I Work With Animals: My Life on a Horse Farm
Published on May 22, 2012
Running a horse farm is an art, especially for Melissa Bradley, a former professional artist who put away her paintbrushes in 2000 to start the Greenhaven Horse Farm in Fond du Lac, Wis.
Hers isn’t always an easy job, particularly when she has to get up before day break only to find that the tools she needs to use for chores have somehow frozen during the previous night's subzero temperatures.
But Bradley wouldn’t trade time with her horses (and dogs!) for the world. Vetstreet sat down with the former horse-jumping competitor to learn about how she took the big leap — and why her wild ride has turned out to be such a blue ribbon experience.
Q. Were you always into horses?
A. Melissa Bradley: "I grew up in a suburb of Chicago called Lake Forest, where I rode horses for fun. My parents got me my first horse, Arthur, when I was 13, and from then on, I competed all over the Midwest — and wanted to be a horse person for a living. But everyone told me that wouldn’t be a good idea because it was hard work, you make no money and you have no time to spend with your personal horses. So I decided to become a veterinarian instead. The goal was to make a lot of money, so that I could have horses in my life."
Q. Yet you didn’t become a veterinarian. Why?
A. "When I got serious about being a vet, I transferred to Auburn University in Alabama. Once I finished my degree in zoology, I wasn’t really sure about my decision anymore. I had worked for vets all through college, but it didn’t feel like my calling. After graduation, I moved to Wisconsin, where my parents had retired, and got a job as a commercial artist, designing artwork and murals for commercial interior spaces. I really enjoyed my job, but I also knew that I really wanted horses in my backyard. I needed to be around them."
Q. What finally prompted you to buy your own horse farm?
A. "I still had my thoroughbred, Arthur. I still do: I’m now 38, and he’s 28. At the stable where I boarded him, people started asking me for lessons. Arthur was the lesson horse, and I soon had enough clients for a viable business. By then, I’d saved up enough money to put a deposit down on a farm. So my then boyfriend (now husband) and I started looking at places.
One of my clients actually found the property that I ultimately bought. I drove up the driveway and just knew that I wanted it. They were only selling 10 acres, but I pushed for 25 so that I could have a hay field and bigger areas for the horses to graze. Now we have three big pastures for the horses, a barn with 13 stalls and an old pole building that we fixed up with five more stalls. There’s even an indoor and an outdoor ring."
Q. You worked two jobs in the beginning. That sounds exhausting!
A. "For the first year, I still worked my commercial artist job, while I tested whether the farm was viable. Then I worked part-time for a while after that — and it was exhausting! I had to get up at 4 A.M. to start work on the farm because I had no employees. I was so lucky that my parents lived nearby — whenever I had trouble, my father would help me.
The property was an old dairy farm that we had to convert into a horse riding operation. We had to gut the barn, tear down the silo and put on an addition. That first year, the place flooded, so we had to basically start over again with the footing, dropping the floors to make room for the tall horses. It was a big project, but it’s pretty close to perfect now."
Q. What's a typical day like for you?
A. "My husband, Derek, became self-employed a few years ago when he started his own graphic design business, so my life got easier because he can now help me with the chores. On a good day — when it’s warm and the horses can spend the night outside — it takes about an hour. On a bad day, it takes three hours. Evening chores add an additional hour to my workday.
I typically have an 11:00 A.M. lesson every morning, and then I am busy taking care of the financial elements of the business, as well as answering emails and calls. From 3:00 P.M. until about 7:30, I’m outside again running lessons. I do a lot more teaching than riding now, but I’m with the horses all of the time — and it’s really nice to hang out with happy kids all day. So I keep pretty busy — Derek and I haven't taken a vacation since our honeymoon in 2003."
Q. What type of riding lessons do you give?
A. "When I began riding in the area, people were watching me jump my horses and thought it was cool. No one here was teaching kids to ride and jump based on the theory of the 'American system of forward riding,' which is what I was taught and currently teach. Luckily, there were a lot of people who wanted to do it.
Right now there are 17 horses here, but I’ve had anywhere between 15 and 21. Eleven of the horses are mine, including Arthur, who is now retired. The number of students fluctuates seasonally — I have about 30 in the summer, and 25 in the winter. During the day it’s quiet here — and then school lets out and it gets crazy!"
Q. What’s your favorite part of the job?
A. "Being my own boss. I don’t like drama, and really want everyone to be nice to each other — and that’s how I run my barn. I also like having a dog with me all the time. Right now we have two, which is the smallest number we’ve ever had. I’ve had one for 12 years named Keller, who is partially deaf and blind, and a Great Pyrenees named Beezie (after Beezie Madden, the rider). I’m also really glad that I can support Arthur in his old age. I got to give him a retirement here!"
For more tales of what it's like to work with animals, check out these other Vetstreet-exclusive stories.