By Stan Wise
American News, Aberdeen, S.D.
Marg Forseth entered her first horse show when she was 4 years old.
She didn’t win.
Seventy-four years later, she remembers that when she came out of the ring, she threw the reins to her father and said, “I need a better horse.”
Forseth’s take is different now.
“What I needed was a good spanking,” she said with a chuckle.
That youthful moment, though, seemed to foretell a career spent trying to raise better horses.
“I was just a horse-crazy girl who grew up to be an old, crazy horsewoman,” Forseth said.
She grew up in Aberdeen, but her grandparents had a farm, and she kept her horse there. As she grew into an adult, though, things changed. Her father died, the farm and the horses were sold and she went to college and got married.
Forseth studied business at the University of South Dakota. She said she wanted to become a veterinarian, but at that time, vet schools didn’t accept women. She was told that most women got married and abandoned their careers.
During and after school, Forseth missed working with horses. When her first child was born, she asked her husband how a child could grow up without a horse.
“He thought, ‘Very easily,’ ” she said.
Finally, when her daughter was 7 or 8 years old, Forseth convinced her husband to buy their daughter an Arabian. Forseth always liked Arabians, so she bought another one for herself.
Her husband later confessed to her his plan was to let her buy a horse so she would be so engrossed with her own hobby that she wouldn’t notice when he was out playing golf or tennis. Forseth admits the plan worked.
Pretty soon, another horse showed up. Forseth sold one of three, hoping to earn enough money for another Arabian.
At that point, “My husband said, ‘You’ve got to get in this or get out of it,’ ” Forseth said.
She got in it.
In 1973, on 50 acres northeast of Aberdeen, Forseth started El Jo Mar Arabians. The name is a combination of the Arabic word El, which means the, her husband’s first name, John, and her own first name.
It was a rough start. Forseth said it was a dry year and she had trouble getting the pasture started. She was forced to buy hay for the horses and that was worrisome.
There were other challenges, as well. While the Arabian breed was growing at that point, Forseth said, “It was unusual for a woman to be running a business. I kind of had to prove myself. I just had to be confident in myself and work hard. I always said I would work as hard as they did.”
After much study, discussion and consultation, Forseth chose the Ferzon line as the basis for her Arabian breeding program. The hard work and careful decision making paid off. Her horses started winning shows. El Jo Mar soon had two Legion of Merit Arabian stallions, one of which, Finzak, was a national champion.
“All of a sudden, when the horses started winning, then it became quite easy,” Forseth said.
Between February and October of each year, she travelled around the country, participating in horse shows.
“The show ring is your advertising. The advertising goes out and people know who you are,” she said.
Forseth said she’s raised more than 250 foals over the years. Recently, a foal was born at El Jo Mar with six generations of her breeding.
“It’s the best we’ve ever raised,” she said.
Forseth explained that when registering an Arabian, an owner must submit a DNA sample to prove its bloodline. She maintained El Jo Mar’s good reputation by holding to her very high breeding standards. Over her years in the business, she only sold three stallions.
In 1990, her daughter, Kris, came home, developed El Jo Mar’s lesson program and became her mother’s partner. Together, they taught riding lessons and trained others to show horses.
“To run a horse business today, you have to be diversified,” Marg Forseth said.
“The business has gotten very specialized,” she said. “In the old days, one horse could go off to the show ring and be ridden in all the disciplines. Now, they can’t. Each horse is trained to one discipline.”
Forseth also said the 2008 financial crisis dealt the Arabian breed a huge hit, and it is still struggling to come out of it.
Other challenges have been even more personal. Kris died in 2009, and Marg Forseth was understandably devastated.
“A friend told me, ‘You didn’t just lose a daughter. You lost three people. You lost your daughter. You lost your best friend and you lost your business partner.’ I thought that perfectly explained how I felt,” she said.
Forseth said anyone thinking of getting into the business has to have a business plan, some capital and a lot of dedication. Also, “You have to have good people skills. You have to make good decisions,” she said.
Ten years ago, she met someone who would take her advice. Brittany Walberg began helping out at El Jo Mar, and she mentioned to Forseth that she would like to run a horse farm of her own someday.
“I told her to go to college and get a degree in ag business and an equine side degree. And she did it,” Forseth said.
Walberg returned after graduating from the University of Minnesota, Crookston, with a bachelor’s degree in equine science and a minor in agricultural business. She’s been Forseth’s business manager for the last six years.
Recently, Forseth noticed that when working with her horses, her mind knew what to do, but her body wouldn’t respond as quickly as she wanted it to. As she and her husband wanted to do more traveling, she decided it was time to sell her business, and she already had the perfect buyer.
“Brittany has been with me for 10 years,” Forseth said. “She knows my methods, and what’s more, she likes them.”
In April, Forseth sold El Jo Mar Arabians to Walberg and her husband, Jeremy.
Brittany Walberg said that since she has taken over, business has been good, with 65 student riders.
Now removed from the horse business, Forseth looks back fondly on her 43-year career.
“It’s a wonderful way to be happy in your work,” she said. “And do you have problems? Of course you do. But the whole of it was inspiring.”