It’s one of this industry’s great debates: the benefits of being a barn owner vs. being a traveling trainer. Barn owners say their lifestyle can’t be beat, taking pride in owning their own facility. Traveling trainers who teach and train at different barns say they wouldn’t change their freedom and flexibility for the world.
Is one better than the other?
GOTTA BE FREE
The freedom that comes with calling yourself a “traveling trainer” is what appeals to many in this line of work. “It’s given me the freedom to pick up and move when I needed to,” says Harriet Peterson, a USDF certified instructor in Lynchburg, Virginia, who has had to relocate with her husband for his job as a college professor.
A good reputation and some business savvy are necessary for a traveling trainer, as with any other business, to start over in a new location—but it does take time. Says Peterson, “You have to be able to get your name out and build some sort of a reputation before it begins to work…I have found that gradually over the first year, I start picking up some lessons and start picking up some training horses. By the time I’ve lived some place for a year, things are back on a roll again.”
Peterson also appreciates the freedom to be away from home. “I am able to say, ‘I’m going to be gone next week,’ and all I have to do is cancel my lessons and be gone; and I’ll know that the horses are going to be taken care of in their usual way.”
While the freedom to set your schedule is a big plus, setting one that’s time- and cost-effective is a challenge. Amanda Pisano, a trainer from Kirklin, Indiana, has three days a week that begin at 6:30 a.m. and end well past 10 p.m., including drive time.
A trainer’s ability to travel can mean reaching riders that many barn owners can not. Many riders stable their horses at home and don’t have a way to transport their horses to lessons. Even some who do prefer the convenience of having a trainer come to them. The downside, of course, is that some barn owners do not allow outside trainers to teach on their property.
Low overhead is a perk to the traveling-trainer business, as well. But ever-rising gas prices are adding to that overhead, and the many miles traveled, while tax deductible, eventually take a toll on your vehicle.
Not having your own farm is a disadvantage when it comes to using lesson horses. Explains Pisano, “When you go to a barn, giving lessons to people on their own horses, you make pure profit. If you are giving lessons on someone else’s school horse, you probably have to give the owner a percentage of the profits.”
Ann-Marie Lavallee, owner of The Traveling Trainer, LLC, in Drysden, Michigan, owns her own farm and travels on Wednesdays and Thursdays. She says that having her own farm is satisfying, but the traveling-trainer portion of her job involves less hassle. “You can show up with your tack and equipment, and at the end of the hour or a couple hours, you really are finished. You don’t have to clean up manure; you don’t have to do any of the work that owning horses entails,” she says.
At the same time, not doing the work also means not having control over how the work is done. A trainer might not like the way the horses are cared for; maybe he needs more jumps or she wishes for an indoor arena.
“It can be very frustrating because I train all year long,” says Lavallee. “It just seemed like this winter, every Wednesday or Thursday, it either snowed or sleeted or rained or it was below zero.” When less-than ideal weather sets in and clients cancel lessons, the trainer loses out on income for that day.
There is great pride that comes with the responsibility of owning a barn. For barn-owning trainers who were once traveling trainers, the switch is often gratifying but challenging.
German bereiter Gabrielle Hooten and her husband opened The Solid Rock Farm, Roanoke, Virginia, in 1997, after years of Gabrielle being a traveling trainer. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. My business, being a barn owner, has been basically making my dream come true,” she says.
Being able to oversee your own horses and have your own routine is rewarding for barn owners. “I’m in charge,” Hooten says with a laugh, “and I know exactly what’s happening to my horses. I make sure they’re well cared for. I know exactly that they’re fed the way they’re supposed to, that they’re handled and groomed the way they’re supposed to.”
As a trainer in this situation, time management includes both training and barn duties. But having a centralized operation cuts down on travel time and scheduling conflicts. Says Joyce Brinsfield, a former traveling trainer and owner of Ballyhigh Show Stables in Versailles, Kentucky, “Everything is here. I don’t have to worry about being somewhere at a certain time. The lessons are scheduled; I can do a whole lot more lessons now than I could before.”
She cautions that it’s easy to become married to the farm. “I’ll get phone calls late at night from clients worrying about their horse, or I’ll have a horse that colics and I have to be here for it…Plus my house is right here, too, so I never have a whole lot of privacy,” she notes.
Making the switch from traveling trainer to barn owner was not something that these trainers took lightly. “I just felt I was ready for the change,” says Hooten. “Another thing that has nudged me in that direction was my husband and I decided to start having children. I would’ve still been able to do the traveling, but it’s much more convenient having people come here.”
Budgetary considerations topped Hooten’s list of pre-purchase concerns. “I started having clients from the very beginning, and things went very smoothly. You have upfront costs, and money has to come in, so you have to be really careful,” she says.
It was the physical aspects of the farm that took Brinsfield by surprise. “When I worked other places, I didn’t have to deal with tractors and taking care of the physical part of the farm, and you need to really understand all of that,” she cautions. Finding hay, getting shavings delivered, having reliable staff, and managing pasture space are all things that traveling trainers don’t have to deal with, not to mention pay for.
One financial area where barn owners have the advantage is the constant source of income from boarding horses. Even in the winter, when lessons are often canceled, boarders still bring in the money.
The pros and cons of being a traveling trainer versus barn owner will be debated until the end of time. Both can be rewarding and money-making operations with the right people running them. Either way, success depends on the trainer/owner’s reputation, business savvy, and determination.