Case Study

Design in business | Horseware Ireland

The company

Horseware was established in Ireland in 1985 with the initial production of a basic horse blanket. Its core products under the brand names Rambo, Rhino and Amigo have since become household names in the equestrian world. By 1996, the Rambo Turnout had become the world’s best-selling turnout rug and its design regarded as the industry standard. Innovations in material and design have facilitated the development of the traditional Rambo Original into a range of Rambo rugs. Horseware products consistently win innovation awards at major European and American equestrian trade shows.

Founder and Managing Director, Tom MacGuinness, used his own experience as the owner of a riding school to develop the business based on the specific needs of horses and riders. Horseware has since added new product ranges including five clothing collections in 2002. This has grown to make up 20% of an annual turnover exceeding €35 million.

In its thirtieth year, Horseware now has a total of 650 staff. 125 are based at its Dundalk headquarter, around 30 represent the business in the United States and another 370 are employed in three factories that Horseware operates in China and Cambodia.

At around 30% of sales, the UK is the biggest market followed by the United States, Germany, Scandinavia and France.

Based on the simple understanding that design is about solving problems, it is Horseware founder’s firm belief that without the practical ability to make things, it is hard to innovate, develop and design new or improved products. While expertise and equipment can be bought in if necessary, it is vital to have the skills and expertise to actually make things.

Design activity in Ireland

All Horseware design activity takes place in Ireland and the sizeable manufacturing operation in Dundalk allows the company to maintain a process design focus.

Horseware also develops all the ancillary elements required in the marketing of its products from packaging and leaflets to point of sale display equipment for its network of retailers. It is this holistic design perspective, the drive to continually improve existing designs and the success in establishing the brand, that gives the company its competitive edge.

Starting from the core expertise in textiles, but inspired by a desire to continually improve the experience of horses and riders, Horseware has a rolling portfolio of design projects and allocates between 5 and 10% of turnover to this activity.

The company has two main teams that are involved in the design activity. The first is a team of five staff with a fashion design background who look after the clothing range. The second is a R&D team of four staff, two of which have a design background, who take care of a number of other design and development projects. Horseware has also invested in its own testing equipment and often works with external partners to bring in additional expertise and capabilities.

Many innovation and design projects will start as a response to an opportunity, either identified by the Horseware team or by inventors who offer up an idea to the company in exchange for design and development support. Either way, Horseware will identify a small number of development and design projects to focus on at any one time in order to be able to dedicate appropriate resources to these projects.

Design in focus

Horseware was approached with a request to develop an innovative stirrup that would allow riders to mount a horse unassisted, while also offering the necessary support when riding the horse. The idea was brought to the company by an inventor who required both manufacturing and marketing expertise to develop a product that could succeed in the market place.

The project began with the basic idea of developing a stirrup that dropped down to allow an additional six inches which would then retract and lock into place once the rider put their foot in the stirrup. This developed into the Rambo Stirrup. Considering the potentially dirty environment that it would be used, the search was on for a simple mechanical solution without any springs or other delicate parts.

The R&D team developed a number of possible solutions on paper to materialise the fundamental idea. Working with product design and mechanical engineering consultancy North Design Works, and following intensive team discussions and testing of ideas, a basic prototype was developed using digital printing technology and metal casting.

Repeating this process, the final design was developed in incremental steps with considerations to pricing, packaging and presentation. The strong commitment to the design process and the dedication to ensuring that the product is of the highest quality prior to launch is seen as the secret to success at Horseware.

The final step is to set up the manufacturing process for the new product which is expected to coincide with the availability of the stirrup in October 2016. Already the innovative stirrup has won the highly prestigious BETA innovation award for 2015.

A number of other products have followed similar design and development paths. This includes, the Micklem Multibridle. This was originally the idea of William Micklem, an international coach, speaker, and bestselling author. Drawing on his extensive understanding of equine bio-mechanics and mental health, Micklem worked with Horseware in developing the innovative bridle. However, Horseware’s existing knowledge about leather and tanning processes, combined with the focus on product presentation and retailer support, was a primary factor in bringing the project to fruition.

Designed to fit the shape of the horse’s skull in an aim to release pressure, the bridle introduced a fundamental change to bridle design. This resulted in a much more comfortable, effective and flexible bridle, which won the innovation award at BETA International in 2008. Over 35,000 bridles were sold in 2014.

Impacts from design

The Managing Director argues that the Horseware approach is unique and has helped establish the company as a market leader. The sophisticated manufacturing process, warehousing system and the insistence to retain the skills of actually making things in-house means that Horseware has established a unique capability to make bespoke products alongside the main standard product ranges. Combined with a reputation for durable products, this has resulted in a growth in orders for bespoke products.

Seeing development projects through, even if this means investing more than might have been expected at the outset, ensures that the ultimate result is a tangible product including the corresponding IP. This is the key to gaining access to different market segments and securing market share.

The focus on process design is one of the key reasons why Horseware is still able to manufacture in Europe as it has generated a 30% reduction in the labour input required to produce each rug.