Horse sense: Urban stables find their niche

Stables flourish even as city grows around them

Tracie Chambers, owner of Canyon Creek Stables off Kelly Road, focuses her business on adults who can afford the hobby of horse ownership, offering them a less-crowded alternative to some stables that are focused on younger riders. Alongside Chambers is one of her clients, Aslan.

Nicole Lamphear
   Twenty years ago, sweeping green pastures spanned the outskirts of Bellingham off Hannegan Road, and residents had never heard of Bellis Fair mall or Barkley Village. A few barns that dotted the countryside still stand two decades later, however, after watching business spread up Hannegan and Sunset and more houses cover up the green landscapes.
   These horse-boarding facilities and riding stables that were once way out in the county are now on the edge of Bellingham developments. Because of the close proximity to each other, these barns must find a niche clientele in order to survive.
   Barn businesses offer a range of services from horse riding lessons and horse training to boarding facilities for a monthly fee. Many barns offer full-time care of horse boarders, or owners may care for the horse but pay for the use of the stall and facilities.
   With a large 4-H population in Whatcom County and dozens of barns popping up out in the county, Bellingham barns off Hannegan Road find that business is good. Each one targets a specific group that has adapted and kept their business running for 15 to 40 years.

Kelly Park Stables
   Claire Borman has owned and operated Kelly Park Stables off Hannegan Road for 15 years. She was born in Whatcom County and attended Meredith Manor, a riding school in West Virginia. After working at and running several barns in Scottsdale, Ariz., Borman returned to Bellingham because she said she missed home.
   In the last 15 years, Borman said she has seen a lot of growth along Hannegan. “There are buildings where there were fields and businesses where there were houses,” Borman said. “That whole business area was not here.”
   Despite the booming business a few miles from Kelly Park Stables, Borman said she doesn’t think the commercial growth has negatively affected her business.
   “People who ride horses will come out to the horse stable, more or less, wherever it is,” Borman said. The population growth, on the other hand, has affected the day camps and lessons she offers.
   From the beginning, her business focused on riding lessons for children and spring and summer day camps. The day camps have approximately 14 students each week, ranging in ages. Borman is also the leader of the largest 4-H group in Whatcom County, Hannegan Horse Kids, with 25 members. Kelly Park Stables serves as a place for that group to meet and ride.
   “I target the younger crowd, and there are always more of those coming up,” Borman said. “A lot of the other barns don’t cater that much to the younger ones. I also have a good location. I probably have the best location of all the other barns because I am right here on Hannegan.”
   While Borman said she is at her capacity of horses and students, she said the barn business is good with the surge of people coming to the area.
   “There are a lot more stables out in the county now,” Borman said. “But some of those same stables are folding and going under or changing their direction.”

Canyon Creek Stables
   One such barn that has recently shifted its direction is Canyon Creek Stables, located off Kelly Road. Owner Tracie Chambers no longer teaches lessons, but has focused her horse clientele to those boarders who can afford their hobby. With 25 horses at Canyon Creek, the majority of the riders are adults who enjoy the social and educational aspects of owning and riding a horse.
   “We are the polar opposite of what Kelly Park does with kids,” Chambers said. “The demand never goes down for parents who want to expose their kids to horses.”
   Chambers has been a Bellingham resident her whole life and Canyon Creek has been in business for 20 years.
   She said she has seen the residential growth change what barns must cater to. “A lot of people in the horse industry have now bought their own land, and so demand for boarding has changed,” she said.
   The changing economics of the area have changed the dynamics of the horse industry as well, she said. Horses are a hobby, and the cost of operation of that hobby has skyrocketed – from the cost of hay to the cost of shavings, which has increased approximately 35 percent in the past few years, Chambers said.
   Canyon Creek offers fewer constraints on the amenities and arena time, so that her clients can ride in a less-crowded environment.
   Along with boarding horses, she has also slowly shifted to begin boarding dogs.
   “Informally, I have always (boarded dogs) because every horse person has a dog,” Chambers said.
   Chambers found the need for a balance of the type of boarding she already did for horses with the boarding she could offer dog owners. Her horse boarders enjoy the less-crowded environment, and she said her dog clients also like having only 10 dogs at any time, to allow more individual attention for each dog.
   She looked at other places and saw that kennels were stressful for owners and dogs. She decided to offer a different solution. The dogs are kept in horse stalls, and she said she cares for them as if they were her own.
   “The profitability is in the dogs, but the balance is what makes it great,” Chambers said. “I enjoy both, and both are hard work, but I wouldn’t be able to do all of one or the other.”
   Chambers said she is also at her capacity with what she and one other employee can handle.
   “It is definitely is a labor-of-love gig,” she said. “You have to love it to want to do it.”
   The barn was originally built by Chambers’ family as a horse facility, but has changed over the years.
   Chambers taught lessons and had a horse-breeding program for many years, but after she married and had children, she decided to stop teaching other people’s children to spend more time with her own. She then took over the barn help duties to offset economic costs.
   While Canyon Creek has changed throughout the years, Chambers is most surprised by the growth of the surrounding areas.
   “Our barn used to be way out in the county,” she said. “When we built, there was no Woburn or Sunset Square.”

