Cara Meyer is a lateral thinker and her ability to see outside the square is responsible for the establishment of what is now a highly successful horse-riding business. Begun in 2002 as Cara’s solution to self-employment when she returned to her parents’ farm following tertiary studies, Te Taunga Adventures Ltd/Catlins Horse Riding now boasts a stable of 16 horses. Riders come from around the world to enjoy Cara’s cleverly devised tours which take in a range of environments including farmland, quiet country roads, and some of the most pristine beaches in the country. Every trek is unique for Cara as she negotiates with riders with a range of experiences and expectations.

“There are so many factors you have to read on the day: the level of expertise a rider may or may not have, the weather, the behaviour of the farm animals in the paddocks you’re riding through, and wild animals (such as sea lions) you may meet on the way.”

And then there’s the business side to manage.

“Running a horse riding business is a bit like managing a farm – everything is fickle. The number of days we ride in summer, for instance, is weather dependent. Bookings can’t be taken for granted. This summer we had a website issue and for a while, I wasn’t receiving emails! And you never know from day to day how many people will make a booking. It's definitely not a 9 to 5 job and you certainly need to squirrel away part of your income for a rainy day.”

How much land is needed?
Cara goes for a natural approach where her horses are concerned, preferring to keep them in fields rather than stabled – a situation where she believes their natural instincts are fostered, and their true personalities come to the fore. But a horse riding business, she says, can equally well be run on a small holding.

“Some people keep a lot of horses on a small area of land and stable them, having just a paddock or two to turn them out onto. This is a more intensive way of keeping horses and if you go this way you have to buy in a lot of feed. Whichever way you go, I believe variety is important in a horse’s diet. If I had just 40 hectares and was grazing sheep and cattle on it as well, I’d suggest keeping 3-4 horses. This would still enable you to take 3 clients riding at a time. This is how I started my business – small and personalised.”

Who are the customers?
Cara’s riders include those who’ve never been on a horse to those who are ‘re-discovering’ the saddle or missing their own horse while travelling.

“Some of our riders are people who are thinking about owning a horse themselves and who want to gain a little experience to help them make the decision. We’ll get people who rode as children but who have left horses behind for a period when they’ve gone away to university or on travels or raised a family. They want to regain their confidence around horses and refresh their riding skills, or perhaps just want to check out if they really do want to ride again. Then there are older people who have always wondered if they want to ride but have never had the opportunity, those who are simply seeking out a Catlins activity while on holiday, and tag-along partners (who often end up enjoying the ride more than they expected to!).
We get groups of children coming for birthday parties, businesses on team-building exercises or wanting to shout their staff a recreational activity. We also cater for disabled riders. And we get locals bringing their kids to us during the school holidays.”

Getting to know the riders
One of the most important aspects of being hands-on in a horse riding business is getting to know riders before the trek begins. Cara always requests the basics when a booking comes in.

“I ask for heights, weights, and level of experience, and make a judgement call based on that. However, if a client tells me they’re experienced, I generally also ask what sort of riding they’ve done. If they don't know, that's a clue that they’ve probably only ever been ‘a passenger’. They may have done a lot of trail riding but, in fact, it may not have involved more than sitting on a horse which is following another horse.”

Cara highlights the importance of gaining information about clients first-hand, rather than from a ‘middle-man’ such as a booking agent.

“I once had a case where I’d received details on a client third-hand – and they hadn’t been correct. Had I known the client had only limited experience, I would have put them on a quieter horse. Nothing serious happened but there was an incident that threw me and, for the first time, made me really think about whether I wanted to continue with the business. But, in the end, you have to keep in mind that horse riding is an adventure sport and the unpredictable can always happen.”

Managing mixed levels of experience
Cara is often called on to manage a riding group with mixed levels of experience

“I ride first with the beginners and teach them some basics. They get to learn about the personality of their horse, and if I feel they’re confident, I'll do a little bit of trotting with them. If we're riding through a field I'll take the beginners in a straight line from gate to gate while more experienced riders can canter along the side of the paddock. Having said that, I'll often send the experienced riders one at a time first, to see how they go. Once we’ve all been on the flat (which might include a field, road and beach) we may return to the farm and ride uphill and along the skyline.”

