Imagine A Career With Horses

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Imagine a Career with Horses

Not once in my childhood, in high school nor college, did it ever occur to me that I might have a career in the horse industry. Certainly, in my wildest dreams, I never would have imagined teaching horsemanship as a career for nearly three decades. The first time someone paid me to ride a horse, I was 14 years old and I could not believe my lucky stars—that someone would pay me money to ride a horse! But even then, I never thought of a full-time career with horses. Little did I know that all I did then was preparing me for what I’m doing now. Little did I know then that there are so many ways to work with and around horses. I love that I can combine my love for horses with a career that helps horses—and horse owners.

I have been asked many times if I think there are good career options within the horse industry. While I may not have thought of a career in horses when I was young, I know now that the horse industry is full of great opportunity—if you are willing to take initiative and be creative. You don’t have to ride broncs or muck stalls to be a part of it. People who are smart, educated, passionate and motivated will find opportunity in abundance. Any opportunity you can imagine in the “real world” is most likely available with a horse slant. For individuals who are driven, have dedication and focus, it is possible to combine what you love with what you do. You don’t have to be a hot-shot rider or have calluses on your hands and strong back muscles to find great success in the horse industry—there is opportunity aplenty for those who seek opportunity.

My First Horse Education

My horse training career started at a young age—even if I didn’t know it yet. I grew up on a small horse farm in central Florida with horses, ponies, sundry farm animals and the occasional exotic creature. I was smitten with the horses from the earliest age and I was privileged to have the opportunity to grow up with them and have a father that loved horses and adventure of all kinds.

I delved hard into horse sports as a youth rider and my father, recognizing my passion and my dedication, made sure I got the best education as a rider that he could. He made sure I always had safe and talented mounts and a good trainer to guide me along the way. Although my father is a true Western guy, he allowed me to pursue my dream of riding jumpers and made sure I had the training and education that I needed to do it right. Thus, one of the cornerstones of my career was being formed before we knew it—the solid foundation of classical riding.

Horse activities were something we did for fun—and how could something fun possibly be work? Didn’t work, by definition, have to be something that you didn’t want to do?

It wasn’t until after I graduated from college and got offered a job running a respectable training and breeding farm, that it first occurred to me that perhaps horses were a career option. That was, by the way, after working my way through college riding race horses. The horse industry found me; I didn’t really go looking for it. But honestly, even if I had planned from an early age to be in this business, I am not sure I would have done it any other way. I focused on education first then kept horses close as a hobby and side job. Soon, the two would combine as one career.

Educated Equestrians

What you do need, even if you are a hot-shot rider, is a good education. Like any industry, we in the horse business want to hire people that have good communication skills, good business savvy and an awareness and understanding of the horse industry at large. We are looking for people who are hardworking and dedicated and want to learn and grow—instead of those who are star riders for a fleeting moment.

Even if you are a good rider, getting a college education is paramount to success. If I could do anything over again in my career, I would have majored in business in college. What sets apart successful horse people from the mediocre is their business acumen. Finding employees that are good with horses is not hard; finding people that also have good business sense is what makes employers excited. For me, all the good riding, training and teaching talent I have would have meant nothing without also having good business management along the way.

The horse industry encompasses a huge, diverse spectrum and the more parts of it you know and have experience with, the more your opportunities expand. For me, riding and training in many different aspects of horse sports and horse breeds was a huge contributing factor for success. Although I never planned it that way, having diverse experience (with different breeds, disciplines, associations and areas of the country) not only has taught me a lot about horses, people and the industry, but it has opened many doors for me as well.

Key Advice and Reality Check

The two most common pieces of advice I offer when asked about careers in the horse industry, are to get a college education—preferably business or science-based— and to get as much experience in as many different areas of the horse industry as possible. That may mean volunteering, seeking internships (paid and unpaid), attending shows and offering to help, asking people you admire how they got to their station, and asking to shadow those you admire. Combine that drive with passion and dedication, and you will be unstoppable—whether you ride or not.

