Our columnist gets real about what it takes to run an eventing business. This article first appeared in the June 19 & 26, 2017, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.
I see a lot of young people come in and out of this sport. Some of them are very good competitors, and some of them are average. Interestingly, the ones who make it in the sport long term aren’t necessarily the most talented.
The reality is that in this country, no matter how good you are, you will never make a profitable career out of being an eventing competitor. There is simply no money in competing. You might be good enough to get some owners. You might even be good enough that they will actually pay you to ride their horses for them, but the reality is that you will not be making a living on just that alone.
You need to be an all-purpose saddle. I hate to say that, because to me, an all-purpose saddle is a no-purpose saddle, but the point is that you will need to diversify your business model if you want a successful and sustainable career.
Eventing professionals who truly run a successful business and have real staying power do it all. They teach, they sell, they travel to give clinics, they even occasionally write articles! Heck, I went to an Olympic gold medalist’s farm the other morning and found him in the barn mucking stalls. You will never get too good to not have to do it all.
So here’s what I am going to do for you. I am going to give you a fail-safe way to make a sustainable business in the sport of eventing. Most of you won’t follow it. Most of you won’t make it.
Dreams Versus Goals
The first thing you need to do is to understand the difference between a goal and dream. According to Webster’s online dictionary a dream is “a strongly desired goal or purpose, as in a dream of becoming president.”
However, a goal is defined as “the end toward which effort is directed.” So what’s the difference then? For our purposes they are two very different things.
The first thing you should notice in these definitions is that the word goal is a part of dream’s definition, however the word dream is not a part of the definition of goal. Here’s what that means to you. In order to achieve your dreams in the sport, whatever those might be, you need to set out both long- and short-term goals. Get out a sheet of paper, and write down where you want to be one year from now, two years from now, and five years from now.
Once you’ve done that, start to strategize on how you can make that happen. Be careful in this process that you keep your eye on the goal, not the dream. Everyone dreams of representing their country in an international team competition, but ask yourself how often you have seen an amateur be successful in achieving that goal. The riders who achieve that dream are professionals. Sure, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between. The ones who make it are the people who set out attainable goals to reach along the way.
Go To University, But Then You Will Need To Go To School
I get a lot of kids who come to work for me who decide they want to go to university. If that’s their desire, then I encourage them to go. For many kids this is the right thing to do, and it does make them more employable.
However, if you really want to be a top-notch professional equestrian, university will not be enough to get you started. Being a professional in the horse industry is a trade. You need to become an apprentice just like any other trade and learn your craft. This is not a world to be entered into lightly. I recommend that an aspiring young equestrian get into a program he respects and learns the ins and outs of that program for at least three years. The riding portion is only a small part of the knowledge you need to gain. How does a professional manage their horses? How do they manage their staff? How do they manage their clients? These are all things that you will not learn in university.
Unless you are fortunate enough to have been born and raised in an equine mecca you will have to leave home. You will not make it by staying comfortable in your small pond. It’s so tempting to be that big fish in the little pond. It’s a great feeling to be the best person in your little neck of the woods. Here’s the reality: If you are under the age of 30, and you are the best rider/trainer/teacher around, you need to move someplace else.
When I was 19 I left to be a working student. I was just some small-town kid from Wisconsin who wanted to create a business so that I could make a career in horses and maybe if I was lucky be able to afford an upper-level horse. Thankfully my parents pushed me out of the nest. I’m certain they didn’t want to. I’d made the ill-advised choice to forego university to pursue horses. My parents were not happy, but they did end up supporting my decision. Thank God my dad knew I needed to leave. He helped me find a place to go and then kicked me out the door. After seven days I was so homesick I couldn’t take it anymore. I called my dad and begged him to let me come back, and I will never forget that conversation.
While sitting in my truck holding back my tears I spoke to my dad on the phone. He told me that was fine. I could come home, but I was going back to school, and there was absolutely no way I would be running any kind of equine business out of his stable. I was crushed. How could he just leave me out East when I was so obviously homesick? I’m sure it was not an easy conversation for him to have, but he knew what he was doing. I needed to learn my trade, and I spent the next three years in a program doing just that.
