10 Things We Learned About Career Paths for Equestrians

Photo by Chelsey Burris

By Chelsey Burris

On February 22, USDF held a webinar on Career Paths as part of the USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program Virtual Education Series. The session featured USDF FEI Level certified instructor and International Grand Prix rider Reese Koffler-Stanfield and world-renowned FEI 5-star judge Janet Foy as speakers. Here are 10 key takeaways from the session – many of them applicable to both young riders and equestrians of any age who are interested in learning more about careers in the equine industry. 

Have a Business Mindset

A common thread for equestrians is that we love our horses and love riding them.  At this session, both speakers were very candid about how horses are only part of the equation.  You need to have a business mindset to ensure your long-term success.  Reese spoke about how it’s okay to go through the levels on leased, syndicated, or sponsored horses to help you move forward with your own career.

Having a business plan is one of the most important things you can do.  Horses, barns, veterinary care – it’s all expensive, and you need to have a plan to fund your dreams!

During the Q&A portion of the session, one participant asked for tips on balancing going to school and riding goals.  It’s possible, but you need to be organized and truly want to succeed in both.  Online school makes it easier, and business degrees are great for many equestrians.  Although school may temporarily take some hours away from your barn time, your education is very important, and you need to devote time to completing it.

Wherever you go, and whatever job you do, perseverance, honesty, a good work ethic, and a willingness to do what needs to be done (clean buckets, sweep aisles, help when someone else doesn’t show up, etc.) will set you apart from the crowd.  “You’ve got to be able to do a lot of things, including market yourself,” Reese said. 

USDF Staff and the Speakers

Consider the Long-Term

As youth riders, you might feel invincible!  Reese, who participated in the USDF Certified Instructor Program while also going to college, shared her lightbulb moment of, “Maybe I can’t ride every horse every day for the rest of my life.”

Janet seconded this sentiment with, “It’s important to realize – and it’s hard when you’re 25 or 35 – that your body is not going to last forever.”  Branching out, getting your education, and becoming a good instructor/judge/trainer/whatever your goal is, ensures your long-term success.

Additionally, make sure you have a retirement fund that you start contributing to early in your life.  Find a good investment advisor – you can even find advisors who work specifically with those in the horse industry.  Even if you can’t afford to put much into your retirement account at the moment, any amount going into the account each month is better than none, and it will continue to grow over time.  Also, make sure you have health insurance. There are many options available, and US Equestrian offers health insurance now! 

Build Your Team

Don’t get stuck in your own arena!  Expand your horizons by reaching out to other trainers and equestrians.  By establishing a community of colleagues that you can reach out to, you will have access to a great resource to bounce ideas off of, share tips with, to achieve your goals, and to avoid pitfalls.  

There are new ways to network with people that previous generations didn’t have. From social media, to podcasts, to webinars, communication is now easier than ever.  Take advantage of what’s available to build your dream team. 

Janet Foy

Volunteering Is Key

With busy schedules, long hours, and trying to balance school and horse life, there are a variety of reasons why many youth riders don’t volunteer.  Janet advised, “Volunteerism is what drives our sport.  We’re getting older, and unfortunately, we don’t see younger people taking our place.  Everyone is focused on their career and doesn’t have as much time for volunteerism. Being able to give back is very, very important.”

There are many roles for volunteers – some might be hands-on at the shows, or they might be administrative, like helping to compile an organization’s newsletter.  Go to your local GMO or club and get involved!  Even a few hours of your time can make a big difference to an organization needing volunteers. 

Remain Customer Friendly – Even When It’s a Challenge

Reese Koffler-Stanfield

As many equestrians discover, people are often more difficult to work with than horses.  There may be times that you want to lose your cool with a customer or client.  Reese and Janet both cautioned strongly against this.  The horse community circle can be small, and if you bad-mouth someone, it will most likely come back to bite you! 

In our current hectic times, Reese reminded the session’s participants that it’s okay to set boundaries.  Personally, she sets work hours and turns her phone off at night to give herself a much-needed break.  “It’s our job, but it’s our clients’ fun,” Reese said.  Remember, it is your job, and you are not required to work 24/7!

In times where you know you did what was right, even if things don’t work out, Janet shared this advice: “You need to have a tough skin – if you know you’re doing the best you can, hold you head high and move on.”

