April 2016 - Horse People: Dr. Susan Ward
Written by Kim F. Miller
Thursday, 31 March 2016 01:36
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Reno radiologist & accomplished dressage rider makes dazzling Dara James Designs in her spare time.

by Kim F. Miller

“Industrious” is an understatement when it comes to describing Dr. Susan Ward. The Reno radiologist and mother of two now-adult daughters campaigned one horse to Grand Prix and her current horse is working at Prix St. Georges. She keeps, cares for and trains both at her home stable.

Susan keeps, cares for and rides two Holsteiners at her home stable in Reno. Her Grand Prix mount, Landitos, has been with her since he was 5 and he’s now 22 and retired. Her current Prix St. Georges horse is Luminare, with whom she hopes to compete at the Golden State Dressage Show this June in Rancho Murrieta.

This Dara James Design stock tie was created for Charlotte Jorst to wear in her first World Cup Finals appearance, which happened last month in Sweden. Charlotte is a good friend of Dr. Susan Ward, the Reno radiologist, accomplished dressage rider and artistic wizard behind Dara James Designs.

Susan is an active member of the Sierra Nevada California Dressage Society chapter, through which she organizes and/or participates in regular clinics to advance her own skills and those of her fellow riders.

And, oh yes, she’s the designer, one-person production line, chief cook and bottle washer of the increasingly popular Dara James Designs. The extra-bedroom-based business began with a custom-made, pink stock tie and quarter-sheet to honor a chapter member lost to breast cancer, Susan’s specialty as a radiologist.

That was in 2013 and the “hobby business” has grown considerably, all in directions driven by Susan’s personal passions. She loves old stuff and the stories behind it, for example, and that led to hunting down and cleaning up the vintage pins, buttons and beads that embellish her ties.

Susan’s story is a little bit the adult variation on the children’s book, If You Give A Pig A Pancake. In the book, pancakes lead the pig to want ever more treats. In Susan’s life, the addicting succession of treats is new creative outlets and ways to satisfy her clients’ wide-ranging desires for personalized looks on and off the horse.

Vintage pins and buttons refurbished as stock tie adornments were the first expansion to the product line. “My youngest daughter is a champion thrift store shopper,” Susan explains of the origins of this element of the Dara James line. “She’s very into being environmentally green and recycling, so she loves going to vintage stores. Plus, I’ve always been interested in old things and antiques, so this was a natural shift.”

At a friend’s suggestion, belts came next. Researching the subject and enlisting the help of a Reno leather worker, Susan dove into belt construction and leather work. Taking apart old belts was part of that education, and that led her to belt buckles, of course. She now makes handmade belts, sometimes finding a new (recycled) buckle for an old belt, sometimes making a new belt for an old buckle. Horse blanket hardware has even found its way onto the belts.

Susan fell in love with leather along the way and from that emerged spur straps to match most of the unusual colors available in today’s high-end dressage boots. And then came elegant, delicious-to-touch leather totes.

To keep her hobby business and professional lives separate, Susan used her middle and maiden names to title her creative endeavor. With her daughters’ help on the social media side, Dara James has new designs, for all handmade items, posted regularly on Facebook and Instagram. The company’s website has a good collection, too, but doesn’t keep up with the flow of unique pieces emerging from that extra bedroom and shipping all over the country. “A lot of what I produce never even goes through the website,” Susan explains.

“I think people really enjoy getting a tie they participated in.” The custom design process usually begins with an e-mailed or texted picture of an item, fabric or look the client hopes Susan can create. “They’ll send me a picture of their coats, boots or helmets and we start sending ideas back and forth.”

Susan pursues her own designs when time allows, but she rarely gets a chance to wear her latest creations. “I wear the most boring things!” she laughs. “In the last few years I wear what’s left over. I make something I want, then someone sees it and they want it.”

