Tips for Becoming a Professional Equestrian

Aspiring hunter/jumper riders who want to join the professional ranks won't find any shortcuts, but they will find lots of support.

I don’t do lunch; I do lessons,” and “It’s not a job, it’s a life,” are a few of the phrases top hunter/jumper trainer Karen Healey uses to describe the profession she chose for herself when she left college to work for George Morris 40 years ago. She earned $50 a week and lived in a room over the barn during that time.

Brian Walker competes Garfield in a hunter derby at the Kentucky Spring Horse show in Lexington in 2011.

Little has changed about the best way to go about becoming a professional hunter/jumper trainer today: “Step number one is you’ve got to find somebody to apprentice with,” advises Karen, who attended three years of college before her apprenticeship with George. In addition to training Juniors and Amateurs to national titles in hunters, jumpers and equitation, the California-based veteran has mentored many former students into professional careers.

The positions Karen recommends to aspiring professionals may not be offered as “apprenticeships” per se, but any post with a good trainer can become a great education if taken with the right attitude. “Identify somebody who you have tremendous respect for, and throw yourself at their feet,” she urges. Karen’s time with George eventually earned her the position of barn manager, but well before that she made the most of every moment at his stable. “When the vets and farriers came to the barn, I followed them around and asked questions all the time.”

Karen’s contemporaries agree that working for a respected professional is the best preparation for stepping out on your own as a trainer. Realistic expectations of what the job entails are important. “You need to know that riding will likely be a very small part of it,” she stresses. “Be willing to do anything and everything. And don’t sit there waiting to be told what to do: Look for things to do.

“If you really, truly do that, you will find that most professionals really appreciate it and you will get opportunities to ride,” Karen continues.

Some seasoned professionals worry that today’s instant gratification society is taking its toll on aspiring equestrian professionals. “I see young professionals skipping a lot of steps,” says USEF R judge Susie Schoellkopf, director of SBS Farms in Buffalo, New York. “They want to walk into a riding job or open their own barn with just teaching and riding. It doesn’t work that way. You have to be willing to start from the bottom and work your way up.”

That’s just what her protegé Jennifer Alfano did, working first as a groom (for 1988 Olympic silver medalist Gem Twist), then honing her horsemanship in the hard work of a sales barn. When Jennifer arrived at SBS Farms, she was well versed in many aspects of horsemanship and, equally important, she was anxious to learn more. The ability to take criticism constructively is key in a young equestrian looking to make training careers of her passion for horses. “If you say to an apprentice, ‘You didn’t quite handle something well,’ too often the instant reaction is ‘I quit,’ rather than ‘How can I get better at that?'” Susie says.

Paths to Professionalism
Knowing you want to go pro early on is a big advantage. Courtney Calcagnini made that decision at age 12 and strategically plotted her Junior career to attain that goal. She started as a working student for Mike McCormick and Tracey Fenney at Four M Farm in 1997, when she was 13, then took on the same post for Colleen McQuay’s huge sales barn in Texas in 2000. When Courtney aged out of the Junior ranks, the position with Colleen became paid. She spent six years gaining experience and knowledge with Colleen’s supervision and encouragement, then formed her own barn, CSC Farm in Pilot Point, Texas, in 2007.

Courtney’s patient path to professionalism was driven by a simple mission: “Always put your best foot forward every day,” was and is her motto. Throughout her working student years, her determination and hard work ethic paid off. “I was a bit shy to do any ‘networking,’ but you stick out like a sore thumb if you are a hard worker.” That quality earned her Colleen’s attention in the first place, and continues to keep her in good stead with mentors, including veteran hunter professional Otis “Brownie” Brown and noted hunter judge Linda Andrisani, who are critical to a young professional’s success.

Thanks to a good reputation in the area and Colleen’s blessing, it didn’t take Courtney long to launch her business. Within about a month, she had 12 horses, just one of them owned by a client from Colleen’s sales-oriented business. “I never solicited one client,” Courtney says. “I got a few phone calls, and it grew from there.” Today, she maintains 15-18 horses, owned by seven or eight clients, which the 28-year-old trainer describes as “perfect for me.” The clients include the Reid family, for whom she found the Adult Hunter Curtain Call in early 2009. Courtney rode the horse to USEF Grand Champion Horse of the Year as a Regular Working Hunter that year. That “really put me on the map nationally,” she notes.

Brian Walker, also 28, took a different path after deciding on a training vocation. Under top equitation trainer Missy Clark’s tutelage, he concluded an elite Junior career by winning the ASPCA Maclay National Championship in 2001. Until then, Brian catch rode for several trainers, including show-jumper Todd Minikus, and that opened the door to working for him after he finished in the equitation division. Brian credits Todd with disabusing him of the notion that going pro would be easy. “You go from being a top Junior rider where everybody is helping you to mucking stalls,” Brian says. “Todd probably helped me the most in putting a bit of humility in me and letting me know I wasn’t going to be spoiled.” Brian also had a head start in that lesson because he grew up in a family of horse professionals in Canada.

After roughly a year riding mostly young horses for Todd, Brian accepted Olympic show jumper Peter Leone’s offer to work at his Lion Share Farms in Connecticut, where he taught lessons and schooled Juniors and Amateurs at home and at shows. Adding another dimension to his knowledge base and experience, Brian went to work for European show jumper Jan Tops in Holland. Brian’s ongoing friendship with Missy, who had purchased horses through Jan, opened this door that Brian considers a huge part of his horsemanship education.

