By Katie Navarra
After realizing he couldn’t make more by doing more, Lee Olsen transformed his traditional farrier business into a profitable 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. job that leaves plenty of time for family.
Before Lee Olsen turned 30 back pain kept him from lifting his then-infant son, Trace, from his crib. It was 2012, and Olsen was swallowing ibuprofen like candy to make it through the day. His “book” was full. He worked six to seven days a week, had a helper and customers balked at paying more than $90 to $100 a visit. He had two choices for increasing his income—do more or charge more.
Realizing he couldn’t physically take on more work, Lee decided to pursue certification since a Certified Farrier could surely charge more. The test didn’t seem like a big deal, he knew all he needed to, all he had to do was pass the exam.
“I failed the shoeing part of the Certified Farrier exam because I missed a heel,” he says. “It was an eye-opening experience. It lit a fire in me that has never gone out. I later passed the CF, but on that day I said that I would become a journeyman.”
He admits it was a bold decision for someone who had never handmade a shoe, but he was up for the challenge. For two years, he put his hobbies on hold to prepare for certification. Driven to learn all he could, he attended 11 clinics in one year and got involved with local farrier organizations. Mornings were spent studying, and in the evenings, Lee would practice forging after a full day’s work.
Today, at age 35, he is pain-free, is in charge of his destiny and is eager to share all he has learned, about horseshoeing and business, with others.
A Winding Road to a Career
Lee Olsen grew up on his family’s cattle ranch in Dupree, South Dakota and has been riding since childhood. When Olsen wasn’t working on the ranch, he was competing in rodeo events from calf roping to steer wrestling and cutting. Most of all he loved saddle bronc riding and team roping. He qualified for the National High School Rodeo Association (NHSRA) and won the South Dakota all-around championship. Olsen attended Dickinson State University on a rodeo scholarship and qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo three times in team roping. He soon realized he needed a different focus. He transferred to Western Dakota Tech and earned a two-year degree so he could work with his mind instead of his body.
After Western Dakota Tech, Olsen started working as an apprentice electrician and learned quickly how the new career was underpaid for the amount of work “If I was going to work hard, I was going to get paid for it.”
Soon thereafter, He enrolled in a one-week horseshoeing class and took on training horses while competing on the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) circuit. He qualified for the PRCA Badlands Circuit finals twice and in 2007, he and his team roping partner set an arena record of 4.3 at the Black Hills Round UP PRCA Rodeo—which held for 10 years.
He did have it figured out, at least for a while. Until he realized his back was only going to last so long and that he was missing out on coveted family time. Failing his first certification was life-changing. It was a wake-up call that he had much more to learn—about the technicalities of trimming and shoeing.
Transforming the Business
Lee Olsen maintains a strict 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday schedule and his services start at $250. Rearranging his daily schedule is a part of what has made it possible.
Olsen is up before the sun, waking at 5:30 a.m. each day. Twice a week he participates in a men’s bible devotional Zoom gathering at 6:15 a.m. He spends time with his wife, Jamie, and newborn Eli. Then he drops off his son Trace at school so that he is ready to greet the first client at 9 a.m.
“It seems like a big-time gap, but there are lots of things that are important that won’t get done if I don’t do them early,” he says. “Stretching, working out, bible devotionals, hanging out with the family, drinking coffee, and planning my day before the world starts.” He admits that he has a love/hate relationship with early mornings but rising early has allowed him to prioritize all the things that once took a back seat.
“I realized that I wanted to run my business, not let it run me. In my opinion, this was the first step,” he says.
It took more than changing his sleeping habits to achieve his goals. He took a hard look at what wasn’t working in the business. Like most farriers, he spent hours driving from one client to the next. Knowing that cut into time he preferred spending with family, he shifted to haul-in appointments. Tuesdays are committed to one on-farm visit, the rest of his customers haul to his facility, Olsen Equine.
“I like being home and so I started thinking, what if I asked clients to bring their horses to me,” he says. “Instead of saying no to new customers, I started saying yes if the client could bring their horse to me.”
Olsen then started building a 3,025 square foot facility featuring granite countertops, custom cupboards stocked with coffee-making supplies, and comfortable chairs to make customers feel at home. The waiting room offers more amenities than a car dealership, providing a viewing window, snacks, a popcorn machine, and television. That combined with a “super shade tree” surrounded by concrete, he and his team can safely work on up to 12 horses at once.
