Money and Communication
"Teaching and riding is the easy part," says Brian of his professional experience so far. "The most difficult part is juggling all the finances, keeping the staff organized and dealing with a million things that you don't think about as a Junior or Amateur.
"The hardest thing is handling the finances," he continues. "It's such an expensive sport, and if you don't have huge backing, things can be very hard. My advice is to figure out what everything costs and plan your finances very carefully before you go out on your own. Otherwise, you can run up a lot of debt."
Courtney concurs. Her budget-conscious upbringing, a "love of numbers" and Colleen's tutoring are assets in running her own business. While working for Colleen, Courtney eschewed new clothes and other niceties to stash away start-up funds. She began with a "very basic" business plan and profit-and-loss statement. Over time, it has evolved to where she usually breaks even, or even loses a little money, on board and training but makes it up on show fees and profits from selling horses. Selling horses, she says, "is probably the best way to get ahead financially." For now, those proceeds go straight into paying off her truck and trailer.
With help from an assistant, Courtney keeps meticulous track of services and supplies that need to be billed to clients. "The profit margin is not huge to begin with," she notes. "A couple of grams of bute here and a new sheet or set of wraps there add up so quickly. You can never let it go. I have it set up so I pay and send bills at a certain time. You have to stay very organized."
Some young professionals establish themselves by building their business around a dominant client. "Putting all your eggs in one basket can be rewarding in the short term," notes Brian. "Eventually, everything comes to an end, even when you end on a good note. When it does end, you are basically starting over, and you need to be prepared for that."
Both Courtney and Brian say that keeping clients has a lot to do with being candid from the start. "I have a very specific program," Courtney says. "Over the years, I've learned how important it is to tell people what to expect." Although her training program has grooms, Courtney expects all of her students to learn thorough horsemanship and do as much of their own work as their time allows. "I tell the kids right away, if you don't like to work hard and ride a lot without stirrups, we won't be a good match."
Clarifying costs for prospective clients is essential, adds Brian. "There shouldn't be any hidden costs or surprises on their bills." Frequent progress updates and goal reviews are equally important. "You run into problems if you don't take enough time to communicate with clients on all levels: how their kids or horses are doing. If you don't do that, small problems can easily escalate into big problems."
The nature of client-trainer relationships can be challenging, Karen acknowledges. Young professionals struggling to make ends meet may have mixed emotions toward clients with lots of disposable income, and the line between the trainer/student relationship and friendship can get blurry. Although she enjoys social functions with patrons, "It's important to keep a bit of distance to maintain a professional relationship," Karen notes. Such situations usually have to be sorted out by trial and error, she adds.
Today's hunter/jumper industry has a growing number of resources for those aspiring to successful training careers. Most are relatively new programs being developed from the US Hunter Jumper Association (www.ushja.org).
The Trainer Certification Program is targeted to those in the beginning of their professional lives, typically working for another pro, and participants must have worked professionally for three years to earn credits for certification. The TCP includes educational clinics, and USHJA currently is working to make those clinics more accessible to a larger number of people. For example, the clinics will be two days instead of three and in areas where local trainers can attend with minimal travel costs and time away from their businesses.
Young trainers who don't meet the three-year work qualification for the TCP can still audit and participate in the program, but USHJA is also developing a Provisional Trainers Program for those who have been working for another professional for between one and three years.
The TCP includes a manual available to all for $65. (Updated last year, the manual is included in the $100 TCP application fee.) It spans the philosophies of great horsemen including Gordon Wright, Vladimir Littauer and George Morris, and features chapters on starting a business, selling horses and other aspects of the industry, written by today's top trainers.
In addition to the educational benefits of such programs, they are great places to initiate connections that can develop into mentoring relationships down the line. Karen recalls that Brownie showed up for a prototype TCP event. "Here was a top professional saying ‘I want to hear what you guys have to say,'" she relays. "Nobody can make the mistake of thinking they know it all."
Karen encourages mentoring relationships. The horse buying and selling aspect that is part of most successful training businesses is one of many areas in which an elder's advice can be invaluable. "Buying horses for clients is a huge responsibility," she says. "Ask someone you respect and trust for help and guidance. Even if you give them some of your commission in return, it is well worth the money spent."
Encouraging new trainers to contribute to and grow within the sport is the main mission of the USHJA's Young Professionals committee. As one of its members, Courtney has this advice for those who'd like to join the field: "Try to do the right thing because you never know how what you do today will pay off tomorrow. Have integrity, be surrounded by the right people and save your dollars!"