Be Flexible

“Every horse should be for sale,” Janet said.  What about your dream horse?  The horse you think you’re going to reach the top levels with?  Janet shared that, if the opportunity and money is right, you should always consider it.  This doesn’t mean to get rid of a horse you really like at the earliest offer, but keep your options open.  You don’t want to regret it someday, if you hold on to a horse you’ve outgrown for too long, when he or she could be flourishing with a new owner, and you could be advancing with a different horse who is a better fit for you.

Reese shared an applicable bit of wisdom: “Stirrups are adjustable.”  Remember that you always have the option to adjust and change too! 

Also, participants were cautioned not to paint themselves into a box.  Don’t say, “I’m just a rider.”  You most likely do so much more – from barn chores, grooming, helping with the vet/farrier, etc.  There are many things to do around the barn and at shows – you are more than “just a rider.” 

Show Ring Success and a Career – Can I Have Both?

During the Q&A section, one participant inquired – is it possible to have a successful non-horse-related career and also achieve your dressage goals? 

The answer is yes!  Among the examples given, Janet shared about Marne Martin-Tucker, who is a successful businesswoman and the CEO of her own company.  She travels all over the world for her job and has also trained three of her own horses to Grand Prix.  Work/riding balance does exist.  Roz Kinstler, USDF Youth Programs Committee Chair, joined the meeting to impart some advice as well.  “It can be done, but what it takes is organization!” she said.   

A Variety of Careers to Choose From

When thinking of a career with horses, training is often the first thing that comes to mind.  However, the horse industry is packed full of jobs, some that you might have never even realized exist.  “You don’t have to be in the ring,” Reese advised. 

You might have already considered careers like veterinarian, farrier, breeder, groom, or barn manager.  But what about equine massage, bodywork, pharmaceuticals, competition management, running an equestrian boutique, photographer, journalist, or administrative work at a farm, showground, or equine business?  The possibilities are endless!

Side hustles can be a good source of revenue as well.  “Don’t get stuck on one path – there are many roads to Rome,” Janet shared. 

“It’s your business,” Roz told participants, “So you can construct it however you like.” 

Photo by Chelsey Burris

Let’s Talk Money

Vet bills, show fees, tack, hay, getting a new horse – the bills add up!  Horses are expensive and so is showing.  However, there are lots of sponsorships and grants available; you just need to know how to find them.  The Dressage Foundation is a terrific resource for riders of all ages.  They have many grants available each year, but the responsibility is on you to do your research and find what grants you are eligible for. 

Roz encouraged the youth equestrians in the session to be brave and take chances to further their riding careers.  “You have to ask.  Have that courage.  Call that professional that you think wouldn’t want to talk to you,” she shared.  You’ll be surprised with how far you go with some bravery and a good work ethic. 

Advice For Your First Recognized Show

During the Q&A section, one participant shared that they are about to jump into the world of recognized showing, and asked for advice. Janet recommended to start by competing at a level below what you are currently training.  “You’re going to lose 10% of your training at the show because of the atmosphere and your nerves,” she told the group.

Janet also emphasized that the show isn’t the place to experiment with things that aren’t working in your training. “If you’ve never had a clean flying change at home, it’s not going to happen here. If 90% of the time it’s happening at home, it will probably happen at the show.”

When it comes to gaining valuable competition experience, Reese advocated for schooling shows. “Don’t be afraid of a schooling show,” she said.  “When you go to a rated show, you want to be ready to go!”  Compete where you’re confident and happy to go down centerline, and the rest will follow.

In final words of the session, Reese shared, “Find what brings you joy and a great team to help you, and you’ll have a nice life.”

Additional Resources

Due to the live 2022 program being postponed to 2023 due to COVID, USDF has been providing virtual education opportunities targeted toward USDF members who may be interested in attending a future USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program. We host these virtual sessions over Zoom, focusing on crucial topics young adults need to learn to prepare for a professional career in the equine industry. These sessions are open to USDF members aged 20-28.

Want to know more about the Career Paths session of the USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program Virtual Education Series?  USDF Participating Members and Group Members can watch it here.  

Keep an eye on the USDF website for future opportunities, so that you can make sure you join us for our next session!


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