BB Stables
   BB Stables, off Smith Road, has been a landmark of stables in Whatcom County, having been in business for more than 40 years. Owner Barb Hento, who has lived in Whatcom County her whole life, has trained and ridden professionally for those 40-plus years.
   “When I started, there were maybe only one or two other stables,” Hento said. Now, Hento estimates there are approximately 125 other arenas in the county.
   While BB Stables features a wide variety of clientele, from children taking lessons to adult boarders, Hento said the barn has a very low turnover rate, with many boarders who have been there for more than 30 years.
   “We’ve got some show horses, a lot of horses that belong to the 30-something professionals,” Hento said. “In the last few years, we have evolved into the adult, horse-owner barn with a lot of 40-something, 30-something people owning horses who want to learn how to ride. They don’t want to show; they just want to ride. Some you will see out here every day, some will come out once a month, and some their businesses will take them away for months, and they want to know their horses will be taken care of.”
   Hento has two other employees who teach youth lessons while she teaches the adult riders.
   “We all have our expertise,” she said. The barn now has a lesson horse program six days a week, with all types of riding styles. “We have English riders, some that jump, and Western riders, and we have some people who love their horses and just want to ride. We tried to do a program for all.”
   When it comes to keeping the barn running, Hento said, “It’s basically a labor of love.”
   Barn manager Kim Sandberg, who is a former student of Hento’s, said she believes the management style and professionalism are the distinctions of BB Stables.
   Hento has trained and shown horses throughout the years, but has come to enjoy giving lessons.
   “Some days it isn’t about winning the blue ribbon; it is just seeing them succeed at what their goal is and what they want to do,” Hento said. “We have a lot of blue ribbons and championships behind us with our horses, but some days it is just seeing the joy on somebody’s face when they get to accomplish something they really want to do.”
   The 20-acre property is also at its capacity, Hento said.
   “We are probably one of the bigger places in the county,” Hento said. “And (with an expansive landscape or greenery) we have the best view in Whatcom County.”
   Kelly Park Stables, Canyon Creek Stables, and BB Stables continue about business as they have for the past decades. As businesses and new housing developments appear, these barns continue their labor of love – sharing the horse world with any who come to their arena gates.

Trouble at Papetti Lane

    Becci Smee began her career in stable management in California, where she ran a barn for 45 years. But even with her experience of running a boarding business, she wasn’t prepared to face the challenges embedded in her newly purchased property in Washington.
   She came to Bellingham and purchased 30 acres off Smith Road, the location of Papetti Lane Equestrian Center. She took over the barn four years ago and continued to board and train horses.
   “We did better here in our second year than anybody has done here,” Smee said. “And then as things began to fall apart, we no longer could function.”
   Smee was surprised to discover that she was running an illegal business.
   Many buildings on the location did not have proper building permits, and the conditional-use permit required to run the business had not been transferred from the prior owner. Smee said a lot of the illegal operations on the property wouldn’t have been evident in any paperwork she could have researched before purchasing the property, however.
   Suzanne Bosman of Whatcom County Planning and Development Services said conditional use permits are required to address health and safety issues. In this case, the permit addressed issues such as parking, manure and waste management and a limit to the number of horses on the property.
   The original conditional use permit had been granted to Splendora Papetti in 1975. When Smee took over the property, neither the buyer nor the seller transferred the permit.
   Smee said she bought the property intending to continue the business Papetti had been conducting for the past 25 years, but after it came to light that her business was in violation with the county, Smee was ordered to find new locations for her current boarding clients to go.
   “The tough part of it is keeping your head above water and doing the best for the horse,” Smee said. “I can’t take care of me first, I have to take care of the animal.”
   Bosman said most of the buildings on the property had been built without permits during the ‘80s, when the county did not have a team to investigate and ensure code compliance. She said some buildings were legal, and some went far beyond the scope of the permits. One arena was illegally turned into 27 stalls when permitted only as storage, and since the stalls were not visible from the street, it was not easy to see the violation, Bosman said.
   “We can’t know what is going on in every part of the county,” Bosman said. Anyone looking to buy property must be proactive in looking into what is allowed on that property, she said.
   “People assume when you buy property, you can do anything, but that is not the case,” Bosman said. Checking with the jurisdiction to see what permits are on the property is one step, she said. “Never assume the real estate agent did the research about the property.”
   There was a Sheriff’s Auction on May 4 on the property, and Smee said she isn’t sure what she will do now.
   Papetti declined to comment.
   For a related story on what backgrounding to do when looking to buy a business, see page C1.



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