How to Become a Horse Trainer: Pros Speak Out

How to Become a Horse Trainer: Pros Speak Out

What you need to know to start a horse-training career. Some of the industry’s best horsemen share advice.

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For some, the progression to becoming a horse trainer is an extension of having grown up taking horseback riding lessons while showing horses as a youth.

For others who haven’t had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the saddle, the path is not as clear, and their journey starts during college or by paying a trainer to learn. The American Quarter Horse Journal talked to professionals about how to get started in the industry.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  1. Colleges with horse programs

  2. Four-year college horse programs

  3. Suggested college degrees for horse trainers

  4. Learning how to train horses: apprenticeships

  5. Applying for apprenticeships

  6. How much can you earn as a horse trainer's apprentice?

  7. What it takes to be a horse trainer

  8. Supplementing your horse training business

  9. How to become a better horse trainer

  10. AQHA Professional Horsemen's Association

Colleges With Horse Programs

Numerous two- and four-year colleges offer hands-on programs in equine science. One such place, Lamar Community College in Lamar, Colorado, is an all-western school that students attend with the goal of working in the cutting, reining, working cow horse, roping or pleasure industries. Lamar offers a two-year associate of applied science degree in horse training and management that is designed for those who want to be horse trainers.

One- and two-year certificate programs are also available in colt starting, fundamental horse training and advanced horsemanship.

J.J. Rydberg is the former horse training and management program manager at Lamar. Before joining Lamar he, like the rest of the faculty, was a professional trainer and also an AQHA world champion tie-down roper and professional cowboy.

“Our training program is one of the original programs in the country,” J.J. told the Journal. “It’s all hands-on, and we spend a lot of time riding. By the time (students) graduate, they’ll have started at least three colts and trained another. Students are here on campus for three semesters, and then they’re on an internship with a professional trainer anywhere in the U.S. for a semester.”

One of the greatest advantages of going to a college to learn horsemanship is that students obtain a degree.

“You get a degree, which is never a bad thing; it’s something that no one can take away from you. I have a lot of students do this, then go on to a four-year school to get a bachelor’s (degree) and then go back to riding horses so they’ve got something to fall back on,” J.J. says.

Reining and reined cow horse horse trainer Dell Hendricks is a graduate of the Lamar Community College program. As with all college courses, only some graduates will pursue careers in the course they studied.

“Fifty percent of people decide they don’t want to be a trainer after they get in the real world and see how much work it is, but the other 50 percent stay with it,” J.J. says.

One man who sees both sides of the issue is Kevin Meyer, a former head trainer and manager of the horse division at Wagonhound Land & Livestock who is now with Mantz Creek Horses in Laramie, Wyoming. Kevin is also on the advisory board for the equine science programs at Laramie County Community College in Laramie, Wyoming, and Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“I see the benefits of going to college, but it’s impossible to imitate the pace that you’re going to have to work at when you become a horse trainer,” Kevin says. “Liking horses and liking riding your horse is not enough; to be a trainer you have to have an all-consuming passion, and that means that on days when you’re feeling tired and don’t feel like it, you still go out and be a good trainer.

“The programs I’m involved in do a great job of teaching the basics, but they can’t replicate the pace of training horses in the real world. The colleges do a very good job of introducing kids to the training process; they’re not necessarily teaching them to be a horse trainer. They’re preparing them for the possibility of becoming a horse trainer,” he says. “When I was hiring people for Wagonhound, if I saw a certain college on their application, then I knew what I was getting. I knew what their foundation was.”

Four-Year College Horse Programs

The University of Findlay in Findlay, Ohio, is a four-year school that has offered instruction in horse training for more than 30 years. At Findlay, the students can attain an associate of arts degree or a bachelor of science degree in either English or western riding.

AQHA Professional Horseman Clark Bradley, a two-time National Reining Horse Association Futurity champion and the 2011 AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year, is a riding instructor at the western-riding-focused school that has seen AQHA Professional Horsemen Todd Crawford and Casey Hinton graduate from the program.

Clark explains that the college program is suited to both experienced and novice riders. Freshmen learn the basics of controlling a horse on the ground and in the saddle. On a broke horse, they learn to use their hands and legs to move the horse’s different body parts, and the basics of showmanship. During the next three years, each student rides three to four horses a semester; sophomores focus on colt starting and the first 120 days of the horse’s training; juniors continue to start colts but also ride finished western pleasure and cutting horses; and seniors ride a finished reining horse and focus on preparing a horse for a 2-year-old futurity.

“In their junior and senior years, we try to match them with a horse that will do what they want to do, whether it’s reining, pleasure or cutting,” Clark says. “We concentrate on western but we do some English, especially on the flat.”

Suggested College Degrees for Horse Trainers

Findlay equestrian majors take classes in judging, nutrition, horse science and reproduction, but the instructors recommend that students also get a minor in education, accounting or business.

“There are a lot of really good trainers who aren’t successful because they have poor business skills, and I think a college education can really help with that,” Clark says. “It also gives students another out if they get hurt or decide they don’t want to ride full-time anymore.”

Kevin agrees.

“While college programs may not give a student everything he or she needs to physically train a horse, they do give students a heads-up on running a business,” Kevin says. “Students learn about managing money, which is a great thing. When I started out on my own, I was really playing catch-up learning how to be a businessman while at the same time trying to get my business going.”

A question Kevin is often asked by students is “What do I do after I finish college?”

“If you want to be a trainer, then go get a job where someone will put you on a horse. If you want to be a cutter but you can’t find a job riding cutting horses but you can get one riding barrel horses, then go get that one until you get one you want.”

AQHA Professional Horseman Charlie Cole of Aubrey, Texas, didn’t attend college but acknowledges the merit in it for aspiring trainers.

“I think going to college and getting a business degree is a great start to being a successful horse trainer,” he says. “I started my own business at 20 and formed Highpoint Performance Horses with Jason Martin at 22. I’m very fortunate my mother gave me good business skills early on. Having good business and people skills are just as important as being a great rider. There are many good horse training courses that give good basics, but I think apprenticing and working for a good trainer is where a ‘wannabe’ horse trainer would get the most hands-on riding skills.”

Learning How to Train Horses: Apprenticeships

Those who don’t want to go to school to learn the basics of training can pay a trainer to train them.

Joe Heim of Thackerville, Oklahoma, broke colts for cash as a teenager, but Joe’s big break came when he landed a job with Buster Welch. Joe went on to win two National Cutting Horse Association futurities and became one of a handful of trainers to win the three events that make up cutting’s Triple Crown.

During his years in the industry working for the public, Joe was torn between training his horses and training his apprentices.

“Public trainers are being paid to school and advance the horses in training, so ethically, a trainer can’t mount up very inexperienced people, because the horse won’t progress due to the rider’s inexperience. It is unethical to use a client horse for the purpose of advancing a student.”

Joe breeds and raises horses and he came up with the idea of using his own horses for an inexperienced apprenticeship program. While Joe’s apprentices don’t need to be skilled riders, the must be able to catch, halter, bridle and saddle a horse, and ride comfortably without fear of falling off.

“As long as I don’t have to tie them on with a seatbelt, I can teach them the rest from the basics of how to use your legs to how to start a colt. This is for the less-experienced riders who want a 24/7, hands-on approach to learning,” Joe says. “To fit with young people’s finances, they sign up for 30-day increments and are welcome to come and go as their finances require.”

Joe is adamant that students learn every part of the training process, including stall cleaning, feeding, blanketing and doctoring cattle.

“Everyone, including myself, helps out with chores and does their share in the daily care of livestock. After that, we’ll ride. I give them a goal for each day with each horse; I don’t micromanage them, but I give them advice on techniques and philosophy, and they have free range to develop their own way of doing things. For example, if they are breaking 2-year-olds, we might discuss the kind of bridle to advance the horse and how to go about it.”

Joe’s approach allows apprentices to learn the skills that will enable them to get a paying position with a trainer.

Applying for Apprenticeships

When it comes to hiring first-time employees, most professional trainers don’t want to be the guinea pig, and that’s where student internships like the one that is part of Lamar Community College and Joe’s apprenticeship program come in to play.

“We open doors for students who can’t get in with a trainer,” says J.J., who has placed students with trainers Bill Riddle and Tim McQuay. “They go through this program and get the basic skills required to succeed in their internship with a trainer. Most of them get hired during their internship.”

“A lot of trainers who hire assistants want someone with quite a bit of experience,” Clark says. “They want someone who has broke some colts and ridden some finished horses, and Findlay’s program makes them very hirable versus someone who might have had a bit of show experience but hasn’t ridden the green horses or tried other disciplines. When they leave here, they’ve got a better background to go and be someone’s apprentice.”

Professional trainers, including AQHA Professional Horseman Al Dunning, all agree that an apprenticeship is the best way for an experienced novice to learn more about training.

“The best thing you can do is go work for a trainer whom you want to be like. It helps if you’ve got some college education, but a college education doesn’t mean anything unless you’ve got some practical knowledge,” says Al, who majored in business and minored in psychology in college while also apprenticing with a trainer. “I don’t want to be the first guy they’ve ever rode with; I want them to have some experience. If someone came up to me and said, ‘I’ve got a degree from Texas A&M but I’ve never worked (with horses) for anybody,’ I couldn’t hire them. I want to know who they are, where they came from and who they worked for. I usually ask that they send a resume and a video. Then I have to meet with them and ride with them.”

