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Ahee

Herding Grosse Pointe style


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Driving a front end loader to haul manure is part of Wilbornís job. photo by Renee Landuyt.

January 24, 2013
When Dane Wilborn was riding herd in Wyoming on hundreds of head of cattle, or was on horseback in Arizona tending to miles of fences, he never imagined himself bringing those skills to his hometown of Grosse Pointe Woods.

But in 2010 Wilborn, 24, found himself with a degree in agribusiness from Arizona State University, a love of horses nurtured since a fifth grade class trip to Camp Storer five years of experience as a professional cowboy and a small business manager. He also wanted to come home after spending several years out west after graduating from Grosse Pointe North High School in 2006.

"I stopped by the barn at the Hunt Club, said I had some horse experience and they hired me as a mucker," Wilborn explained. And while mucking stalls (that's horse speak for cleaning stalls) isn't what most college grads aspire to, Wilborn saw it differently.

"There are very few people in Grosse Pointe who say they get to play with horses all day," Wilborn said with a laugh. "I was perfectly happy to just be around the horses."

But Wilborn's background soon became known around the barn, and when the position of barn manager opened up, Wilborn was at the top of a very short list to be offered the position. It wasn't long before he found himself applying much of what he learned in his years at Arizona State.

"Agribusiness is just what the name implies, a combination of agriculture and business. I've had classes in finance, management and marketing, as well as classes in agriculture. The Hunt Club is not a huge operation, but it still requires much of what I learned in Arizona."

And while the Hunt Club is about as far from Arizona's Superstition Mountains as one can get, the animal care issues and the business end of it are much the same.

Wilborn said with the Hunt Club being in the middle of a city, it's off the beaten track, so to speak, when it comes to necessary horse supplies, like hay and stall bedding. With hay prices rising monthly, he works closely with the hay supplier to get the best price. And with an order of about 750 bales per month, Wilborn keeps a constant eye on the bottom line.

Another problem facing the Hunt Club in its urban setting is what to do with the hay the horses have consumed, in other words, the manure. For several years, the manure and used bedding was shipped to a municipal incinerator in Genesee County where it was burned, but new regulations put an end to that arrangement.

"With all the talk of urban farming in Detroit, we'd be perfect to partner with when it comes to fertilizer," Wilborn said. "It would be environmentally responsible, plus a perfect solution for us."

While a student at Arizona State, Wilborn managed a feed store where he learned about horse nutrition and gained practical hands- on experience running a small business.

"That's essentially what the barn is," he explained, "a small business."

In addition to managing a staff of 10 people, he oversees the overall care and feeding of the 36 equine residents, organizing farrier and veterinarian appointments, establishing and working within a budget and managing the physical property of what is a 24 hour a day, seven day a week operation.

One of the biggest projects Wilborn took on since becoming manager was reseeding the paddock areas. Used to dealing with what he describes as "miles" of grazing area out West as opposed to the 14 acres that make up the Hunt Club, Wilborn has become a quick study on how best to manage small operations.

"One of our problems is that we are basically landlocked, and it was evident that at least one of our pastures needed to be reseeded," he explained. "In the perfect world, you could just shut down the area and let it rest for a year, but we don't have that luxury. One of our members, Dr. Herman Houin, did the research on the best grass to plant, and ended up with a pasture blend. Obviously, we can't use fertilizers and standard landscape grass wouldn't work either."

With the barn being a 24/7 business, Wilborn can oftentimes be found on the property early in the morning and late at night. But it's not all work, as he occasionally can be found on horseback, exercising some of the club-owned horses. Wilborn is easy to spot on horseback, he's one of the few riders at the Hunt Club to ride with a Western saddle.

Known as a hunter-jumper barn with a century long tradition of English riding, Wilborn smiles when he says the horses he tends to here in Grosse Pointe are just a little spoiled by their owners.

"I have to admit that I wasn't all that familiar with vitamin supplements for horses until I got here," he said with a laugh. "I'm used to horses that live on grass."

And while managing a feed store in Arizona helped familiarize him with the needs of several types of animals other than horses, he's come up against one problem in Grosse Pointe he hadn't encountered before — foxes.

Wilborn wasn't at the barn when the coyotes were occasionally spotted on the property, but the coyotes seemed to have been replaced by the occasional fox that is seen lurking around the barn and even in the club's indoor riding arena.

Research led Wilborn to a humane, time honored cure for a fox problem, which, to put it delicately, involved "marking" the territory.

"I have to admit it was rather ironic that the Hunt Club, where the logo is a fox, had a problem with foxes," he said. But with so many children and horses, Wilborn preferred the foxes stay outside.

While Wilborn spends his days with his first love, horses, he still finds time for hockey, playing in two night leagues.

He also enjoys off-roading, talking about a Jeep he rebuilt "from the ground up" for driving around the Arizona desert.

"I love the freedom of being in the middle of nowhere," he said.

He credits his parents, Giles and Jackie Wilborn, with his sense of adventure.

"My parents are retired teachers, and they have always supported me and encouraged me," he said.

He's been hooked on horses since a fifth grade trip to YMCA Camp Storer, and while growing up in Grosse Pointe Woods, he would ride his bike over to the Hunt Club just to stand at the fence to watch the horses.

When he was 17, he spent a week at a dude ranch in Wyoming, returning the next summer as a ranch employee, ending his summer by participating in the Outlaw Trail Ride across Wyoming.

While attending Arizona State, he worked as a cowboy at a cattle ranch in the Superstition Mountains, rounding up cattle, riding fences and moving herds.

"It literally was just like you see in the movies," he said. "We worked from sunup 'til sundown."

And like most real-life cowboys, he participated in the Arizona Junior Rodeo where he learned how to ride broncs.

"It was fun while it lasted," he said with a laugh. "But I thought I had better quit while I was still in one piece. Just don't tell my mother."

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