Then he made another daring move. Instead of always being “booked,” his schedule is now 80% full, leaving room for new clients. Scheduling to capacity or overscheduling can be seen as bragging rights, but the churn can lead to burnout.
“There is no power in being full,” he says. “I leave space in my schedule for new clients, it’s the easiest way to raise prices and change the terms.”
Paying it Forward
Earning more in fewer hours is the ultimate achievement. But for Olsen, helping horses and people is still the most fulfilling part of the job. Steven Hayes, a client and close friend recalls Olsen stepping in to help a farrier friend who hurt his back. Olsen took on a day’s work and rather than accept the pay, gave it to his buddy. One of the hurt farrier’s client asked Olsen to work on her horse, he only agreed if she promised to return to his friend once he healed, according to Hayes.
Hayes remembers seeing a different client bring in a crippled horse. It was obvious the horse owner was struggling financially, but she didn’t make a big deal of it, her horse’s soundness was her biggest concern. At the end of the visit, Olsen wouldn’t accept payment, he simply sent the lady on her way.
“He is in it for the horse,” Hayes says. “He is in it to make a living too, but he is a good person all the way around.”
Olsen says there is no greater reward than making a difference in a horse’s life. A few years ago, a top-performing barrel horse with an inoperable cyst on its navicular bone showed up at the facility. Euthanasia had been discussed. Unwilling to give up, she saw a different veterinarian for a second opinion. That vet recommended she bring the horse to Olsen. With corrective shoeing and TLC the horse returned to 100% soundness and won the Patriot Barrel Race, one of the toughest events in the country.
“It was such satisfaction to pull that horse off its deathbed and get it back to work, it gives me goosebumps,” he said. “To be able to fix things like that is what makes me get out of bed in the morning.”
Sharing his Knowledge
There are only so many hours in every day for Olsen himself to help horses perform their best and be pain-free. Sharing his knowledge for the well-being of the horse has become a priority. He hosts weekend clinics, educating farriers and horse owners through online courses at www.olsenequine.com. In addition, Olsen Equine also offers a four-year apprenticeship.
“At my clinics, I’ll take anybody who wants to learn how to take care of their horse better,” he says. “Some farriers don’t like to work for educated horse owners, but they are my favorite. They are willing to go the extra mile for their horse because they know how important it is.”
While Olsen’s father is a rancher, his passion for teaching others comes from his mother, a special education teacher who now teaches at Oglala Lakota Community College. Through the apprenticeship program, Olsen is able to share his love of teaching and provide learning opportunities he wished he had when he started out. Those accepted into the apprenticeship program have access to the climate-controlled farrier shop including free propane, coke and bar stock.
Apprentices are also offered countless educational events from clinics to conventions and on-site workshops with experts like clinicians such as Grant Moon. A weekly salary, free lunches during the week and free on-site housing are all part of the program.
“When the apprentice is ready to work on the side, we provide them with overflow clients,” Olsen says. “They are welcome to work after work or on the weekends. We had one apprentice make $30,000 on the side. We work with a breeding facility two miles down the road where apprentices can hone their skills and make side money caring for about 700 mares.”
The first time Tyler Robinson met Olsen he was struck by the farrier’s willingness to help every individual horse regardless of what it might take. Robinson attended a weekend-long clinic but let a summer slip by before applying for the apprenticeship. Under Olsen’s guidance, Robinson completed the American Farriers Association (AFA) Certified Farrier in one year and the AFA Certified Journeyman Farrier after two-and-a-half years with Olsen Equine and is now an associate at Olsen Equine.
“Lee knows more than just shoeing horses,” Robinson says. “One learning experience that impacted me the most was when we were working with a big group of 2-year-olds for the first time and I was struggling to keep a good attitude. Lee asked me “are you acting calm or are you being calm? As soon as I started being calm my attitude changed the entire day. Somehow the horses became easier to trim after that.”
Olsen has since taken on two more apprentices, Kelton Harris, who passed his Certified Farrier exam seven months after joining the team. The only experience Harris had prior was attending one of Olsen’s weekend clinics. Most recently, Jeb Hunt has joined the program.
