So, you want to become a professional rider?
by Becky Parker
To become a professional rider, charging around Badminton, sailing over the impossibly high Puissance wall at Olympia or dancing majestically across the Dressage arena in ‘s-Hertogenbosch is the sole dream of any pony mad child. I don’t think I will be alone in fondly remembering riding my imaginary horse around a course of sticks on upturned buckets in the garden, commentating on my own prowess as a child. It is a grand, lofty ambition that, while by no means impossible, alas will in all reality remain a just a dream for most of us. Luckily, there are more ways to be a full time paid ‘Rider’ than just 4* success.
Behind the scenes of almost every top horse, there is a string of people that helped to get there. The home groom/rider who keeps the horses ticking over when the rider is off at International Events, the young horse producer (independently, at home or at a stud), and not forgetting the ever dynamic dealing yard rider. For every top-level rider, there are so many more riders chipping away at the lower levels, often satisfied at that! They might never get that lucky break with a top horse but will still get enormous job satisfaction and make a respectable living running their own yards as competition riders. This is still ‘Living the Dream’ in many instances.
Achievable though these positions may be, an easy path it is not. To gain even the bottom tier of the ‘professional rider’ ladder requires no small amount of hard work, sacrifice, determination, a degree of luck and well yes, bluntly… talent! It is SUCH a competitive marketplace and requires a big leap of faith for any owner/employer to entrust their prized animals into your care as a relatively unknown person. Whether it is to start them out on their ridden path or to fulfil the superstar career they believe their horses are capable of, most owners will have invested financially and/or emotionally in these horses. In order to stand out from the crowd and gain that opportunity to prove yourself, you need to be able to WOW the people that count. For most, your career will at least begin under an employer who deals with the owners and it is them you initially need to win round. Here are the top 5 things we find employers are looking for in a professional rider.
5 Traits a Professional Rider must have
IF you are applying for a competition rider role you will need to have a competition record in this discipline and current affiliation to the relevant society. Any professional rider will need to have several years’ experience riding a variety of breeds/ages/sex. Being able to jump your one horse you have produced over 4 years round a 1.3m course is one thing, but you will soon find getting on a fresh, hot-headed warm blood and jumping around even just a 1.0m course when it’s only the 2nd time you’ve sat on him (if you’re lucky,) is a whole other ball game! In some cases, such as if you are applying to be a rider for an Arabian stud for example, experience of that specific breed and it’s all its quirks would be necessary.
As a professional rider, you will have a great responsibility to show a mature, respectable and professional persona when out and about. The way you dress, communicate with showground staff and your grooms, the way you ride and treat your horses will all reflect, either good or bad, on the yard you represent so be mindful, you are always in the public eye. You will frequently need to liaise with owners, either for yourself or on behalf of an employer, so giving a good impression is vital. If you are able to turn on a degree of charm, this will always help!
When you are starting out you will sometimes find yourself as either the sole rider or the junior rider. In either position you will almost certainly be the “dummy jockey”, as some refer to – the one lumbered with the ‘quirky’ rides. Needless to say, unless it is literally doing back-flips, saying ‘No’ to riding this horse can negatively impact the view your employers may have of you. As a rider, you are expected to be brave. If you genuinely are the competent, experienced rider you have sold yourself as you should have the ability and knowledge to deal in the right way and safely with said horse and the belief in yourself to do so. Be brutally honest with yourself about the context of your riding experience and ability. A rider needs to be truly confident in their ability and themselves not just talk the talk like they are!
Disclaimer – While this point about being brave enough to do your job stands, there does come a point when bravery crosses over into foolishness. If you truly believe you would be putting yourself in danger by getting on talk to your employer to see if a reasonable solution can be found to make the horse more manageable. Honesty is always the best policy, whatever your reason.
