This article was originally published in May 2009. It has now been dusted off and re-published as part of November 2011's "You Look Familiar" Series. Enjoy!
I had the pleasure of interviewing Barb Timmer, the owner of New Song Stables in Lynden, Washington. After more than 15 years of years of owning and managing a marina, and completing law school, Barb turned her attention to horses. Though having no previous experience in the horse industry, Barb turned New Song Stables into the premiere boarding facility in the county. Today, she offers her story, as well as advice for anyone looking to enter into the equine industry, whether it be in owning a horse, or owning a whole equestrian facility.
So Barb, why did you buy the stable in the first place?
My daughter is a horse lover and a horse rider. When my daughter was younger we often talked about when she grew up. We talked about her having a horse farm and I could have a little place in one 'corner' and she could ride horses and I would watch her children, my grandchildren. We also talked about having a farm where all the animals were miniatures. Neither of those are quite exactly what happened, but there is a horse farm and I do play with my grandchildren here! My daughter lived in Michigan for six years before she moved back to Washington. One summer when she was visiting in Washington she told me about a neighbour of hers who raised Andalusians. She said that every year they had a foal and when that foal hit the ground it was worth $40,000! “Wow!” I said, “Now that's a great retirement program!” Of course, then she explained that a breeding program like that wasn't quite so easy to put together. The next day we were driving on Birch Bay - Lynden Road on our way into Lynden. We saw a “For Sale” sign on a barn next to the road and she casually said " Buy me that farm and I'll put together a horse breeding program for you." And that started me thinking about the possibility of actually buying the stable.
When you were looking at a barn what made New Song, then Solid Oak, stand out?
Well, I wasn't really looking for a barn. I saw this place for sale, and that made me think about buying a barn. I live at Birch Bay and my Mother lives in Lynden, and this place is halfway in between, right on the way. So the location was great. It was in pretty good condition, the main barn and attached arena were less than five years old, and the small barn, closer to the turnout paddocks, was built pretty good. Twenty-five years earlier, I and my husband had purchased an old Marina outside Olympia. It was a place that needed a lot of work just to keep it from falling apart and sliding into the bay, and I knew I didn't want a place like that again. So I liked the fact that it was in pretty good shape. If either of those things were not there, I wouldn't have looked at it twice. The owner's daughter was willing to work for me for a year and, since I didn't know anything about managing a horse stable, that supported the possibility of buying it. Once I was thinking seriously about buying the place, my sister and I toured several other horse stables in Whatcom County to get a feel of the industry in the area, and what the issues were with having a horse stables here. We heard nothing that was discouraging enough to I change my mind. So I made an offer, and here we are!
Did you have a philosophy that guided your business decisions?
I had had previous business experience. For 17 years I had owned and managed a small marina in Thurston County, just outside of Olympia. There are many similarities between owning a marina and a horse stable. I knew I had to make a profit. I knew what location to board a horse at was choice that people made, and I had to present an attractive interesting place for them to continue to choose to stay at my place. I wanted a place that fit in well with the neighborhood, and was appealing to visit and to live next to. I think the mission statement for the Stables describes my thoughts/philosophy well: “a place for fun and education”. Our first priority must be safety. I talked with a lot of people to find out what 'horse people' want and I try to provide those things within reason and in a way that still keeps this business profitable. I want to be a good community participant. I find people interesting and I want to make it an interesting place for them to be. I do think it's interesting that all of our horses are owned by women and this is really a 'women's barn'. It has been good to see strong, independent women here. This is an aspect of the business that I like very much. Although, I don't have any objection to men coming here as boarders or as helpers to their friends or wives! Another aspect was that everyone told me that word-of-mouth is strong in the horse business. So I knew we had to operate in a positive way so the word-of-mouth would be positive.
What do you find are the biggest problems in running a barn?
Problems at the barn: rising costs of hay, grain, help. What to do with all the horse manure. Keeping the barn full so it does pay its way...taxes.
How did you go about finding good people to staff the barn?
Partly by trial and error, which I don't recommend! The previous owner's daughter worked for me for a year. When that didn't work out, I hired someone who had worked part-time for me. She liked the power that being a boss gave her, but she abused that position. When Susan Adrian was boarding her horse here, and doing training here, we had talked about what could be done differently. By that time I had owned the stables for more than a year, and she fit the bill when I needed someone else to be manager. I still didn't think I knew what was needed to run the place all by myself. Watching her, I have seen how much more there is to having a successful barn, than just buying hay and paying the bills. I'm glad to have Susan - she's been good for New Song Stables. All the help that we have now is good. I let Susan hire the other people we have working here.
Why did you rename the barn New Song Stables?
I didn't want to use the name that the previous owner had used because I wanted it clear that there was a new owner. Also, if I had kept 'Solid Oak' as a name, I would have wanted to plant some Oak trees around the place! But Oak leaves are poisonous for horses, so I couldn't do that. I chose New Song after a lot of thought. It symbolizes to me a new beginning. I feel our lives are songs, and this is a new song for me. It's something I had never done before and I wanted the operation to be as strong and powerful, as rhythmical and graceful, as many songs can be.