Recently NRCHA Million Dollar Rider, Zane Davis posted some advise for aspiring horse trainers on Facebook. We think this advise spans across all disciplines. Horse training is not a glamorous sport, it’s hard….really hard! Zane’s words may seem harsh, but they are true. If you want to be a horse trainer, you should read this!
“I am constantly asked what advice I would give an aspiring performance horse trainer. I’ve finally decided to thoroughly answer this question in hopes the question will go away! Since such a question requires a lengthy answer, I’ve decided to give 8 pieces of sage (or not so sage) advice over the next 8 days. Here is aspiring trainer advice #1…
HAVE A HIGH TOLERANCE FOR POVERTY! Yes, you are going to be poor for awhile, perhaps a long while depending on how talented a horseman and businessman you are. If you think you can get rich training horses, you’re wrong. If you’re good, you can make a living. If you’re exceptional, you can make a good living. However, you can never get rich training horses. Why? Because you can only ride so many horses in a day. Yes, you can outsource some of your work to helpers, assistants, etc., but if you want your show horses to reach their potential you must do most of the work yourself.
Also, overhead costs for performance horse training is very high. It costs a lot of money to do it right. The picture below shows me in my first year of horse training. We built that arena out of recycled posts, poles, and nails. Yep, I didn’t even have enough money to buy new spikes to attach those recycled poles! My overhead was low, but so was my market value. In fact, I was training about half the horses for free just to have the experience (which drove my wife crazy!).
There are ways to make money with your training business other than just training. But don’t plan on the training business itself to send you to early, blissful retirement because it can’t. To summarize, don’t become a trainer with getting rich as your main goal or you will be discouraged and dismayed.”
The next day Zane posted this:
“Yesterday I discussed two of the three traits I felt every aspiring performance horse trainer needs to succeed. What’s the third trait you ask? Here is aspiring performance horse trainer advice #4…
SHUT UP AND HUMBLE YOURSELF! Now wait a minute! You mean Zane Davis is about to lecture on humility! The hypocrisy cup definitely runneth over!! Perhaps I better be more specific. I’m not talking about true Christ-like humility, though I’m sure most of us, especially me, could use more of that. I’m talking about “young horse trainer humility”, which is similar but less sophisticated. It simply means that if there is a problem with your training program, the problem is probably YOU. You have to be humble enough to recognize this and then do something constructive about it.
Let me illustrate with two personal examples. Several years ago I started training with a mixed martial arts club near where we lived. I had wrestled some and had been a pretty decent amateur boxer. This martial arts stuff was going to be a cake walk for me. I figured they would all be quaking in their gis when I walked through the door. This turned out to be a case when humility was quick and painful! Most of the training was ground fighting. I was choked purple, twisted in knots, and tortured in places I didn’t even know I had places! I dragged myself back three times a week for more punishment. It was like a pecking order there. The toughest guy beat up everybody. The second toughest guy beat up everybody but the toughest guy, and so on. I was at the bottom of the pecking order and it was humbling. The madder I got, the more I got beat up. Every week a new kid or two would sign up to train, and I would move up the pecking order. It was nice to actually punish somebody else for a change. Unfortunately, most newcomers wouldn’t come back after the first session, and I would be back at the bottom of the pecking order again! Humbling!!!
My next example comes from my horse show experience. In the NRCHA there is something called the Open Rider List. The top 20 trainers, based on limited age event earnings over the previous three years, are on this list. It’s where the “big dogs” are, or better “the lucky dogs” as was my case in my second real year of showing. Yep, there I was on the list. I was at the bottom of the list but I was on it. In one year I had won enough money to get on that list, and I was sure I would be #1 the next year. I was proud, at least for awhile.
Truthfully I had no right to be on the list because I hadn’t a clue what I was doing in the show pen. I had been lucky the previous year. I had one exceptional horse, one exceptionally lucky horse, and a large part of the money had been won in the Limited/intermediate divisions. If you are on the Open Rider list, you can only enter the Open division. That means you have to run with those “big dogs” all year. You can guess what happened. I got the crap kicked out of me. I hardly won a dime. The picture illustrates one of my humbling moments from that year. (Yes, the horse was fine.)
It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to my career. I humbled myself and said, “There is a problem here. I am that problem.” I went to work on my weaknesses. There were plenty. The next year, still on the Open Rider list, I had great success. I still try, years later, to humbly evaluate my program and admit to myself how little I know.
So aspiring trainers, learn from my mistakes. Find your weak links. Fix them. And for heaven’s sake shut up and quit telling us how much you know!”
The next day Zane posted:
“It’s Super Bowl Sunday so I doubt anyone will see this post unless they are from Canada. I will keep this one short and simple, though it may be the second most important one I share. Here is aspiring performance horse trainer advice #6…
TAKE GOOD CARE OF CUSTOMER HORSES! I know what you are thinking. “That’s the best ole’ Zane could come up with tonight? He must be suffering from the nacho and soda pop binge he endured at the local pre-game party. Of course, I will take care of the horses.” Well, I believe most trainers do. Those few who don’t, through either laziness or ignorance, I will use as the example.
