Business with a Cause

Full-time radiologist and dressage rider Susan Ward taps into her creative side by starting a line of handmade stock ties, belts, purses and more.

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

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 extra-bedroom 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 mass-produced 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. 

This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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