Taking the Reins

Taking the Reins

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From left, JustaFashion Diva (blue halter), Habina (behind), and Daggers The Merlin (right) stand with Brittany Walberg, owner of El Jo Mar Arabians.

Brittany Walberg leads El Jo Mar Arabians with a steady hand

It’s safe to say that Brittany Walberg isn’t afraid of hard work. Seven days a week you can find her quietly going about her chores at El Jo Mar Arabians in north Aberdeen. Here, there are at least 30 horses in her care at all times. Feeding them, watering them, turning them out to pasture, and cleaning their stalls takes up most of her mornings. Afternoons are for working horses and giving riding lessons, then doing more chores. When her work is finished at the barn, there are still administrative tasks left to do that go along with operating the business she has owned for almost four years. Breeding and working with horses are the parts of this job she loves the most. She says doing the paperwork has required a bit more of a learning curve to get used to. 

The day I visited El Jo Mar for this story happened to be a cold one. When I met Brittany, she was dressed in overalls from head to foot and shoveling out a horse stall. We sat down right in the middle of the horse tack and smell of hay to talk, throwing a ball every now and then for her dogs who wanted to be involved by playing fetch. Just beside us in a warm office her young daughter was taking an afternoon nap, and outside her husband Jeremy was busy checking off to-do items in the tractor. In her calm and straightforward manner, the Frederick native explained what it takes to run El Jo Mar. It isn’t atypical for her to put in 12-hour plus days, and when I asked her how she finds time for herself she replied with a smile, “Good question!” In all seriousness, she does have clients that can help her take care of the barn for a day or two so she can take some time off with family. Yet her advice to anyone thinking about starting their own business is to be ready to put in the time. “You have to be very dedicated. And if you have good connections with people in your field, stay in touch with them. They can help you if you feel frustrated or need some guidance.” 

For Brittany, one of her most significant business mentors has been Marg Forseth. Marg founded El Jo Mar in 1973 and put it on the map as a national champion Arabian breeding program. In 2015 she sold El Jo Mar to Brittany, but their friendship reaches back much further. Brittany’s first word as a child was “horse” and her parents gave her her first horse, a mini, when she was six years old. After her mini, she moved on to a quarter horse and took part in both shows and rodeos. It was in junior high school that she started taking riding lessons at El Jo Mar. She says, “I’d always had an innate interest in horses and it grew from there. When I started coming to El Jo Mar that’s when things really took off for me, especially with my English style of riding.” Most horse programs in the area focus on the western style of riding, whereas El Jo Mar has set themselves apart by being more of an English barn, the latter of which is recognizable by sports like jumping and dressage. Along with riding lessons, Brittany started doing student internships at El Jo Mar where she learned to train horses. She then attended the University of Minnesota in Crookston for equine science and ag business, spending her breaks from school in Aberdeen helping at El Jo Mar. When Marg was ready to retire, she offered the business to Brittany, and the rest is history. Brittany says, “I think she felt like it was going to be in good hands because I had been here all this time, learning from and traveling with her.” 

The traveling she refers to is their frequent road trips during horse show season. From April through September, Brittany, her show clients, and their horses hit the road at least twice a month. They go all over the country and into Canada to compete, taking with them on average four to six horses every trip. Brittany explains why shows mean so much to her and her riders. “For kids taking riding lessons, those lessons are like their practices and the horse shows are where they get to go compete against others and see what they can do.” Seeing her clients excel at shows means a lot in many ways. “This last year we took one of our youth, who takes riding lessons here, to the Canadian Nationals on a horse that Marg and I bred, raised, and then sold to a client. They won a Canadian youth national championship and numerous other awards, and for us to see this youth achieve that on a horse we brought up, it’s really exciting for us.”

For a long time El Jo Mar was solely Arabians, a horse breed that held a special place for Marg. Brittany has expanded to show pintos and half-Arabians, and boards additional breeds like paints, quarters, and minis. With their success on the show circuit it might seem like only the best of the best take horse lessons at El Jo Mar, but that’s not the case. They have everyone from people who have never been on a horse all the way to national champion riders in their programs. During the winter months, Brittany gives about 30 riding lessons each week. This is her slower season though, as she gives closer to 70 lessons every week in the summer. She says her goal with lessons is first and foremost that students enjoy them and get a love for the horse. “I want them to learn some basic knowledge about a horse and to have fun. Once that’s established, I’m willing to take them wherever they want, whether that’s trail riding, showing, or another direction.” And beginners are encouraged to give lessons a try. “Children as young as five years old can start. We keep it really positive and take it as slow as they need, letting them groom the horses and then leading the horse around for them to make sure they’re comfortable riding.”

El Jo Mar has been in Aberdeen for almost half a century. That kind of longevity is certainly something to be proud of, but more than that, their reputation in the horse riding and showing community is the achievement of a lifetime. When it comes to horses, they know what they’re doing, and they couple that with an all-encompassing passion for seeing their clients and horses be successful. Brittany says, “I feel like we have a nice voice in the community and I hope to continue to grow that. I’d like to see it on a bigger scale, with more national champions, an expanded breeding program, and by adding improvements and updates to our facility.” She continues,“I don’t think there really ever is an end for your business, you have to try and always envision new things and keep it exciting and interesting for people.” Luckily for area riders, this girl who loves horses doesn’t plan on taking a break anytime soon. // –Jenny Roth