D. Wayne Lucas, the famous racehorse trainer, is a friend of my Dad’s. I once saw his business card. It said, “Send Us Your Dreams”. I had never thought of it before but performance horse trainers are dream makers. Why else would someone invest in such a thing? It’s surely not for the financial gain! It is our job to take their dream and make it come true. Now how do you think owners feel when they show up at your barn and their future dream is standing in a dirty stall, covered in flies, attempting to drink water more suited to be chewed? It’s a dream killer and probably a business killer for you.
So here is another big secret that will keep you in business…OWNERS WILL FORGIVE YOU FOR A LOT OF LOSING IF YOU TAKE GOOD PHYSICAL CARE OF THEIR HORSE! We all lose. Sometimes it’s our fault and often it is just one of those things. However, if you can keep “Dobbin” looking good physically, owners tend to overlook some of your bad performances.
What do you need to do then? It’s pretty cheap and simple actually. This is a list of ten MININUM tasks: 1. Keep the entranceway to your place clean. 2. Keep the horse’s stall even, clean, and safe. 3. Fresh, clean water. 4. Keep the horse wormed. 5. Doctor any wounds, rashes, etc. 6. Have good forage. 7. Do something about excessive flies. 8. Have safe fences. 9. Groom your arena. 10. Clean the inside of your trailer.
Basically everywhere “Dobbin” goes needs to be clean, safe, and effective. I used to think it needed to be fancy too. What I discovered is most owners want clean, safe, and effective primarily, and all else is secondary. You can get fancier as you grow.
Lastly, you need to know unforeseen things do happen. Horses lose weight, get sick, get sore, have accidents, etc. If any of these things happen, or look like they will happen, let the owner know ahead of time if possible. That way if the owner shows up at your place and sees a crippled, skinny horse, it won’t come as such a shock. They need to know you’re aware there is a problem and you are on top of it. (Pictured is my daughter and head groom, Zayle Davis. She helps take great care of the horses.)
Remember, you’re in charge of making dreams come true. Keep the dream looking and feeling good.”
Zane concluded the series with:
“I’ve come to the end of my little advice project. Yes, I know I promised eight different segments originally, but I’m sure even Dear Abby took an occasional sabbatical. The creative inferno I experienced at the project’s inception has now burned down to a smoldering pile of uncreative embers I’m afraid. I give you the last two pieces combined and condensed. Here are aspiring performance horse trainer advice #7 and #8…
NO, YOU CAN’T AFFORD IT! I remember my first NRCHA competition. I was a 30+ year old rookie with lots of confidence (or perhaps “ignorance” is a better word) and no experience. I remember watching all those big, fancy trucks & trailers pull in. Horses were unloaded and tacked up with handmade saddles and silver bridles. Everybody had nice boots, spurs, blankets, etc. Well, ALMOST everybody did. My old truck broke down once on the way to the show and then died in the parking lot when we arrived. I didn’t have any fancy stuff. In fact, I didn’t even know what I needed. I was intimidated and embarrassed. I wanted good stuff too!
This feeling of inadequacy can happen to any aspiring trainer I’m sure. Don’t let it get the better of you. Here is the real truth, most of those trainers with all the fancy stuff are in debt up to the top crease of their furrowed brow!!! I’m not trying to be a financial advisor. That’s way out of my realm. I’m going to keep this simple for you. Spend your money on your horses’ well-being and your education, and not on “stuff”.
There will be a time for good stuff later if you are successful in your business. If you allow yourself a bunch of debt and spend all your extra money on nice “stuff”, it will affect your training, your showing, and probably your honesty with your customers. You will fail before you get started all in the name of looking good.
And aspiring trainer advice #8…ENJOY YOUR JOB! What! After all I’ve told you how can you possibly enjoy anything, right? Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to scare you, but you did ask. These were just truths to make your job easier. Personally I enjoy going to work everyday. By nature I’m very intense. You would never know I am usually having a great time as I work, but I am. I like horses. I like to see their progress. I would get up and do this for free everyday if I didn’t have three kids that think they need to eat. It’s been tough at times, but I’ve been blessed greatly because of what I do. This picture was taken a few weeks ago on the beach in Aruba. Yep, it took ten years to get to this point, but we’ve gone on vacation every year for the last five years. I include it just to show there is hope for you. My truck may still break down occasionally but now at least it’s a brand new (paid for) truck!
Thank you all for reading these posts, whether you’re an aspiring performance horse trainer or not. The response has been overwhelming, and I appreciate all your kind comments. Since the posts ended up being so widely read, it was nice to see I only had two derogatory comments and one very idiotic comment. For those readers who are aspiring trainers, I wish you all the best. Now, please don’t ask me this question anymore!”
Thank you Zane for your wonderful insight. Share this on Facebook if you wish more trainers would take his advise!