Chronicles of a Stable Owner are real-life stories about caring for horses and their people
Written by Dr. Gwen Donohoe, Owner/Manager at Sagehill Stables
Night check nights have me awake until well after midnight. It is my least favourite thing to do - drag myself to the barn at 9:30 or 10pm and do physically demanding work when all I want to do is relax after an already physically demanding work day on top of dealing with client relations. At least I don't do it every night anymore. However, it never fails that after I finish night check, I feel energized and can typically get in another 2 to 3 hours of work (or 2 to 3 hours of Netflix binging...). And here I find myself for the first time in several months being able to bring myself write something.
January is nearly finished and I can feel the days are already starting to get longer. Time is moving slower compared to the fall, which seems to have whizzed by in a blur of exhaustion. Although the days of Covid shut-downs and regulations seem to be mostly behind us, covering for sick staff and the admin of dealing with constant cancellations and re-booking for sick clients and staff took a serious toll both mentally and financially.
It seems like maybe others were also feeling the strain of the hectic fall too, and just like that, we were suddenly in the lowest registration winter session we've had since pre-Covid.
It probably shouldn't have been surprising that the winter session was slow. It wasn't like we had never had slow winter seasons pre-Covid. Not all kids enjoy cold toes and hands while riding, and last winter was such a horrible winter for driving that I'm sure it scared some from committing to the winter session this year. Others used their disposable income for vacations instead of horseback riding lessons with travel restrictions finally lifted.
So just like that we were plunged into a slow season. At first it was a scary feeling, like "what we were going to do?". But then, it was almost relieving. It would allow some breathing room to still operate but allow us time to think, regroup and re-look at our structure, programming and catch-up on much needed tasks. I unfortunately had to lay off some staff and offer reduced hours to others, my second least favourite thing to do. As a result I had to take on doing more chores myself and restructure some of the staff schedule to reduce at least some of our monthly expenses.
Taking on more work in the winter is not ideal for me as I already plan to work at the university over the winter months for a little extra income (although I do it mostly because I enjoy it!). This January was the first time I had been back on campus in over 2 years. The last time I left I had no idea I wouldn't be back to my office for 2 years... Over the past two years my office belongings had been packed up into a box and moved around to various empty offices and spaces, as some staff and grad students were coming in and using the spaces to work and needed to be spread out.
I pulled up on the first day of classes in what was once my grandmothers Buick, flustered because of course I was late after trying to finish chores before I came in. Online learning was looking good at this point... After finding my belongings it really hit me how long it had been. I had text books that I had meant to return to two of my advisors, one of whom had in the meantime retired, a hard drive with data that I had meant to drop off to another advisor over 2 years ago now, and my pink sketchers. I knew the shoes and all these items were there, but at the time it didn't feel like any of these things were of such importance that I needed to bother someone while the university was closed to let me into my office. After two years, and having a baby in that time, the shoes felt a little on the tight side... I ended my first day with a classic U of M parking ticket. Just like old times...
After meeting with staff at the stable and having time to think, I already have ideas on how to restructure programs and new programs to offer at the stable. The past two years my head was so stuck on how to operate within the Covid restrictions and health regulations that it didn't allow for the creative process necessary to keep the business adapting to the real world. Sometimes it is challenges like these that give businesses the opportunities they need to re-evaluate, react to change and adjust accordingly. Luckily this is the one part of business ownership that I have gotten pretty good at. There are many hats I have to wear that still need improvements, but this one I can do, and even enjoy doing it now...
The last thing I will end on is that I have found that I am missing the breaks and peace that Covid shutdowns brought with it. As such, I purposefully shortened our winter session to allow the horses and coaches two extra weeks of breaks over the winter. I felt like this was necessary for both the people and horses. Now I just have to figure out how the business can support these breaks so we can all do our jobs better in the long run... I think that Covid will continue to be on our minds for many years to come still...