Best practice
Cara’s business is much more than simply riding. In fact, in an ideal world, it would be just one of a rich range of horse- and farm-related educational activities she would like her clients to experience.

“A horse isn't a motorbike. It’s a very sensitive animal with its own feelings and emotions. Ideally, before I take a client riding, I like to build a partnership between them and their horse so that each gets to know the other’s personality. Having a person groom their horse is one way of doing this, and something that many people enjoy. However, I do have to keep in mind that a lot of travellers are on such a tight time frame they simply want to get on their horse, go for the ride, and get off it again. For them, the experience can be more about sightseeing, and being on the back of a horse is simply a good way to do this. At the end of the day, you need to hear this because you’re running a business and you want to please your clients and help them enjoy their time.”

Cara is under no illusions regarding the expense of running a riding business and is pleased she was brought up with a ‘budgeting’ background.

“Horses aren’t like other farm animals when it comes to diet. Rye and clover pasture might be good for fattening sheep and cattle but it's too high in carbohydrates and protein for horses. This means I have to buy in hay (organically grown if possible). I provide the horses with vitamins and minerals, and supplements which help make sure the animals stay calm and healthy. Then there are the dentist’s bills and farrier’s fees (Cara bare-foot trims herself to keep costs down). Saddlery and saddlery maintenance is an ongoing cost, and horses change shape so saddlery may need to be altered or replaced. There are the expenses of internet, electricity, and phone. And advertising is a biggie. When you’re a small business you really have to watch how you spend your promotion budget.”

Cara is also careful about insurance.

“I have comprehensive public liability insurance. Fortunately, I’m owner-operated so our insurance company has kept our premiums down. But that aside, I wouldn't operate without public liability insurance because it gives me peace of mind. Although I haven't had any major crises, I have had to call an ambulance twice over the 14 or 15 years I’ve been taking clients riding.”

How is the business advertised?
Cara advertises in a range of media including online and in local tourist brochures, and Te Taunga Adventures Ltd/Catlins Horse Riding is also featured in Lonely Planet. However, she is adamant that word of mouth is also a valuable way of promoting the business.

“It’s important to spend your advertising budget in the best way. I have a form that clients fill in, and one of the questions on it is, ‘how did you find out about us?’ I ask for a detailed answer (just stating ‘internet’ isn’t much help) so I can figure out where best to buy advertising.

“There’s a lot to this business and I couldn’t have got where I am without the help of so many amazing animals – and human beings! I’ve got a supportive husband, family, friends and community behind me. It’s a challenge but I enjoy what I do.”

Cara’s Tips

  • Have a genuine love of horses and riding. If you don’t have that passion and you’re operating a riding business just for money, your clients will soon pick up on that. It also helps if you enjoy your local environment and have an interest in showing it off to other people.
  • If you are riding off your own land, first gain permission from landholders whose property you are crossing. Enquire from landholders such as the Department of Conservation as to whether concessions will be required.
  • To help your riders enjoy their ride, ask them (before the ride begins), what they hope to get out of the experience.
  • Ideally, aim to sow heritage grasses for feed. These include ‘Timothy’, ‘cocksfoot’, and ‘Yorkshire fog’. These old varieties will make for an even temperament in your horses.
  • If you want to avoid farrier’s fees, learn to trim your own horses' feet.
  • Do your homework before you begin. Ask a range of other people who are already operating similar (or other) businesses (some will be happy to share and some won't). Nothing beats life experience to get you started.
  • Go to workshops on how to run businesses (these are often held by your local council).
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – you can always learn from them.
  • Dream big but always start small. The time to think about growing the business is after you’ve invested the blood, sweat and tears!
  • For more helpful information, go to Calmhealthy

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