Unlike professions like veterinary medicine or law, there is no standardized program of education and licensing that recognizes someone is a competent professional horse trainer or riding instructor. The path from passionate horse lover to professional horseman is a road with multiple starting points and many forks.
Some lucky souls are born into the horse business, many try to parlay success on the show circuit into an equine career. Others choose formal education. Still others seek out mentors and sign on as working students or apprentices or interns.
However you do it, you need to earn straight C’s to become a successful pro.
“There’s a really neat reward,” says instructor Sarah Dalton-Morris of Frazier Farm in Woodbury, Connecticut of her equine career, “but you have to give up what other people would think of as rewards.” You cannot go into the horse business thinking you are going to have weekends off and lots of vacation time. You might question your sanity when you are up at 4 a.m. getting ready for a horse show, but there is a huge amount of satisfaction in seeing everything fall into place. “But that won’t happen unless you put your heart and soul into it at whatever level,” she says. “It’s not a glamorous thing.”
USE COMMON SENSE
If you go into the horse business, says Dalton-Morris, you have to go into it with a focus, with a definite business plan and some idea of where you fit. “Don’t go into it unless you have a niche,” she says.
When she made her mid-life career change from the legal world to the horse world, the first thing Bev Barney of Ithaka Bridge Farm in Nottingham, N.H., did was to write a business plan. Many people think a business plan is necessary only if they are going for bank financing, she says. Not so. A business plan forces you to translate your goals into specific actions that can be evaluated for their profit potential. “My business plan convinced me I would be OK,” she says.
The primary concern of an employer, says Faith Meredith, director of riding at Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre in Waverly, W.V., is whether or not the person has the riding or training skills to do the job. “Employers may ask for references from instructors and staff,” she says, “but the bottom line is whether or not the graduate can do the job. The kind of skills required for a good job in the industry means a lot of hands-on education. Our Riding Master VI graduates have between 600 and 1,000 hours of instruction on many different horses.”
Formal educational programs run the gamut, from college programs that mix equine courses with general education studies and riding lessons to highly focused trade schools with an emphasis on lots of practical, real-world experience.
Internships and apprenticeships offer an informal education route that many top trainers have followed. While these opportunities may occasionally be filled through equine employment agencies, the majority are filled through networking. Keep your resume up-to-date, get good references, and mind your reputation as you conduct your search.