She’s managed to hold onto one favorite: a tricked-out Asmar shadbelly. It’s a great-looking, reasonably-priced coat, made of modern technical fabric, that comes with interchangeable points that Susan swapped for her own designs. She made dark brown ultrasuede points for a dark brown jacket, and that has led to similar swap-outs with customers’ coats, either retrofitting an old coat or adding custom accents to a new one.

A Stock Tie Start

The company’s founding product, stock ties, have come a long way. The dazzling red, white, blue and blingy stock tie worn by Charlotte Jorst in her World Cup Finals appearance in Sweden last month had modest origins. That was the pink stock tie Susan made for herself to wear in her CDS chapter’s annual October show.

It had traditionally been a Halloween-themed competition, but in 2013 it became the Stacey Berry Memorial Dressage Show in honor of a chapter member who had passed away from stage 4 breast cancer. Now in its fourth year, the show is renowned for its pink accents: from rider coats to hindquarters covered in pink glitter and accompanied by educational material on cancer prevention. “In honoring Stacey, we’ve made it a real educational event as well as a fundraiser,” Susan says.

She applied her longtime seamstress hobby to what became Dara James’ first product. In a process that later applied to each new offering, Susan took a conventional stock tie apart to figure out how it was constructed. After that, she made more and donated them to chapter fundraisers and other causes. Requests from individual riders began to roll in. The ties’ aesthetic appeal is augmented by a special lay-flat design and a comfortable cut that hits lower on the neck than ready-made models.

Personal interest is a common denominator in everything she makes. Vintage pins and belt buckles are enhanced by their histories. “Now I can go places and recognize what time frame a pin was made in, who the manufacturer was and what their intentions were.” It’s an especially timely passion now as vintage pins on lapels and scarves are hot in mainstream fashion.

An anthropology major in college, Susan enjoys the perspective her hobby provides, especially as riders relate to bling that was once mistakenly believed to be a fad in dressage. “When I post something with bling on Facebook, it sets off a cascade of interest. It’s almost as if we are cave people, hunters and gatherers, going after the bright. shiny object!”

While many max out at one horse and a career, Susan finds time and energy for her labor- and time-intensive hobby. She laughs that she needs less sleep than mere mortals, including a husband who supports her fully if a bit bewilderedly. A naturally organized nature helps. “I’m good about having somewhat mindless prep work to do when I’m tired, and saving the detailed work of design, construction and embellishments for when I’m not.”
Reno’s winter weather helps, too. As rideable days decrease, Dara James productivity goes up, which is ideal because peak demand is right before the winter show circuits get underway.

Dara James Designs got started just as dressage dress codes were loosening up. Susan is pleased to help stock ties catch up with other elements of the show outfit that moved forward with fashions more quickly. Her immersion in the show circuit, as a competitor and frequent show volunteer, helps keep designs at the cutting edge, but not beyond it. She consults with visiting judges on their views of particular colors, accents and designs.

Susan hopes to retire from radiology in the not-too-distant future and looks forward to spending more time on her creations. Regardless how big Dara James may become, it’s unlikely Susan will stray far from its origins. She still makes many stock ties for fundraisers, for the Sierra Nevada and other chapters and charitable entities. “I try to be responsive to people wanting ties for the silent auctions or anybody trying to raise money for cancer prevention in general.”

Susan works on pink ties year-round, but production ramps up in the summer to prepare for requests surrounding October as breast cancer awareness month. Every year, it’s a new line of special pink ties that are sent out with reminders to get mammograms and annual check-ups. “It’s one way that I can give back,” the good doctor explains.


Dara James Designs stock ties, pins, belts, spur straps and totes can be purchased through the company’s website, www.darajamesdesigns.com, but following the company on Facebook or Instagram is the best way to keep pace with the flow of new products. Custom designs are available in every product category.

The company also makes a stock tie line exclusively for Barbara Biernat’s Horse & Rider Boutique and for Michele Hundt Show Chic. An array of ties is also maintained by Dorothee Moss’s online and mobile outlet, Artemis Horse Fashion.