4. Good health and fitness
Riding all day every day (quite probably between yard chores too!) is an extremely physically demanding job. Before even applying for any such job, ensure your health in terms of recurring injuries, ongoing conditions, back problems are all dealt with. You will also need to ensure you are physically fit for the job. It’s no good blowing everyone away with your enthusiasm on day one if you’re are crawling up the yard by lunchtime on day 3!
Equally, when you are in situ, though you are likely to stay fit for the job through doing the job, in order to perform your best be aware of any weaknesses you have such as straightness, tight hips or a feeble left arm/leg and put in place measures such as stretching/yoga/pilates/strength training if you want to stay on top of your game. Don’t give anyone reason to doubt your ability and toughness when it’s something you can be pro-active about.
As a continuation of Point 3 – As a professional rider, your risk of injury is increased and if the worst should happen you really will be unable to work. Even if you are employed full time on the books, I would strongly recommend taking out your own health insurance policy.
Being the one that’ll “get on anything” at your local livery yard rarely equates to the knowledge, ability and experience required of a professional rider. Videos are an integral part of any rider’s Jobseekers Profile and CV. You need to prove you can do what you say! Preferably not just on one horse and the better variety of age and type of horses you can show evidence of yourself schooling/jumping the better.
Think of what the job will require you to do and ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’ potential employers why you are the best person for the job. It goes without saying that you should be wearing professional attire in said videos e.g. hat and gloves at the minimum – jeans and wellies are a big NO NO! References from instructors and clients whose horses you have produced/schooled/competed are also a really strong plus. Maximise any contacts you have that may have backed you in the past through giving you rides, lessons or sponsorship.
The professional riders most likely to succeed are those who approach this plainly difficult career path with the right attitude. There is such a world of difference between being the brave kid who gets on all the naughty ponies and producing young sports horses in a world-famous yard such as several of our employers, home and abroad.
Approaching your ambitions with a realistic idea of your own ability and your eyes wide open to the challenges you are likely to face will go a long way towards getting that first foot in the door and impressing future employers. Here are a few of the not so glamorous points the young aspiring rider should bear in mind…
6 Real-life professional rider realities to come to terms with
1. You haven’t escaped yard work yet!
I hate to break it to you, but the chances are high that you will still have to – shock horror – shovel poo! You’re HIGHLY unlikely to simply walk into a job solely as a rider, at ANY point in your equestrian career. We all know more than one very successful professional rider who still spends an hour or two in the morning on the end of a pitchfork. Think of it as a good upper body work out to warm up, or a right of passage if that appeals more!
2. You will have to ride breakers and yaks
Or a more sympathetic phrasing could be producing youngsters and re-schooling problem horses. Whether setting up on your own or as a 2nd rider, to begin with, you will start out with the dribs and drabs no one else wants. Jobs on breaking yards are also typically more easy to come by as it takes a certain kind, or brave and determined individual to stick at it. That said few jobs will teach you more, and quicker than working at a breaking and schooling yard! When poor riding has consequences you soon learn to iron out those issues quick-sharp. This is the No 1 way to learn to sit up and put your heels down.
3. Learn that money isn’t everything
While wages in the horse world are slowly improving (and The Grooms List by Caroline Carter Recruitment are all over that), when you first start out riding as part of your job it, will more than likely be in a Junior or Apprentice position where training and/or course fees will be factored in to what you have left to live on. If you are serious about making this work it can be a sacrifice worth making. A good start in this career particularly if it’s with a well-known name/stud can pay dividends in the long run. We have several articles that can help you with this –
Here is an article that will help you to ensure you are receiving a legal wage – The National Minimum wage and National Living Wage
Here is an article that will help you to ensure you end up with a deal both you and your employer are happy with for the long term How to negotiate a Salary in the Equine Industry
4. There will be Pressure on you to perform
Every professional yard has a purpose. When it all comes down to it you as the rider will be the one held most to account for achieving that purpose. Whether that be to win classes, sell horses, produce mannerly safe youngsters, fix a horse’s behavioural issues or simply to spot when and where once has gone wrong – physically or mentally. As a competition ride, in particular, you face extra pressure frequently being required to remember numerous courses and/or tests in a day for your multiple rides and perform at YOUR best in each. If or when it goes wrong answers will be demanded and not all bosses are as understanding as others of human error! (or even able to recognise horses aren’t all robotic angels!)
