This website is the one I've been searching for, for years; a compilation of knowledge on all things horsemanship, including practical advice on how to start an equestrian business.
No matter your experience level with horses or homesteading, I hope this is a place you can get lost in, and learn something along the way - we welcome everyone from vets, to lifelong ranchers, trainer, to nonprofits contributing.
This spring, I had the opportunity to sit down with world-renowned celebrity and wildlife photographer KT Merry. Having been an equestrian and horse lover her entire life, KT combines her passions and has photographed horses for her personal works for over a decade. She shares this work in the new KT Merry Fine Art Print Shop. From polo ponies to ranch horses to wild mustangs, KT captures the beauty and power that horses exude. The photographic series Simply Wild, focused on American Mustangs, donates 20% of all retail sales to the American Wild Horse Campaign aimed at preserving these American icons where they belong – in the wild. I’m thrilled to share some behind the scenes of the story behind the talent, and introduce you to one of my favorite photographers and equestrian entrepreneurs, KT Merry.
My name is KT Merry, and I am a luxury destination wedding and editorial photographer who specializes in luxury weddings and events around the world, as well as shooting various editorials, whether that be for lookbooks, bridal designers, or different publications. I have been doing this now for nearly 15 years. My professional career started in the fashion industry, in the fashion photography side, and then after about five years moved into weddings and have been doing that since. Over the last few years, my work has expanded into several different areas, including online education for photographers, really helping them to grow thriving and profitable businesses as creative entrepreneurs, as artists, and also KT Merry Print Shop.
KT’s love for horses and horsemanship started at a very young age, when her father’s military career took her family to Japan for a stint. While living on a military base in Japan, KT befriended another girl who rode and trained at a nearby Japanese barn, and she soon found herself taking lessons there as well. At just nine years old, there was only English riding available, nor were there any ponies or “kid horses”. So, ass it were, KT’s journey with horsemanship began in a sort of “trial by fire”, getting thrown on top of a stallion, with stirrups looped around and around to make a sort of makeshift child’s saddle.
Despite the language barrier between KT and her Sensei, her love for horses only grew stronger. She would spend long hours at the barn each day, from sunup to sundown. An argument could be made that the seeds of her entrepreneurial spirit began at this time as well, as she spent her days helping with feeding, mucking stalls, and riding as much as possible. She quickly became a part of her Japanese riding family.
When KT’s family eventually moved back to the United States, they settled in northern Nevada, where she quickly convinced her parents to get her a horse. As she reflected, “In Nevada you don’t just go to a barn and ride, you have horses in your backyard. So, my parents once again, a bit naive when it comes to the horse world, saw an ad in the paper, went and tried one out, and came home with a horse. And so, first day the horse comes back, and my dad throws me on top of the horse. I want to say I might have had a saddle on, but I definitely didn’t have a halter with a lead rope. We lived somewhere with no fences whatsoever. This is real northern Nevada, and first thing that horse does is takes off at a full gallop. The horse literally ran and ran. We didn’t have paved roads either, but by each road, there’s a little culvert on the side of it. So ran until we hit the culvert, then hit the road and the whole thing went tumbling down. Horse crashed, I crashed. Luckily, I was fine.”
And so, her family’s journey with horses began.
KT and I spent much of our conversation discussing the critical importance of mentorship and mastery, two topics that we agree are critical in any entrepreneurial endeavor. There’s no road map when it comes to building a business, in the same way no one horse is the same as another. This is where the art of the business of horsemanship comes into play. While no two business journeys are ever the same, in the same way every equestrian knows no two horses are ever the same, it can be easy for entrepreneurs to second-guess their steps. This is where mentorship comes into play- the information is out there, if only you seek it out, and ask those who have gone before. And only through the dedication of continuous repetition can you achieve mastery. KT’s journey with horsemanship instilled these lessons at a young age, allowing her to have a pivotally powerful impact on creative entrepreneurs years later. As KT reflected:
One day, while living in Nevada, my mom was getting her oil changed, talking on her phone about this horse, and a woman overheard her, and and goes, “oh my gosh, I have the best horse trainer. You need to call this woman”. So, we’d call this woman, and she ends up coming and picking up the horse and spend three months working with him. And lo and behold, we find out he was doped up when I went and tried them when he was like the little show pony. After three months, she said “I’ve tried everything with this horse for three months and all he wants to do is just take it off and gallop”. So, she ended up finding an irrigation worker that would buy him, and he loved the fact that this horse would just gallop from one irrigation closure to the next. And that’s all they did. But she became my mentor. By the time I was 14, I was riding with her, and she ended up finding me a darling, beautiful horse, out of a pasture that we rehabbed into this amazing horse. I showed in 4H, and all that. And she really eventually became a second mother to me. By the time I was 14, I lived with her all summer and did the same thing, just mucked stalls, rode horses, painted jumps to kind of pay my way. And then the next summer, she helped get me an “in” at the cattle ranch that I ended up working at.