For many young people, a career riding and training horses seems appealing. I’ll admit, riding and training are a big part of my passion and a big part of what I do, but it has its downside. Riding, training and the hands-on side of the horse industry involves a lot of hard physical work, long days and long weeks for little pay. When you are in your 20s and 30s and riding 6-10 horses a day, it doesn’t seems so bad, but make sure you have a realistic future ahead of you. You may not want that fast pace and furious work for your body a little later.

As much as I love to ride, I learned fairly young that 1) there weren’t enough hours in the day for me to ride enough horses to get anywhere in my career, and 2) I wasn’t going to last riding the horses that no one else wanted to ride and I needed to take care of my body. I needed to pick the horses I ride wisely and guide my career in a direction that was profitable in the long run. I did not want to end up destitute in retirement, like many of the trainers I saw. Even though I was pretty good at training horses, I needed to diversify and have greater vision for my future.

On a daily basis, I work with colleagues in the industry that have great careers (read that: good pay, good benefits, room to advance) who are not riders, trainers, barn managers or instructors. Like almost any industry, we have great need for business managers, marketing, accounting, journalism, manufacturing, sales, fashion, nonprofit administration, medical technicians, nutrition, facility management, event planning and all things digital from social media to website design and maintenance.

Having a solid education and meaningful experience in as many different aspects of the horse industry as possible will almost certainly guarantee success. I’ve enjoyed working with several different universities that offer programs for equine majors and staying involved in what it takes to produce successful graduates that are wanted and needed by those of us in the horse industry.

There are many great college programs for equine majors that include horse education as well as practical business management courses. I encourage young people to look at the programs, such as Colorado State University, that are aligned with business administration and are science-based. Getting a broad-based traditional education will serve you well. In my opinion, you can get your hands-on horse experience at the barn—go to college to get a college education in all the other important stuff.

To get a job in the horse industry, you’ll need a love of horses, experience with horses and the willingness to work hard. But to have a successful career and thrive in the industry, you’ll need a college education, a broad-based view of the industry at large, ambition and dedication. If that sounds like you, buckle your seatbelt and hang on for the ride, because you are going far!

 

Preparing For A Career With Horses

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Question: Dear Julie:

I have a 13 year old daughter who has been in 4H since she was eight years old. She has become a great rider and is interested in learning how to become a professional rider of reining, cutting…or any western type horses in shows. What kind of advise would you give her as far as working towards that goal? She dreams of making it into the NRHA Reiner publications someday. She is also interested in becoming a clinician and has already begun training young horses with natural horsemanship. She would love to shadow someone during her summers. What would make her a better candidate for these types of goals?

Thank you for your time in this matter.
Mother of a horse-crazy daughter

Answer: Dear Mom,

First let me say that I admire your daughter’s perseverance, determination and passion. I think it is wonderful when a child has that kind of focus and drive; horses are such a wonderful tool for developing focus, responsibility and accountability in youth.

When asked this question by youth or parents, I am not typically eager to encourage this career path. While there are many great opportunities in the horse industry, becoming a trainer means that you will work long and hard for very little pay (and even fewer benefits) and not many trainers make it to “the big time.”

What I would encourage her to do is to go to college and get a degree that could be useful whether she decides to be in the horse business or not, like a degree in business, journalism or animal science. There are lots of opportunities in the horse industry for people with these skills (and an interest/knowledge of horses), whether it be managing a breeding farm, writing for a magazine, or working in the nutrition, pharmaceutical, retail or marketing fields. With a “real” job, she can afford to continue to enjoy horses on the level she is now—as a participant, rather than as a worker.

I work closely with the Colorado State University Equine Program and they offer a variety of degrees and their curriculum is one of the best in the country. It is aligned closely with the CSU business school and in fact, you can get a bachelor’s in equine science with a minor in business, then come back and get a MBA in one year. If I had it all to do over again, this is what I would do. You can get your hands-on horse experience lots of places, but nothing replaces a college education. What makes most horse trainers fail is a lack of business savvy.
Becoming a trainer is a great career for some people, but you have to recognize that it is very physically demanding—long hours and hard days, not to mention hazardous. In the beginning you’ll be riding a lot of tough horses and the toll can be high. With hard work and determination she may get to a level where she can pick and chose the horses she rides, but not everyone makes it that far.

If she is determined to make a career as a horse trainer, I recommend that she get as much experience in as many different aspects of the industry as possible, in order to make her skills more marketable—English, western, racing, breeding, teaching, colt-starting, trail riding, etc., to round-out her experience. Working hands-on will help build her resume and get her the references she’ll need to get somewhere (it is very much a word-of-mouth business), but these positions can be difficult to attain.

Most successful trainers get constant requests for apprenticeships and many of those people are willing to work for nothing just to gain the experience. To get the attention of a successful trainer, you’ll need to be persistent, humble and willing to work hard in any role. Most trainers will initially say no, but if you are persistent, you may get a foot in the door. But what most trainers have learned is that few people have the work ethic and stick-to-it-ness to actually last. So you’ll have to be willing to pay some dues before you get anywhere.

One thing that will jump-start her plan is to get certified as an assistant instructor when she is 16. CHA offers a hands-on certification that will teach her a lot about how to teach lessons and keep people safe around horses and this could set her apart from the hundreds of other people trying to get their foot in the door as an apprentice. To read more about this process, visit http://www.cha-ahse.org/cert.htm#standard.
Your daughter will need to develop a realistic plan that will involve years of hard work at the not-so-glorious jobs like grooming horses, warming up horses and even doing basic chores like feeding and cleaning stalls. If she can prove herself in these areas, she may get some opportunity to ride some nice horses, but it will probably be a long time before she gets a chance to compete on those horses. It’s pretty easy to get to the “big time” if you can buy your way into the show scene; not so easy to get there based on hard work and desire—but not impossible.

Becoming a “clinician” is something that many young people strive for these days because they see the popular clinicians out there it seems like a cool job. Being a clinician is not really a career in and of itself, but an outcome or result of a career. A clinician is just a trainer or instructor that has years of experience riding hundreds or maybe thousands of horses and teaching hundreds or thousands of riders. A clinician is an instructor or trainer that travels to teach in different venues, instead of teaching regular students in one place.

It would be a great goal to have, to be a clinician, but there are many years of very hard work for very little pay in order to get there. The horse industry is one of the few lines of work where you are expected to work 6+ days a week—you can’t just shut down the barn on the weekend. All successful trainers have very strong work ethics, in addition to their strong passion for horses.

Right now, your daughter has only been involved in the fun side of horses. If she is serious about having a career in the horse industry, she’ll have to see the working side too—the not-so-glamorous side—and decide if this is really something she wants to do. If it is, hard work and determination will get her there—eventually.

I wish her all the success in whatever path she chooses.
Julie

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Advice For Getting Into Training

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Question: I’m a high school student who would like to pursue a career in the equine field, particularly riding instruction. What would things could you suggest that would help me be better prepared for that field?

Answer: I admire your goals and your efforts to attain them. Here are a few things I would suggest. The first would be to get a college education. A degree will always open doors for you in whatever career you choose, including the horse industry. You could get a degree in Equine Science, which would specifically be in your area of interest, but I think a more well rounded degree like English, business, communications, education or animal science would be more useful to you and give you greater opportunity in the future. You can easily continue your riding development throughout college by working at stables or farms and maybe teaching lessons on the side.

As for preparing yourself to be a riding instructor, first you need to take lessons from different instructors in different disciplines. Try to get as well rounded an education in horses as you can. Even if you think you may not be interested in one area, you will benefit tremendously by gaining some knowledge and experience in many different areas. You never know what great opportunities will open in the future and some experience in that area could make the difference in opening a door for you. Volunteer to be an assistant instructor with an instructor you respect. Improve your own riding and study horsemanship theory and practice teaching others what you have learned.

It would be a great idea to attend a CHA clinic as an auditor. You would learn a lot about teaching and with a little practice, be much better prepared to take a certification course once you are 18. You could get certified as an assistant instructor between 16 and 18, but that would cost quite a bit more than just being an auditor.

Good luck to you!

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.