Hometown / Sutherland Shire, Sydney, Australia
Currently resides / Braidwood, New South Wales, Australia
Job / Owner and Instructor at The Saddle Camp
A little bit about…
Helen is an incredible woman with a lifelong love for horses that she’s turned into a successful business, The Saddle Camp. Despite growing up in the biggest city in Australia, she knew from a young age that she wanted to own a horse riding farm and did everything she could to follow her heart and see that dream through. She’s an entrepreneur, a mother, a wife, an environmentalist, a teacher and a million other things wrapped into one. Helen’s story is one of epic romance, following your inner voice, pursuing your passions and creating the life you want to live. And she was kind enough to let us camp out on her land while we were getting ready to launch Tnfld, so she’ll forever be a part of our story too.
Helen’s advice for living life Tnfld
- Just start small. If you go all in, not everything works out right at the get go. It’s good if you start in small doses and you can work it out as you go.
- Don’t doubt where you are because you’re where you’re meant to be right now.
- Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you feel alive because the world needs more people who feel alive. (one of her fav quotes from Howard Thurman)
Our favourite quotes
- “Staying in Sydney was never an option. I know myself, I’ve known myself for a very long time. And I have been in that situation. And it’s like being a robot, even though I knew I was working towards something. It was keeping your head down and your bottom up, keep ploughing through because you hope there’s something better on the other side. It just wasn’t on the cards for me and I understand it’s like that for a lot of other people too.”
- “They (horses) are so wise and they put up with so much. The fact that you can have such a big animal focused on you and happy to follow – I point my finger and they’re like ‘happy, no problem’. It’s just amazing to have that kind of connection with such a beautiful animal. I love their calmness and their wisdom and their focus.”
- “The whole town (Braidwood) is just the greatest community I could imagine; you can be as sociable or as reclusive as you like, whenever you like, nobody’s offended. Everyone walks their own track; they’ve all got their own passions. Everybody’s very accepting and will step in to help you at the drop of a hat, but you don’t have to speak to them for several months.”
- “Just looking around. Sometimes you just glimpse up and go…Oh. My. Goodness this is amazing, this is just so beautiful. I’m so lucky. I’m very, very lucky.”
Helen was lovely enough to send us some written answers to our questions, so come back for more after you take a listen to the podcast!
What do you do for work?
I teach horse riding at Saddlecamp. I run fun horse riding camps for girls through the holidays and weekends, and teach horse riding after school and to tiny tots in school hours.
What was your life like before Saddlecamp?
I was working full time in North Sydney in the travel industry and studying Travel & Tourism Business Management 3 nights a week at TAFE, near Central Station. I’d go to the gym or play touch football the other 2 nights, go clubbing after TAFE on Friday nights, and dance til dawn. And on Sundays I’d work at Darkes Forest Riding Ranch taking out trail rides. I’d been dreaming of owning my own horse riding farm since I was 9. I was 21 when I gave up my full time job to start my business with party ponies, carriage rides and riding lessons. That was 21 years ago.
How would you describe your life now and what’s the difference between your current life and your old life?
Now I work from home. My office is straight outside my bedroom door and looks out through the Tack Room Glass Doors to the horses and paddocks and bush outside. I’ve got 6 amazing horses that I work with each day, a beautiful property with loads of relaxed wildlife, really lovely guests that stay and amazing girls that I get to teach riding to. And I have 3 wonderful little sons and a great husband. Before I took the leap of starting my own business I was frustrated but very focussed. I knew where I wanted to be, but had to wait until all my pieces were in the right place before I could “jump off that cliff”.
What does your average day look like?
I start at 6 with breakfast at the computer checking emails and typing up the running sheet for the day and aim to finish up my work by 9.30 and in bed for 10 pm. 7 days a week.
It’s just been the last 12 months that it’s been so nasty. Because of the drought, the cost of feed went up, and my local riders were affected too and bookings fell. By August I had to let the last of my Managers go to keep within my prime costs – so I’ve been teaching riding and caring for the horses, running the office with bookings and book-keeping, cleaning and making beds in the Clubhouse and Tiny Houses Accommodation, and cooking and serving in the Café.
I’ve got checklists for all 3 roles and through the school term, I give myself an hour at each role before switching to the next one. On a good day I can get 3 x 3 hour cycles in before I start teaching riding after school – then I cook dinner and grind through the kids’ homework, and clean up.
