Deborah “Debbie” Buchanan’s attitude about managing 17 horses that compete at multiple horse shows, in multiple derbies, with multiple riders, is much like the Nike maxim.
“We just do it,” said the barn manager of Lane Change Farm. Buchanan, who has worked for rider Kelley Farmer and trainer Larry Glefke for nearly a decade, believes it’s all in a day's work.
“It’s just part of the business,” she said. “[Hunter derbies] are Larry’s thing now, so they do five to six horses in one every week.”
Lane Change Farm has become a fixture in hunter derbies around the country, commonly sending multiple horses to different derbies in the same week with impressive results.
In fact, Farmer bagged seven derby victories aboard five different horses during the 2010-2011 series alone. Highlights included taking the top three spots at the $15,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at the Showplace Spring Spectacular II in Wayne, Ill., on June 15, 2010. She captured three derby wins with Bases Loaded, rode Glefke’s Rosalynn to win the $20,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby last January at the Jacksonville National Horse Show (Fla.), and more recently piloted Praise to two derby wins in May. When she showed in Keswick, Va., Farmer finished seven horses in the top 12. Most recently, she placed first through fourth in the derby during Week 3 of Horse Shows By The Bay, held on July 22.
More Than Just Elbow Grease
Glefke believes that an integral part of Lane Change’s success is the woman back at the barns.
“We run a sales barn, and Debbie is a master at making my sales horses look like horses that have been around forever,” said Glefke, who originally hails from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. “They’re all fat, and every horse in my barn eats differently than the one before. Every horse gets the individual attention they need to do their best.”
For Glefke, 64, the title of “barn manager” does not aptly describe the myriad of ways Buchanan keeps their operation, which was originally based in Keswick, Va., but is now on the road most weeks of the year, running smoothly.
“She’s a jack of all trades at my barn, and there’s nothing she can’t do. She’s absolutely amazing,” he said enthusiastically. “She puts 100 percent into every day and her horses, and while Kelley is a lucky girl to have the string of animals that she does, she’s more lucky to have Debbie Buchanan taking care of her horses.”
Buchanan is solely responsible for each horse’s diet, but she wears many other hats, including groom and chauffeur.
“I really just do whatever anyone else doesn’t want to do,” she said with a laugh. “I drive the van, I longe some of the horses if a groom has too many, make sure horses are tacked up for morning ride. I just fill in wherever is needed.”
Constant competition means countless hours on the road not only for Buchanan, Glefke, Farmer and their five grooms, but also for the horses.
“I really don’t think it’s difficult [for horses to be on the road most of the time],” she said. “People seem to think it’s a terrible thing, but they do very well. That’s what they’re used to. People live in the city, and they get used to that. If we have a horse that absolutely has to get turned out, we make that happen.”
Additionally, the horses have plenty of time to rest between trips around the derby ring.
“The horses that show in the derby, as a rule, don’t even show in the horse show. Most of them only show once a week,” said Buchanan.
Glefke knows that riding and training the Lane Change horses is only one step in solving the equation that leads to trips to the winner’s circle over and over again.
“Trust is the key factor,” said Glefke, who has retired from the show ring but continues to train the farm’s horses. “I have to depend on her to tell me how a horse is doing, if they’re eating well. I really only see them when they come to the ring or if I’m on one of them or if Kelley is riding the horse during the day.
“If a horse is healthy and eating well and drinking well, you know they’re doing well. It helps me to have [Buchanan’s] insight on what is going on,” he continued.
A Lifetime Of Learning
Buchanan, 66, rode as a junior in her birth state of Pennsylvania. She switched her focus to managing the welfare of horses after she finished at Bennett College in Millbrook, N.Y. She opened her own business at Hollow Hill Farm in Valley Forge, Pa., in her early 20s with Maryann Charles as the rider. Then she left that business behind to take a position at Belcort Farm in Keswick, Va., in the late 1960s where she managed approximately 20 horses.
After her time at Belcort, Buchanan returned to her own business at Hollow Hill Farm with her niece, Sheila Camp Motley, as the rider. Then, having met Farmer along the way, the seasoned horsewoman moved on to Lane Change.
And although she no longer rides, Buchanan finds fulfillment in working with great riders and horses.
“People will say to me, ‘You don’t ride?!’ They think it’s crazy that I’ve been in the business for so long and don’t ride,” she said with a laugh.
“I don’t ride very well, and I’ve been lucky enough to have people around me that are great riders. It’s not that I dislike it, I just see no reason to do it if you’re not good at it, so if you can find a part of the business that you are good at, you do that,” she continued.
For her, the job satisfaction comes not from her own accomplishments but those of the team she’s helped create.
“It’s a big thrill to be champion or win a derby at a horse show. Or if they sell one for a lot of money, that’s exciting for me,” she said. “We’ve had some horses that have turned out to be worth a lot of money, and it’s nice to be a part of that. It’s a group effort. You’re only as good as the people behind you, and people in this business understand that.”
Buchanan comes from a family that shares her passion for the equestrian lifestyle. Her sister, Kathleen “Winkie” Buchanan Motley of Keswick, Va., would be at every horse show if her busy schedule as a wife and mother allowed.
Her late sister, Betsy Buchanan Fishback, coached the University of Kentucky’s Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Riding Team, served on the board of the Kentucky Hunter Jumper Association, and served as the director of community relations for the Kentucky horse shows held at the Kentucky Horse Park. Fishback, who married veterinarian William Davis “Dave” Fishback, passed away Jan. 17, 2009.
A Seven-Day Work Week
Managing Lane Change Farm doesn’t leave much time for anything else in Buchanan’s life. She said there’s seldom room for time off, since the farm shows year-round including during the winter, when they rent a barn in Wellington, Fla.
“The weekend that we did three derbies, we did one in Chicago [Showplace Spring Spectacular in Wayne, Ill., June 14] and then split the barn three ways: We sent one group to Atlanta [Atlanta Summer Classic in Conyers, Ga., June 17], one group to Kentucky [Country Heir II in Lexington, Ky., June 18] and left the rest in Chicago to do the horse show,” she said nonchalantly.
“And in the past 10 days, we’ve done three derbies between Pennsylvania [State College Classic in Furr, Pa., July 1 and Lion Country Horse Show in Furr, Pa., July 8] and Lake Placid [I Love New York in Lake Placid, N.Y., July 10.”
Aside from managing the derby horses, Buchanan also has to make sure horses are fed, groomed, tacked and at the ring for the regular hunter classes all week long.
“We are probably one of the few farms that do the professional horses on a big scale as well as the juniors. I think most farms’ weekends are the busiest, and the weekdays are more relaxed, but ours is reversed,” she said, noting that Wednesday is typically her busiest day.
While travelling directly from show to show, and managing nearly 20 horses with a small staff of eight may be a stressful way to make a living, Buchanan said the horses make it all worthwhile. And Glefke couldn’t be happier with the partnership, either.
“There are so many horses that come and go in our operation, and how Debbie keeps them healthy and keeps track of all of them mystifies me,” Glefke extolled. “I’m thrilled to have her.”
But Buchanan wouldn’t trade her demanding job for a slower pace.
“You have to love it, you can’t do it for the money. I wouldn’t know what else to do if I wasn’t horse showing,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate where there have been great horses all along, and I’ve gotten to see parts of the country that I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to see.”
This is the fourth article in a weekly series about barn managers and grooms. Every Wednesday in July we'll publish a story about one of these invaluable behind-the-scenes employees. Learn more about what it takes to get top professionals into the show ring while everything runs smoothly at home.