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2 Tired 'Horse Show Mothers' Reinvent the Tack Shop by Putting It on Wheels

May 21, 1988|DARLENE SORDILLO | Times Staff Writer and Darlene Sordillo, an author of two books on horse training and competition, covers equestrian events for The Times. Her column appears every Saturday. Readers may send horse-related news to her at: Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626

Connie Smith and Sue Strahan were tired of their duties as "horse show mothers," constantly being sent to the tack shop to pick up supplies and equipment while their children were riding. So they turned their problem into an advantage--and a business.

"We thought there had to be an easier way. You can't ride the horse to the tack shop every time you need something, so why not bring the tack shop to the horse?" Strahan asked.

Outdoor Outfitters, their mobile tack shop, was born seven years ago. Unlike some other saddlery businesses that operate a main store and send a mobile unit to selected horse shows, Outdoor Outfitters is strictly a mobile operation.

Smith and Strahan spend six days a week on the road. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays they drive the unit from its home base in Orange to Costa Mesa, where they sell their wares to riders and trainers at the Orange County Fairgrounds Equestrian Center. Weekends are spent at horse shows in the county.

Now operating from a 30-foot motor home that has been customized to hold horse supplies, the business has grown from humble beginnings.

"We started out of the back of a pickup truck," Smith recalled. "But then rainy weather became too much of an impediment, so we had to find a way to move inside. Buying the motor home was our answer."

But the women had difficulty finding a cabinet-maker who understood how to display and store horse equipment in the proper way. They had to order modifications of standard cabinets, such as bookshelves and spice racks, to accommodate their supplies.

One storage unit--a long, flat cabinet with a hinged top that is anchored to the floor--doubles as a bench where shoppers can sit when they try on boots. It has also become a place for riders to sit and chat with the proprietors, who spend as much of their time "talking horses" as they do selling the wares of the trade.

At a recent horse show at the fairgrounds, customers milled in and out of the mobile unit. Among them were:

* A father looking for a gift for his young daughter, who had just won her first ribbon in the horse show. His selection: a wristwatch with a horse design on its face.

* A frantic show rider who dashed in between classes to buy a grooming supply that would make her horse look shiny. Smith helped her select a product but warned: "Don't spray it under the saddle pad--it makes the coat slippery, so the saddle may slide."

* A woman who had just moved to Orange County from New Zealand and came to buy supplies before her mount arrived from overseas. She talked with Strahan, whom she had just met, about horse prices in Orange County. (The woman decided to pay the $6,000 to ship her horse here when Strahan estimated that a similar mount would cost about $25,000.)

* A rider on a horse, who stuck his head in the door and asked for a riding crop. "Please, I need it for my next class," he said. "I'll pay you as soon as I get out of the ring." (He did.)

These interactions with customers are what Smith and Strahan most enjoy about the business. "This is a horse business, but it really revolves around the people," Smith said.

They have developed a loyal--and honest--following. "In seven years, we've only had one bad check," Strahan said. "That tells you something about horse people."

Smith said: "I can count on one hand the people I've met in seven years that I don't like. Horse people are the best in the world."

While Outdoor Outfitters sells mostly English-style riding goods, it deals with 80 suppliers and can special-order items it does not stock. Clothing, saddles and bridles are its strongest lines.

To learn which shows Outdoor Outfitters will be attending, call (714) 639-8565 before 10 a.m.

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