“I love to teach anyone who truly wants help. Helping someone else achieve their goals does more for me than reaching my own,” Olsen says. “I believe that if you help enough people get what they want, eventually you will get what you want too.”
Taking Care of Business
Since Olsen has stopped torturing his body with a backbreaking schedule, he rarely needs pain relievers. It was only when he finally recognized and embraced the fact that there was no way to earn more by working more.
“The best thing I have going is that my life has a lot more happiness in it. I have a lot more free time and I’m making a lot more money by working smarter,” he said. “But you have to be willing to improve yourself and get better at everything, not just the things you like to do.”
Being self-employed doesn’t come with retirement or benefits. The business must be cared for and treating oneself as an athlete, financially and physically, are critical for success.
“You make as much as you can, while you can, knowing that you won’t be able to shoe horses forever,” he says. “Spending and investing money wisely is important.”
Staying fit by working out is far from his favorite daily “to-do,” but he takes seriously. Until the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, Olsen trained at a local cross-fit gym. Luckily, Robinson, his associate, is a fitness guru and has created a three-day-a-week home exercise program.
“There are only a limited number of horses you can do in a lifetime. I stretch and workout so my body lasts,” he says. “Staying sound in the shoeing business is like being an athlete. Athletes know they can’t work forever, and they have to stay fit so they can earn as much as possible while their body holds up.”
Transforming his farrier business has been strategic and it has taken more than earning a Journeyman certification. It has been fueled by a desire to help horses, especially those that are in pain or are underperforming. There are many ways of running a farrier business, building a facility, and having customers come to Lee has allowed him to grow his business while still being able to spend time with his family. According to Lee the basic ingredients for farrier success are having the drive to continue learning, treat your body like an athlete, make sound financial decisions, and have a true passion for the well-being of the horse.
No, chances are you haven’t. We all can be quick to judge in situations like that. For that reason and a couple others, we have a zero tolerance for working on difficult horses. Safety is our number one concern, but even when it comes to working on a horse that simply won’t stand still, it’s very hard to do a good job!
I grew up instilled with the mentality that you were less of a horseman if you needed to use drugs or declined working on difficult/dangerous horses. I still believe that to be true, but when it comes to working for the public, it’s not the farrier’s responsibility to train your horse. Horse training is something that I believe cannot ever be rushed; you are on the horse’s clock, not yours or the world’s.
For that reason, the horse owner needs to work on this in between farrier visits. Even if the farrier is willing to train your horse, you don’t want them rushing because they have a full day of work scheduled.
Most farriers aren’t willing to work on dangerous horses either, and rightfully so. It doesn’t make any sense to risk being hurt over one individual horse, no matter what it pays! Say the farrier gets kicked and can’t work for 6-10 weeks, they will not only miss out on 30-50 days of paid work, but they will most likely lose most of their business. If they can’t get to their other clients’ horses, their horses can’t wait so they will get another farrier to do their horses immediately!
If you have owned horses for very long, you are going to own a colt or horse that’s difficult to handle their feet at some point. If you have a tough one, don’t worry- I believe they can all be trained to be safely worked on.
Sedation can be everyone’s friend, no matter if the horse owner has done their homework by working on the horse prior to the appointment or not. It takes the edge off and makes it a good experience for the horse. The last thing you want is for the horse to think the guy/gal that shows up with the apron on is always upset and hates them!
Likewise, if you constantly drug your horse and never work with them, they won’t ever get better to work with. It takes both.
I’ve known this for quite a while, but apparently I need constantly reminded. A while back, I shod a horse at a vet clinic that would pull back- not a little, like fly back! Well, it wasn’t really dangerous, so I just got him done without sedation, thinking I saved the owner some money. The next day their normal farrier back at home calls me. He politely asks why I left one foot lower laterally. I said, “No Sir, there wasn’t any reason to on that horse; I intended leave him level.” Well, he wasn’t and sent me a picture to prove it. Then he said, did they tell you he kicks? I said, “No they sure didn’t!”
From that day on, I decided that if the horse doesn’t allow me to do a good job, I absolutely can’t work on it. Not because I can’t successfully nail shoes on, but because I don’t want to hurt our reputation by being tied to sub-par work.
If you need to sedate your horse, most vets are happy to help or they can sell you Dormosedan Gel over the counter.
God Bless America!
Lee Olsen CJF