I see them everywhere: in tack shops, showing up wide-eyed at lessons, determinedly kicking their greenies around at shows, and in amazing numbers, all over any Q&A board or group on the Internet. And most of all, in myself and everything I was – and mostly still am. Sometimes even scraping together titbits of knowledge and scraps of grazing and starting a stableyard (no judging here – what have I just done?).
People who think they want to be horse trainers.
You have such tremendous dreams, fuelled by horse novels and the romance of Hollywood and that thing you felt happen in you the first time you smelt the indescribable homecoming that is horse smell. You just want to be with them. You want to make them your life.
Of course, as a Christian, I have rather unique views on how one should choose one’s career (One shouldn’t. You let Jesus do the choosing) but let’s assume, for the moment, that you haven’t been called yet and you have to do something in the meantime to stay fed and busy while you wait on God. Let’s say you picked horse trainer.
Here are some ugly truths you don’t want to hear, but that I wish someone had told me when I was thirteen or fourteen or fifteen years old.
You are going to have to deal with being hurt. Often and rather painfully. This is just the simple reality of horses and if you’ve been riding for a while, you know this. The difference is that if you’re a trainer, you’re likely to have to suck it up and carry on.
In an ideal world you’d rest every injury until it gets better, but this is not an ideal world. If you have four horses to ride or handle in a big show on the weekend, and you come off and sprain something on Thursday, your business and your clients probably can’t afford for you to put yourself in bed with an ice pack. You will become well versed in gritting your teeth (and pain medication).
You will face the reality every day of being seriously hurt. The good thing about breaking something is that nobody is going to expect you to work with your arm in a sling (except possibly yourself). The bad thing about breaking something is that it’s part of the job for most trainers.
You will be broke. For a long time. This is possibly the second most misunderstood fact about becoming a trainer: do not expect to make money until you do something worth being paid for, consistently and reliably.
People look at me funny when I say this because I was a paid trainer when I was sixteen or seventeen. The reality is that I’d been riding multiple horses every day for about six years by that point, taking weekly lessons for seven, and shadowing my trainer – unpaid – for five. I’d been riding for twelve or thirteen years.
The other reality is that I was just good enough at it by then. Clients do not care what you want to do in the future or how much potential you have or what sob story you give them. They care about your skill: that you can consistently and noticeably improve a horse with every ride, giving substantial progress over a period of a few months. If you can’t do that yet, you shouldn’t be getting paid yet. That simple.
If serving is beneath you, leadership is beyond you. Especially if you don’t have a boatload of cash for endless lessons, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty earning lessons from your coach. Be a yard rat. Hold horses for the farrier. Fetch horses in from the field and tack them up… for someone else to ride. Feed hoeses in the rain. Do whatever you’re told and you might get the chance to fall off someone’s bush pony. Deal with it.
You want to train fancy warmbloods for dressage? Spend two or three years backing wild farm ponies and fixing remedial vices on random plot donkeys. No fancy warmblood owner in their right mind is going to give a newb trainer their horse to ride. Besides, those wild veld horses teach you more than the warmbloods ever will.
You do not have a magic touch with horses. Even if you do, nobody really cares. While it’s true that some people and some horses just click and get along regardless of the inexperience of the person and the craziness of the horse, your clients don’t care that you once rode a wild stallion on Uncle Joe’s farm that none of the totally clueless other people could handle. Horse training is about making progress and bonding with horses you don’t click with.
To compete client horses, you first have to compete your horses. Your first competition horse is going to be a mess and you’ll embarrass yourself repeatedly on it. Don’t even try use a client horse. You’ll embarrass your client, and they hate being embarrassed.
You have to deal with people. All the time. So many young people want to be horse trainers because they’re “not a people person”. News flash: horses have owners. Horse owners can be difficult. They can have opinions about how their horse should be trained that conflict with yours. They can be late, or unable to handle their horse even after you trained it, or in a bad mood or bad payers. You have to be able to deal with all this compassionately because they’re just people, just like you. You’re not above them: you serve them.
GET. LESSONS. FIRST. This is the one fact that is most misunderstood by young horsepeople. You have to ghet lessons. Lots of lessons. For many years. And you get lessons first and then you go train horses. There is no avoiding or sidestepping this: there has to be a long learning period BEFORE you can start professionally training.
There are no shortcuts in horses. “But I love them so much!” Good. Channel that love into patience and hard work. If you really love them, humble yourself, rein in your ego, practice patience, and work your back end off until you reach excellence.
Nothing can stop you. Why wouldn’t you want to hear this? Well, because it nullifies all excuses.
You, my friend, are a passionate, dedicated human being with a dream. The world may tell you otherwise, but there isn’t anything stopping you from achieving it except yourself. Throw yourself into learning and working and trying and failing. Be on fire. Grab that dream. Push aside all obstacles and go do it.