Becoming a Horse Trainer: What Young Professionals Have Learned
Becoming a Horse Trainer: What Young Professionals Have Learned
By Abigail Boatwright
For horse-crazy kids, being a professional horse trainer can seem like a dream job, spending all day every day riding, grooming and working with horses.
But hard work, building experience and even education away from the barn are all important factors to building a viable training business. Three former AQHYA leaders share what they’ve learned – beyond horses – since turning pro.
1. Absorb All You Can as a Youth
All three women grew up with parents who were trainers. But they will all tell you that growing up as a trainer’s kid didn’t automatically make them good trainers.
AQHA Professional Horsewoman Dakota Diamond Griffith of Hilliard, Ohio, is the daughter of Sid Griffith, respected reining trainer and judge for multiple associations, and she grew up showing AQHA as a youth.
As a teen, Dakota rode with Rick Skelly of Janesville, Wisconsin, among other trainers, and she loved his Select clients.
“At 15, I used to tell all of his ladies that I wanted a barn of Select riders just like Rick (had),” Dakota says. “So when I was 18, I decided to switch to becoming a professional.”
AQHA Professional Horsewoman Carli Pitts of Newburgh, Indiana, started riding at age 7, showing at the local level, eventually winning national titles. She was part of Team USA at the 2014 American Quarter Horse Youth World Cup. In 2015, she began showing in open classes while she was still a youth.
“I decided before I got out of youth that I wanted to be a trainer,” Carli says. “Both of my parents are trainers, so it’s definitely a lifestyle. And I love learning the horse’s personality – it’s amazing how different each horse’s personality is.”
Carli’s parents are Vicki Pitts and AQHA Professional Horseman Brad Pitts of Newburgh – owners and operators of P5 Equestrian. But having trainer parents isn’t a guarantee of learning everything about the business.
“I wish I’d understood sooner that training is not only getting a horse to ride so that it will show for you, but getting the horse ready for someone else – not just for yourself, but for your youth or amateur clients,” Carli says. “That was the biggest thing they told me, but I didn’t realize how hard it was until I was on my own.”
AQHA Professional Horsewoman Carli Pitts rides No Good Deed for owner Debra Craig of West Palm Beach, Florida. Learning how prepare horses for other riders was the hardest part of becoming a professional, Carli says. (Credit: Ruehle Photography)
Katy Krshka is the daughter of highly successful horse trainers Tom and Jackie Kyle Krshka. The Yukon, Oklahoma, native won many titles in AQHYA competition and competed successfully at the collegiate level.
“Growing up, we were always going to horse shows, riding every day, always at the barn,” Katy says. “It was really all I knew, and luckily I fell in love with it.”
(What does it take to become an AQHA Professional Horseman or -woman? Learn more about the AQHA Professional Horsemen Association.)
2. Consider Traditional Education
Carli now trains youth, amateurs and selects in all-around competition, as well as the horses used in those events. But while starting out training, she pursued a degree in business administration from the University of Southern Indiana.
“It’s only a 30-minute drive from my house, so I did classes two days a week, and many of my classes were online,” Carli says. “I had to prioritize my time between classes and riding at other times.”
Juggling homework, courses, training and showing was a challenge, but Carli graduated in May 2018.
“I finished my degree and I have no regrets about that,” Carli says. “I don’t think you need to have a degree to be a trainer, but I’m really glad I got mine just in case I need it, because I know there’s no way I would go back later in life.”
Katy attended Oklahoma State University, riding on the school’s equestrian team, winning a national championship and three Big 12 championships.
“It was wonderful to be able to continue my love of horses through the equestrian team,” Katy says. “I just wanted to be a horse trainer, but my parents were very emphatic that I got a degree and an education.”
Katy earned a degree in animal science with a business option, then earned her master’s in international agriculture in May 2016.
“Now that I’m a professional, those agricultural, business and equine classes really built on my hands-on experience, putting it altogether,” Katy says.
During her college years, Katy considered other careers besides training and sampled them through internships.
“I’ve loved all of it, but it didn’t quite get my fix like training horses did,” Katy says. “Being able to see the different aspects of the industry has given me an excellent perspective. I’m not saying you have to go to college, but being able to see those different perspectives and getting experience is so valuable.”
Katy Krshka sampled other careers, but training horses was her passion, and she followed it – after getting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. (Credit: Jackie Kyle Krshka)
3. Apprentice First
Starting your professional career by working under another trainer is best-case scenario, these experts say.
“I can’t encourage people to work as an assistant trainer first, enough,” Dakota says. “Not even just because of the costs, but in my case – I jumped in too hard, too fast, and I knew what I was getting into, seeing my parents’ experiences as trainers. Going in and being an assistant somewhere is a real eye-opener for somebody that wants to get started.”
Katy worked for AQHA Professional Horsemen Gary and Kelley Roberts in Murrieta, California, and says it was an excellent way to begin her training career.
“It was one of the best decisions I’ve made,” Katy says. “They are phenomenal horsemen, and I learned so much there. I knew within a few months that I had made the right decision to become a trainer. Even growing up with horse trainer parents, there’s nothing like working and learning from someone else.”
(Visit the directory of AQHA Professional Horsemen to find trainers near you.)
4. Know Your Limits
Dakota hit the ground running at age 18 in 2014, when a substantial client sent her a string of ponies to get her feet wet. Once the ponies were trained and sold, that client gave her 11 horses to train.
“I was working all day, every day,” Dakota said. “I was honestly fried. I was doing too much. I started out too hard, too fast, and I was regretting the decision that I’d made. I didn’t know where I was going to go from there.”
