Busi­ness with a Cause

Practical Horseman - - My Life - By Kim F. Miller

Su­san nudges all friends and ac­quain­tances to get their mam­mo­grams and check­ups. “It’s one way I can give back,” she says.

By day, Su­san Ward, MD, is a ra­di­ol­o­gist spe­cial­iz­ing in breast cancer di­ag­no­sis. By early morn­ings, evenings and week­ends, she’s a dres­sage rider who main­tains three horses at her home stable in Reno, Ne­vada. In her free time, she is four years into her “hobby busi­ness,” Dara James De­signs. The line of hand­made stock ties, belts, purses, spur straps, vin­tage pins and, most re­cently, brow­bands is mak­ing in­roads in the main­stream mar­ket.

The busi­ness be­gan in 2013 when a show spon­sored by the Sierra Ne­vada chap­ter of the Cal­i­for­nia Dres­sage So­ci­ety be­came the Stacey Berry Memo­rial Dres­sage Show in honor of a mem­ber lost to breast cancer. Su­san made her­self a pink-trimmed stock tie for the event. Friends soon re­quested their own cus­tom de­signs. De­mand and Su­san’s joy in pur­su­ing her cre­ative cu­riosi­ties and in­stincts led her to launch the busi­ness out of an ex­trabed­room work­shop.

With many years of sewing ex­pe­ri­ence, Su­san first dis­man­tled a store-bought stock tie to fig­ure out how to make her own. In the process, she de­vel­oped a lay-flat de­sign that hits a bit lower on the neck than masspro­duced mod­els.

Stock ties still com­prise the bulk of Dara James De­signs’ out­put, but Su­san has fol­lowed her muse into many ad­di­tional prod­uct cat­e­gories. An in­ter­est in leather led to re­search­ing where it comes from and how it’s tanned and to shad­ow­ing a lo­cal leather­worker to learn the trade. To­day, the ex­tra-bed­room shop is filled with hides of all col­ors and projects in var­i­ous states of con­struc­tion.

Brow­bands are the lat­est ad­di­tion. “It be­gan as a way to re­cy­cle a sun-faded brow­band us­ing the scraps of leather left over from mak­ing purses,” Su­san says. As with all of her cre­ations, the goal is to make some­thing that doesn’t ex­ist, so she is work­ing on a mo­saic de­sign us­ing leathers in dif­fer­ent weights, thick­nesses and col­ors, held in place with in­ter­est­ing stitch­ing pat­terns.

As a di­ag­nos­tic ra­di­ol­o­gist, Su­san works 40 hours a week. She has a lit­tle hired help for barn chores, but pro­vides most of the care for two of her own horses and a third she shares with her trainer. Lan­di­tos is Su­san’s 23-year-old re­tired Grand Prix mount and “chief babysit­ter”; Lu­mi­naire is a “solid FEI horse” she’s shown through Prix St. Ge­orges; and Trade­mark is trainer Chelsey Si­b­ley’s Grand Prix horse.

Hav­ing a stable and arena in her own back­yard is “the only way I can get all this done,” Su­san ex­plains. “The room where I have my shop looks out over the horses, so if some­thing needs to hap­pen, I can run out and do it.” She typ­i­cally rides five days a week, usu­ally two horses on three or four of those days. One re­cent morn­ing, she’d rid­den two horses, un­loaded hay and spent an hour on an el­lip­ti­cal ma­chine.

Jug­gling all that she does, Su­san laugh­ingly ad­mits to feel­ing “a lit­tle schiz­o­phrenic at times.” For­tu­nately, the de­sign and con­struc­tion pro­cesses are “very ther­a­peu­tic be­cause they re­quire think­ing and man­ual dex­ter­ity and I get to be so cre­ative. My work­room is full of fab­ric and leather, and I get a new idea ev­ery time I walk in there. It’s over­whelm­ing in a good way.”

The steady flow of ideas makes it tempt­ing to get dis­tracted, but a dis­ci­plined na­ture keeps her fo­cused. “For the last 36 hours, all I have done is leather belt straps, shap­ing and fin­ish­ing them to go with vin­tage buck­les. My cre­ative side would pre­fer to be work­ing on some­thing else.”

There’s al­ways a task to suit her state of mind. “I’m good about hav­ing some­what mind­less prep work to do when I’m tired and sav­ing the de­tailed work of de­sign, con­struc­tion and em­bel­lish­ment for when I’m not.” While she hon­ors dead­lines and pri­or­i­tizes fel­low riders in need of a piece for a fast-ap­proach­ing show, Su­san “feels much more like an artist than a ma­jor pro­duc­tion com­pany.”

A sup­port­ive hus­band and two adult daugh­ters help her meet de­mand. Su­san is con­sid­er­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to mar­ket her cre­ations be­yond the horse world but not at the ex­pense of the work that started it all. Pink fab­ric and thread fill her workspace in the sum­mer months pre­ced­ing Oc­to­ber’s na­tional em­pha­sis on breast cancer and she strives to ful­fill re­quests for do­nated pink-themed ties, sad­dle pads, quar­ter sheets and more for fundrais­ers. She also nudges all friends and ac­quain­tances to get their mam­mo­grams and check­ups. “It’s one way I can give back,” the good doc­tor says.

Su­san Ward, MD, works as a di­ag­nos­tic ra­di­ol­o­gist, rides five days a week and has started her own de­sign busi­ness.

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