Want to be an Equestrian? Bring a big wallet

horse centerDover Saddlery Rides High in Pricey Hunter-Jumper Elite Sport

By Caleigh Wells

Ask any English horseback rider where they buy their equestrian equipment and clothes. Ava Lindsay will tell you the answer is from her local shop in New York, and from Dover Saddlery.

“Everyone knows Dover, it’s like a universal brand.”

Lindsay has shopped for equestrian gear since she first learned to ride at the age of 7 in the stables of New York City. Her local tack shop is Bevel’s, which has four stores in New York and New England. The senior Strategic Communication major at Washington and Lee University says Bevel’s was closest to home so it was her first stop when she needed something new, but when it wasn’t there, there was always the Dover store in Huntington, NY, the Dover catalog or the Website.

“If I’m looking for something specific or something they don’t have in stock, you can get way better deals with Dover, and they have a lot more options to look at there,” she said. “That’s the big name you think of.”

Dover and its many local competitors exist in a unique market of people united in their passion for horses and the depth of their pockets. English horseback riding is often viewed as a sport for the wealthy because enthusiasts must adorn themselves in fancy togs and maintain a horse.

Tara Deckel has been riding for 12 years and been a barn manager in Harrisonburg, Va. for four. Whenever the clients there need gear for themselves or their horses, she always sends them to the Dover store in Charlottesville. She says the best part about store is the people working in it.

“The people at Dover are horse people. Everybody is knowledgeable enough to help someone along.”

Since its beginning the brand and retail chain has advertised itself as being by horse people, for horse people. The idea came from two brothers living in Massachusetts after they came home from competing for the American equestrian team in the 1972 Olympics. Both of their parents were veterinarians, but when the family business started, their mom quit to become the bookkeeper.

And even though it’s a nationwide brand with over thirty store locations and a large online presence, Deckel says it still has the personal attention you would normally find at a local store. The store in Charlottesville has her phone number.

“They’ll call us when a client is there and ask what we recommend,” she said. “What I love about Dover is that it’s local enough to us that we all know each other.”

Even as a kid, Deckel said the high-end clothes from the Dover catalog were her Christmas presents.

And for this sport, high-end seems to be the norm.

To compete, the United States Equestrian Federation maintains specific regulations about proper attire. Hunter-jumper is a discipline of riding steeped in the tradition of fox hunting, and judged on the ability of horse and rider to complete a course of jumps while making it look effortless. Since appearance and tradition are such a big part of the subjectively-judged sport, the guidelines on clothing are very strict. The rule book says, “Hunter attire will be defined as light colored breeches, short riding coat of conservative color, with tie or choker, boots or smooth leather half-chaps, and hunt cap or protective headgear.”

On the Dover website, choker shirts average around $100, coats near $300, helmets run up to $500 and boots sometimes cost four figures. And that doesn’t include the multi-thousand dollar saddles and the rest of the outfit for the horse.

Then beyond the tack store there are the horseshow entry fees, horse food and supplements, bedding for the stalls, boarding bills, training bills, grooming bills, veterinary bills, farrier bills, even an annual visit from the equine dentist. The monthly expenses crest well into the thousands, and that’s during a month when there isn’t a $10,000 horseshow, which for some happens several times a year. Not to mention the cost of buying the horse itself, which is sometimes more than a house.

Today there are fewer than 100,000 registered equestrian competitors across the country in all disciplines. So even though it’s a small niche, Dover found its place in a lucrative market. And what’s more, it is the only tack shop in recent history to be publicly traded. It is a giant in a small pond with small fish.

But it wasn’t always the market’s big name. Dover too was a small tack shop, 800 square feet to be exact, in Wellesley, Mass. It started in 1975, when Jim and David Powers saw an untapped business in equine equipment.

“It was a very strong brand, founded by riders who wanted to make the best selection for the customer,” said Michele Powers, co-founder and sister-in-law to David and Jim. “The riders knew us, we used the products ourselves, we didn’t just put it out there.”

Powers says when they set up a tent at their first horseshow, they sold everything they had. Then they doubled the size of the retail store. People started calling and ordering tack, and in 1982 David said he wanted to start a catalog.

“At that time I had a dark room at home, so I would work at the store during the day and go home at night and develop pictures that would go in the catalog,” Michele said.

Then the store took off.

The company moved to a warehouse, hired its first workers outside the family, and handwrote and packed mail orders before they started using computers. By around 1990, the company was worth about $15 million.

“There weren’t a lot of high quality catalogs. Everywhere I went, even non-riding people, everybody knew the brand.”

And non-riding people in high places took notice too. Before 2000 Petsmart approached Dover with an offer to buy.

“They wanted to move us to Binghampton, NY and run the company and we said no way,” said Powers.

So it kept growing. More store locations popped up and the company started being publicly traded in 2005. Revenues climbed to more than $60 million. It bought out Smith Brothers, one of the leading sellers of western tack, and entered into a market of an entirely new set of equestrian disciplines.

Last year, Dover still showed no signs of slowing down. It opened four new stores; acquired Dressage Extension, which was a successful small company in the dressage discipline; and its stock price continued to grow steadily after its drop in the Great Recession.

But the company needed more capital to continue to open more stores. The controlling shareholders sold Dover to a private investment firm called Webster Capital, which also owns Best Friends Pet Care, Bay Mark Health Services, Industrial Color and dozens of others.

Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. Shareholders got a premium over the stock’s price at the time, cashing out for $8.50 per share in July, compared to a recent share price about $5 in the months before the sale. Powers said the purchase price was around $60 million.

Before going private, Dover last disclosed quarterly results included total revenues of $22.8 million, up 16 percent from the previous year’s first quarter. CEO Stephen Day said in a conference call on May 15, 2015 that the three stores opened in 2014 were doing well, and the company planned to open another three to five stores in 2015.

Total revenues for its last full fiscal year as a public company was up to 8.5 percent to break the $100 million mark for the first time. Net income decreased from $1.6 million to $1.2 million from 2013 to 2014, likely because of the investment in the newly opened retail stores and the acquisition of Dressage Extension. By the end of 2014, Dover had 5.7 million shares outstanding, with a diluted net income of $0.21 per share.

But any hints about this year’s finances remain hidden. Retail Director Ken Cavanaugh declined to comment, saying that he could not release information now that Dover is a private company. The manager at Dover’s local retail store in Lexington also received an email from him, instructing the employees not to speak at all about Dover.

Today, it has more than 30 stores across the country, a catalog and an extensive online presence. Powers says being the only big company in a market of local shops poses no threat to Dover. The stores are successful against local competition, and in locations where there is no store, the catalog serves customers just as well.

“Dover saddlery has much, much, much more inventory in the stores because they’ve got a whole warehouse behind them and if they sell something it’s replenished within the week,” she said.

CEO Stephen L Day said in the conference call last year that he hopes the deal with the investment firm will help Dover pursue a larger retail base and other expansion plans. He retired in April, and Powers says his position has not yet been filled