Tips for Becoming a Professional Equestrian

Last Updated on February 21, 2022 by Allison Price

Hunter/jumper riders who wish to become professional hunters/jumpers will not find any shortcuts but will be supported by many.

Karen Healey, a top hunter/jumper trainer, uses phrases like “I don’t eat lunch; I teach lessons” and “It is not a job. It’s a lifestyle.” These are just a few of the words Karen uses to describe her chosen profession when she was 40 years old. She made $50 per week and lived in a barn-over room.

Garfield is beaten by Brian Walker at the Kentucky Spring Horse Show in Lexington in 2011.

There is little that has changed in the way you can become a professional hunter/jumper coach today. Karen, who was educated for three years before she began her apprenticeship with George, says “Step number one”: “Step #1 is to find someone to apprentice with.” The California-based veteran mentored many former students to professional careers after training juniors and amateurs to achieve national titles in hunters, jumpers, and equitation.

Karen suggests these positions to professional aspirants. While they may not be “apprenticeships”, any position with a skilled trainer can provide a great education, if you have the right attitude. She advises that you find someone whom you admire and then go to their place. Karen worked with George for a while, and was eventually promoted to barn manager. But she also made the most out of every moment in his stable. “When vets and farriers visited the barn, I followed them around the place and asked questions every time.”

Karen’s colleagues agree that it is best to work for respected professionals before you can go out on your own as an instructor. It is important to have realistic expectations about the job. She stresses that riding is only a small part of the job. You should be willing to try anything. Don’t wait to be told what you should do. Instead, look for opportunities to get involved.

Karen says, “If you do it really, really well, you’ll find that professionals appreciate it greatly and you will be given opportunities to ride.”

Professional Equestrian

Some experienced professionals are concerned that the current society’s obsession with instant gratification is affecting aspiring equestrian professionals. Susie Schoellkopf (USEF R judge), director of SBS Farms, Buffalo, New York, says that “I see young professionals skipping many steps.” They want to open their own riding school or get a job as a rider. This is not possible. It is important to be willing and able to work your way up from the bottom.

Jennifer Alfano, her protege, did exactly that. She started as a groom for Gem Twist in 1988 Olympic silver. Then she learned how to ride horses in a barn setting. Jennifer was well-versed in horsemanship when she arrived at SBS Farms. She was also eager to learn more. A young equestrian who wants to train horses is able to constructively take criticism. “If you tell an apprentice that they didn’t handle something well, too often their immediate reaction is to say, “I quit!” rather than, “How can I improve?” Susie says.

Paths to Professionalism
It is important to know your goals early in life. Courtney Calcagnini, at the age of 12, made this decision and planned her junior career to achieve that goal. When she was 13 years old, she began as a student at Four M Farm with Mike McCormick. In 1997, she moved on to become a worker for Tracey Fenney and Mike McCormick. She then became a sales assistant for Colleen McQuay in Texas in 2000. The position became paid when Courtney grew out of the Junior ranks. With Colleen’s encouragement and supervision, she gained six years of experience and knowledge. In 2007, she founded her own farm, CSC Farm, Pilot Point, Texas.

Courtney was patient on her way to professionalism. Her motto was “Always put you best foot forward every single day.” Courtney’s determination and hard work paid off throughout her student years. “I was a little shy to do any networking’, but you stand out if you’re a hard worker.” This quality attracted Colleen to her, and it continues to be a key to her success with mentors like Otis Brown, a veteran hunter professional, and Linda Andrisani as a hunter judge, who are crucial to young professionals’ success.

Courtney was able to launch her business quickly thanks to Colleen’s endorsement and a good reputation in the region. In just a month she had 12 horses. Only one horse was owned by Colleen’s client, who is a sales-oriented business. Courtney states, “I never solicited any client.” I got a few calls and it grew from that. She now has 15-18 horses and seven to eight clients. The 28-year old trainer calls them “perfect for me.” She has clients such as the Reid family who she discovered the Adult Hunter Curtain Call in 2009. Courtney rode the horse as a Regular Working Hunter to the USEF Grand Champion Horses of the Year in that year. She notes that this “really put me in the spotlight nationally.”

Brian Walker, also 28, chose a different career path after choosing a training profession. He won the 2001 ASPCA Maclay National Championship under Missy Clark, a top equitation trainer. Brian had previously worked as a catch rider for showjumper Todd Minikus and was able to work for him in the equitation division. Todd was instrumental in disabusing Brian of the idea that pro riding would be easy. Brian says, “You go to being a top Junior rider and everybody is helping you to muck stalls.” “I think Todd helped me most by instilling a little humility in me and reminding me that I wasn’t going be spoilt.” Brian was also able to learn this lesson early on because he was raised in Canada by a family of horse professionals.

After riding mostly young horses for Todd for about a year, Brian accepted the offer from Peter Leone, Olympic show jumper, to teach lessons at his Lion Share Farms, Connecticut. He also taught Juniors and Amateurs how to ride at home and at shows. Brian also worked for Jan Tops, a European show jumper from Holland. This added another dimension to his experience and knowledge. Brian’s friendship with Missy, who purchased horses through Jan, was a key part of his horsemanship education.

