The first thing you notice at Bob Mickler’s Lifestyle & Performance Riding Apparel is the carousel horse on the outside sign.
That particular equine has been bouncing on that pole at 1093 West High Street since 1949, when the precursor to Mickler’s was called Livestock Health & Supplies and was run by Jay D. Weil. In the back of the store there are shelves still labeled for liniments and nutritional supplements.
The second thing you notice is the smell of the rich leather, the richness of the silky fabrics and golden wool waistcoasts that feel as velvety as a breeze on a fine spring afternoon. Also, you see the sheen of the Ariat paddock boots, which are going to be at their best when wet and dirty, and you can try on a Tilley hat, which is supposed to be virtually indestructible (it floats, and it’s guaranteed for life).
And for the dress-up side of the horsing life, there are delicately tailored Dubarry women’s jackets from Ireland.
Sitting all by their lonesome is an awesome pair of pointed-toe boots: Beautifully tooled and colored like a peacock, the boots have been marked down because, as J.D. Weil’s granddaughter Julie Mickler notes, they look too Urban Cowboy. The Urban Cowboy trend was kind to Mickler’s in the early 1980s, but time has marched on.
Mickler’s carries merchandise that is luxurious but tough: hats that can be wadded up and emerge without a dent, jackets that can be worn hard, then sent to the manufacturer for re-waxing and maintenance. Customers feel no need to advertise how much they paid for an item but subscribe to the idea that you get the quality you for which you pay. One day last week, a customer stopped by to look for anything new put out by the company Barbour and left with a handful of hefty equine-themed bottle openers.
Although Bob Mickler’s isn’t the only tack and equine supply store in the Bluegrass, it has three generations of family leadership going for it, plus a high-profile location and that memorable carousel horse That passersby see as they head out to Keeneland.
Mickler’s was acquired in 2015 by Timberfence Capital Partners, but Julie Mickler, daughter of Bob Mickler, remains as the company’s president. Michael Michalisin, formerly of New York and now of Midway, is Timberfence’s managing partner.
The company is the only vendor that has been at all the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day events since 1976 — before it was the Rolex Kentucky or the world championships. This past weekend was the company’s 40th year at the event. It’s the business’s biggest weekend of the year, Julie Mickler said.
Initially, the event drew only a handful of vendors, and the offerings were set beneath a lean-to structure. Last Thursday, vendors from nutrition to joint aids to fashion had set up on a huge impromptu retail promenade at the Kentucky Horse Park. (The Mickler/Ariat tent, No. 29, which included the only FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) gear to be sold at the Rolex event, sat at the bottom of the retail village, next door to a bar pavilion.)
Last week, while employees hustled to stock the shelves and give the look of a real store in the 2,000-square-foot tent, Julie Mickler showed off a nifty item in riding safety technology: The air-bag jacket. Helmets are crucially important, of course, but airbag jackets inflate in less than a second to save a rider’s upper body and neck in a fall.
Bob Mickler died in 2003. His daughter said that she didn’t start with the store directly out of college, but rather indulged her love of travel, picking up jobs as she went.
In fact, Julie had to persuade her father to let her work in the store; she has two other siblings, Betsey and John. Once Julie started selling, Bob Mickler found her to be a natural.
“My father liked everybody,” Julie said. “In some ways he was shy, but in this domain he never saw a stranger.”
In the 1960s, the store started selling apparel from a closed Mississippi store. Customers began asking for equestrian items including helmets and riding apparel, and the Micklers referred them to the nearby store Bridles & Britches.
“I said to my father, maybe we should just get a few riding britches in here,” Julie Mickler said. “The more he went on about not doing it, the better it sounded.”
By the late ’80s, Mickler’s had totally switched over to the English riding lifestyle look. Bob Mickler told the Herald-Leader in 1988 that he had provided clothes including a Lock & Co. Hatters cap and Kroop jodhpur boots for a television miniseries called Bluegrass; he also said his store had provided six pairs of boots for actress Cheryl Ladd for the same project. (IMDB description: “A woman tries to be successful in the male-dominated horse racing business.”)
Other celebrity customers have included actors William Shatner and José Ferrer, Bob Mickler said at the time.
Unfortunately for Julie Mickler, 66, she can’t wear many of the clothes she sells. A petite woman, she’s just too small for them. She can, however, sometimes buy them in children’s sizes.
She said she plans to cut back the amount of time she spends in the store in early 2017, but she’ll have trouble letting go of her family’s business.
“When you have a family business and you’ve worked in it for a long time, you can’t go home and not think about it,” she said. “To have a vision for the business, you can’t teach that.”