Building a Sustainable Stable Business

The seeds of the consulting business Sustainable Stables were sown while Clay Nelson MEM ’08 and Lynnette Batt MEM ’08 were in their second year of study in the Nicholas School’s Master of Environmental Management program.

Batt had spent her whole life around horses—she grew up on a horse farm, worked at her family’s riding center throughout school, and became a full-time trainer for two years before coming to the Nicholas School. Nelson was studying ecotoxicology and environmental health, but he began developing an interest in horses through Batt, who taught him to ride on her horse Monty during graduate school.

Together they realized that there was a missing link between horses and the growing environmental movement; there seemed to be few resources on how to apply best environmental management practices to horse farm design.

“So we said, let’s see how we can translate best management practice for land management, and agriculture in particular, to horse operations,” Batt says.

They decided to create a website, which Nelson dubbed Sustainable Stables. The website was meant to be an educational resource for how to design environmentally friendly horse farms. When Nelson and Batt were asked to consult on the design of a horse farm, they began to rethink their business model.

“We quickly realized that the best way to help the community was in the planning and design of their horse facility, whether they were starting from scratch or renovating existing facilities,” Nelson says.

As a result, Sustainable Stables became a for-profit consulting business focusing on the design and management of environmentally-friendly horse farms, but still kept an educational component on their website, with advice on best practices for topics such as overall site design, barn design, pasture management, waste management and green energy. Nelson and Batt decided to follow a version of the triple-bottom line approach: they aimed for their farms to be good for the environment, make good economic sense, and benefit the health of the horses.

Over the last eight years, Sustainable Stables has worked with independently owned private horse farms across the country, three nonprofits that use horses for therapy, the North Carolina Division of Soil and Water Conservation, and a large private reserve in Puerto Escondido, Panama. For each client, Nelson and Batt consult about the needs of the farm and advise the owners on where to locate buildings, how to divide pastures, where to plant trees and where to grow grass, all in a sustainable manner.

For the equestrian center at the reserve in Panama, the Reserva Ecologica Panamaes, Nelson and Batt were hired as consultants by IM/KM Design, the architectural firm that manages part of the property. The 507-hectare reserve includes not only the estate where the riding center is located, but also organic orchards, agroforestry plots and areas devoted to protecting sea turtle nesting habitat.

Kristin Morales, co-founder and principal designer at IM/KM with her husband, says of their collaboration with Sustainable Stables: “IM/KM and Sustainable Stables are a very good team in that we both came to the project with green building practices and land use in mind. It was a seamless collaboration.”

In addition to their work on the equestrian center, Nelson and Batt advised on stream and land restoration efforts on the property—an unexpected application of skills they learned at the Nicholas School.

Neither Nelson or Batt work on Sustainable Stables full time, and Nelson says he is content to keep it that way, at least for now. In addition to running Sustainable Stables, he works full time as an analytical chemist. Batt lives in California and works as a freelance consultant to mitigation banking companies.

Nelson says they do very little advertising for Sustainable Stables—most of their business has come by word of mouth or through their website. (Check it out at sustainablestables.com.)

In order to build the business, Nelson says they started by simply trying to establish a portfolio, first by working for free and then for very little. Nelson also wrote articles about eco-friendly horse farm design for various equestrian magazines to gain a broader understanding and establish himself as an expert in the field.

Batt says one key to the success of their business has been their ability to tap into such a niche market. Other consulting firms may focus on stable design, but may lack the environmental perspective or be geared toward larger boarding or riding centers.

Nelson and Batt’s advice for students wanting to start a business? Just do it.

“You could spend your entire life talking about what you should do or what you can do,” Nelson says. “That moment of action, that’s the key—the willingness to get started.”

Freelancer KATI MOORE MEM’16 served as the Nicholas School’s communications assistant until she graduated.