As you may recall, I wrote my April 12 blog in response to Cindy Foley’s Editorial in this month’s Horse Journal, in which she ponders whether a career with horses is worth it from a financial point of view. I wrote in my blog that I didn’t think I’d discourage our son Wesley from a career in horses, that I’d be happy if someday he wanted to take over the business we have at our farm.
Cindy then sent me an email with several questions that caused me to think even more about the future for my son, as well as for the teenage girls we teach now and will teach in the future.
Cindy asked me, ”Could you have done what you’re doing now, fresh out of college, equestrian degree in hand, without the financial help of 30 years of working in another industry and building up your own financial base? Would you send Wesley out without money and say good luck earning money with horses, you’ll be fine?”
Not questions that are easily answered, huh? Let’s look at this from a couple of angles.
To begin with, I have never believed that you should work with horses because you think it’s a good way to get rich. Yes, if you’re really clever financially and can regularly sell high-priced horses, you could do really well. But most of us don’t qualify on either count, so we do this because we love working with horses, because we love training and riding them, and because we like the lifestyle.
I also think that a teenager or a 20-something shouldn’t be seeking to start his or her own horse business. They should be working for someone, to, first of all, pay for their housing, food and other costs. And you can do that in the horse world. It may not be your dream job, and your housing may be rather rough. But you need to do it to gain training and riding experience, as well as experience in the many facets of running a horse business. Running a horse business, of any kind, involves a lot more than riding or teaching lessons. You also need competence in finance, marketing, and client and personnel relations.
Young people should think of the years before they’re 30 as getting their bachelor’s and post-graduate degrees in riding, horsemanship and business. But this isn’t the outlook I see in many young professionals: They think that, because they’ve had a successful junior career, almost always working with a trainer, they don’t need further education. They think they’ve learned it all, all too often believing they no longer have to do the hard and unglamorous work (like cleaning stalls and tack, starting unbroken horses, or teaching up-down lessons). Worse, they don’t believe or accept that horsemen two or three times their age have an endless list of experiences to teach them, things somebody, or some horse, taught them, likely before these kids were born.
Yes, working with and training horses is a hard life. It’s not a job where you can turn off your computer and shut the door at 5 o’clock and not think about it until 9 o’clock the next morning. But fewer and fewer rewarding jobs are that way, thanks to computers, smart phones and cost-efficiency. I work at my second business of writing, editing and public relations at almost any hour of any day or night, just like the horses. Most doctors work all hours, especially early in their careers, and lawyers and accountants are infamous for their long hours at certain times.
Cindy and I have often, over the years, discussed the relative value of the equestrian degrees offered by schools large and small across the country, and, honestly, neither of us thinks much of them. Training and caring for horses isn’t something you master in two or four years. Those years are just a nice introduction, and probably not worth the expense. Horses require years of on-the-job training, rather like medicine.
So I do suggest to young people who want to be professional riders or trainers that they should consider their time after high school as their college and post-graduate studies with horses. Just as with doctors, it takes a long, long time, and again, as with doctors, you must continue to learn throughout your career and your life.
But what specific advice will I give Wesley about his career, assuming he’ll even listen to me and not just tell me, “Whatever, Dad”?
I’ll certainly advise him to go to college, because it’s never a bad decision to have an education. Plus, I think that there’s usually a lot more to learn at college than just what you do in class.
I’ll advise him, if he wants to stick with horses, to get his degree in business or accounting, or even economics, because having a thorough understanding of how the numbers work is absolutely helpful. (I went to a wonderful liberal-arts college, and I’ve never regretted it, but a better understanding of business numbers is something I wish I had.) And, if he wants to train horses, I’d strongly encourage him to spend months or even years with other professionals we respect, especially in other parts of the country, to learn other methods of training and care.
The bottom line, as we like to say in the Horse Journal, is that I won’t discourage Wesley from a life with horses. I will, though, encourage him to pursue his education in the most liberal ways possible, to learn how to learn and also to keep his options open.