Every student’s reaction to having to take a course on a boring subject is: Why do I have to learn this? When will I ever need this knowledge in my life or career?
There’s a little truth to that. I haven’t used trigonometry since high school. And you may feel certain that a career as a horse trainer is your destiny, and so all that classroom learning is pretty much a waste of time.
Before you ditch the books, whoa for a second. Some aspiring trainers learn the hard way that horsemanship skills alone aren’t enough to make a successful business. Because that’s what most horse trainers actually are—small-business owners—and it takes a lot more than equine know-how to be able to run a successful training business.
Recognizing that an equestrian career requires a broad skill set, some equine organizations offer continuing education to fledgling pros. We sat in on one such event, called the Young Rider Graduate Program, run by the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) and U.S. Equestrian.
Here’s an overview of the kinds of things you’ll need to learn if you’re serious about becoming a horse trainer to make a living.
Marketing is a must if you want to become a horse trainer. Develop a niche within the industry—what Florida-based equine marketer Johnny Robb calls your unique selling proposition, or USP: “Are you good at teaching kids? Do you have the skills to retrain difficult horses or to bring young horses along?”
Make that niche an integral part of your brand, and use social media—especially Facebook and Instagram—as part of your marketing strategy, advises Alex Stark, who works with Robb at her public relations firm, JRPR.
It’s about the clients, not just about the horses. Do you prefer working with horses rather than people? Too bad—as an equine professional, you’ll have to do both, says Michigan-based dressage instructor and trainer Roz Kinstler. Whether you’re teaching lessons or training horses, you’ll be interacting with students (plus the parents of youth riders) and horse owners, and that means you’ll need to learn about customer relations.
Roz’s No. 1 tip: Be honest.
“If you can’t take on a horse, don’t do it,” she says. That may mean saying no to a client with unrealistic expectations, like the owner of a mediocre mount who’s convinced Dobbin is Olympic material. “Know that the client may get angry—which is why you need to keep a sense of humor.”
Roz advises up-and-coming trainers to be fair and transparent in their dealings, and to set boundaries between work time and personal time.
“I draw a line between business and friendship,” she says. “If you let the line get muddy, you’re in trouble.”
She doesn’t offer “friends and family” pricing deals, for example, and she also maintains an after-hours no-response policy for non-emergency calls and messages.
Protect yourself. Most pros do their best to keep clients and horses safe, but accidents happen. A horse trainer may be one lawsuit away from financial ruin without sufficient legal protections and insurance in place, cautions Chicago-based equine lawyer Yvonne Ocrant.
Law school is not required, but you do need professional guidance in developing your business’s legal documents, such as boarding and horse-sales contracts and liability releases.
“Signed releases are worth more than the paper they are written on, if done right,” says Yvette. A lawyer with knowledge of the equine industry can help draw up the documents you’ll need and offer other related advice. Be sure to obtain the necessary insurance policies, too.
Be smart about money. There might not be much of it to go around at first, but you’ll still need to keep good accounting and financial records, says Virginia-based financial advisor and high-end training-facility owner Gardy Bloemers. She warns against running up credit-card debt to finance business purchases, instead urging young horse trainers to build an emergency fund of savings and to establish a regular income stream before taking significant business risks.
Especially risky: horses! If you’re cash-strapped, pass on buying that tempting resale project, urges Gardy.
“There are so many risks involved,” she says. “So many things that can go wrong.”
As soon as you’re able, start socking away money in a retirement account, says Gardy. Retirement may seem a long way off, but a young adult who puts aside even modest amounts will likely end up way ahead of someone who doesn’t begin saving until their 40s or 50s.
Gardy’s final financial advice: Get health insurance. You may be in perfect health today, but you never know what’s going to happen, especially if you work with horses.
Success doesn’t happen overnight when you set out to become a horse trainer. The horse business is tough. Success is definitely not guaranteed to everyone, even if you have lofty goals.
“You have to be incredibly internally motivated,” says Allison Brock, a member of the bronze-medal-winning 2016 U.S. Olympic dressage team. “We can’t do it for you.”
In many equestrian disciplines, working-student positions and other entry-level jobs serve as apprenticeships. The work may be physically demanding and low-paying, but the education can be priceless. Such positions also test a young person’s grit and commitment.
There will be obstacles in your path to a career as a horse trainer. You may realize that your location isn’t ideal or you lack enough financial resources, to name two common hurdles.
“The people who really want to pursue things, they find a way in spite of everything,” says Allison.