Jennifer Dushane’s Arctic Horse Gear
All-weather skirts for women who ride horses, or don’t
Faly Me Hannigan (left) and Arctic Horse Gear founder Jennifer Dushane.
© Lisa Hannigan / Courtesy of Arctic Horse Gear
A Butte marine biologist is turning the slowdown in the Alaska oil economy into a launchpad for a new business venture: making all-weather skirts for women who ride horses.
A year ago, Jennifer Dushane was a graduate student, working toward a PhD in marine biology. But she was dissatisfied with the work and felt getting a degree might be more costly, both in time and effort, than it would be worth in the field she was working in.
She had for several years run Arctic Ecological Research, a consulting company that contracted with oilfield companies and others to conduct research in rural Alaska. She gained a lot of knowledge about working in rural Alaska while contracting and knew that the cold-weather gear available didn’t keep her warm.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in these extreme conditions, wishing I had options for my legs,” she says. “By and large, women don’t have much to choose from when it comes to cold-weather gear for our legs.”
As an avid horsewoman, Dushane had been thinking for a while about cold-weather gear that would be suitable for riding horses. She has, and uses, a Skhoop skirt, a popular insulated skirt that Alaskan women wear to hike or recreate outdoors—or just to wear to work or out to dinner. But the Skhoop is too narrow to accommodate riding horses, and many weren’t waterproof or machine washable.
“We’ve gotten into some strange get-ups to stay warm,” she says. “I thought, why not create something that is really pretty and that works for active women?”
A friend gave Dushane a wrap skirt designed for riding horses, and although the skirt wasn’t exactly what she envisioned, it was a good jumping-off point for her design process.
“I wanted a skirt to cover the rider, the back of a horse, and any saddle packs,” she says. In cold weather, horses move easier if their hindquarters are covered and warm.
Creating the Prototype
She got connected with a Palmer seamstress, who helped her design skirts and created prototypes. Dushane isn’t a seamstress, she says, though she tried to learn so she could better understand the process.
“I tried to make a few skirts,” she says. “A few potato sacks later, I decided it wasn’t for me.”
With the help of the Palmer seamstress, she created a prototype that seemed to work, and in February, got a business license for her company, Arctic Horse Gear. It is one of several businesses Dushane runs—she also operates Butte’s Bethel, a two-cabin bed and breakfast, and a small organic farm on the property she and her husband own in Butte.
Although her skirts are useful for all types of activites, she specifically designed them accommodate riding. They have a full two-way zipper at the front and snaps on the hem that allow it to be snapped to the waist to more easily accommodate getting on and off a horse. The long skirts also have breakaway leg straps that keep the skirt from flapping up when riding fast, but can come off legs in the case of an accident.
Dushane found a commercial sewist in Anchorage and a hobby sewist in Palmer willing to help craft the skirts. She’s also working with a Palmer-based Christian practical needs ministry, Connect Palmer, which helps women and men in distress by providing items to meet immediate needs, like toilet paper and toothbrushes, as well as providing housing and job training, resume help, and other life skills training, like the vocation of sewing.
Sherry Carrington, Connect Palmer’s executive director, is working with Dushane to develop a sewing program in which in-training sewists will work on parts of the skirt assembly.
“It will be kind of an assembly line,” Dushane says. “I really wanted every piece of [the business] to do good somewhere.”
Carrington says working with Dushane will allow her seamstresses to gain skills vital to future employment.
“It would help their instruction, would help them financially, it would … help them to take the skills they are learning from us and use them in the workplace,” she says.
Carrington and Dushane, in the summer, were working to develop clear sewing instructions for each step of the sewing process, so seamstresses can easily take a project from start to finish. They hoped to have the instructions ready to be used by fall.
So far, Dushane says production is keeping up with demand, and she’s hoping the balance will hold for a while.
Sourcing: American Materials for Alaskan Made Products
Sewing the skirts is one of many parts of the skirt construction process. Dushane worked to source the fabric and hardware at mills in the United States.
“I had a few business principles for making these skirts: they had to work, they had to be pretty, and I also wanted the skirts to be made from American materials and be sewn locally in Alaska. Our products may be more expensive than you would get from something made in China, but we’re supporting the American economy, the Alaskan economy, and we stand behind every product we make.”
Dushane makes four styles of all-weather skirts in both short and long lengths.
The Arctic Insulated Skirt has six ounces of continuous fill insulation, which required minimal quilting to keep the insulative value intact. The company she buys the insulation from also supplies US military and outdoor clothing and gear company Arc’teryx. The skirt has a softshell fabric on top, is machine washable, and the sheeted insulation won’t shift in the wash, Dushane says.
The Outlander skirt, named after the popular series about a World War II nurse who is transported to 1700s Scotland, is a long, full wool skirt meant to lay over the back of the saddle. The Outlander skirts are made of wool sourced from the American mill Woolrich and are lined with microfleece. “It’s romantic, and it’s really warm,” Dushane says.
The Tongass is a rainproof skirt made of softshell fabric, good for hiking, riding, running errands, or going out to dinner, she says.
