Learn About Being a Horse Trainer

A horse being led by a trainer
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Horse trainers are responsible for training horses to perform specific behaviors in response to a rider’s cues. They are also responsible for riding horses and training them to perform desired movements and behaviors.

Job Duties

A trainer’s duties may vary but they are generally responsible for planning training exercises, breaking horses to saddle and bridle, desensitizing horses to unfamiliar sights and sounds, utilizing different training aids and specialized tack when appropriate, treating minor injuries, and consulting with veterinarians when advanced care is needed. They are also tasked with correcting certain behaviors including aggression, chewing, circling or butting heads.

Trainers may also compete with horses in training at shows to help them gain experience and to qualify them for awards or other recognition that will increase their value. If traveling to events, trainers usually trailer the horses and assist with their show ring preparation.

While a large portion of a horse trainer’s duties will involve the trainer riding the horse, the horse’s owner may also be involved in some riding activities. This is especially common toward the end of the horse’s training process, as the trainer will want to teach the owner how to maintain the progress.

Trainers may also be responsible for scheduling routine services such as farrier (soon who trims and shoes a horse's hooves) and veterinary appointments while the horse is under their supervision. Depending on staffing at their facility, the trainer may also be responsible for feeding, mucking out stalls and other general horsemanship tasks.

It is not uncommon for trainers to work five to seven days a week, though they often only spend a few hours training each day. The majority of a trainer’s day is spent outdoors in changing weather conditions and temperatures, though some trainers benefit from using a covered arena at their location. Travel may be required to transport horses to shows or other events.

Types of Horses

There are three different types of horses that trainers will typically work with in their duties.

  • Heavy horses: These animals have shorter, thicker legs. They are bred specifically for pulling carts or ploughing — basically, for heavy labor. These horses can typically be found at fairs and other shows
  • Light horses: These horses are bred mainly for riding. They have a longer body which allows riders to saddle up and sit on them.
  • Ponies: Also called foals, ponies have smaller necks and heads. Their manes are thicker, as are their coats and tails.

Career Options

Horse trainers may be self-employed or work on staff at a training center, riding stable or similar equestrian complex. Most specialize in working with one style of riding that is their particular area of expertise such as reining, saddle seat, hunter/jumper, dressage or driving. An additional specialty area — racehorse training — focuses on preparing Thoroughbreds or other racing breeds for competition at the track.

Some horse trainers have other responsibilities, acting as riding instructors or barn managers in addition to their primary training activities. If trainers have multiple roles at their facility, they can expect to earn higher end salaries due to the additional responsibilities.

Training & Licensing

No formal degree is required to become a horse trainer, but some trainers will have a formal degree. According to career website Sokanu.com, about 4% of horse trainers have an animal science degree. Another 2% have psychology degrees. The site reported roughly 43% of horse trainers it surveyed had an undergraduate degree, while 33% had an associate's degree.

Most trainers have significant practical experience working with horses before pursuing this career on a full-time basis. Many trainers work their way up the industry, starting out as grooms, riders or assistant trainers. An apprenticeship with a well-known professional enhances a candidate’s skills and reputation, so this should be pursued whenever possible.

There are quite a few schools that offer certification in horsemanship and training. Well-known programs include the Lyons Legacy trainer program and the Parelli natural horse training program. A degree in equine business is always a plus, as trainers are running their own small businesses. A good working knowledge of computerized billing and record keeping programs would also be beneficial.

Salary

Horse trainers may bill owners for each individual ride or at a weekly or monthly rate per horse. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not separate out salary data for the specific career category of horse trainers, but the mean average salary for the general category of all animal trainers was $28,880 per year ($13.88 per hour) in the most recent salary survey conducted in May of 2017. The highest 10 percent of all animal trainers earned more than $56,000 ($26.92 per hour) each year.

Payscale.com reported an average salary for horse trainers of $31,172 as of November of 2018. The highest earners in the field received $58,723 per year.

According to equine employment agency Equistaff.com, two-thirds of trainers received additional perks in addition to salary. Commonly reported perks included free housing, medical or dental insurance, use of a farm vehicle and overtime pay. It is also not uncommon for horse trainers to receive free board for a personal horse.

The BLS reported the the states with the highest salaries for animal trainers were Kentucky, Arizona, Washington, California and Illinois.

Job Outlook

Horse trainers with many successful “graduates” competing in the show or performance arenas tend to have a steady stream of clients approaching them for training services. New entrants to the field who have apprenticed with well-known trainers or programs will have an increased chance of success, as they will be able to advertise that prestigious affiliation and possibly get a few referrals from their mentor.

According to the BLS, the states with the highest employment level for animal trainers were California, Florida, New York, Texas and Kentucky. The states with the highest concentration of jobs for this field were in Kentucky, Hawaii, Florida, New Hampshire and Louisiana.