Once hired, most apprentices start at the bottom. They brush, lope and care for horses until they prove that they are capable of doing some training and learning while they train.

“I only hire the best, so usually we’re pretty quick to do that,” Al says. “I help them with what they’re doing on a horse right away, but as far as giving them a horse to train, that depends on what I’ve got here to train and how good they really are.”

Apprenticing gives you a really good feel for what you’re getting yourself into, says Audrey Akin, a hunter and equitation trainer in Georgia, who started working under her own name at 18.

“You get to ride a lot of challenging horses, young horses,” she says. “Training is a lot harder than people think. It’s not all blue ribbons and glamorous horse shows; it’s hard, dirty, tiring, long days, and apprenticing shows you the reality of being a horse trainer.”

How much can you earn as a horse trainer’s apprentice?

Apprenticeships often sort the wannabes from the will-be’s. Salaries are often less than $2,000 a month, though housing might be included.

“It’s not easy, and it can be tough,” Charlie says. “I worked for the best trainers I could when I was young. Most of them, I barely made enough to buy food with, others I worked for free just to have the chance to learn from them.”

What It Takes to be a Horse Trainer

Having talent and riding horses is just a small part of being a trainer. For the most financially successful trainers, actual training might only make up a small part of their income.

“You’ve got to have people skills, business skills and you have to figure out how you can be an expert at something,” Al says. “You can’t just be average – you have to be an expert. You have to have the look, the skills, and you better be one of the top 10 percent of the trainers if you’re going to make a good living at it. If not, you’ll plod along and just make your lunch money. A trainer needs to have all those things. If you can’t have people skills, then you can’t give lessons and clinics, and you’ll be so one-dimensional that it will be just about winning, and winning is something that comes and goes.”

Another factor to consider is whether you truly enjoy riding horses all day every day.

“It should be something that they enjoy, and they shouldn’t do it for money because only 10 percent of the professionals make the majority of the money,” Joe says. “The rest of the professionals make a living – a good living at best, and it’s going to be up to them to save for their future. When you’re self-employed, you don’t pay Social Security, and you don’t have a 401k.”

Supplementing Your Horse Training Business

Early on, Audrey recognized the financial difficulties a young trainer faces and put a plan in place to supplement her income until a training-only business became feasible.

“Training horses and teaching riding lessons is my passion,” she says. “I am a real estate agent and specialize in horse farms to help support my training business. We also offer boarding, which helps pay for hay, feed, farriers and vets, and riding lesions are also a great way to help support myself. The plan is that in five years, or at most 10, I plan to be just training horses.”

Kevin pointed out that many jobs other than training are important to the industry.

“For every trainer, there are a lot of other jobs; if you find out that you don’t have the talent to be a trainer, there is barn management, advertising and marketing, sales and auction promotion, breeding management. You can even be a loper; you won’t be training, but you’ll still be riding horse. The other thing is, there’s nothing wrong with having a regular job and going and buying a colt and training one for yourself – you’re still training horses.”

How to Become a Better Horse Trainer

As a trainer, whether you’re doing it for the public or training one horse in your backyard, you should always be bettering yourself and taking every opportunity to learn from others.

“Nobody ever learns on his own. Work with people who are more knowledgeable than you and learn from their mistakes as well as from making your own mistakes.” -Joe Heim

“Horse training is 25 percent talent and 75 percent knowledge. You’ve got to have some talent, but you’ve also got to have lots of knowledge – you can’t fake it.” -Al Dunning

“Watch, listen, learn and spend as much time as you can riding and being coached by the best horsemen you can find.” -Charlie Cole

Read on for more wisdom from three former AQHYA leaders as they share what they’ve learned since becoming professional trainers.

AQHA Professional Horsemen Association

AQHA Professional Horsemen are qualified trainers who help riders and horses establish productive relationships with each other. Professionals are eligible for membership only if they meet the qualifications of the AQHA Professional Horsemen and agree to be bound by its code of ethics. Most importantly, these individuals share as much a passion for their work as they do for the American Quarter Horse. 

Learn more at

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One of the core fundraisers to the AQHA Professional Horsemen’s Crisis Fund is through donations made at Ride the Pattern clinics, presented by AQHA Corporate Partner Nutrena. During these free clinics at AQHA championship shows, AQHA Professional Horsemen donate their time to demonstrate and discuss the best approach to patterns. Crisis fund donations are collected throughout the clinic, and Nutrena matches the donations dollar for dollar. 

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