Cathy Neelan likes nothing better than introducing young children to their first horseback riding experience. However, when she put her young friend Lars on the back of her crotchety old friend Merlin, there was a problem.
Merlin, may he rest in peace, was a 20-year-old Shetland pony and way too savvy for young riders.
"I used to take kids for a ride on him, and they couldn't keep his head up. He'd head straight for a patch of green grass, his head would go down and that was the end of the ride," Neelan said. "It would end up in tears."
No matter how hard they tugged on the reins, young children could not counter the powerful neck of a pony, let alone a full-grown horse.
Neelan, a public policy mediator by profession, is the kind of person who solves her own problems.
"When I need something, I make it," she said.
In the case of Merlin, what Neelan needed was a new piece of tack -- specifically, a lightweight grazing muzzle that would prevent him from gluing his face to the turf while small passengers were on board. She envisioned creating a muzzle that would allow a pony or horse to breathe but would discourage the animal from grazing to the extent that they would cease frustrating young equestrians, and refrain from forever stopping for another bunch of grass.
Neelan sat down at her heavy-duty sewing machine and knocked out a prototype that looked much like an old-fashioned feedbag but with some important differences. Her grazing muzzle was made of a lightweight mesh and the halter-like straps that attached it to the horse were fastened by Velcro, allowing a quick release in case anything got hung up on other tack or a gate.
At first, Merlin continued his habitual behavior of dipping his head for a mouthful of sweet grass. But quickly, he gave up, and Neelan's friends began to notice. Neelan found herself stitching more grazing muzzles.
The genesis of Neelan Resources and the grazing muzzle can be traced to another of Neelan's pastimes that is entirely unrelated to horses. While on river-rafting trips, Neelan and her friends were looking for something to make kitchen patrol less of a chore. Specifically, once they had the dishes clean, they couldn't find a place to let them air dry without getting dirty again. Neelan went home and stitched an elongated mesh bag that could be strung between two saplings. Wet dishes could be safely stashed in the bag, and there was a place for utensils in side pouches.
Neelan's friends dubbed the dish-drying bag for campers "IndaNet" and she began cranking them out. Later, she contracted with stitchers to produce "IndaNet Products" and currently has them sewn by a shop in Denver. They are available at Colorado REI stores and at REI's Internet site for about $25.
Neelan's familiarity with rugged, mesh fabrics made them a natural when she turned her creative mind to equine products, and the grazing muzzle was only the beginning.
Ponies are the right size for small riders, but they are notoriously ornery. Often, older, full-size horses make a better match for children. Neelan is fond of an oft-repeated saying in horseback riding: "The younger the rider, the older the horse. The younger the horse, the older the rider."
The implication is that experienced riders are the best match for green horses, and wise, old steeds are often the best choice to carry a young rider around the ring.
But hanging onto aging horses isn't always easy -- for one thing, it's hard to keep weight on them.
"They tend to go downhill," Neelan said. She has a 23-year-old paint gelding named Beetle who was a rodeo pickup mount in his wild, younger days. Today, he spends his golden years transporting 5-year-old Margaret Lichtenfels around the corral.
Neelan designed a product to keep horses such as Beetle fit for riding.
Her mesh supplement bag is strapped on like the grazing muzzle, but instead of keeping a horse from eating, the supplement bag is meant to contain food. In Beetle's case, it's "Purina Senior supplement." Without the supplement bag, Beetle is prone to dribbling the expensive feed out of the corners of his mouth. And on days when his appetite isn't what it should be, the bag reminds him to chow down.
Finally, at the request of a veterinarian, Neelan has developed a nursing bag that allows owners of newborn colts to manage their health when they show signs of scours. Those colts are given medicine and their nursing has to be restricted. Neelan came up with a muzzle that easily peels back, allowing horse owners and vets to regulate nursing time.
All of Neelan Resources' equine products retail for about $20. They are available at Soda Creek Mercantile, Elk River Farm and Feed, and on the Front Range at Brighton Feeds. The products also are sold in Utah, Wyoming and Arizona.
Neelan is in the process of applying for patents for the equine products. She also is working with Joe Livingston, a small-business development counselor with Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs. Livingston, who owns draft horses, is helping her create an e-commerce site.
Neelan is realistic about the future of her small business -- she knows that she alone can't expand it indefinitely. Her busy practice as a mediator makes it difficult for her to grow her fledgling business. Someday, she may need to turn it over to a bigger company.
"All of this comes from my passion, and I recognize I'm a little guy," Neelan said. "My hope is that the business will always be associated with kids."
Geriatric horses everywhere are pulling for Neelan to succeed.
-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205
or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org