Five years ago, Carolyn van Schalkwyk was working three jobs to support herself and her horses, while at the same time trying to generate enough capital to get her new business, Espoir Equestrian, off the ground. Starting from scratch and operating on very little sleep, two things kept her moving forward: hope and a lifelong passion for horses.
“After spending some time studying architecture, I felt quite boxed in and I wanted to explore more of the arts,” Carolyn recalls. “I love designing; I love things that are neat and square. But even though I absolutely adored designing, I still felt disconnected from my passion, which is the equestrian industry. My biggest love has always been my horses, so I decided I wanted to find a way to express myself through the arts in the horse community.”
‘There is always hope’
She chose the name Espoir, which means “hope” in French, to set the tone for her journey. “I’ve always tried to spread a message of hope, especially to the younger generation. I want to show them that, if you put your head down and work hard, you are going to grow up and get stuff done,” Carolyn says. “I think there is a real lack of hope, especially here in South Africa. There is a lot of poverty all around. I work personally with people who lead really difficult lives, but as long as you carry on, keep a positive attitude, and don’t give up, there is always hope.”
From design to photography, accounting, and packing, Carolyn did everything herself when the brand first launched. She also had to navigate the hurdles of starting a business in South Africa. “It’s been challenging from the start. Things are not as accessible here as they are in other countries. But I’m very hard-headed!” Because she had no prior business experience, she spent hours figuring out how to set up company structures, opening accounts, and researching suppliers.
Photo by Jacquisphoto.
Along with logistical issues, Carolyn admits she also made some mistakes. At first, she didn’t have a clue about sizing, and as a result, created shirts that didn’t fit well. Although she laughs about it now, she recounts sitting there surrounded by her stock, trying to figure out how to repurpose the material and resell everything so she wouldn’t lose all the capital she had worked so hard to raise.
Despite what Carolyn refers to as “numerous nightmares,” she says she always keeps her eyes on the bigger picture. “I think because I’m passionate about the sport and what I do, giving up was never an option. I tried — and still try — to find something good about each day, and then start with that the next day,” Carolyn says. “And once the momentum started going, maybe I’d go to a show and someone gave me a little positive feedback, it would encourage me a little bit to carry on. And then, it became two people giving me positive feedback. So, I always try to find hope in all the small, positive things, even when there is a lot going wrong.”
She also has her horses to keep her sane and grounded. “I’m a workaholic, but I know I need to spend an hour a day with my horses. Because my work is my passion, I never want to stop. But it isn’t healthy not to take breaks. When I’m with my horses, I don’t think about anything else, and my horses are so sensitive to me. If you go out there irritated with the stress from the day, they are going to throw that stress back at you. So, I have to emotionally clear my head, and then I come back so rejuvenated.
“Honestly, I would have quit a million times if I didn’t have my horses!”
Form Follows Function
As a passionate equestrian, Carolyn knows what riders need. There’s really no separation between herself and her brand, so when she’s at a local horse show, riders often stop to chat about issues they have or things they want to see in the products.
“I think it is so important to be able to collaborate and learn from each other. Everyone has a different experience, a different style, a different body shape, a different way of looking after their horses. I know my designs will not only work for me, they will work for professionals, happy hackers, my friends down the road. And I know that because I talk to them, and we work together to come up with new ideas.”
Photo by Hilary O’Leary.
In combination with her background in architecture and design, Carolyn designs innovative products with the rider in mind. “Whenever I’m designing, I always remember what I was taught when I was studying architecture: form follows function. For riding, my products are ergonomically shaped. They don’t restrict movement. The way the fabric is shaped, how it stretches, where it stretches, all those details are purposefully designed. I’m always thinking of protection and comfort for horse and rider. I want every piece to benefit both.”
With both function and form in mind, Carolyn says she’s really stepped back and thought about the properties of each item. What should a shirt do? What should a saddle bag be?
Introducing Something Sleeck
One of her most popular new products, which she calls “sleecks,” is a result of that integrative mentality. “I basically sat down and looked at all the benefits of slacks and of breeches. I wanted to see what makes them good and bad and then combine the best of the two. We’ve also bonded fabrics against each other, so they protect you like a breech but provide all the movement of slacks.”
Although she’s confident in her designs, Carolyn notes that it’s difficult to come out with a new product in the equestrian space. “People can be very hesitant to change. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at other sports. Actually, technology and design in other sports have taken leaps and bounds, while in a lot of ways our equestrian market has stayed behind.”
Photo by Hilary O’Leary.
Carolyn counters the hesitancy by giving her new products to other South African professionals. As soon as they start giving positive feedback, other riders are willing to give them a try. “Now, I can see that people are also starting to trust my brand. When I launched the sleecks, I sold out of some of the styles within a couple of hours. And I think it’s because people know the brand now, and they know the quality of what I am putting out. You have to trust the brand — and actually to trust in the person — to buy new things, especially when it comes to something as important as your horse. So, it really has been a process of building trust with the community.”
As far as what’s next for Espoir Equestrian, Carolyn hopes to begin exporting more internationally, to share her products (including exciting new customizable collections) as well as the story of the equestrian community in South Africa with the rest of the world. “African Horse Sickness prohibits our horses from traveling without quarantine. If we didn’t have that, I think the world would see a lot more of our riders getting to the top. We are at such a disadvantage, but we have amazing riders and a wonderful community.”
Photo by Hilary O’Leary.
Although she’s not yet accustomed to thinking of herself as a mentor, Carolyn says she knows the next generation is watching. “I can’t tell you how many messages I get from young girls who tell me that they dream of doing what I am doing. I want them to see that, as long as you don’t quit, there will always be some room to work yourself up and do whatever you put your mind to.”
With that in mind, Carolyn says, despite all the obstacles — or maybe even because of them — she knows her dedication to following her dreams will pay off. And it’s there that she finds hope for the future, for herself, her community, and, of course, her horses.
Feature photo by Hilary O’Leary.
Written by Cheryl Witty-Castillo
Cheryl is a former competitive figure skater turned book nerd and equestrian sport junkie. She views the written word and photography as an intimate conversation with the power to both tell an individual's story and unite a community with a shared passion. When she isn't writing or teaching, Cheryl loves spending time at home with her babies and their various furry rescue pets and carnivorous plants.