There’s much more to the equestrian industry than the conventional careers of riding instructor, trainer or breeder. Meagan DeLisle speaks with four industry pros in alternative career paths to learn more!
Many equestrians dream of quitting their day job and getting to spend our days surrounded by all things horsey. For many of us, however, that isn’t in the cards: the costs of running your own training, breeding, or consignment business are high and startup can be difficult. We chatted with four industry experts who have careers or exciting side jobs in the equestrian industry that don’t fall into “typical” equestrian categories to help share some other career opportunities in the horse world you may not be thinking of!
Meet our professionals
Chelsea Smith: Owner of Smith Equine Media LLC, a provider of website design, social media administration, and marketing services to a string of high end clientele such as Double Dan Horsemanship, Meghan O’Donoghue Eventing, Indiana Eventing Association and Midsouth Eventing and Dressage Association.
John McQueen: Owner of Queenie Productions LLC, a premiere horse show management company that provides a variety of show experiences such as the Lake St. Louis Winter Festival, Tulsa Rendezvous Horse Shows, Greater Oklahoma Go Shows, and the St. Louis National Charity Horse Show. John is also a member of the organizing committee for this year’s FEI World Cup in Omaha.
Eric Sampson: Traveling horse show announcer, announcing at some very well-known shows in the United States including Three Lakes, Pine Top Intermediate and Advanced, Texas Rose Horse Park Horse Trials, MSEDA, Penny Oaks and Indiana Eventing Association Horse Trials.
Dr. Julia Gawley: Owner of Trail Ridge Veterinary Services, LLC. Dr. Gawley has been practicing veterinary medicine for 12 years, but in 2012 she tailored her clinic to specialize in veterinary spinal manipulative therapy after seeing the benefits of alternative therapies firsthand. Her services are available for pets of all kinds. Dr. Gawley enjoys horseback riding and owns a farm with two dogs, five cats and two horses.
What led you to start your own business?
- Chelsea: After graduating from the University of Kentucky with a BS in Equine Science and management and completing my MBA while working for equine-related offices like the United States Equestrian Federation, United States Dressage Federation, and the American Association of Equine Practitioners, I knew I wanted more. I wanted to directly connect with equestrians, and, more specifically, to enable them to spend more time doing what they love to do — ride!
- John: An opportunity presented itself and my wife had been in corporate America for 20-plus years. I had been on the road as a judge and trainer and this was an opportunity for she and I to work together and we took it!
- Eric: Depending on how I count, the announcing business is either the third or fourth business I’ve started. I’ve been a freelancer in several very different fields over the years, everything from working as a sound technician (OK, fine, I was a roadie) to being a freelance wildlife photographer. I’ve just always been drawn to work where my interests lead me.
- Dr. Gawley: I’ve been a veterinarian for twelve years. When I became certified in spinal manipulative therapy (chiropractic), I realized its unique approach to overall health. I wanted to be able to reach out to horse and dog owners and felt the best way to promote this relatively new modality was through my own business.
How long have you been following this career path?
- Chelsea: I officially started my own business, Smith Equine Media, LLC on April 4, 2016 (my 26th birthday!) and went full-time on September 1, 2016.
- John: I have been managing horse shows for probably the last 10 or 12 years but doing it on a very small scale. When we got to start Queenie Productions we increased our time managing horse shows greatly.
- Eric: Announcing is a side job for me, a really fun way to work in the horse industry that doesn’t depend on my riding ability or horsemanship… thank goodness! That wouldn’t get me far. But I’ve been doing this for something like 11 years.
- Dr. Gawley: I have been practicing spinal manipulative therapy for five years now. I have the advantage of years of experience with conventional veterinary medicine, knowing what it can and cannot offer. Being able to combine that knowledge and experience with chiropractic allows me to guide my clients toward the best approach for their pet’s individual health care.
What was the “a-ha” moment for you when you decided to give your own business a shot?
- Chelsea: Let me be completely honest. I had NO INTENTION of EVER starting my own business. After a few months of being the webmaster for one of my clients I found myself overwhelmed by both website work and sponsorship management. After several months of trying to balance my own business with having a small farm, two OTTBs competing in eventing, three dogs, and a husband on top of a full-time office job, I knew something HAD to give, and fast! So I went full time with my business.
- John: Transitioning into horse show management didn’t really take me off the road, it actually put me on the road a bit more but it gave my wife an opportunity to be a part of the company and for us to spend some time together! That was the best part!
- Eric: After a few years of just muddling along, doing mostly dressage shows, I got to work with the wonderful Cyndi Kurth, who is a full-time horse show announcer. With Cyndi I learned that the job is so much more than announcing names, scores, horses, owners and breeding. It’s about communicating useful information to riders, instructors and spectators. I learned that I could help a show run smoothly and on time, as well as help deal with the inevitable problems that come up. That’s when I knew it was a job for me, when I felt marginally useful.
- Dr. Gawley: I knew I could best promote and apply this type of treatment if I had control over my own schedule, to focus on providing spinal manipulative therapy. I also wanted other veterinarians to be able to refer patients to me, and that works best with me running it as my own business.
What was the most difficult part of stepping into this new career path for you?
