Jim Wofford: The Kaleidoscope: Our Sport Is Changing As We Watch

Jim analyzes trends he sees and trends he would like to see in eventing.

Horse sports are like a kaleidoscope. Every time you take another look at them, they change. Sometimes our attitude toward them is changing as well. When I turned my own mental kaleidoscope recently, I got a different take on things equestrian. I glimpsed a possible new relationship forming in the horse world with the exciting potential to literally change the way we do business.

When thinking about success in horse sports, many people, including myself, first often think about the riders. But recently I turned my mental kaleidoscope and focused on the owners who provide the horses and funding to the riders. If potential owners inquired into a prospective employee’s work schedule, many would find that professional riders spend only half their time riding and training. The rest is spent running their businesses and earning a living. But if all of a rider’s owners agreed to compensate the rider for the amount of money he or she makes coaching other riders and teaching clinics and the rider agreed to forego all outside commitments, the rider would have more time to perfect her riding skills and improve her horses—improving the chances for success. | © Amy K. Dragoo

I had been thinking about how complicated riders’ lives are, with owners, sponsors, multiple coaches, barn managers, students, press agents, social media agents, personal trainers, nutritionists and sport psychologists all critical to their efforts. (Although they are essential to a horse’s success, I do not even include veterinarians and farriers on this list. They have always been part of riders’ efforts. The other participants are relatively new.)

The Essential Owner

The new vision in my kaleidoscope, instead of focusing on the rider, had me thinking about how the nonriding people involved in this sport view their relationship with the rider. Obviously, we need to think about riders’ role in producing successful results, but I will get to the riders in a moment. I want to start with the most important part of the effort: owners. They are the most important part because they provide the horses around which the support team forms. (One way or another, we are all—the coaches, nutritionists and so on—a support team for horses.) As horse sports have become more popular, horses who excel in their discipline have become very expensive. Few riders can afford to support their own efforts, and thus owners have become essential to a successful program.

Notice that I said a “successful” program, not a “winning” program. The owner’s definition of success will determine the direction of the rider’s efforts. Some owners are very interested in the growth and development of young horses, often focusing on horses they have bred and raised. This type of owner is thrilled if her horse shows high-level potential, but she is as invested in the process as the final result.

Other owners focus on purchasing and developing young prospects, then selling them for a profit. Still others may have their eyes firmly fixed on international competition. Depending on their resources, they may buy young horses,horses with some mileage or even proven four-star horses who occasionally come on the market. Their definition of success is a top-five placing at a major event.

Although any of these models can be successful, a little thought on the part of both the owner and rider at the onset of the partnership will improve the chances of a good outcome. For example, if the owner wants to develop and sell horses, what happens if a horse is sold at a profit or a loss? How are proceeds, if any, to be divided? Will the rider be a partner in the project? If so, who pays the board and training bills? What happens if the rider and the owner go separate ways and dissolve the relationship? You quickly see that this type of arrangement can get complicated. A little forethought at the start of the relationship will go a long way toward preventing futuredisagreements.

Start on the Same Page

I am occasionally called in as a consultant for owners and riders: I examine their programs, take a look at their horses and generally help them gain an overall perspective on their efforts. Probably the most common source of difficulty I observe is that the owner and rider have different goals.

Consider the case of a new owner who wants to support a horse at the elite levels of the sport. Looking around for a likely professional, the owner approaches a well-known rider with a sizeable clientele, several upper-level horses in the barn, a busy lesson schedule and—when she is not competing—an active clinic business. This seems like a logical choice; however, the truth of the matter is that this type of rider may be too successful to meet the new competitive owner’s goals. Although this rider rides at or close to the elite level, her business model is designed to produce incomerather than international success.

This discrepancy between the new owner’s objectives and those of the professional rider she is about to hire may go unnoticed because one part of our modern sport that has not been examined sufficiently is the employer-employee relationship between owner and rider. Given that owners provide the horses and the funding, it seems only common sense to inquire into a prospective employee’s work schedule—yet few owners do.

Where Do the Hours Go?

Regardless of their respective goals, the owner who does inquire will find that successful riders have an incredible work ethic. Ten-hour days are common; 14-hour days are not unusual. The typical professional’s business model requires this type of commitment to make it profitable, yet it seems there are hardly enough hours in the day to meet the commitments.

Before forming a relationship with a professional, the new owner should analyze how the rider is spending her time. While at home, the professional event rider with four horses should plan to spend four hours a day riding and caring for her horses. Closer to major competitions, she should spend more than an hour a day with each horse bound for a “destination” event. Let’s say she has one three-star horse, one two-star horse and two nice one-star horses. In addition, she may be riding one or two young horses in preparation for competition or possible sale. If she runs a boarding and training operation, she also might need to ride one or two horses boarded there to keep them in work for their regular riders.

If this is her schedule, by now it is mid-afternoon and the regular students—a considerable source of income for the rider—are starting to arrive. (As well as paid lessons, the professional will usually teach a working student who pays for her lessons by labor around the barn. Successful ridersalso may barter lessons with a personal assistant.)

Throughout her day, the professional unfortunately will be sending and receiving texts and emails—some important, but most not, and all draining her time and attention—with the smart phone she wears on her belt. At the end of the day (if it ever comes), she will spend up to an hour with her personal assistant making entries for the competition that is about to open, discussing motel rooms, travel plans, maintenance for the horse trailers and all the myriad details that go into keeping a successful program on the road.

Overcoming the Catch

This analysis will suggest to the new owner that the professional she is considering spends only half her time riding and training. The rest of the rider’s time is spent training other people—an admirable and potentially profitable occupation but one that does not directly improve the rider’s horses or her own state of training. It is hard for the rider to take a lesson or attend a U.S. Team training session if she is busy making money—in fact she will lose money if she goes to the training session.

However, the training session will improve her riding, which will improve her results, which will give her program higher visibility in the industry, which will bring more students, which will leave her with less time to ride. The rider is caught in a classic “Catch-22.” I wrote about this in my August 2010 column, entitled “ Top Eventer’s Catch-22,” which you can find it at www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com.

Looking through the kaleidoscope in my mindrecently, I saw a way out of this Catch-22. Let me add that in applying this change to the Catch-22 paradox, each owner’s paradigm of success will not matter because they will find that most riders’ business model is as I have described above.

The solution: It seems to me that the rider should be asked to state to the owners a range of income that she makes from teaching and clinics. The owners might then promise to provide that amount to the rider on the understanding that she will forego all outside commitments. If all of the owners divide the amount the rider earns from clinics and lessons between themselves, it becomes a manageable additional expense, especially considering the additional benefits. Obviously, the rider would be apprehensive about losing the income from teaching and clinics. This apprehension can be relieved if owners provide some long-term contractual obligations to the rider.

Such an arrangement would allow time for the rider to concentrate on her riding. In addition, it would enable her to interact more effectively with all the other people I mentioned at the start of this column: personal trainers, nutritionists, personal assistants, social-media managers and press agents, and—perhaps most importantly—her coaches. The most precious gift a rider can be given is the time to perfect her skills and to improve her horses. The professionals that new owners meet all share the dream of riding good horses well at elite levels of competition. A new partnership with a new owner might be the catalyst for riders to achieve their dreams and take the owners to unexpected levels of success. However, to see their way clear through the kaleidoscope, everyone—owners and riders especially—must embrace a new reality, one that recognizes the professional nature of horse sports in the 21st century.

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.

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