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How an Injured Rodeo Champ Started a Business That Caught the Eye of Daymond John

How an Injured Rodeo Champ Started a Business That Caught the Eye of Daymond John
Image credit: Cowboys Gym | Facebook
This story appears in the January 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

In his early 30s, Ryan Ehmann woke up in a beat-up camper in the middle of a Texas hay field and thought, “How did I get here?”

It wasn’t a deep mystery -- after 12 years on the rodeo circuit as a bronco rider, he’d ruined his back, racked up $67,000 in debt, had no job prospects, and no real place to go. It was a true rough patch until a sympathetic friend took pity on Ryan and gave him some Tony Robbins tapes to pass the time. After listening to the big-toothed success coach, Ehmann was energized and determined to get his life back.

Though over a dozen doctors said his spine was shot, he believed that through hard physical training he could get back up on that horse, literally. Even more, he was determined to win a rodeo national championship. So he signed up for courses at Dallas’s Cooper Institute to become a certified personal trainer with the idea of learning enough about the human body to develop a plan to rebuild himself. He also became a trainer at the local Gold’s Gym. “I got the answers to what was wrong with my back,” he says. “And I also realized millions of people suffer from lower back pain -- their muscles are too tight, or their muscles are too short, or they’re not eating a good diet.”

Ehmann strengthened his back, dropped his body fat from 18 percent to 4 percent, rejoined the rodeo world and won a national championship in 2004. Then he decided to push for a world title. But things went south when, during a practice run, Ehmann took a hoof to the head that shattered his jaw in six places. During his recovery, he started thinking. “If you ever want to change anything, you have to ask questions. And I asked myself whether rodeo was the biggest thing I would ever do in my life,” he says. “And my brain answered, ‘No’. And I thought, if that isn’t it, then what is? I realized I had to get back to fitness and help millions of people. I gave up rodeo overnight, moved to Colorado and opened my first training gym.”

Ehmann began training people in his own unique way, developing products like Cowboy Abs, the Rodeo Bootcamp system coaching videos and even a Rodeo Abs machine. His in-person training was also taking off when he went on Shark Tank, where Daymond John, founder of FUBU, invested in his fitness empire.

But Ehmann was getting burned out, training people from six in the morning till eight at night at the same time he was managing his business. He would hire other trainers, but clients weren’t happy because they weren’t using his “cowboy” techniques. He consulted with Daymond John about his problem. “He said, ‘Cowboy, you need to get your gym perfected, with low overhead, and build it into a model that can be duplicated’,” Ehmann says. “So I closed down my gym, and when I reopened last January, I took a different approach. It was systematized, scalable and sellable. It was based on my Rodeo Bootcamp workout, which I know gets results. And I fully themed out the gym with saddles for squats, post pounders, fences and other equipment you’d find on a ranch.”

The result, Cowboys Gym, is a trainer-led circuit with 28 one-minute exercises. The workout is on a constant rotation, so participants can jump in anywhere without having to make it to class on time. All clients, which are primarily women, wear heart-rate monitors, which display their stats on a screen so the trainers can keep everyone in their maximum fat-burning intensity range.

Most of the action takes place on six-rail rodeo fences bolted all along the walls, where clients step, stretch and do dozens of unique Cowboy-designed exercises. When the cowbell rings after each minute, they all let out a whoop.

Ehmann’s first location, in Fort Collins, soon hit capacity, and the second unit, opened in Loveland, Colo., in late 2015 nearly reached its membership cap in 30 days. In 2016, Ehmann plans on opening another four corporate stores before launching his first five or six franchise units.

“What I love about this model is that what it costs to put up all the fences in a single gym is less than the cost of one treadmill,” he says. “You don’t have to run this thing for several years to break even. The goal is that within 60 days it will be turning pretty healthy profits. Woohoo! Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!”