I started working as a wrangler on what is an over 100-year-old family-run cattle ranch on the back side of Yosemite. They ran nearly a hundred thousand head of cattle and had thousands of acres. It was an incredible place. We ran over 100 head of horses and kept them as a herd and ran them in and out every day and saddled about 40 horses each morning and spent about 8 hours a day, six days a week in the saddle. I did that for about five years each summer until I went to photo school.
That experience became, in a way, the foundation for my work life. And I think all of that even working at my horse trainer’s house. It’s where I learned everything in terms of work ethic and having the conviction to see things through and really also all these beautiful places. And it’s where I also started taking some of my first pictures, too.
That foundation in horsemanship is one of the main reasons that I have the confidence level that I do to be able to continuously learn, try new things and trust the process. Obviously, with horses, there’s so much that you don’t know because you can’t sit and ask them to tell you what they’re thinking and all this. You really have to use your intuition, you have to trust in the process, and you have to have a little bit of faith. And with true horsemanship, nothing is forced. It can’t be forced. So, learning how to accomplish things, and overcome obstacles with a certain amount of ease and grace, I think is absolutely part of running a business, part of being successful in life. But I do think probably one of the biggest lessons learned from horsemanship was developing that confidence in a new area. I didn’t grow up with a horse family, I didn’t come from a ranching background, but it taught me that almost everything can be learned, and that with a certain amount of literal hours in the saddle, you can become an expert.
I remember being a wrangler, probably around the age of 16 years old, at a guest ranch, where we would teach people how to ride and we had a great system for pairing them with the right horses. On day one, we would teach them how to sit in the saddle. Before you know it, by day five we’re taking them out into huge fields and they’re loping into jumping ditches and stuff. It really became a level of mastery of just so many hours in the saddle. I could do just about anything on a horse with or without a saddle just because developing the level of confidence. I think business is no different. It teaches you to have some faith in the process. You have to be able to do something that makes you may be nervous or uncomfortable and then find a way to be calm and graceful all through that beautiful mess. But horses are the best teachers, I think also. They will tell you when they disagree and often, they will give you more grace than you deserve, which I are both amazing qualities.
KT is not only a very successful photographer, but has become a mentor to hundreds of entrepreneurs around the world through her course, The Abundance Plan. Towards the end of our conversation, I took the opportunity to ask for some of her insight into entrepreneurship; specifically, her three biggest takeaways- after more than a decade as a successful entrepreneur, she had incredible insight to share.
I think one of the biggest misconceptions that I see in entrepreneurs is the falsity that “I have to grow my business to a certain point before I can start doing X, Y, and Z and start getting a lawyer to look at contracts or filing my business properly or really getting serious about systems and processes or whatever that may be.” This is completely false. If you’re deciding that it’s not going to be a hobby anymore, then treat it like a business, and spend some time learning from others. These are the top three lessons I have to share with entrepreneurs:
Horsemanship and entrepreneurship have such an interesting crossover. When you’re talking to a true equestrian, it’s almost as if you’re talking about business. When you’re working with a horse, you can never just focus on your own experience; you have to be in tune with your horse as well. We’ve all seen the difference between the person yanking on the reins, wondering why it feels like they’re fighting with their horse, and the person who views it as a partnership, and can get their horse to do incredible things. And I think that’s not the kind of relationship I want with anybody, let alone an animal. And I think that’s really what horsemanship is all about, is exactly partnership.
