Ask Julie Goodnight
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 publications some day. She is also interested in becoming a clinician and has already begun training young horses with natural horsemanship. She would love shadow someone during her summers. What would make her a better candidate for these types of goals?
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 any where.
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. As Pat Parelli is very fond of saying, he is a “twenty –year over-night success!”
I wish her all the success in whatever path she chooses.
Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician