Sunday, May 26, 2013

Guest Post from Author Julian Ross

                                                by Laura Crum

            We here at Equestrian Ink are always excited when one of our regular readers/commenters comes out with a book of his/her own, and today I have a fascinating post from Julian Ross about his Riding Holiday Centre Manual. Julian writes the equally fascinating blog, White Horse Pilgrim (listed on the sidebar), which I have been reading for several years now. I have always loved this blog, as Julian writes of his (to me) exotic and romantic life running a holiday riding center in Translyvania and his current (equally romantic—to me) life riding his mare, Brena, through the chalk hills of England. Whether he is describing the Carpathian Mountains that Bram Stoker made famous in Dracula, or the ground that Tolkien traversed and used as the inspiration for his novels (think Tom Bombadil’s barrow downs), Julian’s always lyrical descriptions and lovely photographs make me feel that I am right there with him.
            But Julian has a practical side as well, as anyone who has guided rides for a living must have. So his knowledge of tack and gear and saddle fit and hoof care and horse training…etc is deep and extensive. His Riding Holiday Centre Manual is aimed at helping others who want to start a holiday riding center to benefit from his experience, as his post will tell.
            I really enjoy Julian’s writing, and I think you will, too. To give you an idea what a colorful life he has led, here are a few photos from his time in Transylvania.

            And a shot of him in England on his current mount, Brena.

            Here is Julian’s story of how he came to write the Riding Holiday Centre Manual.

The Riding Holiday Centre Manual
On a summer morning fourteen years ago I arrived in Transylvania with insufficient money, an unsuitable horse and a rebellious wife. I was there to start a riding holiday centre. Why not? People around me may not have understood what drove me. My family certainly didn’t. However I enjoyed riding, I loved the outdoors and I needed a spot of adventure. I was moving to a lovely scenic area where there were lots of horses. One of the major equestrian holiday agents had expressed an interest. What could go wrong?

Actually many things could go wrong, and a number did. I knew how to ride – tolerably well at least - however I had never run a business before. I chose a scenic mountain location only to realise too late just how inaccessible it really was for international travellers. I was hostage to a nation where civil society was in its infancy. Beautiful as the Romanian countryside is, the country enjoyed a dreadful reputation abroad thanks to all those orphanages. And I thought that I’d stay healthy forever.

It wasn't entirely my fault that I knew so little. I didn’t know much about politics or history, and I didn’t know much about romantic attachments either. I'd worked in an office, never at an equestrian facility, so I'd done well to pick up as much as I did about horses. Besides, other than the old cavalry manuals, there wasn't a single book that set out how to take horses 'out on campaign'. 
Over time I learned a great many lessons, some of them thanks to mistakes. Before it was too late I realised the vital need to focus on customers rather than simply the logistics of running each trail. I adjusted the trails to be more interesting both scenically and culturally, and made them bit faster too. My marketing improved, including a website with lovely photos. And I began to understand the financial element of running a business, even if mine always was a bit too 'hand to mouth' for comfort. 
I loved riding those trails. The scenery was fantastic, mountains and forest as far as the eye could see. Clear streams tumbled, and meadows were strewn with wild flowers. In the course of a week-long ride we crossed just one highway. Working horses outnumbered motor vehicles. My neighbours were simple farmers, hospitable and ever willing to share tales over a glass of brandy. Back before extensive mobile phone coverage we really were heading off into ‘dark territory’, out of touch with home and office for days on end. I was a pioneer: a real wilderness guide. Resourcefulness, skill and fortitude were foundations to my trade.

I got divorced too. As someone else in the tourist business bluntly put it, I could never prosper with a partner whose attitude was so very negative. Ruthlessly I chose my dream over a woman temperamentally incapable of understanding me. My business continued another four years, during which time I made some memorable rides, made some great friends, and met the woman who is now my wife. 
The decision to end a venture is always difficult. Eight years of riding professionally left me with a worn, painful lower back. There was no chiropractor accessible out there, indeed no treatment for for back pain – just strong medication to temporarily mask the symptoms. And the economy was getting worse in the face of global recession. Costs were rising faster than revenue, taxes were hiked, and oversupply existed in the riding holiday market. I'd made the mistake of helping newcomers to establish riding businesses, a facet of my sometimes naively helpful attitude.