It’s funny because, with ideas and businesses, there’s the type where it’s just something that had been in the back of my mind for a long time, and it just kind of evolved. And then there’s like those lightning rod ones where they explode, and appear all at once. Render Loyalty was that lightning rod. It was like an instant download. And it was all spurred by a news station online. I was just doing a quick scroll of the news and there was this picture of this huge rhino in Africa. And he had two guards with full-blown rifles just standing next to him. He was the last northern white rhino in the world. His name was Sudan, and he was in Africa being guarded by guards 24 hours a day for fear of him being poached. It was one of those things that I’ve, all my life cared about saving the planet and saving animals. But I was just over here working away, doing my thing, trying to “get successful enough that someday I could go and care about the things that go make an effect about the things that I really cared about.”
In that moment, I was ten years into business and was still enough to ask “am I actually doing anything for this thing that I declare as one of my biggest heart passions?”
So the thoughts racing through my mind were literally, “okay, well, may I could just quit everything and like literally move to Africa and start bottle feeding elephants or whatever that may be”. But then realistically, I had to ask, well, how many elephants can I help with that? I’m one person, and surely there’s already probably people that are more skilled in that area than me. I don’t know anything about bottle-feeding elephants. So that’s one idea. And then the other was, well, what do I know about? I do know about, I’ve been working for a long time and becoming a good photographer. I’ve been really trying to grow business and build brands and all these things. And so that’s when the idea came to really fuse these passions together and to use the photography as a force for good, as a vehicle to create awareness, but also a vehicle to generate funds and financial support, which we all know are crucial for all of these organizations to continue to actually do what they do and do well.
And so I just started researching the top conservation organizations in the world and really went for the very best. Naturally, I wasn’t going to aim low. So Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which pioneered how to actually hand raise elephant orphans and have been doing that for over 40 years. Ol Pejeta, which was where Sudan, the rhino that I described earlier with the guards, was located. And I started just reaching out to these organizations saying, listen, I have a crazy idea. No, I don’t have examples of this model yet, but I can tell you it’s going to be amazing. Let’s do this. And they weren’t all on board at first, but I did end up getting a couple of “yeses”. I used all the miles that I’ve been saving up for years and years of running around being a destination wedding photographer and threw them all at this project. I self-funded our first trip to Africa and photographed the orphans at Childrich Trust in Nairobi. And also went to our other partner, Lewa, which has a conservancy model of melding land, protected land with nearby community members. And their model is really in-depth, but high level is that the animals and environment can’t thrive if the people in the communities aren’t thriving either. So, they’ve done things like build schools, education programs, vaccination programs, you name it. So, these communities are bought into the mission to help save the wildlife and protect the environment. And ultimately now they’re able to have a broader reach and expand even further, further. So, we went and photographed their animals, and then later, years later, we were able to finally go to Ol Pejeta where Sudan the rhino was. Sadly, he had passed away and now the last two remaining white rhinos in the world are there, which are his daughter and granddaughter, and they are working on a surrogacy program with the southern white rhino to try to see if they’re able to successfully breed any more northern white rhinos into the world. It’s a very in-depth program.
It takes a heart of gold to try to solve these really big problems. And that’s why we continue to have really big problems because it is really dynamic and there’s a lot of factors at play and there’s a lot of people that are still hand them out and that creates a level of desperation and kind of full circle. That’s why I’m so passionate about creating education and helping other entrepreneurs thrive and not just put food on the table, but be wildly successful. Because then when you are able to thrive and you’re not just in desperation mode every day, you’re able to have more impact in the world. You’re able to say, hey, I care about orphaned animals, orphaned children, or you name it, and I’m going to help do a little bit of good. And if everybody collectively did that, even just a dollar here, a dollar there, whatever that would be, I mean, I think a lot of our world problems we would see a lot more progress in solving. It’s that trickle effect, that ripple when we’re really able to just kind of see that in entrepreneur after entrepreneur.
You can follow along with KT’s work on Instagram, ranging from jaw-dropping destination and celebrity weddings, to stunning conservation photography. To purchase a print, you may do so at KT Merry Fine Art (for every Simply Wild print sold, KT donates 20% of each purchase to the American Wild Horse Campaign). To join The Abundance Plan, KT’s one of a kind education for creative entrepreneurs, you may find more information here. And finally, you can join KT in the fight for conservation in Africa through Render Loyalty.
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