John Strassburger, Performance Editor at Horse Journal, is a professional horseman, earning a living at his Phoenix Farm in California. He embarked on this career after leaving a prestigious position as editor of The Chronicle of the Horse. But he didn’t enter the profession, blind. Over the years, John has interviewed and interacted with literally hundreds of pros. If you’re thinking about giving it all up to become a horse pro, be sure you go into it with your eyes wide open. Read on for John’s advice.
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Right now, I’d bet that there are a million pre-teens (mostly girls) out there dreaming of living a life with horses. They want to be famous riders, or trainers, or own their own barn or (sometimes) vets. They dream of being in the barn all day, every day, surrounded by all things horse. But for those of us who are “living the dream,” it’s a far more complicated, uncertain, grayer area than those rose-tinged dreams of childhood.
So here are the “Top 5 Myths” surrounding making a career with horses.
Myth 1: Working with horses is great for those that like animals better than people. Every horse has an owner, and, 30 years in, I’ve never had one show up all alone in the driveway, with a sack of money around his neck. So you’d better spend your formative years polishing those people skills, because, no matter how genius you may be with the horses, if the owners can’t stand you, you aren’t going to make it. (This has been the hardest thing for me.)
Myth 2: If you always put the horse’s needs first, you’ll come out on top. If only this were—always—true! As relates to myth 1, if you ignore the owner’s needs, then you won’t have horses and you won’t have a business. And the owner’s needs will always trump the horse’s needs. If, for example, the owner “must absolutely have” an indoor arena to ride in, the fact the horse will get no turn-out at the barn with the lovely indoor arena and will be unhappy or unhealthy as a result will just be one of those things the horse will have to live with.
Myth 3: If you stay on top of every detail, everything will be fine. You can do everything right around the barn, but horses will still find a myriad of ways to get sick, maim themselves or die. In Dreamland, horses live to be 30, and then they pass peacefully away in their sleep in the pasture, surrounded by their friends. In reality, you will lose far more horses, in terrible ways, before their time. As my friend Denny Emerson often says, “Horses are very large animals looking for an inconvenient way to kill themselves.”
Myth 4: If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. No matter how much you love horses, there will be days when you seriously reconsider what you were thinking when you decided to do this. There will be days when they’re naughty under saddle, stomp on your foot while you’re grooming them, break their automatic waterer and flood the barn, refuse to be caught in the field, or deposit their shoes in unknown places when you can’t get the farrier to come. There will be days when you finish the day with a cold beer and contemplate other career options, like sanitation worker or magician’s assistant.
Myth 5: Concentrating on your equine skills will get you through. Over the years I’ve spent as much time doing construction and repair projects as I have riding, training or teaching. I’ve often joked if I had it to do all over again I’d have taken a lot more wood shop and a lot less math. Fences, gates, stall doors, automatic waterers, tractors and mowers, are just a few of the items on a farm that are CONSTANTLY breaking or being broken (horses are gifted four-legged wrecking balls). Start playing with power tools now.
Making your living with horses is a constant battle to do the right thing. You’re balancing the owner’s wants and desires, with the horse’s needs and best practices, with your finances (or lack thereof) and your own needs and boundaries. If you’re a barn owner or a trainer, it’s very important to communicate from the start with potential clients about what you can offer them—and about what you cannot.
If you’re a client, it’s very important to understand that your trainer or barn owner isn’t living some fairytale life—this is their job, and, just like you, their job needs to pay their bills. So don’t expect charity, don’t think that the fact that they love their job with horses means that they don’t need to get paid appropriately or on time. Fortunately, the vast majority of your clients won’t be a problem in this way. It’s the ones who complain about everything and then every month “forget” to write the check who’ll cause you heartburn.
Those of us who have made this our life and our livelihood really do love what we do. We get to work with some lovely horses, and we often get to know some lovely people, people who sometimes remain an important part of our lives.
But we do give up a lot of “normal life” for the sake of our horses and our businesses, because we love the job. Comedian Dennis Miller once said, “As is often the case in this country, when we know somebody loves to do something, we [expletive deleted] them over on their paycheck, because we figure they’re going to do it anyway.” He was speaking of teachers, but I think it can apply to horse folks too.
We’ll be here day after day, no matter what. And the next generation of dreamers will come in behind us and do the same thing.