Thinking about going pro? Kristen Kovatch outlines a list of critical skills for those who aspire to make a living in the horse biz.
At some point in my childhood I’m sure I went through the phase in which I planned to be a horse trainer when I grew up. At some slightly-later point I realized that for me, a young rider of average talent and dedication, this dream was fairly unrealistic and I settled for multiple backup careers including novelist, rocket scientist, professional violinist and sculptor. Upon graduation, in some ironic twist of fate, I immediately landed a job—as a horse trainer.
Now, to be fair, this is not my entire job title, nor am I a “conventional” trainer with a farm or leased block of stalls, clients, students, and show team (or whatever variation thereof.) My official job title at Alfred University is western teacher/trainer with additional part-time responsibilities as varsity western coach. My job includes not training horses for sale or show but maintaining, rehabbing or retraining horses to develop their second career as lesson and intercollegiate show mounts. The big expenses—facility, animals, insurance—all came with the job, as did the steady and unstoppable stream of interested and devoted students. In short, it’s a pretty sweet gig.
When current or prospective students wistfully ask me how I got my job, I usually simply tell them I was in the right place at the right time—the position happened to be opening up as I was graduating. However, by taking on the job I developed a few other skills that have worked just as hard for me in the job as my abilities to ride and teach (these latter skills developed more in the first year in the position than they had over the past five or six.) I’ve put together a brief list of what I feel are absolutely critical skills for any student who seeks to enter the equine industry:
At a roundtable discussion I attended last spring at the National Association of Equine Affiliated Academics annual conference, many employers were present, including veterinarians, breeding farms, and SmartPak. Every single one of these employers mentioned how the communication skills of recent applicants had notably decreased in the past few years: college graduates were unable to carry on conversations by phone, face-to-face interviews or even put together a well-written email. The ability to communicate clearly via something other than text message is critical, whether you’re speaking to clients, horse show moms, potential employers or employees, students or peers. The ability to compose publicity articles is an added bonus—I’ve been able to use my writing skills to get myself published in a few international magazines through Alfred.
I am personally lacking in this particular skill set—while my current job responsibilities don’t include much having to do with the budget, I still need to take the time to learn more about business and economics should I ever decide to branch out on my own. It’s not enough simply to be a good rider, trainer or teacher (or the rare combination of being all three)—to survive in the ever-changing economy, stables need to know how to sail in any conditions.
A business, service, trainer or barn is only ever going to be as good as it is known, and a savvy professional will know not only the traditional routes of marketing but social marketing as well. This past year in Alfred’s program, our Facebook page has grown exponentially and our new Instagram account has almost a hundred followers in six months. We maintain a presence in local publications as well as regional expos and fairs.
I don’t necessarily mean the detailed ins and outs of the science, but more about the ability to relate to peers, clients, students and even horses. A background specifically in sports psychology can turn good riders into great riders and competitors into champions, but even being able to reach out personally to students can go a long way. Think about the good trainers or coaches you’ve known in your life—most likely they knew how to get to you like few people ever could to bring out the best.
There will always be a place in the equine world for the truly gifted trainers and riders—but for most of us, we need something more to be able to stick it out and make it professionally. For young riders reading this column, don’t take it to heart if you’re told you won’t cut it. Like me, you just might find that this is the perfect job for you if you have just a little more to offer.
About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.
Kristen & her horse Playgirl