I don’t do lunch; I do lessons,” and “It’s not a job, it’s a life,” are a few of the phrases top hunter/jumper trainer Karen Healey uses to describe the profession she chose for herself when she left college to work for George Morris 40 years ago. She earned $50 a week and lived in a room over the barn during that time.
Little has changed about the best way to go about becoming a professional hunter/jumper trainer today: “Step number one is you’ve got to find somebody to apprentice with,” advises Karen, who attended three years of college before her apprenticeship with George. In addition to training Juniors and Amateurs to national titles in hunters, jumpers and equitation, the California-based veteran has mentored many former students into professional careers.
The positions Karen recommends to aspiring professionals may not be offered as “apprenticeships” per se, but any post with a good trainer can become a great education if taken with the right attitude. “Identify somebody who you have tremendous respect for, and throw yourself at their feet,” she urges. Karen’s time with George eventually earned her the position of barn manager, but well before that she made the most of every moment at his stable. “When the vets and farriers came to the barn, I followed them around and asked questions all the time.”
Karen’s contemporaries agree that working for a respected professional is the best preparation for stepping out on your own as a trainer. Realistic expectations of what the job entails are important. “You need to know that riding will likely be a very small part of it,” she stresses. “Be willing to do anything and everything. And don’t sit there waiting to be told what to do: Look for things to do.
“If you really, truly do that, you will find that most professionals really appreciate it and you will get opportunities to ride,” Karen continues.
Some seasoned professionals worry that today’s instant gratification society is taking its toll on aspiring equestrian professionals. “I see young professionals skipping a lot of steps,” says USEF R judge Susie Schoellkopf, director of SBS Farms in Buffalo, New York. “They want to walk into a riding job or open their own barn with just teaching and riding. It doesn’t work that way. You have to be willing to start from the bottom and work your way up.”
That’s just what her protégé Jennifer Alfano did, working first as a groom (for 1988 Olympic silver medalist Gem Twist), then honing her horsemanship in the hard work of a sales barn. When Jennifer arrived at SBS Farms, she was well versed in many aspects of horsemanship and, equally important, she was anxious to learn more. The ability to take criticism constructively is key in a young equestrian looking to make training careers of her passion for horses. “If you say to an apprentice, ‘You didn’t quite handle something well,’ too often the instant reaction is ‘I quit,’ rather than ‘How can I get better at that?’” Susie says.
Paths to Professionalism
Knowing you want to go pro early on is a big advantage. Courtney Calcagnini made that decision at age 12 and strategically plotted her Junior career to attain that goal. She started as a working student for Mike McCormick and Tracey Fenney at Four M Farm in 1997, when she was 13, then took on the same post for Colleen McQuay’s huge sales barn in Texas in 2000. When Courtney aged out of the Junior ranks, the position with Colleen became paid. She spent six years gaining experience and knowledge with Colleen’s supervision and encouragement, then formed her own barn, CSC Farm in Pilot Point, Texas, in 2007.
Courtney’s patient path to professionalism was driven by a simple mission: “Always put your best foot forward every day,” was and is her motto. Throughout her working student years, her determination and hard work ethic paid off. “I was a bit shy to do any ‘networking,’ but you stick out like a sore thumb if you are a hard worker.” That quality earned her Colleen’s attention in the first place, and continues to keep her in good stead with mentors, including veteran hunter professional Otis “Brownie” Brown and noted hunter judge Linda Andrisani, who are critical to a young professional’s success.
Thanks to a good reputation in the area and Colleen’s blessing, it didn’t take Courtney long to launch her business. Within about a month, she had 12 horses, just one of them owned by a client from Colleen’s sales-oriented business. “I never solicited one client,” Courtney says. “I got a few phone calls, and it grew from there.” Today, she maintains 15–18 horses, owned by seven or eight clients, which the 28-year-old trainer describes as “perfect for me.” The clients include the Reid family, for whom she found the Adult Hunter Curtain Call in early 2009. Courtney rode the horse to USEF Grand Champion Horse of the Year as a Regular Working Hunter that year. That “really put me on the map nationally,” she notes.
Brian Walker, also 28, took a different path after deciding on a training vocation. Under top equitation trainer Missy Clark’s tutelage, he concluded an elite Junior career by winning the ASPCA Maclay National Championship in 2001. Until then, Brian catch rode for several trainers, including show-jumper Todd Minikus, and that opened the door to working for him after he finished in the equitation division. Brian credits Todd with disabusing him of the notion that going pro would be easy. “You go from being a top Junior rider where everybody is helping you to mucking stalls,” Brian says. “Todd probably helped me the most in putting a bit of humility in me and letting me know I wasn’t going to be spoiled.” Brian also had a head start in that lesson because he grew up in a family of horse professionals in Canada.
After roughly a year riding mostly young horses for Todd, Brian accepted Olympic show jumper Peter Leone’s offer to work at his Lion Share Farms in Connecticut, where he taught lessons and schooled Juniors and Amateurs at home and at shows. Adding another dimension to his knowledge base and experience, Brian went to work for European show jumper Jan Tops in Holland. Brian’s ongoing friendship with Missy, who had purchased horses through Jan, opened this door that Brian considers a huge part of his horsemanship education.
Through long days at the barn, shows and sometimes 23 hours of driving the countryside in search of young horse prospects, Brian paid close attention during his immersion in the different world of European show jumping. “They are all geared toward competing and selling horses,” he explains. “We are so geared toward clients in the States.” Learning from Jan’s ability to identify excellent horses was an especially valuable chapter in his European education, Brian adds.
He returned to the States in 2006 to work for Eddie Horowitz, whose subsequent retirement led to Brian running his own business, Woodside Farm, for the next three years. In 2009, Brian accepted the head trainer post at Old Salem Farm, and in late 2010 he relocated to Wellington, Florida, to start up his business from scratch.