Perhaps I'm still unquestioningly helpful? After leaving the riding holiday market I started to write a textbook setting out how to set up and run a riding holiday centre properly. To help me I recruited as co-author Wendy Hofstee, a veterinarian and owner of an excellent equestrian travel agency called Unicorn Trails. 
It's been said that "those who can't do, teach". That’s an unfair quip. Working in a difficult environment I'd stayed in business for eight years and survived a number of mistakes. More than that - and this is something I'm proud of - some of my original horses were still hard at work eight years later. 
What about the mistakes? Well I bought six nice mares as a group from a stud, only to discover that each one was in foal. At least the foals all grew into good working horses. Our accounts were in disorder for the first four years thanks to my first wife (an accountant by profession!) which led to unpleasantness with the authorities. I didn't engage with local politicians and civic leaders nearly as much as I might - but there again I was learning the Romanian language pretty much from scratch without a teacher. And I hadn’t looked after my health.

I got some things right. My horses remained fit and healthy, and they had well maintained tack that fitted nicely. I loved those horses. I even trained and employed a farrier to keep my horses well shod. We learned a lot about hoof care, and about making shoes last. I became deft at applying borium. We ran some delightfully scenic trails and introduced hundreds of guests from forty nations to a fascinating part of the world. We had an enviable safety record too largely because, coming from an engineering background, I sought to eliminate risk at source.

I compiled The Riding Holiday Centre Handbook to bring together all the information that a manager, actual or prospective, might need. It doesn't replicate, say, a veterinary or farriery manual. But it does assemble the specialist skills of the equine tourism professional. These are varied: businessperson, publicist, guide, barn manager, wrangler and linguist to start with. Reading the book anyone who seeks to follow the path that I trod may do so informed. 
The Riding Holiday Centre Handbook isn’t a mass-market book. It won’t sell sufficient copies to make a tidy profit for a commercial publisher. However the book wasn’t written for financial gain. The aim is to pass on information to aspiring owners of riding holiday centres, and those already in the business too. Therefore it’s a pleasure to make it available as a free resource. You can find out more on the book’s blog: I can supply a PDF copy of The Riding Holiday Centre Handbook - please leave a comment on the blog. It is also possible to buy a paper copy at: 
I hope that The Riding Holiday Centre Handbook inspires and educates. But do remember one piece of advice that isn’t contained in the book: before starting a career as a riding holiday centre owner, or even as a guide, think about what you’ll do when that career comes to an end. I’m fortunate: as a professional engineer I had a rewarding career to return to. Riding professionally is a nice dream. But dreams tend to be finite. 



Francesca Prescott said...

This is a very interesting post. I've never actually thought about how much organisation goes into providing riding holidays, but now that I have my mind is all of a boggle! It was probably totally naive to go about such an undertaking in a foreign country, but the experience has clearly been immensely enriching, not to mention life-changing!

I hope your back problems are better now; lower back pain is so common in riders, as is shoulder pain. I suffer from both, usually alternately, sometimes together.

The photographs are fabulous. I've always wanted to go on a riding holiday but never done so yet, apart from a week at a fabulous ranch in Colorado, but it didn't involve daily riding for hours from one place to another. I'm sure I'll get around to it someday.

Thank you for an interesting insight :)

Laura Crum said...

All my riding holidays on rented horses were at a particular pack station n the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I ended up working for this pack station for one summer and it was a very interesting (if busy) life. I knew the owner quite well and I think he definitely coped with the issues that Julian refers to. Willie (the owner) told me once that he made no money off the horses or the restaurant, just broke even--but a lot of money from the bar and the cabins. Interesting, I thought.

Alison said...

Thank you Julian for a great post on a new and different subject. I hope you will post again with more photos. The majority of us will never get to ride your beautiful Transylvania trails and would to vicariously!

White Horse Pilgrim said...

It was enormously enriching, Francesca. I had to have been, shall we say, a little too unquestioningly optimistic. A rational analysis would have said something like: "stay at home and work in an office". I'm doing that again, but I'm glad to have done something different too.

As for organising riding holidays, it's complicated and hard work. It comes down to a duty of care towards each guest (and the horses too). Usually the outfitter is run off his or her feet. It takes a rare individual to get all the details sorted.

A good chiropractor has done wonders for my back. It took a mixture of manipulation and exercises, and now I need some maintenance every couple of months. My chiropractor treats a number of riders and advises that there are specific muscles that need stretching to counter the deleterious effects of riding.

Do book a riding holiday - you'll love it. I'd recommend calling Unicorn Trails in the UK. Feel free to email me directly for advice.

Laura - your former boss was right, one needs at least one strand of the business that turns in a decent profit. I should have run a bar too!

Alison - you could ride in Transylvania with Count Kalnoky (he's easy to find on Google) who bought a number of my horses. He runs some lovely trails.