In 1998, Andy Kocher’s mother bought an Imperator horse van for $2,300, unknowingly kickstarting her son’s career as an international show jumper and a successful horse trader.
Andy was in high school at the time, and having grown up in an equestrian family had been riding horses from an early age. He would travel with his mother to horse shows in the Pennsylvania area. “We’d look for cheap horses—literally in the newspaper or from the racetrack—ride them around, teach them to jump, clip them up a bit and take them to these shows to get sold. It wasn’t really a business, but I just loved being with my mom.”
In his early 20s, Andy continued “practicing being a cheap horse trader.” He’d pick up a couple Thoroughbreds, pull into a barn somewhere and stay, mucking stalls for a living, “so I could hang out for a bit and try and sell one of my horses.” He learned how to gallop horses at the racetrack, getting paid a few dollars per horse. At one point, he lived in a tack room at a barn where he rented a few stalls and began breaking young horses—Paso Finos, Quarter Horses, warmbloods—any horse for which he could charge $25 a day for the training.
Andy eventually spent four years managing a hunter/jumper training barn in Alabama. In 2011, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a show jumper. In 2017, he won the prestigious CSI**** Welcome Stake at the Devon Horse Show in Pennsylvania and the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping CS1***–W at Del Mar in California, among other classes. He is now competing successfully on the A-Circuit in the U.S. and Europe. He runs his business out of Eagle Crest Farm in Howell, New Jersey. He regularly sells more than 75 horses each year and has recently begun breeding his own young stock.
“Riding gave me a purpose and a reason to do things,” said Andy, who now lives with his wife, rider Jennifer Jones. “I went from just hoping to have enough money to have dinner and feed the horses to buying six-figure horses with my own money. I went for it and it all worked out for me.”
Practical Horseman: How have you become successful?
Andy Kocher: I wouldn’t say I’m the best rider in the world. I couldn’t go out and win a medal final tomorrow. But what I do have is this: After I started breaking all those babies and galloping racehorses, I don’t ride with any fear. I’m not scared. I want to do well, jump a clear round, and I’m a competitor.
In show jumping, you have freak accidents, like when a horse trips or falls down. What can you do? The worst thing is a horse might stop and you go over his head. But you’re not getting pinned to the wall by a 2-year-old. Compared to breaking young horses, this is nothing.
PH: Why did you decide to start your own business in 2011?
AK: I was working in Alabama, in partnership with my girlfriend, at a boarding/showing barn. Actually, it was like I practiced running a horse business. I had the tools to run it: the trucks, trailers, rings, barn. But I had no money and no control of the money. No bank account. No credit card. And all the stress as people were always calling about bills.
I wanted to compete in show jumping, and it wasn’t going to happen where I was. So we dissolved the relationship and I left. I took seven horses, the low-level grand prix horses that I wanted and could use, and the truck and the trailer. And I went on my merry way. I had $7,000 coming in a commission. I had enough money for two months. I started traveling to horse shows and living in the trailer. I competed at a new show every weekend and started winning just enough to keep going.
PH: Wasn’t that risky?
AK: Two years before then I couldn’t have done it. But I’d come to a point where I said, “I’m unhappy with my life, so I’m going to take a shot. It’s not going to kill me to go for what I want. What’s the worst that could happen? It could not work out. I could be broke. I’d sell a horse or get a job grooming or live on a friend’s couch.” I didn’t want to wake up one day—when my body’s not able to ride the way I can now—and say I never took a chance.
PH: You had big dreams. Why start at the smaller shows?
AK: I could count on my horse Le Conte to win at these shows. He was a big, tall good-looking horse. He was very sound and super careful. If you can’t win classes at Wellington, that is OK. Go to Gulfport [Mississippi], go to Arizona. Find the right pond and get started.
PH: What qualities do you like most about yourself?
AK: I’m always trying to help people. Even if I don’t have anything at all. I am the first one to help out. If someone needs a horse shipped and I have an extra spot, sure throw him on my trailer, no charge. You have a horse and you’re having trouble? Bring him to the farm and I’ll help you. I like the sport and I like to help other people as much as I can.
