DECEMBER 12th LAST SHIP DATE BEFORE CHRISTMAS!

LA SADDLERY ~ Past, Present, and Future..


by Renee Spurge September 05, 2021

LA Saddlery was an accident.  A head on collision to be exact.  It was definitely not something that I had planned, imagined, or even dreamed about.  It wasn’t a childhood fantasy to run my own retail business. Though I did always obsess over my Barbie’s clothing, and had an extensive wardrobe for her to mix and match. And I of course was madly in love with horses. So in hindsight, horses and fashion should have been on my wish list growing up. But mostly I spent my childhood with my head in a book and obsessing over boys.  My real dream was to become a writer, and follow in the footsteps of my idols like Charlotte Bronte, Isabelle Allende, and Jane Austen.  When I got to college my obsession with boys and finding love began to crescendo. All of my childhood trauma began seeping out into my daily life, wreaking havoc on my self-esteem and sanity.  It was a Psych 101 course that derailed my path to becoming a writer, because I felt like I had found my calling in the study of the mind. Particularly my mind. You know delving into all the possible psychological disorders that may have been manifesting over the last decade of my life.

I stayed on that path for some time, with a minor detour into education.  My first real job was working as an assistant teacher in a 6th grade classroom. I was 22, fresh out of college, and the kids were a great sounding board for my newly found adulthood.  I was still more child than adult, but somehow 12 year old’s can make you feel ancient in a way that no other aged child can do.  But they were truly a blast, and I began to see myself and of course all of my budding psychological ailments also budding inside of them. 

I spent a few years at the elementary school level, then I graduated to the sister high school where I became an assistant College Counselor.  This was getting closer to my ultimate goal of becoming an adolescent psychologist. I thought if I could help kids that may be going through some of the crap I went through at their age, that I would at the very least find some peace and meaning and maybe even closure on the issues that plagued my day to day functions. Determined to be “something,”  I spent my days working one on one with high schoolers, while attending graduate school at night.  I was also heavily immersed in my own personal psychotherapy journey, a mandatory element to getting your degree and MFT license.  My days began at 7:30am and sometimes didn’t end till after 11pm.  I was in a relationship with my future ex-husband, who was a god send of emotional support and unconditional love.  But at some point the burn out became real, and I hit a wall. 

I made the decision to take some time off from everything, school, work, therapy, and take a summer to get my head around my future.  Going from over working to no working was not the grand solution I had foreseen, and I fell into a depression. Instead of going out into the world and finding myself again, I didn’t have the energy or will to leave my bed. For a couple of months I wallowed in a sense of nothingness, until one morning I woke up and I felt sick. Sick of my misery, sick of my indifference, basically sick of myself.  I got out of bed, into my car, and drove from our Santa Monica apartment to the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank, where I had spent a big part of my childhood.  An old friend, Patricia Kinnaman who used to own and run the Traditional Equitation School was still there, and had also acquired the tack shop onsite as well, Dominion Saddlery.  I worked for her a decade earlier over the summers when she also owned the local rental stables, and was hoping she would let me pop on a horse. The thought of getting back on a horse was the one thing that still could motivate me out of the dark place I had been indulging. 

She of course would set me up with a horse at the riding school, but more importantly she wanted me to come work for her.  Not with the horses this time, but with the retail customers.  It didn’t really seem like a good fit for me, or even something I would remotely enjoy. But she had a knack for persuasion, and within 10 minutes I found myself agreeing to come back the next weekend to work their big Memorial Day Weekend Sale. 

My dissent into the world of Equestrian retail was slow at first. I worked part-time as a sales associate, making no money, with just a hint of drama between co-workers, customers, and the office staff.  Nothing that was any different from previous jobs I held.  But being close to the horses, that was the clincher.  The horse world is an addictive, hypnotic, magically-fucked up wonderful place.   And I soon found myself knee deep in the retail trenches. I had been upgraded to assistant manager (being an assistant of some kind was starting to become a trend in my career life) and I was also one of the main buyers.

The thing about me is that I don’t ever do anything half ass, even for only $10 an hour, I worked my little heart out.  And I really loved it. I loved helping the customers, I loved dressing the mannequins and merchandizing, I loved doing the buying, I even loved the total no-brainer tasks like hanging and tagging.  I also happened to be extremely good at all of the above.  The other thing about me is that I have to be good at something, really good.  If I can’t master the job in front of me, then I don’t want it.   So I worked my ass off at something that I had mastered, something I loved, and I suddenly I could see my future.

The manager of Dominion and I didn’t hit it off straight from the start.  She was the golden girl of the store, and with my fresh eyes and history with the owner, she may have seen me as a threat to her status.  So our initial dealings were a bit frosty.  However, once I settled in, and she saw that I was there to work and not to take over, we became friends. Best friends in fact.  And this is wear my dreams of owning my own retail store began to take shape. Together we witnessed first hand all the ins and outs of the business, all the mistakes and mishaps, all the possibilities. We had a new vision for the industry, for the shop, and we fantasized about it becoming our own.

As fortune would have it, the owner was starting to get burnt out, and vacillated selling it to my family for a few years.  Looking back now, with 14 years under my belt as a small business owner, I completely understand her dilemma. It’s hard to let go of something you worked so hard to build, even though everyday it sucks more joy, more energy, more tolerance out of you, until you feel completely void of goodwill.  And then all of a sudden there was a deal on the table and once the deal was put into motion, a few weeks later, we were being handed the keys, and the lease, and we were all of a sudden business owners. 

Two woman just over the age of 30, with limited experience running a retail store, suddenly found ourselves with a 3,000 square foot space, with limited inventory, a shanty staff, and a few months shy of a recession.  Dominion Saddlery also came with some baggage, and a long list of customers who had been soured by its business practices.  We knew we had to change the name, change the inventory, change the policies, change the layout, basically change everything. And we had about 48 hours till we had to open for one of the first big shows of the season at the LAEC.   But we had been given a gift by my parents, and I was not going to let them down.  We would make this the most successful Equestrian store on the West Coast!

But no joke, the first couple of years were rough.  Working 7 days a week, I took over all the bookkeeping and HR responsibilities, teaching myself Quickbooks, doing payroll, filing proper taxes, learning the ins and outs of California labor laws. This was in addition to doing 50% off all the buying, and the rest of the time on the sales floor, every day training staff, helping customers, cleaning. Oh the cleaning!  Not to mention dealing with the customers who had claims for used saddles and store credits that were the liabilities left over from Dominion, which subsequently were not part of our deal.  But it’s hard to explain that to a customer who left a dressage saddle at a store and wants it back, just to find out it’s gone, and the person standing in front of them has no idea what happened to it!   

It also didn’t help that we were treated like little girls.  The management at the LAEC, the show managers, the owner of the companies we were buying from, mostly men, and mostly pricks.  They all were counting the minutes till we failed, closed up shop and went off to try and find ourselves a rich husband. Because we were cute after all, and isn’t that what cute little women do, become cute little housewives?  You would have thought 2008, how is this still happening to women in business? But it was, and still is in fact.  But at least for me, all that doubt, all that underestimating, all that condensation, made me tougher, made me want to fight and show them what this cute little woman was fully capable of.

And believe me we made waves. We were one of the first stores to give the finger to Tailored Sportsman.  After years of being subjugated to her bully tactics and general nasty demeanor, we finally said no. There were plenty of up and coming brands that were far superior to Tailored Sportsman in both quality and design.  I can’t tell you how many reps came into our store with the same plain Jane navy and tan, bland clothing lines that we had seen a hundred times. And the looks on their faces when I said no thanks, like how could I possibility not want the top selling items in the Dover catalog. They soon realized that telling me something was a hot item on Dover was a one way ticket out of the store, don’t come back, we don’t want that shit, reaction. 

We simply didn’t want the same tired old looks people had been pushing for years. We were now LA Saddlery, and Los Angeles is synonymous with new, flashy, fashion forward, fun, and fabulous!  And that’s what we wanted to sell.  We were in search of the unknown.  Our main objective was to shake up the Equestrian fashion world. So when I saw the over-the-top, in your face ad campaign by Animo, I was completely sold.  This was the brand that we needed to make a statement about who we were, and the boundaries we were willing to push to be seen. 

    I remember our first meeting with Animo. It was in some dive Hollywood hotel in an empty banquet room. The catalog of options was massive, and we were like two giddy girls in a candy store.  The bright colors, the bling, the bold designs, it was everything we had been looking for LA Saddlery.  As we began putting together our order, it was heavy in the over-the-top blingy breeches, and the main Italian rep kept trying to reel me in, literally pulling the fabulously funky breeches out of my hands and telling me to go deep in their standard plain breech line.

    BORING!!! Even the most fantastic brand we had found in some time wanted us to go ordinary. He was extremely pushy, almost agitated that we wanted to get the fancy stuff, which mind you was extremely expensive. This was a win-win for everyone. But he was afraid we would crash and burn if the only things we had to represent his brand was from the dramatic collection.  For a moment I thought he wasn’t going to let us buy it if we didn’t cave into his will.  But I stood my ground and explained, this was the hook and bait. This was the masterpiece that drew the eyes in, and once you got them hooked, then you could throw in, “Of course, you can also get the innocuous tan breeches for the equitation arena”. Luckily this time I won the argument and we walked away, established as one of the first main retailers of Animo. 

    Spoiler alert, my call on the blingy breeches worked. Those were the first to sell, even with a price tag of over $600!  Animo would become the first of many new brands that LA Saddlery would take a risk on, blow up in our area, and help push the Equestrian fashion industry to modern times.  With each new brand we would be all in, pushing our budget and our credit cards to their limits in order to carry a wide range of each collection. Constantly bringing in fresh inventory to keep our customers engaged and excited, we also searched out brands that would allow us to make our own custom collections. Custom show shirts, custom hunt coats, custom belts. We had started branding LA Saddlery before we even knew what branding could be.

    This sounds like the Cinderella, underdog, girl power, kind of story right?  Well for sure there were aspects of that, though usually the evil step-sister, wicked witch, or other maniacal character tended to disrupt all hopes for a happy ending. This blog could easily become a tell-all of all the people who have screwed me over in this industry. Including aforementioned best friend and business partner.  But it’s hard mixing friendship and business. I learned the harder lesson later about mixing family and business.  But again, another book’s worth of material there. In all honesty the information I have to tell could tarnish reputations, destroy brands, and even end a marriage. Yes, I have the texts, emails, and voice messages saved away just in case I need them!  But let’s just leave it at, if we used to have a brand that we pushed hard for, and it’s not currently in my store, they seriously screwed us over and then some. 

    After my break up with my friend/partner, I went out on a crusade to being bigger than ever. I knew I could do it on my own, and in fact I was going to do it even better now that I could make all of the decisions.  After dabbling in the mobile world for a few years, I felt it was time to go all in.  It was during the Memorial Day Classic show in 2012 that it really hit me.  That show had always been one of our biggest money makers of the year.  The LAEC was usually packed with participants, and we always had our largest annual sale that week.  I remember doing the usual massive preparations to get ready for it. Pulling old inventory for our big side-walk sale. Getting deals on over-stock from companies, or buying full sample collections from our top brands to have super deals for our customers to enjoy.  Having extra staff on hand for the crowds of customers that would come tearing through the sale racks. 

    And then the first day of the show….crickets.  The store was full of merchandize and employees but no customers. Nothing. No one was there.  It was as if there had been a zombie apocalypse at the LAEC and I had been buried in hang tags and price guns and completely missed the memo.  And then all at once the state of the Los Angeles Equestrian Center began to take form in my mind.  It was coming undone, and had been for some time. I was just too busy to notice.

    But I was determined this would be the year I made LA Saddlery into a multi-million dollar company.   After all I wasn’t afraid to spend money, and the adage is true, to make big money you have to spend big money.  So I built us a fabulous new mobile unit, and decided to double the amount of shows we had attended the previous year with our start up trailer and tents. If I was going to be taken seriously on the road I needed a serious trailer. 

    Even though I had a taste of the cut throat attitude the already established mobile only stores were going to throw at me, I thought, what the hell, I can hang with those assholes.  Thermal 2013 was my initiation into the real “real world road rules” reality show that would become my life for the next 8 years.  Being on the road was the equivalent to being in the back seat of a car on a long winding road to nowhere.  Your stomach in a constant state of anxiety or excitement, the ups and downs are continuous but unpredictable, because your vision is limited in the back seat, and you are never in control of your speed or your destination. 

