Proper Education & Becoming
"Horses are nice, but can you actually make a living with them?" Many a parent has asked their children this question upon learning of their equestrian ambitions. The answer is a resounding yes, provided you learn horsemanship correctly and thoroughly from the beginning. The most expedient way to accomplish this is by starting with a solid education. You'll learn more from two years of qualified instruction in a coherent program than from 10 years out there trying to learn it by ear.
But how do you choose from the many Equestrian programs, college affiliated or otherwise, being offered in America, indeed around the world, today? The most reliable point of comparison is this: how much time will the student spend riding. This may sound too obvious to mention, yet many schools offer a core of general equestrian courses, with only 2 or 3 hours per week of riding time. This should serve as a red flag for those seriously seeking to advance their riding and training. Horsemanship requires unique athletic skills, and coordination with a 1200 pound animal; and acquiring those skills means practice. I have found that it takes between 600 and 900 hours of on-horse riding instruction to expect to get a job as a professional rider. Achieving this in any reasonable length of time means 10 to 20 hours or riding time per week, with a student/teacher ratio never to exceed 1 teacher for every 7 students.
Next, inquire into the nature of the theory classes, and how they relate to the riding skills learned. The common wisdom of average amateur horsepeople amounts to a folklore of hints and tips lifted from books, clinics, the show ring, relatives, dog training, and outright superstition. But a school producing professional horsepeople must cut through this, providing a unified central philosophy of mentally and physically training a horse, and mentally and physically training a rider. Look for evidence of such an approach in their catalogs and literature, and when interviewing them on the phone or in person.
Look for courses in real-life survival skills such as business management, teaching techniques, public relations, stable management, horse health, facilities maintenance, and even sales seminars. These will enable graduates to operate their own businesses, or manage for an employer if they choose. Some schools offer studies in related fields such as farrier science, leather working, breeding, judging, and the like, which can be taken as a major or a minor. The more you know, the more opportunities you will have, and the more exciting and varied your horse career.
As with any school, ask about housing. Do students live in dorms, or in the surrounding community. And ask about reserving stable space if the student will be taking their own horse. Personal preference applies here: I suggest narrowing your choices down to a few, and then touring the campuses.
A note to students taking their own horse to school: be prepared not to ride it. Of course you'll ride it some, and enjoy a full relationship with it. But to truly grow in this art it is vital to ride a variety of horses under a variety of circumstances. Bad habits often flourish in constant horse/rider teams, becoming an integral part of their relationship. Curing these means splitting the pair up for a time. It's normal. It's good.
Be sure prospective schools are accredited by one of the various accrediting agencies listed with the United States Department of Education such as the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET). Accreditation with such an agency certifies, among other things, that the program is continually evaluated and improved; and that participants have reported gaining worthwhile benefits. Such accreditation is also a prerequisite to Federal student financial aid in the form of loans and grants. (Veterans note that not all schools authorized by the V.A. to provide Veterans Benefits are accredited by an accrediting agency. So if you want college credit, and/or federal student aid, be sure to look very closely at this.)
In considering the faculty, look not only for expertise in the subject matter, but an abiding interest in teaching. Studying or apprenticing under famous competitors is not necessarily the best way to learn because teaching may be second on their list of priorities, their own careers being first. You want teachers whose full attention is on giving you your money's worth. A good indicator of this is to talk to some graduates, if possible. Ask how they felt about the school in general, and the instructors in particular. Was adequate attention paid to developing their skills; and have those skills enabled them to earn their living in the horse business? A job placement service at the school with a high percentage of graduates working is good evidence that the school is turning out skilled individuals.
I hope these few pointers can provide a starting place on the long and confusing process of selecting a school. Just remember, there are jobs out there for professional riders, and the employers do know what to look for. If you can show them the skills, you can get the job.
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Updated: October 2005.