She’s also in a part of the country without good access to coaching. She’s ridden a lot of sketchy stuff. She’s got her own business, where I’m sure she also has to ride a lot of scary things, including some stuff that more established trainers could pass on. Kids like her are often the trainer of last resort, or (because they’re cheap) the trainer that owners of rank horses send their scary stuff to.
And I wish that someone would take this kid aside, and tell her this: you have so, so much going for you. Your potential is tremendous. And under no circumstances will it be fulfilled being a trainer of rogue wingnuts, or a teacher of inexpensive lessons. Get out now, and get into the barn of a solid professional, while you are still young and relatively unrestrained by spouses and children and mortgages.
While I’ve never spoken to this particular kid, I’ve given a similar speech to so, so many before her, who tell me things like this: Why would I go be a working student somewhere when I’m making money here? Why would I walk away from the opportunities I’ve made for myself to go clean stalls and brush horses for someone else?
I understand that. I understand why, particularly if you don’t have the benefit of family support, making money on your own as a trainer and capitalizing on your talent and/or your geography seems like the thing to do. And for many, it is absolutely the thing to do. Not every rider aspires to compete at the international level, even if they’re talented as hell. They may prioritize family or a life outside of horses. They may want to specialize in young horses or naughty horses or teaching children to ride. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things, and the horse world needs them, the local trainers, the riders of sketchy things.
But that is not a path to the big time if that's what a rider wants. And no one, no matter how talented, can rely on their talent alone.
It’s scary to leave home, to leave the program that made you, the income opportunities it presents. It’s scary to go from being top banana to being at the bottom and to have to learn a whole new way. But it is also an amazing gift, one where you get to immerse yourself in a system from the ground up. You get to learn why someone puts tack on the way they do and why it helps them with the proven successful development of their horses. You get to learn why a successful rider makes the decisions they do on a Wednesday, and how they help make the horse better on Friday. You get to see every day, the little things, the cumulative process of developing a horse or a rider or both into what they will grow up to be. And you get to watch someone else use their experience to avoid mistakes, which allows you to learn how to avoid your own down the road.
For me, that last bit was the most amazing part of my own time as a working student for various top-shelf riders, and it had very little to do with horse training itself. Lendon Gray taught me the power of language, and how when one way of describing something to a rider wasn’t working, you needed a million more.
Monica and George Theodorescu taught me to see the big picture in any particular horse’s development. The methodology was consistent, but the depth of the toolbox from which George could pull was tremendous. He had a million exercises to set up a horse for success, and he deployed them enough to help the horse understand and then knew when to stop for the day.
From Carol Lavell, I learned how crucial it was to be diligent, even in the barn. Her hands went over every horse’s legs every day and committed every bump and hair to memory so she could be ahead of any problems that arose.
And from Pam Goodrich, I learned how to plan my day, how to commit to a schedule that left enough time for everything, and how to foster a community amongst my people that makes it easier to finish that day with joy and energy.
Naturally, I also learned about horse training, about stable management, about planning a competition schedule, about teaching and riding, about veterinary care, and on and on. But learning about the business, learning about the long-term game with any particular horse or rider, learning about staffing and talking to clients: That’s the greatest gift a successful trainer can give to their working students. Horses are easy. Humans are hard.
Of course, not all working studentships are created equal. There are trainers out there who talk a big game and make big promises only to treat their staff like garbage. There are trainers unwilling or unable to teach their working students about their business, about how they approach clients, about how they address bookkeeping or taxes or hard questions. And there are those who skirt the law, who put their working students in danger. Often, the things I hear young people who’ve worked for folks like these tell me they learned under that kind of tutelage is how NOT to run a business, which is actually a valuable lesson too.
Riders considering a working studentship should do their due diligence. What does a day, a week, a month in the life of that program look like? What have former working students gone on to do? Does the trainer carry workers' compensation insurance, as is the law? They should come for a trial period, something that, in these COVID times, is difficult, but so important, for both trainer and student.
And the young and the gifted of the world need to be prepared to check their egos at the door. So much of my time as a working student, as a fantastically cocky 20-something, was learning that what I was so sure was true… wasn’t. Or wasn’t true all the time. The second greatest gift of my working student years was learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable, both inside my own head, abandoning any preconceived notions I had about horses or the horse world and having my horizons expanded; and out in the world, where things don’t always go according to plan.
This really is a lesson for all, because whether one's goal is to go to the Olympics or to be the best local trainer one can be, the information gleaned—on horse management, stable management and human management—from a working student position in a top-shelf stable will make everyone better, on the horse and off. And the pool of people who are actually going to the Olympics is fantastically, incredibly small.
When things are hard, young talent needs to remember that, even though it seems like a year or two is a lifetime, no education happens fast. There will be hard times. There will be periods that feel like nothing is happening, like you’ve stagnated. These are crucial times to experience because news flash: They’re not going away. In the best of programs, the best of 6-year-olds sometimes stall out. The best of horses plateau, or get hurt, or need more time. Experiencing this in a world-class setting will be a comfort when it happens to you alone.
The world needs the teachers of $25 riding lessons. The world needs teachers in far-flung places, and riders who will get on the rogues and the nags and put their leg on through the bucking and the snorting to get to the other side. But that work will always be there, always. If you’re young and you’re gifted and you’re hungry, and you want a big career, capitalize on those gifts now. They’ll always be there too.
Feature photo Shannon Brinkman. Inset photo courtesy of the author.
Written by Lauren Sprieser
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own Gretzky RV, Kingrose and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.