The Backcountry skirt is a stylish alternative to chaps and, as far as Dushane knows, is the only waxed canvas riding skirt on the market in the world. A New Jersey family that has been making waxed canvas for five generations makes the canvas Dushane buys. It’s impregnated with food-grade wax, so it’s safe to be next to skin, she says. It’s a narrow skirt that comes in short or long lengths with full-length zippers in the front and back. “It really protects the legs against brush,” Dushane says. “When I have to go check out trails, I’ll put this skirt on so I can protect my legs.”
Starting Out by Giving Back
The garment industry has a steep markup for wholesale and retail prices, Dushane says. Traditionally, the wholesale value of a garment is twice what it costs to make, and the retail price is twice the wholesale value.
Dushane says she didn’t think the traditional method would work for her skirts. Using that model, her skirts would cost around $800, and that price would severely limit the number of people willing to buy them. So she decided a on a 30 percent profit model, of which, about 10 percent goes to charity.
“Five to 10 percent of our profit goes to the nonprofit of the buyer’s choice,” she says. “If a nonprofit advertises for us, they get 10 percent of the profit from the sales of any skirts they sell.”
The skirts range in price from $159 for a short rain skirt to $259 and $289 for the long Backcountry and insulated versions. Most sell for less than $200.
Dushane says the nonprofit brand ambassador program bridges marketing and promotion by having nonprofits put a link to her site on their webpage and promote the skirts via social media, encouraging members to support her business. In turn, they get a portion of the profits of every skirt due to their efforts. It’s a win-win for both organizations, she says.
The profit model might make it challenging for her to sell her garments in stores, however. A large United Kingdom tack store contacted her after seeing her skirts, but the company was cool to the idea of splitting a 20 percent profit on each skirt sold.
“I’m just going to do this for now,” she says. “If we can have brand ambassadors and partner with nonprofits for marketing, I’m OK with that. It’s working so far. I’d love to be in every outdoor store, but the traditional really cheap wholesale/really expensive retail model doesn’t work for Arctic Horse, because we are sourcing American made materials and paying local people a living wage to make the skirts.”
Dushane says she hopes to attend a few international horse shows and outdoor gear marketing shows in the coming year to further promote her skirts.
Arctic Horse Gear founder Jennifer Dushane.
© Gutierrez Photography / Courtesy of Arctic Horse Gear
A Warm Reception
Dushane has only been producing skirts for a few months and selling them since the spring. In that time, she says, the reception has been very positive. She has set up a booth at a few horse shows, she says.
“If they come into the booth, they almost always buy a skirt,” Dushane says.
Michelle Coburn of Anchorage, a driver for the Horsedrawn Carriage Company and an avid horsewoman, says she wore a tan, wool Outlander skirt in May at the Parade of Stallions horse show at the Alaska State Fairgrounds. It was the first time an Arctic Horse Gear skirt had been worn in public.
With red boots and the red and black gear she wears for the Horsedrawn Carriage Company, she looked sharp, she says, and several people told her how striking she looked.
“People said, ‘Wow, you look beautiful!’” she says.
Other carriage drivers she works with are interested in wearing them for their work, she says.
“In traditional carriage driving, there is sort of a lap blanket that is traditionally worn. It ties around the waist and goes over the legs. But this is so much nicer, because it’s insulated and waterproof, and that makes it a little wind-proof. When you’re driving downtown, you’re up a little higher [in the carriage], and when you turn some corners, the wind is right at you,” Coburn says.
Downtown Anchorage, where the Horsedrawn Carriage Company primarily works, can be quite windy in the evenings, she says. The drivers, all women, are interested in getting an insulated, long Arctic skirt to keep warm and still look professional.
“The neat thing about these skirts, to me, is that they’re not only great for riding in, they’re so stylish. They look like [they’re] right out of a Ralph Lauren ad,” Coburn says. “They don’t slide around like other brands I’ve tried. And in Alaska, we don’t get to dress really fancy, like in other places, we have to stay warm and dry. To have an option that accomplishes both of those things is nice.”
Coburn has become an ambassador of sorts for Arctic Horse Gear. She has a Tongass rain skirt, an Arctic skirt, and a Backcountry skirt. She wore the Tongass skirt—the long, full version—while riding with some friends on a rainy summer day and was impressed.
“It worked really well. I pulled the corner [of the skirt] up and the fabric was soaked, but my jeans legs were completely dry. My saddle was completely dry … and the horse’s rear end was totally dry.”
Coburn says she plans to take a few extra skirts to sell or display when she travels in the fall to Missoula, Montana, to teach a class.
“I really believe in them and I think they’re really stylish,” she says of the skirts. “I live in Alaska—I can’t make a big stand, but I can make a stand by supporting women-owned companies, companies that support nonprofits. I mean, who does that, as a start-up company? She started out right from the get-go. It’s just integrity, and I believe in supporting with my dollars, companies that do well.”
Freelance journalist Rindi White lives in Palmer.
This article first appeared in the September 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.