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  • Writer's pictureGinny Telego

What Patagonia and TOMS Shoes Can Teach Us About Our Equine Assisted Business

“Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Patagonia Mission Statement

In the eight years that I’ve had my equine assisted learning business, I have been challenged with the same thing that most others in this field have struggled with—how do I make this a sustainable enterprise while still fulfilling my purpose and helping people?  It finally dawned on me that I was following a model that doesn’t create a sustainable business and I needed to look for a different model.

That’s when I had an epiphany about Patagonia and TOMS Shoes.  If you are not familiar with the business models that both Patagonia and TOMS have, I encourage you to look at their websites for more details.  The gist of it is this:  Both companies have a mission to make peoples’ lives better through the products they sell.  What they don’t do is give their products away.  Both companies make and sell high quality products that last and because of that, people are loyal to them and are willing to pay a higher price for their products.  Keeping their mission of making a difference in the world, both companies dedicate a portion of their profits to various causes around the world.

So the business model is:

  1. Provide a high quality product

  2. Sell it for a fair price that creates profit

  3. Direct a portion of profits to support causes that help people have better lives

  4. Create loyal customers who continue to purchase their product and thus continue making a difference in the world

Many practitioners in the equine assisted field have been conditioned to think that because we have a service that can help people heal/live healthier lives/create better organizations, we should not charge for it – it’s the reason so many equine assisted programs think they have to set up as non-profit organizations. We think that by giving away our services we are being compassionate.  But at some point, we realize that the hay guy still wants paid, the feed store expects us to pay for our feed, sawdust cost money and the vet might stop coming if we don’t pay the bill.  None of them are giving us what we need for free so why do we feel like we need to provide our services for free?  I’m not saying we should charge thousands of dollars for kids to come and experience our programs – but to think that ALL of our programs should be free or low cost only hurts the field over all because then everyone expects that they should benefit from our programs without having to invest in them. Giving away your program decreases the value that others see in it.

In the equine assisted field, there are practitioners who have “outside” financial means to support their operating expenses (like their mortgage, groceries, utilities, etc…. in addition to costs associated with owning a horse farm) and for them, providing the equine assisted services is altruistic and THAT IS AWESOME. But there are many other well-qualified equine assisted practitioners who don’t have outside financial means to support their operating expenses and they are just as passionate about helping people.  The problem is that if the programs that don’t need or want to make money set the price structure for everyone else at a level that is not able to support the financial needs of our businesses, then eventually one of the following happens:

  1. The practitioner (usually the farm owner) has to engage in outside employment to pay their bills thus reducing the time they can provide equine assisted services and exhausting them physically and emotionally;

  2. The program struggles because the practitioner doesn’t have the time, resources or knowledge to market their services;

  3. The program closes down due to personal and financial burn-out.

In training and coaching people to facilitate equine assisted work, I hear practitioners say “Money isn’t important, I just want to help people.” There’s nothing wrong with that altruistic thinking, but in all of the above scenarios, when practitioners burn out and programs cease to exist, no one wins. And where is the purpose in that? If our purpose driven goals are to make the world a better place through providing people with the opportunity to experience the amazing results that come from interacting with our horses, we MUST as a field find a way to make it sustainable financially.  We need to charge fair fees for our services and if we want to provide free/low-cost services to some clients, then a portion of revenue could be set aside to cover the cost of providing services to those who are not able to pay.  It seems to be working for Patagonia and TOMS – why not the field of equine assisted services?

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