    I was bullied, heckled, yelled at, insulted, manipulated, and taken advantage of by other stores, by horse show staff, by my companies, and sometimes even by my customers. But I kept pushing, I kept upping my ante.  I did over 20 weeks of shows on the road in 2013, and still managed the store, which meant all the buying, all the bookkeeping, all the managing, and still yes sometimes all the cleaning.  No one ever wanted to do the damn cleaning! And my hard work paid off, as 2013 became our highest sales grossing year since we opened 5 years prior. I finally had my multi-million dollar business. I also had a failing marriage, an unruly staff, no social life, and probably the beginning of an ulcer.

    But there was no stopping now.  LA Saddlery went on to absorb another mobile store.  We tried every angle to make the store at the LAEC profitable once again. However the reality of the situation was I couldn’t be in two place at once, and the business at the horse shows was just too good to ignore. Something had to give, and so I decided to close the brick and mortar at the end of 2016, just in time for the biggest Equine Herpes outbreak to hit our area. People literally didn’t want to come to the shop out of fear, and our clearance sales suffered, leaving me with a ton of inventory and a growing line of credit debt.  With 3 trailers and a shanty website, I had my work cut out for me. But the shackles of the store had been removed, and I felt liberated.

    Somewhere in the mix was a budding distribution company I had gotten my parents involved in. Again paving the way for brands that would not be as poplar or even known today without the commitment we made to them. This story does not really have a happy ending either, and nearly led me estranged from parents.  But luckily we came out on the other side of the fiasco, and I learned more about myself than any other endeavor I had undertaken.  Most importantly, and rather harshly,  I learned from this business that loyalty is fleeting, if you are willing to give of yourself there is always someone ready to take advantage, and that the saying “it’s not personal it’s business,” is the excuse over used by greedy businesses to legitimize their lying and cheating. My beliefs always seemed contradictory. I believe a small business should always be personal. It should always be giving back to its customers and its community. And if it does its best, then the brands and customers it works with should be loyal to them. Maybe I am just naïve. Clearly, as I have been dumped on by almost every brand that I have helped build over the last 14 years.  

    All of this is why these past couple of years I have focused more on my own brand, Bad Horse Los Angeles, and Iago Italia, the brand I happened upon in Italy when I was looking to replace Animo. Designing my own line, as well as collaborating with Italy on new styles and collections for the US Market, has kept me in the game.  These brands have helped me get back in touch with my creative side, my saucy side, and rekindled the entrepreneurial spirit I once had for LA Saddlery. After 18 years in this business, 14 of which has been LA Saddlery, I have been knocked down a thousand and one times. But I never quit.  I always gave 110% percent of myself.  And I believe I did make my mark on this industry.  LA Saddlery is an Internationally known store and brand, and there are a lot of people who know me, whether they like me or not is another question.  But they know what I have accomplished and what I stand for.  And I am proud of myself.

    But now it’s time for me to evolve.  The last few years, despite closing the store, despite Covid, despite the fires and mayhem always going on in California,  LA Saddlery has been more successful than ever. I have zero debt or liabilities. I have a wide collection of inventory that is solely unique and exclusive to LA Saddlery. I have a vast customer base that spans all over the US and Canada, and now Australia.  My website is booming.  The only thing I am lacking is the joy of doing it.  And the nagging boredom of my ever active brain. I need more challenges, I need to work with more like-minded and creative people, I need to write more, to ride more, to live more.  I need to engage in more meaningful activities and have more meaningful conversations. 

    So what is to come of LA Saddlery then?  Well that is a question I have been pondering for some time. How do you walk away from a successful business? Can I just close up shop and let LA Saddlery fade away?  I am not sure I could ever do that.  After all LA Saddlery gave me a life for the last 14 years. It gave me the dog of my lifetime. It gave me my current love and life partner. It gave me hundreds of new friendships, adventures, stories, laughter, and countless travel opportunities. 

    I have already been planning to put a permanent location at the Desert International Horse Park. Perhaps I will just do that show, and a few in-between, selling the brands I continue to love and work well with, letting the rest of the bad apples go. Focusing on my own designs. But I would also love to find someone, another family, another entrepreneur, that I could eventually pass on the LA Saddlery torch. To train them, to guide them, to keep the LA Saddlery brand alive and for them to put their own stamp on the industry.

    I guess I have many things to ponder over the next 7 months before the end of the Thermal circuit 2022…




    Renee Spurge
    Renee Spurge

    Author



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