Through long days at the barn, shows and sometimes 23 hours of driving the countryside in search of young horse prospects, Brian paid close attention during his immersion in the different world of European show jumping. “They are all geared toward competing and selling horses,” he explains. “We are so geared toward clients in the States.” Learning from Jan’s ability to identify excellent horses was an especially valuable chapter in his European education, Brian adds.

He returned to the States in 2006 to work for Eddie Horowitz, whose subsequent retirement led to Brian running his own business, Woodside Farm, for the next three years. In 2009, Brian accepted the head trainer post at Old Salem Farm, and in late 2010 he relocated to Wellington, Florida, to start up his business from scratch.

Money and Communication
“Teaching and riding is the easy part,” says Brian of his professional experience so far. “The most difficult part is juggling all the finances, keeping the staff organized and dealing with a million things that you don’t think about as a Junior or Amateur.

“The hardest thing is handling the finances,” he continues. “It’s such an expensive sport, and if you don’t have huge backing, things can be very hard. My advice is to figure out what everything costs and plan your finances very carefully before you go out on your own. Otherwise, you can run up a lot of debt.”

Courtney concurs. Her budget-conscious upbringing, a “love of numbers” and Colleen’s tutoring are assets in running her own business. While working for Colleen, Courtney eschewed new clothes and other niceties to stash away start-up funds. She began with a “very basic” business plan and profit-and-loss statement. Over time, it has evolved to where she usually breaks even, or even loses a little money, on board and training but makes it up on show fees and profits from selling horses. Selling horses, she says, “is probably the best way to get ahead financially.” For now, those proceeds go straight into paying off her truck and trailer.

With help from an assistant, Courtney keeps meticulous track of services and supplies that need to be billed to clients. “The profit margin is not huge to begin with,” she notes. “A couple of grams of bute here and a new sheet or set of wraps there add up so quickly. You can never let it go. I have it set up so I pay and send bills at a certain time. You have to stay very organized.”

Some young professionals establish themselves by building their business around a dominant client. “Putting all your eggs in one basket can be rewarding in the short term,” notes Brian. “Eventually, everything comes to an end, even when you end on a good note. When it does end, you are basically starting over, and you need to be prepared for that.”

Both Courtney and Brian say that keeping clients has a lot to do with being candid from the start. “I have a very specific program,” Courtney says. “Over the years, I’ve learned how important it is to tell people what to expect.” Although her training program has grooms, Courtney expects all of her students to learn thorough horsemanship and do as much of their own work as their time allows. “I tell the kids right away, if you don’t like to work hard and ride a lot without stirrups, we won’t be a good match.”

Clarifying costs for prospective clients is essential, adds Brian. “There shouldn’t be any hidden costs or surprises on their bills.” Frequent progress updates and goal reviews are equally important. “You run into problems if you don’t take enough time to communicate with clients on all levels: how their kids or horses are doing. If you don’t do that, small problems can easily escalate into big problems.”

The nature of client-trainer relationships can be challenging, Karen acknowledges. Young professionals struggling to make ends meet may have mixed emotions toward clients with lots of disposable income, and the line between the trainer/student relationship and friendship can get blurry. Although she enjoys social functions with patrons, “It’s important to keep a bit of distance to maintain a professional relationship,” Karen notes. Such situations usually have to be sorted out by trial and error, she adds.

Industry Resources
Today’s hunter/jumper industry has a growing number of resources for those aspiring to successful training careers. Most are relatively new programs being developed from the US Hunter Jumper Association (

The Trainer Certification Program is targeted to those in the beginning of their professional lives, typically working for another pro, and participants must have worked professionally for three years to earn credits for certification. The TCP includes educational clinics, and USHJA currently is working to make those clinics more accessible to a larger number of people. For example, the clinics will be two days instead of three and in areas where local trainers can attend with minimal travel costs and time away from their businesses.

Young trainers who don’t meet the three-year work qualification for the TCP can still audit and participate in the program, but USHJA is also developing a Provisional Trainers Program for those who have been working for another professional for between one and three years.

The TCP includes a manual available to all for $65. (Updated last year, the manual is included in the $100 TCP application fee.) It spans the philosophies of great horsemen including Gordon Wright, Vladimir Littauer and George Morris, and features chapters on starting a business, selling horses and other aspects of the industry, written by today’s top trainers.

In addition to the educational benefits of such programs, they are great places to initiate connections that can develop into mentoring relationships down the line. Karen recalls that Brownie showed up for a prototype TCP event. “Here was a top professional saying ‘I want to hear what you guys have to say,'” she relays. “Nobody can make the mistake of thinking they know it all.”

Karen encourages mentoring relationships. The horse buying and selling aspect that is part of most successful training businesses is one of many areas in which an elder’s advice can be invaluable. “Buying horses for clients is a huge responsibility,” she says. “Ask someone you respect and trust for help and guidance. Even if you give them some of your commission in return, it is well worth the money spent.”

Encouraging new trainers to contribute to and grow within the sport is the main mission of the USHJA’s Young Professionals committee. As one of its members, Courtney has this advice for those who’d like to join the field: “Try to do the right thing because you never know how what you do today will pay off tomorrow. Have integrity, be surrounded by the right people and save your dollars!”

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.Save

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