PH: What would you change about your life?
AK: I wish I spent more time with friends and family. Every now and then it hits me: “Damn it, do I want to live more of a normal existence where I have time for that?” (Usually on the holidays when I’m sitting on the couch and I can’t get anyone to come buy a horse.) But then I say, “Nah, this is what I love to do. This is what I wake up to do every day.”
PH: What advice do you have for young professionals?
AK: Work for someone who is doing what you want to do. If they don’t give a job to you, tell them you’ll work for free. Don’t worry about your riding. The riding is the last part of it. If you are a hard worker and you are smart, you can get to where you want to be. Learning how to work every part of the horse business is the most important. Meet the people, get your name out there and the riding will come.
PH: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
AK: Never, never, never give up. Just keep going. Whatever you want to be, keep going at it every day. You will probably go further than you thought you would. I never thought I would make it this far. My goals at 22 were much lower than what I have accomplished now.
PH: Why do you enjoy selling horses so much?
AK: Selling a really good horse gives me a thrill. There is so much anxiety: Potential buyers have to come see the horse and like him. Try him again. Then the trainer has to like him. Then we negotiate money. Then we have to do a vetting. Get the contract done. Then wait to see if we actually get the money. There are so many doors to close one deal. And it’s the same for a $10,000 horse as it is for a million-dollar deal.
PH: How has your approach to sales changed over the years?
AK: I am lucky in that I can buy horses that other people are afraid of, like the horse stops or stands up at the in-gate. My mistake earlier in my life is that I could buy these horses for pennies on the dollar, get them going and then sell them. I was more concerned about making money and the business part of it. But the problem is that these horses would just come back to haunt me later.
I had to change my approach. Now I think more about the sport. I make sure I buy good horses and sell people a very appropriate horse. And I am investing in young horses—producing good horses and bringing them along so that I can sell a good horse on its way up.
PH: How do you feel about losing?
AK: The higher the level of competition, the better I have gotten at it. You realize how hard it is to win. Ten years ago, I thought [Olympian] McLain Ward was a machine—he must win everything. But then I started to go to these bigger horse shows and I saw him and I realized that he loses, too. At this level, competing against the best to win—McLain, Laura Kraut, Kent Farrington—they all lose, too. When you realize that, it makes it easier.
Losing is what makes you better, makes you get to know your horse more, work him on the flat more. Don’t eat so much so you weigh less, drink less so you feel better.
PH: How have you grown as a person?
AK: As I get older, I have more compassion for other people and their situations. Horse-show parents used to drive me nuts. They wouldn’t stop asking questions. “When do we go? Are we ready?” It was constant nagging. Now I realize they’re just trying to make their kid happy.
PH: What do you regret?
AK: I regret when I was younger and impatient with the horses. My training was too forceful. Now I am more mentally connected with the horse. I try to get him happier so that he wants to do his job. I am not into severe or harsh training. You won’t see me out there with draw reins a lot or with heavy bits or with a horse in a white lather. If you have to ride a horse that way, put him back. If the horse is stopping and you can’t ride him, then you shouldn’t be riding that horse.
PH: What has been your biggest failure?
AK: I don’t think of anything I’ve done as a failure. I’ve had ups and downs. I don’t think of anything as disappointing. Every situation has gotten me to something better.
PH: Why are you always so positive?
AK: I show emotion. I can’t help it. I am thrilled to win a class. I am so happy to make a sale—”Hey, I can go another month, watch out!” And I am so happy to be able to do what I am doing every day. If something happened to me physically or financially and I couldn’t do this anymore, if it ends tomorrow for whatever reason, I took a shot and I got to do what I wanted to do. That’s the reason I am in a better spirit than most people. I took a shot.
PH: What is the first thing you ask new clients?
AK: I ask, “What is your goal?” Just tell me—I don’t care if it’s crazy. If you want to ride unicorns in the clouds, just tell me. Then let’s sit down and see what we can do. Five years ago, I sat in the bleachers at Wellington. I thought, “How cool would it be to show in the Saturday night class here?” And I did that. Now I want to win one. The lesson is it can happen, but you gotta dream it first.