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.
A number of organizations also offer certification for riding instructors.
COMMUNICATE AND BE CONGENIAL
Riding instructors must communicate clearly with their students and must be able to vary their communication style to fit the student of the hour. A trainer may be able to get a horse to do just about anything at all. But if that trainer is unable to explain to his or her amateur clients how to get their horses to perform as well for the client as for the trainer, he or she will not stay around long.
Being able to listen, learn and respond appropriately in any situation is as important in working with people as it is with horses.
Networking not only within your equine niche but throughout the industry can make the critical difference in finding a so-so job or landing that dream apprenticeship. It can make the crucial difference in finding the financial support you need if you decide to make the transition from employee to owner.
Learn to remember people’s names, collect contact information, keep in touch with people, and share information—they may be the source of your next client or job.
How well your network supports you will depend in part on your character and reputation. After competence, says Meredith, the second thing potential employers approaching Meredith Manor are concerned about is dependability. They want to know they can entrust their barn to someone who will show up, do what they say they will do, take care of the horses, and take care of the clients.
Kim Ferguson of Sliding K Performance Horses in Aubrey, Texas, would add humility to that. People who come across as arrogant or know-it-all quickly get a poor reputation among their peers. She also advises those starting out to respect all breeds and all disciplines, because there is something to be learned from all of them.
MANAGE YOUR CASH AND CREDIT
Many horse professionals make a comfortable living, but very, very few get rich. Cash flow struggles in the early years mean low starting salaries. When Ferguson started out, an assistant typically earned $700 to $1,000 a month, with no housing or benefits. It took real commitment and spending discipline early in her career to work two jobs in order to sock away the savings that helped her make the transition from employee to business owner.
“Help is paid better nowadays,” Ferguson says. “The economy is better and trainers can provide a better deal for employees than we got when we were starting out.” Someone starting out is more likely to get $1,200 a month plus a few benefits. “Every job is different,” says Meredith of the jobs Meredith Manor graduates are offered. “Most jobs have living and insurance provided in addition to salary and commission if the graduate is training outside horses.”
One thing Ferguson strongly advises is that young people starting out park their credit cards. Getting into debt trouble and ruining your credit will make starting your own business difficult when you need a loan.
Regardless of whether you want to train or instruct, work for someone else or work for yourself, prefer Quarter horses or Friesians, want to focus on dressage or reining horses, the basic formula for success is the same. A common sense business plan can communicate to potential creditors that you have the commitment, credentials, and character to make a go of turning pro.
ITHAKA BRIDGE FARM
TRAINER: Bev Barney
LOCATION: Nottingham, New Hampshire
HUNG OUT HER SHINGLE: 2000
SPECIALTY: Equine behavioral problems
HOW SHE MADE IT: Becoming a horse professional was a mid-life career change for John Lyons-certified trainer Bev Barney. A long-time recreational rider, Barney worked for a New Hampshire Superior Court for 16 years before making her decision. She credits her court experience for making her aware of how a business runs. “I’m an extremely organized and detail-oriented person,” she says. “That’s helped.” It also taught her how to delegate tasks and skills, such as advertising and marketing, that are unsuitable to her personality.
Before taking the plunge, Barney did a lot of homework. She got business planning materials from the U.S. Small Business Administration (www.sba.gov) and ran the numbers to see if her plan could be profitable. She put out surveys in tack shops and feed stores in her area to find out how many people were dealing with horse behavior problems and how many would consider calling on a John Lyons-certified trainer to help them.
Encouraged by her research and with the support of her husband, Barney took out a second mortgage on their home, packed her bags, and headed for John Lyons’ school in Parachute, Colorado. Before she left, she had a logo, brochures, cover letters and business cards designed so she would be prepared to give her new career her all when she returned home. She left Colorado some nine months later, ready to go to work.
Still, “It wasn’t just set up shop and ‘live happily ever after,’ ” says Barney. She likens her situation after completing her certification program to that of a nurse who has just graduated from college. “That first year is a doozie,” she says. You have the knowledge but not much experience, and you are scared to death you are going to make a mistake.” So she set about gaining experience and confidence.
Barney traveled to Indiana to apprentice with reining horse trainer Nick Bowman of Bowman and Sons Training in Sandborn, Indiana, for a year. “You can’t come out of school and say, ‘I’m a great trainer now,” she says. “You have to seriously consider apprenticing.” It’s through apprenticing, through experience, trial and error, that people become good trainers.
When Barney returned to New Hampshire, she was on her own. Her business model is based on riding or ground training clinics in small group settings either at Ithaka Bridge Farm or at clients’ locations throughout New England. From the start, she decided to keep the groups small enough to give each person very individual attention. She uses her website, judicious advertising and word-of-mouth to promote her business. “It’s going to be slow and good,” she says of business growth.