- Chelsea: Starting your own business is financially terrifying. I went from an office job with a salary and benefits to nothing. From day one I knew had to hustle — sink or swim. All I knew was that I wanted it badly and that I did NOT want to find myself back in an office working for the proverbial “man.”
- John: Having been involved in all aspects of the horse show industry, I had a pretty clear ideas of what needed to happen and what didn’t need to happen. Keeping the health benefits of the horse and rider foremost and going forward. I very much think we are a service industry and sometimes I think that is forgotten. I never felt like this was a new career for me. I just felt like I was changing my job title.
- Eric: Ignorance being bliss, I didn’t find any of it very difficult! Until I started to grasp what the job is really about. I’m just really grateful to the shows that got me started, and were very patient and encouraging while I sorted things out.
- Dr. Gawley: Not knowing how it would be received by pet owners and colleagues. However, many owners and veterinarians go to the chiropractor themselves, and know how good it makes them feel. It wasn’t hard for them to extrapolate that to their pets and patients. And when clients and fellow veterinarians see the amazing results after adjustments, there’s no denying the benefits.
What would be your biggest piece of advice to those who may want to venture into an “alternative” career in the equine industry?
- Chelsea: Know your limits, set business hours, save everything, and you CAN say no!
- John: The biggest piece of advice is don’t be late, don’t expect to leave, and plan on working harder than you have ever worked in your life. If you are not willing to do all of those things, go get another job.
- Eric: My advice applies to any job or career: Show up. On time. Ready to work. Ask appropriate questions. LISTEN to the answers. Work to get better. See a problem that you’re comfortable fixing? Fix it. Be as self-sufficient as possible, without exactly going rogue. Volunteer. Get a sense of how a show flows. There are a dozen jobs — paid and volunteer — that you likely have never heard of; ask about those.
- Dr. Gawley: Follow your heart and believe in yourself. If it’s something you as a horse person see a need for, other horse people will likely see it too. Be willing to commit and work really, really hard. Many people work two jobs while they are getting their dream career going. Don’t be afraid to invest in yourself. I pursued an intense functional neurology and neuroanatomy post-doctorate training course, while working full time, in order to become certified in spinal manipulative therapy.
What do you do to set yourself apart in the industry from your competition?
- Chelsea: My goal is to make websites, social media administration, and sponsorship management EASY for my clients. I love to remind them there is no need to recreate the wheel. Let’s focus on what needs to be done and move on.
- John: What I try very hard to do, and once again it goes back to customer relations, I spent 40+ years at the in-gate. That hasn’t changed a lot. I am out in the field, I know if you have a bad day or a good day, I am there to support you and cheer you on. The entire staff has been instructed to be the same way. We are hands on.
- Eric: Well, I try my best to follow the advice I’ve outlined above! To be honest, I really don’t see the other announcers I work with as my competitors. They have all been very kind, generous with their advice and assistance, and fun to work with.
- Dr. Gawley: I am one of only a few veterinarians certified in spinal manipulative therapy in the area. Also, I do small animal medicine, surgery and chiropractic, but my horse work is exclusively chiropractic. That allows other veterinarians to refer horse cases to me for chiropractic, without feeling like I will take their clients. I strongly recommend owners seek a veterinarian certified in spinal manipulative therapy to provide this care.
What has been your proudest moment since starting your own business?
- Chelsea: Launching the Midsouth Eventing and Dressage Association is, so far, my proudest moment. Since the website went live in January 2016, we have seen a significant increase in engagement and membership. It has truly been incredibly rewarding and humbling to work with the MSEDA.
- John: I guess the proudest moment is when one of the dads stopped me and asked me if I was John McQueen. And I said, “Well that depends are you happy or are you mad?” Every Thursday during the winter we do Free Soup Thursday, it’s my way of giving back to people who are coming to my horse shows. And he said, “I just want to thank you. I’ve never had a horse show manager offer me a saltine cracker, but you gave me a bowl of soup and saltines to go with it!” That was my key that I was right with the goal of customer service because they were hunting me down to thank me.
- Eric: Any time I can fix something that was not previously working, and it makes the show just a little better, or life a little easier for the organizer, that’s a win. When I can help a competitor or volunteer smile, that’s always a big thing for me. Overall, though, I think I am proudest that the organizers I work for trust me, trust that once I step on to the show grounds I am there to work and happy to take on almost anything they need.
- Dr. Gawley: My proudest moment is always when my patients feel, move and behave better as a result of being adjusted. When I can help these athletes maintain peak performance, or when I can help resolve a roadblock that was pain based, there is nothing more gratifying! Some of my best outcomes include a mare who was extremely head shy, improved tremendously after I adjusted her neck; a horse who started bucking when going into the canter, stopped after his pelvic misalignment was resolved; and a dressage horse who didn’t want to flex to the right, improved after releasing the shoulder.
It is never too late to pursue your own dream, so take these helpful tips, trips, and potential career paths in mind and forge ahead! There are many ways to immerse yourself in the industry, so take your passion and make it a career. And most of all — never give up! Just because it is hard doesn’t mean it is not worth it.
Have any questions for our roundtable of professionals? Let us know in the comments section!