How to Become a Horse Trainer

Katie Navarra

A trainer working with a horse.

Horse trainers have one of the most visible careers in the horse industry. For some, becoming a horse trainer is the continuation of a childhood passion for lessons and showing. For others, it is a goal that emerges in their teenage or young adult years.  

In Europe, the path to becoming a horse trainer includes trainer certifications and horse training licenses that are required in English disciplines. This is not the case in the United States where there are two common ways to become a professional horse trainer: apprenticeships and horse training schools.

“It takes someone with a good education, work ethic, and the “X” factor to make a trainer,” said Al Dunning. The Arizona-based trainer has more than 45 World and Reserve World Championships and has been inducted into multiple Halls of Fame. “The ‘X’ factor is that you have something special with horses and people. The path will be defined as you continue to learn and grow.”

Working as a horse trainer is more than teaching a horse to respond to subtle cues and perform a discipline. Being a trainer is a 24/7 job because they are responsible for the well-being of the horses they are training.  

“A young trainer needs to ask if this level of commitment is something they are ready to take on,” said Grand Prix Dressage trainer Lisa Wilcox. She won a team silver medal at the 2002 FEI World Games and a team bronze medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Still interested in becoming a horse trainer? Here are a few things to consider about apprenticeships and college programs.

Learning by doing

Apprenticeships are valuable opportunities for getting first-hand experience as a horse trainer. That’s how Al initially got his start. He competed at horse shows as a youth rider and worked for a few trainers. Then he apprenticed under two top trainers for nine years before launching his own business.

“Being open-minded, working hard, and having a good support group around you are the keys,” he said. “I have been lucky to have that my entire career.”

Applying to apprenticeships can be a competitive process. Al offers these three pieces of advice for approaching a trainer about an apprenticeship.

  • Prepare to sell yourself by talking about your experience and education.
  • Learn how the trainer runs their apprenticeship and what will be expected.
  • Jump in without overanalyzing a situation.

“For me personally, if someone inquires about an opportunity, I request a resume, a recommendation from an accredited teacher or professional trainer, a photograph, and a video of their riding skills,” he said. 

Massachusetts-based trainer Jill Haas didn’t have a horse growing up and also took the apprenticeship route to becoming a trainer. She took advantage of opportunities to take lessons, lease, and work for every chance to ride. She found a mentor who noticed she didn’t have as many advantages as other kids. He took her under his wing, and she spent a decade learning from him.

When finding an apprenticeship, Jill recommends:

  • Looking for a trainer or facility you completely respect.
  • Finding a program that models the horsemanship, ethics, training progression, and business structure you want to emulate.
  • Sticking with this same program until you know it inside and out.

A college degree

Lisa apprenticed in Germany under Ernst Hoyos and received both her Bereiter (rider’s license) and Reitlehrer (trainer’s license). She describes the German system as a complete systematic education that taught her everything from starting young horses to teaching riders and running a business. Because of that she strongly encourages riders to earn a college education first.

“Becoming a horse trainer requires a certain level of maturity. College can provide that,” she said. “I also recommend apprenticing with trainers that have proven themselves to be successful.”

There are many two-and-four year college programs that offer hands-on equine science programs. Often the majors include nutrition, animal science, judging, and reproduction. Many schools also encourage students to double-major or minor in business.

Attending the University of Findlay in Ohio gave Albany, Georgia trainer Joanna Himes the experience she needed to launch a training business. She earned a Bachelor of Science in equestrian studies and equine business management.

“College was a great introduction to the breed show world,” she said. “The college route is not necessarily the most effective use of your time for the training and showing aspect, but it has been very valuable for the true business side.”

General business classes on accounting and marketing have helped her make critical decisions about managing cash flow, setting price points based on the current market, and general marketing. Equine liability issues, specifically thinking and operating from a risk management standpoint, have set her up for long-term success.

“For me, a degree has also had the added benefit of making me more employable at a higher pay scale in the general business world when we needed additional income streams,” she said.

Horse trainer salaries vary widely based on discipline, experience, and geographic location. New trainers often earn around $2,000 a month. Housing may be provided on top of a weekly paycheck. Talking with a local trainer, a trusted mentor, or a school representative can provide insight into how much a horse trainer makes.

Sticking with it

Horse training is a lifestyle, one that is dramatically more demanding than a 9 to 5 office job where you clock-in and out at the end of the day. It can be a tough career, especially early on. Young horses (and clients) will challenge you and can riddle any rider with some doubts. Believing in yourself and the program is essential.

“It’s important to believe in yourself to get past a lot of hurdles,” Jill said. “Opportunities will arise for you if you never quit and if you are ready to receive them. If you’re not getting the opportunities you want, go back to your foundation and work on everything you can to make yourself better.”

An apprenticeship or college degree is the beginning of learning to become a trainer, not the end. The top trainers are open-minded and continually look for ways to improve their skills.

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