How an 11-year-old entrepreneur started a 5-figure saddle company – Business Insider
California-based pre-teen Abby Wighton turned her frustration for being unable to ride a horse on her own into a business, Riding Free Tack, that empowers other young horseback riders.
Amber Wighton helped her daughter launch the company in 2017, and in 2020 they’ve sold 159 saddles with $65,000 in gross sales.
The duo invested heavily in product testing and finding a manufacturer who could churn out products fast but with quality of the look and feel of the saddles in mind.
Abby promotes her kids lightweight saddles and other riding products through social media channels, finding the most success when highlighting her lifestyle like influencers do and partnering with popular accounts.
Given the choice, most pre-teens sleep past sunrise. But not 11-year-old Abby Wighton — the young California-based equestrian is in the family’s horse barn by 6 a.m. That’s when she finds time to care for and ride her favorite horse, Bandit. The rest of her day is filled with schoolwork and the obligations of being a business owner.
“On Mondays school started at 9 and the rest of the week it started at 8:30, so I would ride before school,” she said. “I was in school for six hours, then packed an order or two when I got home. I am big on writing my schedule out and hanging it in my room so I know what to do each part of the day.”
Wighton’s parents, Amber and Blake, have always encouraged her to think like an entrepreneur. During the drive to school, Amber played business-themed podcasts such as Rachel Hollis’ “Rise” or “School of Greatness”with Lewis Howes for Abby and her younger brother, Beau, while Abby tuned into “Kid President” YouTube episodes. Family dinner conversations often revolved around the inner workings of Amber’s home décor business.
“My mom would always ask me and my brother what kind of business we would want to run,” Abby said. “I thought that lightweight saddles would solve a problem for kids like me.”
Most western saddles weigh 30 to 35 pounds, a heavy lift for youngsters. When Amber wasn’t available and Abby couldn’t wait, she stood on a stool, balanced the saddle on her head, and hoisted it onto the horse’s back.
Eight-year-old Abby and her family launched kids saddle company Riding Free Tack in 2017 with three designs — the Unicorn, Coral Dreamin’, and Home-Run, a baseball-themed design. Recent additions include iridescent inlays of “mermaid skin” and embroidered florals.
Today, the company offers 39 different products, from saddles to cowboy boots to other riding equipment. This year, the company is also introducing a father-son line to compliment its mother-daughter options.
The equine industry as a whole has a $50 billion impact on the US economy. Amber told Business Insider that year to date they’ve sold 159 saddles with $65,000 in gross sales. That’s up 185% over the same time period last year, when they sold 59 saddles.
“Our 2020 message is ‘together in the saddle,’ so getting moms back into the saddle with their kids,” Amber said. “We are introducing a dads/daughter/son line later this year.”
The Wighton’s are funding the company through savings. Amber even sold her car to get $13,000 needed for new products and freight. Now she drives an old pickup truck.
“Blake, my husband and Abby’s dad, is thankfully so supportive of us going after this dream. Not sure what we would do without his understanding and patience,” she said.
Making a saddle that looks good and feels great
Designing a lightweight option was only part of the solution. Abby also wanted her saddles to have the same embellishments she liked on clothes and other accessories, such as the wildly popular two-sided sequins. She said that her favorite saddle features “flippy” hearts that change color when brushed in one direction.
“I have a flippy shirt that I played with for hours and thought it would be cool to have on my saddle,” Abby said.
Saddle weight and boring designs weren’t Abby’s only frustrations — no brand she’d encountered had built-in storage.
“If I had my sunglasses hooked on my shirt and I started trotting, my sunglasses were always bouncing off,” Abby said. “My mom was always forgetting where she put her keys so I thought, why not put pockets on the saddle.”
While Abby focused on design, Amber provided guidance on the importance of quality, fit, and pricing. Underneath the leather or synthetic material, a form called a tree holds the saddle together. Poorly made trees can pinch the horse’s back, causing pain.
“It was my job to help her think about things like durability of the material and the tree,” Amber said. “As a parent, those are things I’m thinking of when I make a purchase like this for my kids.”
As samples arrived, they took them to local horse events to test the concept, while Amber reached out to parents in her network to gauge their interest. Several Survey Monkey questionnaires were used to determine the price point, which are all under $650 for multi-piece sets. Saddles are sold at a wide range of prices with some synthetic saddles as little as $199, but riders can spend upwards of $3,000 on custom models.
“Our prices are set so we can have a healthy balance between margin and volume,” Amber said. “This allows us to be mid-range and economical without our customers having to compromise on quality.”
Finding a manufacturer and product testing
Drawing from her experience with home décor, Amber knew the manufacturer was key to developing a quality product at an acceptable price. Saddle makers in the United States often require six months or more for production. Recognizing consumer’s “Amazon” quickly delivery mentality, Amber knew that was out. She also eliminated Chinese manufacturers because they don’t produce saddle trees to her specifications.
“We had several bad experiences, even sending money for a partial payment and never getting a product for the money,” Amber said. “We’ve gotten much smarter on sourcing.”
Two years ago, they found a fourth generation saddle maker in Kampur, India, who can make 20 saddles in 25 days if special materials aren’t required. It took six month of testing different samples to have a prototype ready, with the family communicating with the factory owner daily.
Abby Wighton and her mother.
Abby shared that waiting for a new saddle to arrive for testing is hard — once she’s finished with a new design, she wants it immediately. Use on the family ranch has proved the most effective proving ground for testing durability, and every sample Riding Free Tack gets is first used in Abby’s barn before it’s approved for production.
The daily trials of childhood are the ultimate test. Sometimes Abby forgets to put her saddle away — so far, she said, the materials have withstood downpours and intense California sunlight without rotting or fading.
Going social through influencer partnerships
Before launching Riding Free Tack Company, Abby was an avid follower of @FiveMarysFarm, a ranching lifestyle account with 138,000 followers. Wanting to emulate businesswoman Mary Heffernan’s success, Abby filmed and sent her a short video asking if they could collaborate.
“Mary had kids that she wanted to get into riding and thought the lightweight saddles were a great concept, and she started promoting us and continues to promote us,” Amber said.
Inspired by Abby’s courage to become an entrepreneur, Heffernan launched a small business development course for agricultural entrepreneurs that the Wightons continue to participate in. Through that course, Abby learned the importance of connecting with customers by showing snippets of her everyday life. She uses her Facebook and Instagram, which now have over 1,300 and 5,300 followers respectively, to tell her family’s story and drive customers to the website.
“We’ve sent saddles to social media influencers and asked them to try them out,” she said. “I also post a lot of videos of us on trail rides and they do really well.”
Designing and promoting the saddles is Abby’s favorite part of the job. Meanwhile, packing an order isn’t her favorite, but one she realizes has to be done. To liven up the task, she handwrites notes or paints inspirational messages on the shipping box.
Abby Wighton at work.
“It’s difficult to hold back and let her fail sometimes,” Amber said. “For example, she has to be able to pull and pack products, print the packing slip and label, and get it in the box in a nicely presented package.”
One time, a customer emailed to say that an item was missing — Abby hasn’t missed an item since.
Teaching business acumen and day-to-day parenting is often a blur, Amber said.
“It’s so hard for me to focus on business with Abby if she just gave me some sass and an eye roll,” Amber said. “I’m learning to set those things aside and not carry them into our work.”