Shannon Sullivan knew from childhood that she wanted to compete in equestrian show jumping, operate a commercial stable and professionally train horses and riders. At 19 and forgoing college to the dismay of her parents, she set out to do just that. Now, ten years later, Sullivan, 29, operates a thriving business with a bright future, despite a crippling recession that drove other operators to the brink or worse.
Back in 2003, with no capital reserves, Sullivan leased a large, vacant stable at 23262 S. 88th Ave. in Frankfort. She had two horses, enough hay and feed for six months, no clients and 28 empty stalls. She named her business Downtown Equestrian Center.
Sullivan’s focus in the early years was on filling the stalls and reaching the break-even point. “I had trouble gaining peoples’ trust because of my age and gender. They doubted that someone so young could do a good job of taking care of horses,” she said. “But I’m over that hump. People have seen my business grow and they’ve had the opportunity to observe my professional approach and results.”
Indeed, the operation has grown to 43 horses, the stalls are full and there is a long waiting list to get in, and Sullivan has a busy lesson schedule. She’s not the only one to benefit, of course. Local farriers shod more horses as her business grew; local veterinarians provided more medical care; and local farmers and vendors supplied more hay and feed.
Surviving the recession
There are two sides to Sullivan from a business perspective. On the one hand, she is a compassionate person and passionate about the welfare of the horse, attitudes that have drawn a loyal following of boarders and students.
On the other hand, she is a fierce competitor and a savvy business woman. Sullivan is focused, confident and determined and she is willing to take risks. All of these traits were sorely tested when the economy tanked in 2008.
“The recession had a definite negative impact,” Sullivan said. As financially strapped owners disposed of horses, vacant stalls spread like a rash through horse barns and some closed. “It was obvious that empty stalls would be a way of life for awhile and I realized that I had to work harder and look for new ways to generate revenue,” Sullivan said.
One way to do that is to spend money. Many horse barn operators got nervous and hunkered down, said Sullivan, but she took a risk. “I survived because I invested money out-of-pocket to improve the facilities and people noticed. People like to see change for the good. They liked seeing new jumps and better footing for the horses.”
Sullivan also expanded her marketing to reach new people beyond the traditional horse community. She embraced the Internet and the “new media” by offering Groupon discounts, for example. She introduced pony parties and began hosting a 4H Pony Club.
“Riding is such a great sport for children because it teaches humility and responsibility, qualities that carry over to all aspects of life and parents embrace that,” she said. When parents are ready to lease or purchase a horse as their children’s riding skills improve Sullivan is ready for them.
She is always on the lookout for horses to purchase for lessons, leasing, and sale or for her competitive riding. Matching riders with appropriate horses is one of her favorite aspects of the business.
In fact, her sale horses often accompany Sullivan to show jumping competitions. She gets double exposure for her business because people see her skills as a rider and competitor, which can lead to people wanting to train with her, and they see her sale horses in person rather than on the Internet.
Sullivan also encourages her students to compete and they do so by starting out at local schooling shows. There’s no pressure and students get their feet wet and hone their skills before moving on to rated shows, which adhere to strict rules established by the national and international riding associations.
A Special place
Sullivan created an atmosphere at Downtown Equestrian Center that also attracts and retains advanced riders. “The majority of my clients are in it because they’re motivated by competing; it’s not just a backyard sport. Riding is the very last thing they’ll give up in tough times.”
Annita O’Connor has ridden for 31 years, yet still takes lessons from Sullivan and describes her as a natural leader and a wonderful person. ”She instills the kind of confidence and courage in her riders that helps us do more than we think we can because she knows we can do it. As a business woman, Shannon promotes the kind of culture and atmosphere that anyone would want to be part of,” O’Connor said.
You’ll consistently hear veteran riders praise Sullivan for placing the welfare of the horses ahead of riding and insisting on the same level of respect from anyone who boards or takes lessons with her, regardless of their age.
You will also hear stories about how Sullivan dropped everything to rush a boarder’s sick horse to the veterinary hospital at the University of Illinois in Champaign, a two hour drive, and stay until the situation stabilizes and then refuse to accept money for her gas or time.
There is perhaps no better example of Sullivan’s love and concern for the horse than her efforts to save and rehabilitate abused and neglected animals of which there are thousands. “I can only afford to have one rescue horse at a time, but it’s such a good feeling to help at least one,” she says. Her only criteria are that the horse has potential, that potential buyers provide a good home and that she break even on her costs.
Atlas, a beautiful paint Warmblood mare, was headed to the slaughterhouse in Canada when Sullivan snatched her in the nick of time. Atlas was emaciated and suffering from an upper respiratory infection and she was covered with hives and a rash. She was head-shy and highly distrustful of people, obvious signs of having been beaten. Within months, Atlas put on weight, dropped her guard and began to trust. Sullivan hopes to begin training her this fall.
Polo, a grey Thoroughbred gelding, was 500 pounds underweight when Sullivan acquired him three years ago and he had clearly been abused. Mary Thompson, with 38 years of experience, regularly rides and competes with Polo working in tandem with Sullivan. “He didn’t trust anyone,” she says. “He was a basket case and basically not rideable.”
But Polo was transformed strictly because of Sullivan’s expertise and skill, Thompson believes. “Shannon has an uncanny ability to see clearly what’s troubling a horse and identify issues that even experienced riders can’t see.”
Purveyors of traditional hobbies fret that their markets are evaporating because of the younger generations’ fixation with the computer. Will young people abandon horseback riding and competing for Internet games? Equestrian professionals and the trade press are certainly thinking about it, but Sullivan isn’t particularly worried.
Boys are more into computers than girls, Sullivan believes, and women predominate in the English riding disciplines in America. Moreover, the sport is reaching wider audiences through increased television coverage of the Olympics and other equestrian venues.
But the bottom line for Sullivan with respect to what the future holds is this: “Little girls will always fall in love with horses because it’s in their DNA.” If so, then there will always be a need for people like Sullivan to connect little girls with their dreams.