HER ADVICE: Delegate the things you’re not good at—save your time for the things you do well. Don’t expect to become famous and make millions; it’s not like that. Know what your start up costs are going to be and have a plan for making a profit. Don’t go into business wondering what you should do next. It’s easy to train the horses, but don’t forget to spend time with the people because you have to train them, too.
SLIDING K PERFORMANCE HORSES
TRAINER: Kim Ferguson
LOCATION: Aubrey, Texas
HUNG OUT HER SHINGLE: 1996
SPECIALTY: Reining horses
HOW SHE MADE IT: Reining horse trainer Kim Ferguson says she can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a horse trainer. Ferguson’s parents were horse dealers so she grew up learning both the good and the bad about the horse industry.
Ferguson learned to be pragmatic and businesslike at an early age. After a barn fire took all of the family’s horses including her little Arabian stallion, her mother handed her the insurance money from stallion. You can have braces or you can have another horse, she advised her daughter. Ferguson chose braces—then took the $500 she had left over, went to an Arab sale, and bought a horse. She showed that horse and won with him at halter, in Western pleasure and in hunt seat. She still has him.
As a teen, Ferguson attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where she was sent off to intern with reining horse pioneer Jack Brainard in Texas for three summers. She looks on Jack as a grandfather who taught her a lot, helped her keep sight of her goal, and supported her shift from employee to owner.
After graduation, Ferguson worked for other reining trainers, including Joe Hayes, Craig Johnson, and Scott McCutcheon. Each one added something new to her education, she says. Hayes taught her how to handle the business side of training. She had started a lot of colts but Johnson taught her how to finish them. McCutcheon encouraged her to develop her own style.
If you want to become a good trainer, Ferguson says, you have to do it in little steps, learning as much as you can from each person along the way. Make sure your next move is a smart one, and don’t burn any bridges. That can be difficult, she says, because when an employee aspires to be a trainer like her boss, there are some built-in conflicts of interest. There can be hard feelings when you decide it’s time to move on. Keeping your focus helps you know when you have outgrown a situation.
The bridges Ferguson built as she honed her training skills helped her make the transition from being an employee to being on her own. While at McCutcheon’s, she leased Jack Brainard’s old place and starting bringing her horses to McCutcheon’s for training. Eventually McCutcheon allowed her to work half time for him, half on her own time to wean her off a salary. With $10,000 in savings, a bank loan, and a personal note that Brainard agreed to hold, she cobbled together a deal to buy Brainard’s place and finally struck out on her own.
Ferguson and her husband Kinzy Donnelly, who starts colts and competes in team roping, eventually outgrew that first place as their clientele swelled from 6 to 50 horses. They now lease stalls at Turner’s Driftwood Ranch in Aubrey, Texas. As their business has grown, they have added three assistants. Now Ferguson finds herself on the other side of the employee-employer relationship. “We’re not number one in the horse show world,” says Ferguson, “but we have a self-sufficient business.” She has found a fulfilling niche in the horse world and is living her childhood dream. “I never lost the focus on what I wanted,” she says. “My whole goal was to be where I am today, no matter how hard, no matter what I went through.”
HER ADVICE: The horse world is one big village, and you need the support of your industry family. No matter how much you dislike someone, never burn your bridges. Stay open minded—every part of the horse industry is important. Never be arrogant and never be too big to do anything, even sweeping the floor or cleaning a bucket. Have short term goals, long term goals, and keep your focus.
TRAINER: Andy Marcoux
LOCATION: Natick, Massachusetts
HUNG OUT HIS SHINGLE: 1999
SPECIALTY: Driving horses
HOW HE MADE IT: When he was 9 years old, Andy Marcoux hung out at the stable down the street doing odd jobs in exchange for a half-price lesson at the end of the week. He vividly remembers being just tall enough to see through hocks of the stable’s draft cross team when he was entrusted to ground drive them up and down in front of the barn as they cooled out after hay rides. Those experiences planted an ember that was fanned into a flame when Marcoux attended the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, a division of the University of Massachusetts College of Natural Resources and Environment in Amherst.
Marcoux earned an associate’s degree in equine management and credits the tightly focused, intensive training he received at Stockbridge for giving him a strong start. While Marcoux feels a formal educational curriculum is a good way for aspiring horse professionals to start down their career path, he cautions they should not expect to come out of school ready to start their own business. “I’d be suspicious of any university saying you’ll be a trainer in two or four years,” he says. What Stockbridge gave him, he says, were the stepping stones needed to become his own boss.
The Stockbridge curriculum included five months of cooperative work study. Marcoux landed a position at Aquilla Farm in Hamilton, Massachusetts, working with USET driver Deidre Pirie and her coachman Marc Johnson. There he was introduced to a formal style of driving that was far different than his previous work with draft horses and recreational driving. Marcoux returned to Stockbridge passionate about English driving and coaching.
After graduating in 1993, he moved first to South Carolina, then Florida, Texas and Illinois, learning everything he could at each farm along the way. At one extreme, Marcoux says, he was isolated and completely on his own learning from and with the horses in his care. At the other extreme, he had the opportunity to work side-by-side with some of the best vets and farriers on the East Coast and with top national and international drivers. He took advantage of every learning opportunity that presented itself, including riding dressage lessons with Denny Emerson.
Constantly readjusting to new situations and expectations, however, began to take its toll. Marcoux decided to return to his New England roots, settle down, and try his hand at a new and potentially more lucrative career in real estate. Then driving people in the area began seeking him out for help. First he took on just one horse, then another little training job came along, then a few more. One day, he realized he was using his “side business” horse income to pay for a real estate ad. He made the leap from employee to self-employed, naming his business Coachman’s Delight after one of the favorite tunes he likes to play on his coach horn.
“I’ve built the business a little at a time by word of mouth and small, inexpensive advertising,” he says. Marcoux also pens training articles for “Driving Digest” to keep his name in front of the driving community. Demand from students who want to get into driving but don’t know where to find equipment led to a small retail business in harness and carriages. Marcoux capitalizes on the knowledge and networking he did while competing pairs and four-in-hands to help his clients find nice equipment at reasonable prices. “I didn’t start the retail end as a profit center so much as a more efficient way to get people started driving,” he says.
HIS ADVICE: A true professional does even the little things, like sweeping the barn, with a high level of commitment. As you are teaching your students, they are teaching you—pay attention to these lessons. Conscious incompetence is better than unconscious competence: if you know that you’re doing something wrong, you can figure out how change it; if you don’t understand how you do what you do, you can’t teach it to others.
INSTRUCTOR: Mary-Charlotte (Chardy) Shealy
LOCATION: Fair Grove, Missouri
HUNG OUT HER SHINGLE: 1986
SPECIALTY: Adult riders and riding instructors who specialize in them
HOW SHE MADE IT: When Chardy Shealy and her physician husband Norm moved to Brindabella Farms just outside Springfield, Missouri, in 1969, she was a Ph.D. nurse involved in patient education. As the years rolled by, they started a small Appaloosa horse breeding program and she became interested in Centered Riding and intrigued with applying what she knew about psychology, physical conditioning and communication to adult riders. She became a Centered Riding Level II instructor, attended TTEAM clinics, then wrapped it all up into a trademarked program of her own called Success Centered Riding Training (SCRT).
SCRT workshops and private tutorials focus on the specific issues faced by adult riders and by the instructors who teach them. Adults who take lessons want to become better riders and communicate more clearly with their horses, Shealy says, but often they are also looking for more meaning in their lives. Working with horses becomes a way for them to work through fears, develop confidence and take chances. Instructors who teach adult riders without talking about these issues may be selling them short.
Shealy gave her first workshops in 1986. Shealy’s own riding background is in hunter-jumper and classical dressage disciplines. It was a critical self-discovery for her to figure out that with her long midsection and short legs, she was not very “aerodynamically suited” for jumping. That understanding was tremendously helpful to her when she began applying her teaching methods to other adult riders with body issues.
If you need financial backing for your horse enterprise, people are going to ask about your qualifications and your work history as well as your current income. Shealy self-financed the development of SCRT. However, she did need to approach the bank to finance an indoor arena when she started the program. She marched into the bank with her credentials, her plan and her brochure. “The banker said, ‘I know nothing about horses but this sounds like a terrific idea,’ ” she recalls. “If you’re going to do this sort of thing, present yourself in a professional way. Then you’re much more likely to get the business community to support you.”
They will also want to know if you are a trustworthy person, she says. That means building your reputation as a person of integrity every step of the way. Pay what you owe on time, follow through on promises you make, and have clear contracts with anyone else involved. However, “A contract is only as good as the integrity of the people who sign it,” she says. If you run into someone in the horse business who isn’t trustworthy, “Remember that all experiences are positive, even the negative ones,” she says. “They’re all opportunities for learning.”
HER ADVICE: As you read and go to clinics to expand your knowledge, trust your own judgment. Take what seems useful and let the rest go by. Honor people as individuals. Choose a life partner who shares or at least supports your interest and won’t care how your clothes or your car smell. Have a clear idea of what you want and write your goals down. Be prepared to learn for the rest of your life.