I think trying to make a difference, even if it’s a tiny difference, is what’s attractive about doing this kind of work,” Tracy Ostler, executive director of Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) says of her leadership in the nonprofit sector.
Ostler has been with GHMA since 2015, but this is not her first foray into the nonprofit world, and you might be surprised by her background. Before taking the reins at GHMA, she was the research manager for the Section of Gastroenterology at Dartmouth College.
“At first glance, they seem very different, but they’re not as different as you might think,” Ostler notes.
At Dartmouth, she headed what she describes as a “fantastic team of research nurses and coordinators” who were running clinical trials in five disease areas.
Now, she oversees an equally engaged team of event managers, grounds crew members, and administrative staff who run equestrian events in five different disciplines.
“Both jobs require frugal budgeting, reading and interpreting regulations and most of all, providing excellent customer service,” Ostler describes.
It seems that her key strength is her keen awareness of how critical it is to have a cohesive team, no matter the organization’s focus.
“Seeing a person reach his or her goal is very energizing, as is working with like-minded, hard-working, fun people,” she says.
GMHA, which has a history that dates back nearly a century, requires a strong team to manage its 65-acre facility and impressive repertoire of competitive, educational and recreational equestrian events. A leading riding destination in the U.S., the organization has more than 1500 members, as well as a committed base of equestrian enthusiasts who support its work.
Ostler’s equestrian background and general love of horses help when it comes to communicating why GMHA is such a special place.
“My godmother introduced me to a pony named Poppy when I was two years old. I was hooked!” she says.
At five, she started lessons and small competitions, ultimately getting her own horse as a teenager.
“I spent hours riding all over our hometown,” she describes.
After high school, Ostler attended Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre, where she earned a Riding Master I Certificate.
“Although I never competed up through the ranks, horses have always been a part of my life. I have three horses now and try to get as much ‘horse time’ in as I can,” she says.
Her profound, personal love for the equine world makes it all the more imperative to her to keep GMHA’s sought-after programs in motion. But that involves an approach to fundraising that’s both creative and diverse.
“I do think GMHA has a unique model,” she says.
EVENTS RAISE MONEY
While many nonprofits focus on one or two critical fundraising events each year, GHMA doesn’t have a singular annual event that takes the lead.
Instead the nonprofit hosts a remarkable 65 events that generate revenue throughout the year, an intimidating undertaking for any leader.
But Ostler says that when she stepped into her role at GHMA, “Driving revenue efforts was not an unknown animal to me.”
In her previous position as research manager, her team was responsible for driving its revenue.
“Although we were employees, we worked on ‘soft money.’ We needed to be very good at our jobs in order to attract new research opportunities,” she describes.
The advantage at GMHA is that the organization possesses an outstanding reputation for hosting events and has an extremely loyal following.
“My learning curve involved watching and learning about the different disciplines, the different events, and the people who come here so I could meaningfully contribute,” Ostler explains.
Despite its extensive fundraising opportunities, Ostler says, “GMHA operates on a very tight budget, and I think we have the same funding worries as other nonprofits.”
However, the organization is fortunate to have a core group of loyal members and donors who help fill in any funding gaps each year.
“That being said, we are always looking for new income streams, as well as ways to streamline our work,” Ostler notes.
HORSE CULTURE SUSTAINS RURAL CHARACTER
Sometimes change can be difficult within an organization, especially one with such a long history. But Ostler has found that at GHMA, her team’s passion overrides any hesitancy and continually leads to inspiration.
In the fall of 2018, Ostler shared a taste of that inspiration with attendees at the Radically Rural Summit hosted jointly by The Sentinel and the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship. She was a featured panelist during the “Crazy Good” session, which focused on crazy good business practices that aggregate into a crazy good rural community.
There were three different categories, including those that bring activity to a community, those that create something distinctive and export it, and those who work to keep economic activity in a community finely tuned. GMHA falls into the first category of bringing activity (specifically people) to a community.
“South Woodstock is a beautiful village and GMHA plays a role in preserving that beauty,” Ostler describes.
She says the town has historically been a “horsey” one, attracting many people who love to bring their horses to Vermont for recreation and competition.
The first 100-Mile Rides started and ended in Woodstock years before GMHA purchased it. As the organization further enhanced the town’s historical reputation as a great place to ride, countless people moved to the region to take advantage of the extensive trail system.
“This migration of horse people has helped prevent development and sustains the horse culture in this area,” Ostler says.
Even those who never officially moved to the region often find themselves return time and time again.
“GMHA has a historic(al) and nostalgic beauty that draws people. Many remember coming here as kids and are excited to be here with their kids and grandkids now,” Ostler describes.
GMHA’s unfailing role as host plays a big role in the area’s reputation as a welcoming and safe environment for riding. But partnerships with the community and the facility’s neighbors are what make it possible to maintain such widespread trails.
“Collaboration with the community is integral to our success. We need to be good neighbors, good stewards and good communicators,” Ostler says. She believes it is a privilege to have access to such beautiful trails thanks to the support of local landowners.
“Our responsibility is to develop and nurture those relationships,” she says. Part of that involves being responsible for respecting the landowners’ wishes and making sure all members and riders do the same, so no harm comes to the trails.
In return, GMHA is a strong economic driver for the community.
“Approximately 10,000 people come to GMHA each season,” Ostler says.
While they’re in town, they take advantage of local accommodations, eat at the restaurants, purchase fuel, and shop at the stores.
“A 2010 Economic Impact Survey done by the Tuck School at Dartmouth showed that GMHA contributes $4.2 million annually to the local economy,” Ostler notes.
That’s certainly a “Crazy Good” impact on the community as a whole.
Looking toward the future, GMHA aims to remain a destination equestrian venue in the region.
“More broadly, we want to help preserve open spaces and trails throughout Vermont,” Ostler explains.
The organization would like to collaborate with other outdoor enthusiasts, such as mountain bikers and snowmobilers, working to promote, develop and maintain multi-use trails throughout the state.
For those who haven’t experienced the trails and the fanfare of a GMHA event, Ostler invites all to come watch or participate.
“If they’ve never been to this part of Vermont, it’s worth the trip!” she says. T
Learn more: www.gmhainc.org/.
Caroline Tremblay writes from Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire.