar Stables is the passionate, profitable business that has made her childhood dream a reality.

Eckstrom bought her first horse, Margarita, at 13 and then adopted and rehabilitated rescue horses throughout high school. After completing bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and music and a master’s degree in public communications in Washington, D.C., she returned to the Southern Tier. In 2008, the then 23-year-old Eckstrom purchased Painted Bar Stables, a 22-acre horse property outside Watkins Glen, NY. Her previous education and work experience at the Peace Corps press office and lobbying efforts with Break the Cycle have been invaluable to her business.

“All of the skills I gained along my career path came together with business ownership. When you own a business, you are public relations. Everything I do is a promotion, from doing my own advertising and  website to even a simple conversation while trying to grab a bite to eat,” explains Eckstrom. “Also, my anthropology education turned out to be incredibly important to what I do on the ground, and that I didn’t anticipate. When I take people out riding, I have five or ten minutes to evaluate who they are and decide which horse would be the best match for them. The rider can have a huge influence on the behavior of the horse.”

When Eckstrom first started the business at just 23, she had to build a reputation from the ground up in spite of her age. It was an uphill battle to find suppliers who could work with her reliably. Clients would schedule rides or lessons by email, arrive at the stables and expect someone older: “It took a lot of charisma –something I guess I’m not short on-to convince them that I knew what I was doing and I was the actual owner, not the owner’s daughter. It was a challenge to build credibility in the industry,” says Eckstrom.

Gradually, Eckstrom built a business model to provide a range of programs for individuals to develop horsemanship with trail riding adventures, lessons, seminars, leasing memberships, boarding and even specialized, hands on breeding programs. Eckstrom’s skill with people and horses has grown the business 31 percent over the past three years, with the addition of two full-time employees and a sizable herd of 23 horses. She is implementing an innovative apprenticeship program this summer to allow two college students from across the nation to gain hands-on experience of running a stable. The growth and success of her company earned Eckstrom recognition as the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award this year from the U.S. Small Business Administration Syracuse District Office.

The stable’s picturesque location on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail offers Eckstrom’s trail riders breathtaking views from the saddle. It is also in riding distance to the Finger Lakes National Forest, where Eckstrom uses an outfitter permit to take her clients on longer trails. Today, Painted Bar clientele can enjoy even more trails to ride with Eckstrom’s purchase of 95 acres of land in 2012 using an SBA-backed loan from Corning Federal Credit Union.

“My biggest worry was what if something changed and I wasn’t able to depend on the generosity of my neighbors and the National Forest for their trails. One year I leased a property; it didn’t go well because I couldn’t put in the infrastructure I needed to make it worthwhile. But that experience made me realize I needed to own more land and I was able to buy property that was exactly what I needed. Without a loan it wasn’t possible, and even with the loan it was a stretch,” says Eckstrom.

Eckstrom knew that short term sacrifices were necessary to achieve long term outcomes. Beyond making the business more self-sustainable, the extra benefits of the additional property are trails unused by hunters that she can use during open hunting season in the National Forest and land for hay production. In the future, Eckstrom plans to use the original location for off-season riding, lessons and boarding and moving the trail-riding experience to the larger farm. She even hopes to incorporate an agri-tourism component to link with other Finger Lakes farms and vineyards. Whether she’s corralling horses, managing inventory or repairing a shredded tractor tire, Erika Eckstrom has learned by trial and error and sheer determination how to handle the ride of her life: owning Painted Bar Stables.

“One thing you learn when dealing with horses is defining the win. For instance, the win for a rider going to a horse show may be getting the horse to go over just one jump because the horse wouldn’t jump a single rail at practice. Being able to understand with every risk there are multiple levels of win is key for me in both working with horses and running my business,” explains Eckstrom. “I love that I’m outside and not working at a desk every day. I couldn’t change that for the world and I look forward to doing this the rest of my life.”