She knew she still had a passion for horses, but she needed to re-evaluate her business plan. She decided to ride fewer horses for fewer people to do her best work.
“That was a breaking point, and that was very early in my career,” Dakota says. “But it was something that was honestly good for me in the long run, because now I know what I can handle and how my time can be managed. So that was a good thing for me, starting off.”
Dakota with her client Erica Maletic and Hunting For Romance. Dakota says finding ideal clients and learning her limits have been key to success. (Credit: Eric Hardesty)
5. Find Your Ideal Client
Dakota has learned to choose clients who have a positive outlook and won’t be competitive within the barn.
“My clients say ‘Hey, tomorrow is a new day. We’re going to wake up and we’re going to have fun doing it,’ ” Dakota says. “I’ve found a happy medium with my clients and my horses, and we try to be very open and upfront. If there’s one bad apple in the group, it spoils the whole cart. So I really try to keep my atmosphere light and friendly and professional.”
6. The Cost of Business
Potential trainers should consider costs – startup costs and perpetual costs – and how they’ll make their business work.
“Unless you’re born into being a trainer – and even then, you have these costs – you have to pay to rent a facility, you have to pay for tractors, spreaders, bridles, saddles, truck payments, trailer payments – it all adds up,” Dakota says.
Beyond the financial costs, Katy says, training horses is an around-the-clock job with a personal cost as well.
“A lot of people think it’s a very glamorous lifestyle, and we get to do whatever we want because we’re self-employed,” Katy says. “But in fact, it’s a lot of work, and a lot of money coming in and out, and at the end of the day, you have all these horses that you treat as your own – it’s a 24/7 job. You’re constantly thinking about the horses. We put our whole lives into this.”
Trainers need CDL licenses to drive rigs. They need business plans and methods to handle invoicing, payroll, bookkeeping and expenses. These elements are just as important to being a trainer as riding.
“Getting hotel rooms, figuring out show entries and stalls, which horses go to which shows, billing, organization – it’s a lot more than just riding horses all day,” Carli says.
7. Riding Lessons Pay Off
Teaching lessons is one way Dakota’s family helps offset the costs of training.
“We teach 300 lessons a week at my family’s barn,” Dakota says. “We have a full staff, and we do boarding and lessons, and if weren’t for the boarding and lesson program, I’m not sure that my training program would be possible.”
A lesson program has additional benefits: It introduces a whole host of people to the horse industry at a different entry point.
“Not every client can afford to or wants to show,” Dakota says. “We really find that most of our long-term clients come from new beginner people. So don’t miss out on that end of the business, because that’s where we create new members, and where we can start a solid foundation for kids.”
8. Never Stop Learning
These trainers all extol the virtues of approaching training with humility, realizing there is always something you can learn from others.
“A lot of people think that anybody can be a horse trainer,” Dakota says. “That’s not necessarily true, and it’s not just based on having a passion for horses. You have to have experience, and you have to keep learning. You will run into problems, and you need to be humble enough to ask for help.”
Ask a friend for advice, load up your trailer and go to a clinic, take riding lessons, hire a coach. Keep an open mind and be willing to swallow your pride so you can learn, Dakota says.
Watch as many trainers as you can, Carli says.
“If I saw a trainer doing something and I didn’t understand, I would go up to them and ask them what they were doing, and why,” Carli says. “They’ve all been so open and welcoming to young trainers. They really want you to succeed. So ask questions. Watch. Learn.”
Katy echoes this advice.
“Learn from as many people as you can—everyone has a little bit of a different style and techniques,” Katy says. “Have a good work ethic, and keep your mind open. It’s not a matter of knowing everything. There’s real value of working with a more experienced trainer.”
Katy has found a great support system within the horse training community, and says many trainers are willing to help younger ones.
“I didn’t realize how many older trainers are out there that really, deep down, want to help people learn and succeed – it’s been really cool to see,” Katy says.
AQHA Professional Horsemen
AQHA Professional Horsemen are equine professionals who have agreed to adhere to the professional standards of AQHA to and work in a professional manner to achieve goals and objectives.
Each AQHA Professional Horseman has signed a code of ethics that includes a requirement to safeguard the human treatment of American Quarter Horses and any other animals in the professional’s care.
Learn more about the AQHA Professional Horsemen Association at www.aqha.com/prohorsemen.
About the Sources: Dakota Diamond Griffith, Carli Pitts and Katy Krshka
Dakota Diamond Griffith is an AQHYA past president and was AQHYA Justin Rookie of the Year 11-&-Under in 2003. She is a five-time high-point youth hunter under saddle champion and four-time high-point performance halter champion. Now an AQHA Professional Horsewoman, Dakota’s clients have won multiple top-10 titles at the All American Quarter Horse Congress. They have been regional champions and AQHA high-point champions. Dakota lives in Hilliard, Ohio.
Carli Pitts is an AQHA Professional Horsewoman located in Newburgh, Indiana. As a youth, she was a year-end high-point winner in western pleasure and ranch riding. She was a reserve world champion in horsemanship. Her clients have won awards including a reserve Congress title in novice amateur showmanship. Her family’s barn has trained western pleasure and western riding winners through the All American Quarter Horse Congress and the National Snaffle Bit Association.
From Yukon, Oklahoma, Katy Krshka trains young horses, shows open horses, coaches youth, amateur and Select riders in all-around events. She was a youth reserve world champion in hunt seat equitation, showmanship, western riding and horsemanship. She was also a youth world champion in hunt seat equitation.