5. Take on board constructive criticism
There is no greater tool in a riders work kit than a strong desire to always keep learning. Never think you know it all. Respect your employer’s opinion and likely far greater experience than your own. Develop a strong relationship with your employer AND your trainer, show keen, ask questions and take it on the chin when you have messed up, and learn from it.
A good employer might have the odd hissy fit but they do (when they have calmed down) understand no one is perfect. Suck it up and move on to the next horse with a fresh start and a clean slate. Always remember that no two horses are the same and some you will find easier and/or more enjoyable than others, but your job is to get a good tune from all of them. Ask for help and know you will likely learn more from the harder ones you struggle with, so embrace that challenge with a positive attitude. As any rider worth their salt knows, horses will always be your greatest tutors.
6. Don’t expect loyalty
It happens to every professional rider and not just once, over and over again – even the biggest names have had their fair share of it! Just as you see the dizzy heights of your career within gasping distance – POOF! All gone in a puff of smoke as you watch another rider take the horse you’ve produced thus far into the arena. This is EXTREMELY common, and can be for a variety of reasons, many of them often fair enough:
- you have produced the horse to a monetary value that entices the owner to sell your mount
- another rider whom the owner believes is “a safer bet” than you to train/compete at a higher level
- even that the owner decides the horse is trained well enough that they want to compete their horse themselves
Whilst riding may have started out as a hobby, you are in a professional industry now and, as with most industries, it can be cut-throat. You just have to shrug it off and look to your next project, as devastating as it may be to miss out, again and again… and again… And no matter how attached you get to the horses that you work with. There are some well documented heartbreaking stories, but this is the real world and, like it or not, £££ plays a real part in decisions that are made on a very regular basis.
How to become a professional rider
There are only a few options open to the aspiring rider. The first, of course, is to simply get a “lucky break” (The Grooms List by Caroline Carter Recruitment have several jobs that fit that criteria most of the time!) through family backing, sponsorship or word of mouth. If that opportunity is given to you – good on you, grab it with both hands and we wish you all the best of luck – The Grooms List by Caroline Carter Recruitment can even make it happen for you! For everybody else the options are….
- Apprenticeship roles will provide formal structured training, a set wage, hours and days off. We explain more about the options available in our Apprentice Zone.
- The BHS Pathway now offers a Riding only option from Stage 3 onwards which would give you Industry recognised proof of your level as a rider. Here is a useful article with further info on BHS Qualifications
- Junior/2nd Rider/Home Rider there can be multiple names for this type of role but here you will work under a main rider usually with their direction helping to exercise all the horses, covering when they are away competing and perhaps competing some of the younger or lower level horses. This is a great way to gain practical experience in a bigger well-recognised yard.
- Scholarships/Equine Academies – Hartpury College and University Centre offer the opportunity for a limited number of students every year to join the elite equine team where they can continue to study in an equine or non-equine sphere whilst also receiving riding, nutritional and strength training for them and their own horse.
- Competing your own horse. Most Riders will have gained their initial competitive experience on their own or a loaned horse as it can be very difficult to get the ride on others without it. The higher level you can reach the better!
Our aim here at The Grooms List by Caroline Carter Recruitment, contrary to how it may seem at points in this article, is NOT to put you off following your dreams and ambitions. If becoming a professional rider is all you have ever wanted, all you can ever envisage yourself doing and you truly believe you have the talent, the confidence and the determination to make it work then we wholeheartedly encourage and support you to chase and fulfil that dream with everything you have. Our aim is simply to ensure you are heading down that road with your eyes wide open, realistic expectations and armed to the teeth with all the knowledge to give it your very best shot.