This article was written by a student of ENGL 2310: Intro to Journalism, which is taught by Mike Pulley.
It is 3 a.m. on a Saturday at the Tryon International Horse Park in Tryon, N.C. The barns are dark and quiet, except for the sound of horses munching on their hay and the occasional nicker. The only light comes from a single stall on an otherwise deserted barn aisle. In this stall, a blue-haired girl stands on a step stool, bent over the neck of a large brown horse.
She is wearing purple Charlie Brown pajama pants and a gray Hanes sweatshirt with the “Supreme” logo poorly drawn on the chest in red Sharpie. With intense focus, she sections off and braids half-inch wide sections of the horse’s mane, each one perfect and identical.
The girl is Piper Koontz, a sophomore majoring in psychology at Clemson University. While her classmates finish up last-call drinks downtown and call Ubers, she has just reached the halfway point of her night’s work.
“I usually start at 7:30 p.m. and get all of my early horses done first, which usually takes about an hour and a half per horse,” Koontz said. “Ending time varies, but I like to keep my total number of horses for the night under 10, so I get done at roughly 10 a.m. by the end of it.”
She works alone, listening to her favorite true crime podcasts to pass the time.
“It’s usually pretty isolated depending on the show. I usually see about three or four other braiders across the show grounds so it’s great company if they’re in the same barn as me. Otherwise, I’m out alone.”
So why does she do it? Why give up nearly every weekend, every party, every football game to spend her weekends braiding show horses for clients who are often difficult and rude? The answer is simple. This is how she pays for her tuition. And her rent. And her food. This is how Piper Koontz survives. Through her business, she has managed to pay her way through college without the help of student loans.
“I lived in the dorms my freshman year, so I didn’t worry about rent and was able to really start squirreling away money for this year,” she said. “Gas, groceries and rent have all been funded through braiding.”
In order to understand how this is possible, it is important to know what Koontz charges for her pristine work: $30 for a tail, $65 for a mane, or $90 for both. At a maximum of 10 horses per night, it’s not hard to understand how Koontz can make a month’s rent in one night alone.
Koontz began braiding locally for free at 16 to start her portfolio. Over time, her braids and reputation became such that she could charge for her services and PMK Grooming was born.
“I regularly started to get clients over the last two years and expanded my area of work from local to all over the Southeast, making connections with other braiders to get more work,”
Koontz has crafted quite a client base for her business, allowing her to have steady work each weekend. Her clients are loyal and many book a braiding slot with her in advance.
“Piper Koontz did an absolutely, positively, phenomenal job,” client Natalie Kimball said about braids she hired Koontz to do. “Even though the derby was moved [to the next day, my horse’s] braids looked like they had just been done.”
But Koontz’s hard work and dedication impacts more than her clients; it inspires those around her.
“Piper is one of the most kind-hearted people I know,” Erin Melley, Koontz’s friend and a sophomore biological sciences major, said. “She works so hard every weekend so she can be [at Clemson], but she’s also so willing to help others out. If you call Piper needing help she will always make time for you whether it’s 5 a.m and she’s braiding, or 5 p.m. and she’s studying for an exam. If you need her, she’ll be there.”
It is 4 a.m on a Saturday at the Tryon International Horse Park in Tryon, N.C. Piper Koontz steps down off her stool and stands back to reflect upon her work. Not a stray hair in sight. She exits the stall and turns right, opening and entering the very next stall. She unfolds her step stool and pulls out her hunter-green yarn. The client requested it; it was their barn’s color. She begins to section the horse’s mane and starts her next horse.