Brian was attentive throughout his immersion in European show jumping, which included long hours at the barn and shows, as well as driving for up to 23 hours in search of potential young horses. He explains, “They all are geared towards competing and selling horses.” We are so focused on clients in the USA. Brian says that Jan’s ability identify great horses was a particularly valuable part of his European education.

In 2006, he returned to America to work with Eddie Horowitz. After his retirement, Brian started Woodside Farm, which he ran for three years. Brian was appointed as the Old Salem Farm’s head trainer in 2009. He then moved to Wellington, Florida in late 2010, to begin his own business.

Money and Communication
Brian says that teaching and riding are the easiest parts of his professional career. The most difficult part of managing finances and keeping staff organized is the juggling of a million other things you might not think about as a Junior, Amateur or Professional.

He says, “The hardest part is managing the finances.” It’s a very expensive sport and it can be difficult to manage your finances if you don’t have a lot of backing. I recommend that you do your research and figure out the cost of everything before you venture out on your own. You can end up with a lot of debt.

Courtney agrees. Courtney agrees. Colleen’s tutoring, her budget-conscious upbringing and a love of numbers are all assets to running her own business. Courtney gave up shopping for new clothes and other luxury items to save her start-up money while working with Colleen. Courtney started with a very basic business plan and profit-and loss statement. It has become a business plan and profit-and-loss statement that she uses to break even or lose a little money on training and board, but it is usually profitable from show fees and the sale of horses. She says that selling horses is the best way to make a living. These proceeds will go to her truck and trailer for the moment.

Courtney maintains a meticulous record of supplies and services that must be invoiced to clients with the help of an assistant. She notes that the profit margin isn’t huge. A few grams of bute and a new sheet, or set of wraps here can quickly add up. It is impossible to let go of it. It is set up so that I can pay my bills and send them at a specific time. It is important to be organized.

Many young professionals start their businesses by building it around a client. Brian says that putting all your eggs into one basket can pay off in the short-term. Even if you finish on a high note, eventually, all things must come to an end. It is essentially a new beginning when it ends, so be ready for that.

Brian and Courtney both agree that being honest from the beginning is key to keeping clients. Courtney states, “I have a very precise program.” “Over the years I have learned how important it was to let people know what to expect. Courtney’s training program includes grooming, but Courtney expects her students to be able to do their own work and learn as much horsemanship as they can. I tell my students right away that if they don’t enjoy hard work and riding a lot without stirrups, then we won’t be a good fit.

Brian says it is important to clarify costs for potential clients. There shouldn’t be hidden charges or surprises in their bills. It is equally important to provide regular progress updates and review your goals. You can run into problems when you don’t communicate on a regular basis with clients at all levels, including how their horses and children are doing. Small problems can quickly escalate into major problems if you don’t communicate with clients on all levels.

Karen admits that client-trainer relationships can sometimes be difficult. Young professionals trying to make ends work may feel mixed emotions towards clients who have a lot of disposable income. The line between client-trainer relationships and friendship can become blurred. Karen says that she enjoys attending social events with patrons. However, it is important to keep a professional relationship intact. She adds that such situations often require trial and error to resolve.

Industry Resources
The hunter/jumper profession has many resources available to help those who want to be successful in their training career. Many of these programs are new and developed by the US Hunter Jumper Association (

The Trainer Certification Program targets those at the beginning of their professional careers. Participants must have worked for a pro for at least three years in order to receive credits. USHJA is currently working to make these clinics more accessible. The clinics will now be held for two days, instead of three, and in areas where trainers are able to attend without having to travel far.

Even if they don’t have the required three-year experience to become a trainer, they can still participate in the program. However, USHJA is developing a Provisional Training Program for people who have worked for another professional for one or three years.

A manual is included in the TCP for $65. The manual was updated last year and is included in the $100 application fee for the TCP. This manual covers the ideas of great horsemen such as Gordon Wright, Vladimir Littauer, and George Morris. It also includes chapters about starting a business and selling horses.

These programs have many educational benefits. They are also a great place to make connections that could lead to mentoring relationships. Karen recalls Brownie showing up at a prototype TCP meeting. She relates that “Here was an elite professional saying “I want to hear your guys’ thoughts,” “No one can think they know everything.”

Karen encourages mentoring relationships. An elder’s guidance can prove invaluable in horse buying and selling, which is a key component of the most successful training companies. She says, “Buying horses for clients can be a big responsibility.” Ask someone you trust and respect for guidance. It is worth it, even if they give you a portion of your commission.

The USHJA’s Young Professionals Committee is focused on encouraging new trainers to participate in and grow within the sport. Courtney is one of the committee’s members. She has this advice to offer to those interested in joining the field: “Try doing the right thing because who knows what tomorrow will bring.” Be honest, surround yourself with the right people, and you’ll save money!

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!