Its easier in the holidays and on weekends because I have other young girls working that can take over the regular tasks like feeding & caring for the horses, and my sons don’t have homework. I teach from 8.30 to 4, then the students put the horses away while I cook dinner, bake for the Cafe and clean. Then I take them out for a swim at the river or on a spotlighting tour in the ute. Feed them hot chocolates and popcorn, and put a movie on for them and fall in bed.
It’s not sustainable – but I couldn’t think how else to get through the crisis. I sent a letter to the Business Enterprise Centre in December to ask if they could see a better solution, and a rep spent 2 days going through everything here – my procedures, financials, and testing results, my business plan and said if I could just hold it together until 29 January when everyone goes back to school, I could take 2 weeks off to recover, and going forward cut out 2 days of after-school riding, and get a tutor to help with the boys homework. I’ve had 5 days off teaching riding now, and I’ve nearly caught up on my paperwork. But I’m feeling much better, and think this is a great plan for the next 12 months. My riders have been very understanding, and my sons love the tutor.
What are the small things you do on a day-to-day basis to bring you into the present and bring joy?
I look around. It’s much easier now that everything’s green after the rain and things are growing. I downloaded the Inature app this week, because I’m seeing grasses I’ve never seen before, and I’m so thrilled that there’s growth again in the paddocks. I spend a quiet moment with a horse. They ground me, and I always feel so blessed that they’re happy to spend time with me too. They’re looking so much happier now too that there’s grass! When they’re not with me their heads are down grazing, and it’s a happy herd. That fills me with joy. And I hug my family a lot too. I tell them how great they are, and thank them for their help.
Who do you surround yourself with? Who do you have in your inner circle?
My inner circle is very small right now! Rob, my husband, is generally all I need to download everything onto and set me back on track. But I’ve got a really fantastic community and amazing neighbours who are all very passionate about their own “callings”, and always ready to lend a hand or offer advice – or just to talk about their own exciting projects so I can escape my own head for a bit. But whenever I’m doing my manual jobs I listen to a podcast. I think of them as friends in my inner circle too.
How would you describe the vibe in your life?
I’m always thinking about the vibe in my life! I love being positive and enthusiastic, but I’m a bit sensitive and little things can bring me down. So I avoid the news, sad movies and books. And if I’m having trouble getting out of my head I’ve got plenty of podcasts to bring me back up again. Tnfld is now 1 of them.
Do you have any health hacks?
Luckily my work is pretty healthy. I’m outside a lot – running, walking, jumping and swimming at the river with the riders. And we have easy access to lots of great organic produce from our neighbours and our own garden, and bush tucker when we’re out on trail. It’s great to see a lot of the children really into healthy food choices too – the school system has done an amazing job these last few years. We always have our water bottles close by too. The last few months I’ve eaten way too much sugar to keep me going, but now that things are quietening down I can be much more thoughtful about what I eat.
How have you grown the most in the last few years?
I learnt how to make a profit! I thought it would happen organically, but all our profit would go straight into infrastructure for the business. A few years ago, I realized I’d forgotten about our GST quarterly payment and spent it on an undercover tie up area for the horses. My husband had found roof trusses at his dad’s and said he could make it that week. So I was a bit rushed and not thinking clearly. I’d just turned 40 and when I realized my mistake I wondered for the first time if my dream was just stupid and I should get a real job and stop risking my family’s home.
Instead of asking God for help, I started asking Siri. I asked her if it was time to let the dream go, and she came up with lots of great inspiring stories, one about a lady having to eat caterpillars to survive but it was totally worth it because she got through to making her dream a reality. I thought my life wasn’t that bad yet, so I started asking questions about how to make more profit, and she found me a book called “Profit First” by Mike Michalowicz. I live by his system now, and have 14 bank accounts, and every week I make my 5% Profit Payment into a savings account. We’re using it to build our house, and should be in by this time next year.
What are your biggest challenges right now?
Climate change. I’m using Alan Savoury’s Holistic Management to manage the paddocks. I’m trying to give them as much resilience as I can from these weather swings. Each paddock is getting a 90 day recovery period. I’m trying to keep mulch over the bare patches. And I’m playing around with “cocktail paddocks”, throwing out different varieties of seeds just hoping that something will grow with whatever change of weather we get.
I’m trying to keep the wildlife safe, with troughs that the wallabies and possums can safely drink from. Rob and I went for a walk on New Year’s Eve and found the dam’s edge littered with hundreds of dead froglets. They still had tails so it means their lungs hadn’t developed enough for them to get out of the water. Further up the hill, there were loads of dead worms on the bare soil and above that it looked like someone had tipped chemicals in big patches across the grass. It was salt that had washed out of the hill in a big flush of rain and killed all the grass, frogs and worms. The only thing I can do is get as much vegetation growing on the bare ground before it happens again.
I’m keeping the horses slightly overfed so they can cope with the crazy hot days and swings to cold snaps. These last school holidays we had a few problems with heat stroke – 1 girl collapsed and we rushed her to hospital, and others were vomiting. So I’m making everyone put electrolyte tablets in their drink bottles, and telling everyone the danger signs to look out for so we can keep each other safe. And really forcing everyone to keep eating so there’s something in their tummies. On those really hot days we changed our program so we started with the horses at 6 am, put them away in the hottest part of the day, and rode again at 6 at night.
All the girls staying, and their parents, know our bush fire plan. And now that we’ve gone through a few blackouts we’ve got the generator set up so we can keep the fridges going. I had 13 people to feed in a blackout that went for 18 hours. I think we rocked getting through that one! The girls said it was their best camp ever… I’ve noticed when everything’s going wrong, our riders seem to enjoy it much more. Everyone gets involved in planning to get through the crisis, and being part of the solution.
What have you learnt about yourself in the past few years and have you surprised yourself in any way?
I’ve learnt that the better my questions the more helpful answers I get. And everyone’s happy to give answers.
How have you pushed yourself out of your comfort zone?
I’m scared of the dark and of being alone, and when I moved onto my property 15 years ago I was alone and had no electricity or running water – for about 14 months. I took in a stray dog to keep me company, and I had my horses outside. And I spent a LOT of time socializing – with friends in town, working and joining committees. At the time I was also giving Ghost Story Tours around Braidwood in my horse drawn Carriage on Saturday nights. I was fine while I had my passengers with me, but putting away the carriage and horse and getting back home at night would terrify me.
It only started because I was giving rides around town like restaurant transfers and historic tours, and a really nice man said “Helen, its summer now, but what are you going to do in Winter when no-one wants to be out in the cold”, and I said I’d tell ghost stories. And he said “Really? Because this is what happened to me…” And all these people told me the most amazing experiences they’d had in the different houses and landmarks around town. I guess the end result is I met so many amazing people that still make time for me today, I’ve got some great stories to tell, and I made it through to where I really want to be.
What are your core values?
Live and let live… Do my best to care for my horses, my family and my riders. Horses come first but everyone here knows that.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
To start a Girls Only Sleepover Horse Riding Camp where everything is pink, fluff and sparkles. I thank that man every day.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give someone else?
Howard Thurman’s “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” And start small!
What’s the motto you currently live by?
Luck favours the mind that is prepared.
What part of your life are you focusing on now?
At the moment, just getting my head together. Things have changed – I think this drought might be our new normal. If I can’t afford a permanent staff, how can I still live my dream without losing my mind. I’m pretty sure there’s a way, but this year’s focus is on working it out. There’s a lot of maths and research to do.
When do you feel most free?
Cantering bareback through paddocks on my favourite horse. But I often feel free when I look around me. I don’t need to stop – just look around and say a quiet thank you.
What’s next in your adventure?
I’m dying to sit down and make QR Codes for our bush walks. I’ve got fantastic videos of an Aboriginal Elder walking around Saddle Camp talking about the Bush Food growing here, and the different types of vegetation and how it was used by his ancestors, and the stories that go with them. I’ve also got some ghost stories about the area, and the white settlement history. And with our grant for “Corridors for Biodiversity and Carbon Farming” I’ve got some great information about the wildlife and their habitat and scats and tracks to look out for from the ecologists who visit. I’d love to have the kids ride horses or walk along with their phones and scan the code and see Noel telling them about what they’re looking at. And I’d really love to serve more Australian Native food in our Café.
Inspired by Helen? Check out The Saddle Camp on social…
Insta | @saddle_camp
Facebook | @saddlecamp