By Doris Degner-Foster
It may sound quaint and a little outdated to run a business without formal contracts — doing business on a handshake — but that’s how international show jumping competitor and trainer Kyle Timm, of Apex Equestrian Center, runs his business. He adopted that philosophy after learning a lesson the hard way.
“Early in my career, when I first started riding for other people, like a lot of young professionals, I was very hungry,” Kyle said. “I made a deal with someone who had a very challenging 7-year-old. We wrote something on a piece of paper that said I’d cover the expenses of the horse until it was sold. If it didn’t sell and they decided to take it back, they’d pay me for my expenses because I had no cash flow at that stage in my life.”
When the owners suddenly decided to take the horse back, Kyle reminded them of their agreement to pay him for the horse’s expenses. The owners responded by calling the police who told him that if he didn’t allow the owners to take the horse, he’d be charged with possession of stolen property because he wasn’t able to present the contract at that time. Realizing that a legal fight would be too expensive and counterproductive, he not only lost the horse but also the money he’d spent to take care of it.
“That lesson is with me to this day,” Kyle said. He emphasized the importance of a good working relationship with a client and pointed out that if it isn’t working, just having a contract isn’t necessarily going to make it work. “I only do business with people that I trust and people that I think are there for the right reason. We have to know each other and have mutual respect.”
Kyle quickly decided that it’s more about working with the horses and maintaining a good relationship with clients than the money. He laughed as he said that if he were in business with the emphasis on making money, he would’ve chosen a different profession with shorter hours.
The long hours seem to agree with Kyle’s high-energy personality. He has a full barn with over 40 horses in training at Apex Equestrian Center near Raleigh, North Carolina. He plans to be traveling for about 40 weeks in 2015, going all over the East Coast and into Canada. The sales end of his business continues at a brisk pace: He bought and sold over 25 horses last year in the U.S. and Europe, and has top clients around the world. With the expansion of the Tryon International Equestrian Center, only a three-hour drive from Apex, he anticipates even more business opportunities.
“I love competing, but I think my favorite time of my job is during the quiet moments in the arena, early in the morning, when I’m working with the young horses — or with one of the Grand Prix horses that I’ve worked with for a long time,” Kyle said. “I think of all that they’ve accomplished, and for the young horses, all that they yet have to learn. I just take a deep breath and say, ‘Wow, it’s a good life.’”
How It All Started
Kyle’s riding career began at age 6 when he started in the local Pony Club, but his enthusiasm for show jumping started even earlier. He credits his family for introducing him to the sport; they lived within a 30-minute drive of Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Regularly seeing some of the best show jumpers in the world sparked an interest in him that was at first underestimated. His parents thought weekly riding lessons were simply a childhood interest and even when he qualified for the World Championships for Children at 14, they thought that his interest would change since he’d soon be starting high school.
“I think that was just the beginning of it for me, where I really decided it was something I wanted to do,” Kyle remembered. “My parents always did as much as they could to help me, but they certainly weren’t the all-time, million-dollar family that looked out for me through everything. Growing up near Spruce Meadows, it was easy for me to have goals that were way beyond what was realistic at that time, so they tried to talk reason into me and explained that it’s not always a fairytale land we live in.”
Along with his parents, who tried to encourage his dreams but temper them with reality, Kyle had some good coaches. He remembers having a number of good trainers in Calgary who helped develop his riding while also helping him develop his personality in the business, learn how to get clients and make responsible decisions. “Those kinds of things are what stick out to me as more inspirational than the ones who just taught me how to sit on a horse correctly,” Kyle remembered.
Just three years after the World Children’s Jumping Championship, he jumped for the first time in FEI competition and was the youngest Canadian at that time to jump in the international ring at Spruce Meadows. In 2008, he competed in Grand Prix in the Western U.S. and represented Canada at the North American Young Riders Championship in Denver, Colorado.
A Turning Point
In September 2009, Kyle was having a difficult time trying to keep up with university classes full time and still keep up his riding business. The downturn in the economy was also a factor in his decision that it wasn’t feasible for him to continue to run his own business. He sold the horses he had and gave the horses in training back to the owners and apologized, going home empty-handed. It was a tough decision for him, especially since he had to face friends and family who had been so supportive of him, but he was welcomed with open arms.
