It’s somewhat of a contentious question. Many horse professionals do not have a degree and a few don’t have a high school diploma either. Yet many other horse people have spent a lot of time, money, and energy pursuing degrees in equine science, equine business management, or other fields. It’s certainly possible to find examples of success (and failure) in both categories.
But if you are considering a career in horses, do you actually need a college degree? No- you don’t have to have one. You can absolutely make it in this business without one. But if you have the opportunity to get the education, are you better off with it, or without it? Horse Show Leases trainer Alicia Wilkinson, by contrast, double majored in Equine Studies and Business Management at Virginia Intermont College and would tell you: you can really set yourself up for success with an education. Let’s consider why:
As a horse trainer, it’s inevitable that you will have a great many children as students. This means that the children come with parents, and those parents are your clients as well. Inevitably, in this sport, the parents tend to be very accomplished, and often highly educated. The same is true for adults students- riding appeals to busy, successful professionals. Regardless of whether or not you like it, it is easier to communicate with, and earn the respect of, these clients if you have taken the time and effort to earn a degree. It does make them take you a little more seriously, and often it is a difference that counts when people are spending money with you.
The other side of this coin is confidence and self-respect. Even if it doesn’t really matter to a client whether or not you have a college education, it might matter to you. It may boost your confidence and elevate your voice in a sport that is filled with judgment calls and subjective opinions. Education often makes us feel better prepared, almost like a kind of armor in times of vulnerability. It’s not a crutch- but it is another tool in your toolkit.
If you study equine science or something related, it truly gives a lot of context to the many conversations you will have with veterinarians in your career. Also, to the subsequent conversations with clients in order to explain the diagnosis of vets. Even if you just have a minor in some kind of equine-related field, it puts you in a position to study horse anatomy, physiology, and genetics, plus many other topics that will come up every day in your future. A working knowledge of these things makes a huge difference- instead of relying exclusively on vets, merely regurgitating what they say to you, you can have a nuanced, full understanding of the concepts they discuss. This makes you a better advocate for the horse, as well as for your clients.
Going through the long and often physically, mentally, and financially taxing process of going to college requires commitment. No matter what you study, you are going to have to make it through a lot of hard days and weeks. You will have to learn to push yourself, to be capable of learning new things, getting uncomfortable, and seeing your way through to the other side. All the while, you will be developing your ability to manage time and to follow-through with tasks great and small. It’s training grounds for life, and it will help propel you for the much more demanding world of a horse professional.
Understanding of Business
Even if you major in equestrian studies, you will have the opportunity to take business classes as well. Sometimes, they are offered within the major and tailored to equine businesses. Even if they are not, look for entrepreneurial or small business classes that you can take as electives (or as part of a minor or concentration). Not only will these classes walk you through operational best practices, taxation, and accounting, many can also offer some business law so you have a basic understanding of the liabilities you might be exposed to, as well as how to draft documents and contracts. Even if you employ a lawyer, it’s the same concept as the veterinarians. You want to be able to understand, not just blindly follow, what they tell you. Taking these classes will give you a leg up in doing so. Again, business concepts will come up every day- you will be making decisions and building a framework for a lasting operation. Learn everything you can, it will save you from scrambling later- or learning the hard way.
We’ve discussed the way it might be easier to earn respect by parents (and yourself) with a degree. But another element of this is operating as a role model for your younger students. For most of these kids, a college degree is a very healthy thing to aspire. If not a college degree, at least an ambitious and committed attitude toward education. Most kids struggle in high school, one way or another, from time to time. The barn can be an escape from that- which is great- but if they eschew their scholarly responsibilities in favor of the barn, you will have a problem. Most parents won’t feel good about continuing to pay for riding if grades are slipping. If you the example you put forth exemplifies the value of education, it’s a lot easier to help your students work harder at their classes.
Though we are clearly discussing the benefits of education, it’s not for everyone. And it is possible to be incredibly well-read, well-informed, capable, and wildly successful without one day in college. The purpose here is to give you the information so you can weigh the options for yourself. But school, for sure, isn’t all you need to make it out there in the world.
Let’s be clear on one thing: books are no substitute for experience. You can study all you want, but you have to get out there, get dirty, try, fail, succeed, fail some more, and immerse yourself in the business of horses. You can’t possibly be prepared for this business without doing the physical work and learning all that the horses, themselves, have to teach you. That process, however, is life-long. College just prepares you for it. Trust me, college is the easy part.
Interested in learning more? Contact trainer Alicia Wilkerson today!