I know many young horse-crazy riders dream of growing up and finding a career with horses. I certainly did, and that dream is what got my program going and kept it going for almost 20 years.
We all know the good stuff about working with horses:
Being outside, riding, getting to interact with lots of different horses are all things we probably enjoy. Maybe some of you even have big dreams of becoming a professional rider in one discipline or another. We all know what comes to mind when we think about making horses our career choice, and it is probably mostly positive. The purpose of this article is not to discourage you but to just give you a realistic view of what it is like to work in the horse business.
The professional riders are the minority:
The famous names in all the different disciplines we hear are the minority when it comes to professional horse people. These are the people with not only the dedication to do whatever it takes but also the ones willing to work the hardest and longest to get opportunities for themselves. They had to earn their way to their place in the industry. They had to build a name for themselves because, without that, access to the superior quality of horses that compete at this level wouldn't be available to them.
It takes time and hard work and it certainly doesn't come overnight. To many, it never comes at all, and they learn along the way and then find the niche they fall into in the horse industry in the process.
If your heart is set on big riding goals:
If your heart is set on a big competitive riding goal, my suggestion to you is that you use your local trainer contacts to try and put you in touch with someone that is looking for a working student.
I strongly believe the best way to learn the horse industry is to immerse yourself in it, and being a working student is going to show you many aspects of the horse world and you will learn many things that you would not get anywhere besides in the barn.
Even though I never really had much interest in competing, I was a working student at an eventing facility for a very long time. I credit my experience there for my ability to have developed my own program, and become my own individual as far as my teaching and horse training style. Being a working student can be a way to get you a break in the competitive world if that is what you are looking for.
There are many different working student arrangements. Some include a place to live, others don't. Some get small salaries and others strictly work for their horse's board and lessons. The import word I emphasize here is work because being a working student is hard work. You will work long hours, only get a few days off, and it's lots of physical hard work.
Being a working student is not for everyone, but it most definitely is a great experience for many with the dedication and work ethic for it.
College equine studies programs:
Many colleges have equine studies programs. I was enrolled in one briefly after high school. It wasn't for me, and I came home and jumped right into a working student position where I stayed for 6 years. I feel I came out of that experience worlds beyond what I would have learned in an equine studies program.
The thing that I did not get from my working student experience was learning the business aspect of the industry. I learned all the hands-on stuff and had more riding opportunities than I could have ever imagined, but there is a hole in my skill set when it comes to business.
There is definitely value in going to college in an Equine Studies program for those who are interested in that. Especially in the world we live in where it seems that a bachelor's degree is the new high school diploma.
Having a degree is always of benefit. I think if someone asked me my recommendation if they should go attend an equine program in a college or not, I would tell them they should. A 4-year degree means a lot in today's world.
If an Equine Studies degree isn't something you think you want to do, I would maybe suggest going to a local college and getting a degree in business or marketing, while hopefully at the same time finding a working student position where you can keep growing in your horsemanship.
Want to be a vet or farrier?
Vet school is hard to get into. Not impossible, but tough if you don't have a great academic history. It is also very expensive. so you will have to consider if it is affordable for you or not.
Farrier schools are available about the country. There is everything from very basic short courses to long programs for those who want to become professional farriers.
Horses will always need vets and farriers, so that is a good option. Just keep in mind they are both physically taxing jobs, with a high risk of injury. Also, both of those jobs can have demanding hours, leaving little time for your family or personal life.
Riding instructor or camp director:
Again, this is a job where you will have to have the knowledge base and skill set to teach kids, as well as to plan fun and engaging activities for them. Learning these skills are all reasonable goals. Just consider where you will teach. And on what horses. Who will cover your liability insurance? Can you teach enough to afford to pay for your liability insurance?
When you are teaching lessons, you are typically working when kids are out of school and adults are off work. Again, going back to that theme of not having the best hours and working when a lot of your non-horse employed friends are off.
Indirect jobs in the industry:
Indirect jobs in the industry, meaning jobs that don't work hands-on with horses, but provide services that keep the industry going are another option. Jobs like working for a feed company, or tack shop, or writing for an equine publication, these are all still in the horse industry, but won't have you in a barn all day every day, which some people might prefer.
Whether you end up self-employed in the horse world or are hired by someone else, you have got to have health insurance when working with thousand pound animals daily. So make sure when planning your future career that you make sure your employer is either going to provide you with insurance coverage or that you make enough to afford it!
To wrap it all up:
For those of us who know that we want a life with horses and a life in the horse industry, I know from personal experience, that nobody will change our minds once we have decided that it is the life we want. It's just when you are young and on the outside looking in, it seems like it's so fun and easy, almost not like a job.
In reality, that is not the case. Working with horses is hard work, physically and also mentally when dealing with problem horses or customers.
Working with horses for your job will take time away from your own horses and riding. Some people who aren't so competitive aren't bothered by this, others who have big plans of riding and showing can find themselves spread thin making time for it all.
The horses will need you 365 days a year if an emergency comes up. And it doesn't matter if you are off that day or had plans, the horses will always come first.
Working with horses isn't "just a job," it is more like a lifestyle. For those of us that love it, we wouldn't have it any other way. I would definitely caution that it is not for everyone.
If you, like me, are convinced that working with horses is the only job for you, I would suggest that you find someone who is doing what you want to do professionally. A vet, instructor, show rider, whichever direction you would like to see yourself going. Pick their brain about how they got to that point. What advice do they have? What would they have done differently if given the chance?
I think you will find that many horse people are happy to discuss with young people their questions about working in the industry. Don't be afraid to ask as many questions and make as many local contacts with horse professionals as you can.
If you chose a life with horses and are hardworking and dedicated, the horses will give you the life you want. Someone very special to me once told me, "stick with the farm and the horses – they gave me a life and if you stick with them, they will give you a life too".
I have had my share of rough patches where I want to give up, but I always remember that advice, and I'm grateful for the guidance I had when I was younger and trying to figure out how to make my way into this business.
If you really want to do it, are not afraid to ask for help, and are a hard worker, you will make it happen!
Happy Horse Life!