Kyle had only stopped riding for about a month when he got a phone call that changed everything. “Steve Cohen called me from New Zealand on a Friday afternoon and offered me a job riding horses, and two hours later I booked a one-way flight. Sunday afternoon I was on a plane leaving for New Zealand,” Kyle remembered. “That was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. I didn’t even have the money for a return flight, so it was either make it or break it. That, for sure, was very intimidating and very exciting, too.”
That experience turned out to be a very fortunate opportunity. In New Zealand, Kyle focused on young horses. He won the National Five-Year-Old Championship twice and rode in the North American Young Riders Championships again in 2010. He also qualified two horses for the World Young Horse Championship in Belgium. While in Europe, he made the most of his time by training with Pieter Kersten in the Netherlands, head of stallion approvals for KWPN at the time and one of the most respected horsemen in the Netherlands. He also rode with Soren von Ronne, a former World Equestrian Games gold medalist. It was while he was there that Kyle learned another profound lesson.
“When I arrived in Europe, I thought I was a bit of a hotshot. I’d jumped some Grand Prix and I’d sold some horses and I really thought I was the next big thing,” Kyle admitted. But at Soren’s barn a young stallion was giving him a very difficult time. “I could barely make the horse canter, and to canter once around the arena was just impossible. I thought he’d never be any sort of talent and I didn’t know why anybody would waste time with him.”
Kyle went on to say that one day when he was especially frustrated, Soren got on the horse and in a matter of six or seven minutes, had him in a perfectly round canter with immaculate lead changes, jumping a 1.2 meter course better than a mature children’s hunter. That young stallion is now a 10-year-old and one of the top up-and-coming horses in Europe.
“That was a huge eye opener for me where I just thought, ‘Wow, I am a very green rider,’” Kyle said. “The lesson I learned that day was that I had a lot to learn. I still remember that day and how ignorant I felt when I realized how completely, utterly wrong I was.”
Paying It Forward
In January 2013, Kyle headed to Apex Equestrian Center. He’d been living in New Zealand and Europe for three years and loved his job, but he wanted a permanent position. Through mutual friends, Dr. Sameh and Cindy Toma, the owners of Apex Equestrian Center, contacted him. “In about three or four weeks of chatting we decided it was a good opportunity for both of us, and eventually we just made a handshake deal over the phone that I would come out for three months and we’d see how it went,” Kyle said. At the end of the trial, both parties were happy and agreed to permanent employment.
At the start, there were only nine horses on the farm. Kyle now has over 40 horses in training there. “In addition, I have horses in Europe that are competing there and are being prepared for sale,” Kyle said. Some of the horses he has in Europe are young horses that aren’t in as much demand in the U.S. “I work with a specialized group of people all around Europe; we buy horses together and let them grow and mature,” Kyle explained. “It’s good in that we often have better vet exams, and healthier horses that can go further in their career than those that had too much pressure at a young age.”
Kyle runs his barn in a more European way in that his working students ride and have more responsibilities than traditional American practices. “I think actually why I left North America is that it’s hard to find a job where you can be a working student or young rider and really feel like you’re accomplishing things,” Kyle said. “You can learn if you watch but you don’t actually get to practice — you don’t get to ride and very rarely do you get to show.”
Kyle genuinely wants to help others succeed. He has even allowed an experienced working student to show his Grand Prix mare, Platinum, to gain invaluable experience. “She jumped more horses than I did at the last Raleigh show in June, and had a better result in the small Grand Prix! She was clear and placed 4th, which paid for all of our entries,” Kyle said with pride. “I want to keep opening doors for people like I had doors opened for me. There are many people who want to do the sport, but they have no idea what it entails. By doing it this way, we really give the chance to people and let them get their feet wet. I only expect everyone to give it an honest effort.”
For someone like Kyle, it’s easy to hope that karma will be activated and he’ll continue to succeed and achieve his dream of being a part of the Canadian team. When that happens, you can be sure that he’ll seal the deal with a handshake.
For more information, visit www.apexequestrian.com.
About the writer: Doris Degner-Foster rides with Harvard Fox Hounds when she isn’t interviewing interesting individuals in the horse sport. She enjoys writing fiction and is working on a novel where a horse appears mysteriously in people’s lives to help them through a crisis. She’s also writing a middle grade series about kids who ride horses and solve mysteries. Look for Doris’s blog Notes From the Field on the Sidelines Magazine website.