Once you’ve made it through the working student portion of your life, find a way to stay for a while longer. You’ve likely had a little success by now. You may have won some events. You may have gone to some cool places to compete. When I left my working student position I had ridden around the [now-four]-star competition at Rolex Kentucky. I went back to Milwaukee and started teaching and training and selling and mucking. Guess what? I wasn’t ready to be doing any of that except the mucking. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that yet, so I floundered around for a few years.
I made a ton of money teaching in Wisconsin; in fact it was enough to finance my winters in Florida. But I soon realized that if I kept doing what was comfortable I would never reach my next goal of being a competitive upper-level event rider and a top-notch professional. So what did I do? I moved to Florida full time. That meant I was 1,200 miles away from my closest family members. It was tough, but it was also one of the most exciting times of my life.
Keep your goals at the front of your mind, and don’t let yourself get in the way. If you want to be the best you will have to make sacrifices. Yes, you will need to find a job to finance yourself at some point. Your parents aren’t likely going to pay for you forever. Figure it out, and don’t be afraid of hard work. Muck stalls, groom, gallop race horses, work at the corner store, wait tables—whatever it takes to keep you amongst the best in the sport, that is how you will continue to learn. Ideally, this stage of your career (the time between being a working student and a professional) should last another few years.
There Are No Fairy Godmothers
So for argument’s sake, we will say that you’ve followed my foolproof plan to make it as a professional in the horse world. At this point you will be broke and desperate for things to come together. Don’t panic! Just think like a business person.
Look on a map, and find the nearest big city that is reasonably close to where you would like to be located. Now find a nice stable no more than 30 minutes from the edge of the city that is looking for an aspiring trainer. Go be that trainer. Sell yourself and be confident.
From your new base you will do it all. You will teach, you will train, you will sell, you will advise clients on all things horse. This is how you will start to finance your career going forward. The days will be long, and the work will be hard. If this is what you really want to do that won’t be a problem for you.
So now that you are a professional, act like one. Show up to lessons on time; treat your customers with respect. Most of them will be very successful people in their own right, people who are looking for a way to pursue their passion in a fun, safe environment. Remember that they have goals too, and you need to show them how invested you are in their success.
You’re trying to build a team here, so don’t forget the old saying, “There is no ‘I’ in team.” If you want people to believe in and support you, you will need to believe in and support them. Do it right, and a few of these people may even become long-term clients, friends and wait for it: OWNERS!
Here’s the dirty little secret about owners. They don’t do it for the money or fame. They do it because they want to be part of the journey, and they want someone close to them who they believe in. Never forget that they want to be included. They want to be a part of the team. They will likely become some of your closest friends, so treat them that way. If they only wanted to own a successful upper-level horse and didn’t care about the relationship with the rider, they would have many riders to choose from. They chose you because they can be close to the action and a real part of the team.
Would you send your friends a bill every month without communicating to them about how their horse is going? Of course not, so don’t do that to your owners. Remember they are clients. Not fairy godmothers. They don’t owe you anything. In fact, you owe them. You owe them hard work. You owe them results. You owe them thanks, and you definitely owe them respect. Show them that respect by making them a part of the team.
The goal of any aspiring eventing professional shouldn’t be to ride at the top level of the sport. That should be the dream or at the very least the long-term goal. The reality is that you will ride many more training level and below horses than you will advanced, team caliber ones. You need to enjoy the journey.
When you have a tough day, and you think you can’t take anymore, just remind yourself that you are getting paid to be with horses. It’s a lifestyle that most can only dream of. The real goal should be to create a sustainable business that can finance your basic living expenses and one competitive horse. That horse is considered your advertising. If you aren’t out there competing then people won’t know who you are, so it’s an important piece. From here the sky is the limit.
It’s a long road with many short-term goals along the way. If you keep checking the boxes on those goals, you will one day look back and realize you are in fact living your dream.
Jonathan Holling has been a mainstay at the top level of eventing for close to 20 years, competing in North America and Europe. He won the 2012 Bromont CCI*** (Quebec) and was a member of that year’s Nations Cup team at Boekelo (the Netherlands). Jon has successfully ridden around numerous four-star events. In addition, he formerly coached the Area IV young rider team, which has won numerous medals, including two golds. He serves on the U.S. Equestrian Federation Competition Management Committee, Eventing Committee and High Performance Eligible Athletes Committee. He started contributing as a Between Rounds columnist in 2015.